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Brown: Chicago GOP a more exclusive club than you might think

Then-Chicago Republican Party Vice Chairman Chris Cleveland (left) and then-Chairman Adam Robinson at a city hall press conference in 2012. File Photo. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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A federal judge temporarily blocked Chicago election officials Tuesday from removing a Republican Congressional candidate from the November ballot in a case that poses an intriguing question:

When is a Republican not a Republican?

The answer may be: when party leaders say so.

The dispute has its roots in a decision earlier this year by the Cook County Republican Party to oust 13 of the city’s 50 GOP ward committeemen on suspicion of being Democrats.

Although all 13 filed the proper papers to run as Republicans and were subsequently elected by GOP voters in the March 15 primary (most running unopposed), the county party declared them ineligible for office under a new loyalty bylaw.

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The Republican rule, enacted a week before Election Day but after early voting had already started, holds that candidates for ward committeeman may not have voted in another party’s primary during the previous eight years.

Each of the 13 ousted GOP committeemen had pulled a Democratic ballot at least once during that period, Republican officials say.

The committeemen have disputed their removal on the basis that they met all state legal requirements for the office, which do not include any test based on how they’ve voted in the past. They say their ouster thwarts the will of the voters who cast ballots for them.

In the latest twist, one of the ousted GOP committeemen, the 29th Ward’s Frances Sapone, challenged the party’s selection of Jeffrey Leef to run against U.S. Rep Danny K. Davis in the 7th Congressional District.

Jeffrey A. Leef, Republican<br>Candidate for Congress. Photo from Chicago Republican Party.
Jeffrey A. Leef, Republican
Candidate for Congress. Photo from Chicago Republican Party.

Sapone contended a vote of GOP committeemen to nominate Leef (after no candidate ran in the primary) was invalid because she and another of the ousted committeemen, Sammy Tenuta (36th), were not notified of the meeting in which Leef was selected.

A Chicago Board of Election Commissioners hearing officer ruled in Sapone’s favor, and the full board was scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to uphold the decision and drop Leef from the ballot.

Instead, U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur issued a temporary restraining order to halt any further action by the election board until he can decide whether the Republican Party’s constitutional right to “free association” would be violated.

“What’s the rush?” Shadur said, calling the situation “very disturbing.”

Shadur suggested the party is entitled to police itself against what it regards as “carpetbaggers.”

Election Board lawyer James Scanlon argued the board was following its normal procedures in an effort to ready the November ballot for printing.

Worrying over whether someone is a real Republican is hardly a new issue for the GOP in a Democratic-dominated city where some wards are nearly devoid of Republican voters, let alone anyone who can occupy a leadership role. Accordingly, committeemen spots have long been sought by opportunistic converts of questionable loyalty.

But Christopher Cleveland, chairman of the Chicago Republican Party, said concern was heightened after the Democratic-controlled Legislature in one of its last acts under Gov. Pat Quinn in 2015 gave ward committeemen the power to submit lists of proposed election judges. Previously, that power had been held by the county party.

Cleveland said he believes Democrats then tried to install their own people as Republican committeemen in hopes of filling polling places with Democratic election judges, which he said would create “open season for vote fraud.”

“We’re fighting back. We’re fed up. We’ve had enough,” Cleveland said.

Pericles Abbasi, a lawyer for Sapone and Tenuta, said his clients were trying to join the GOP, not subvert it.

“Mrs. Sapone, especially, was fed up with the way the Democratic Machine operated in the ward,” Abbasi said.

None of this, of course, would preclude everyday Democratic voters from crossing over this year to support Donald Trump or any other Republican candidate, but for those who do, don’t assume it will automatically make you part of the club.

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