April 9th, 2019 2:27 PM
By Bob Uphues
There's change in the wind in North Riverside. The VIP Party, which has held almost absolute power during the past 30 years, lost a majority of village trustee seats up for election on April 2 for just the second time during that era.
But most concerning, from a VIP standpoint, is how that loss played out and what it portends for the future.
The two leading vote-getters for trustee last week were independent candidates Marybelle Mandel and H. Bob Demopoulos, who ran something of a coordinated campaign based heavily on North Riverside's financial challenges.
"I stayed in touch with the residents," said Mandel, who finished second in the race for mayor in 2017 after an unsuccessful run for trustee in 2013. "It's not just about elections. Residents wanted me to continue to be a voice for them. I stood up for the residents."
Mandel's 985 votes were 151 more than VIP's top finisher, Deborah Czajka, who was re-elected for a second full term. The only non-VIP candidate to do better than that in recent memory was in 2011, when Rocco DeSantis topped a six-person field.
However, in that race the second-place finisher was VIP candidate Randall Czajka, whose failing health resulted in his wife, Deborah, being appointed to take his place in 2013.
Demopoulos finished third in 2011, just 15 votes ahead of VIP incumbent Gary Wittbrodt. Demopoulos has been a fixture on the board since; he was elected to his third term on April 2.
"We did the same amount of campaigning," Demopoulos told the Landmark. "People were willing to listen more this time. The [village's] debt [burden] and status quo worried them."
While Demopoulos' staying power may have been an irritant to VIP, last week's elections could be sounding alarms for them. And the loudest alarm must be coming from the west, in Proviso Township Precinct 102, long thought by VIP to be safe territory.
Even when DeSantis won in 2011 and carried Proviso 102, he did so by a margin of just 21 votes and looked to be an aberration. VIP's candidates placed second, third and fourth in the precinct that year. Demopoulos was fifth, 54 votes behind VIP's third candidate.
Last week, Mandel and Demopoulos finished first and second in Proviso 102, with VIP's Martin DeLeonardis, who was not elected, coming in third. Czajka, the VIP incumbent, and Matthew Decosola, a former village trustee, finished fourth and fifth in Proviso 102.
"I didn't know we could actually come close, but Marybelle and I finishing first and second [in Proviso 102] was a big surprise," Demopoulos said. "I never did very well in Proviso, so seeing those numbers was just phenomenal."
Demopoulos credited Mandel's non-stop outreach to residents since the 2017 election as part of the reason for the independents' success at the polls. He said he nicknamed Mandel "The Terminator" for her dogged campaigning.
"A lot of the credit I have to give to Marybelle," Demopoulos said. "She works harder than anyone I've ever seen."
On election night, the first precinct's returns to come in were from Proviso 102. When he saw them, Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. knew VIP was sunk.
"As soon as I saw that, I knew we lost because that was always our stronghold," Hermanek said.
Overall, Mandel's name was selected on 54 percent of the ballots cast in North Riverside, with Demopoulos' being selected by 49 percent. By comparison, Czajka was selected on just 46 percent of ballots cast.
The 2019 election in North Riverside also drew out more voters than at any election in the past decade. A total of 1,822 people cast ballots in North Riverside, topping 2017's total of 1,759.
Some of that turnout clearly was related to the referendum in Komarek School District 94, which encompasses Proviso 102 along with two Riverside Township precincts, 7 and 13.
Total voter turnout in North Riverside was 37.3 percent, but in Proviso Township turnout registered at 43.6 percent. And while Riverside Township 13 essentially mirrored overall turnout, in Riverside 7 voter turnout was 53.1 percent.
"I think we benefited by the numbers coming out," Demopoulos said. "People were excited to get to the polls."
For VIP, the impact of the referendum on the village trustee race isn't entirely clear, but the results do have them reassessing their strategy of simply running on their past record and not responding vigorously to Mandel and Demopoulos' messaging on village finances.
"We don't know how many people voted for the first time because of the referendum," said Hermanek, who was not up for election last week, but who heads the party. "On the west end, there were 300 to 400 more voters."
Hermanek complained that the challengers' use of financial data involving a combination of pension obligations, long-term debt and a post-retirement benefits package that's no longer offered to village employees was "exaggerated and not explained."
However, he admitted that VIP's reluctance to engage on social media, where that data was widely shared and discussed, likely was a mistake.
"We tried to take the high road and not answer, but the problem is people read [social media posts]," Hermanek said. "In the future that needs to be addressed. We're going to have to be more proactive in watching [online] forums and respond."
Hermanek said VIP will "make adjustments" to its outreach, pointing to the village's changing demographics – an increasing number of younger families and greater diversity – as something VIP needs to confront.
The party's traditional base of power had been senior citizens, but more and more young people are voting these days. And the VIP legacy may not carry the same cache with newer voters.
"As the village is getting younger, they aren't aware of the history of the party," Hermanek said.
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