Steven Graves won’t let go.
In the Illinois primary election held March 15, 2016, the Mount Greenwood real estate broker was elected 19th Ward Republican committeeman, defeating his opponent Danny Carbol by a vote of 2,115 to 1,873.
Or so he thought.
A month later, Graves received a letter from the Cook County Republican Party.
“I thought it was to congratulate me,” Graves said.
Instead, the letter informed Graves he would not be allowed to serve as GOP committeeman.
Party officials informed him he was in violation of a new party bylaw barring anyone from serving in the post if they had voted in another party’s primary in the previous eight years.
The bylaw had been approved March 9, just a week before the election — and after the early voting period was already underway.
Graves, who readily admits voting regularly in Democratic primaries until 2014, later learned he was among 13 Republican committeemen removed from office on the same basis.
The eight-year rule was interpreted to extend only to March 2008, which spared anyone who voted in the presidential primary held that year in February. An additional 13 current GOP committeemen took Democratic ballots in that election—presumably to vote for or against Barack Obama. That group included current county GOP Chairman Sean Morrison and former Chairman Aaron Del Mar.
Republican officials say they took action against Graves and others to thwart what they contend was a concerted Democratic attempt to infiltrate their party for the purpose of controlling appointment of election judges.
Nearly a year and a half later, Graves is among at least five of the deposed committeemen still pursuing court cases in hopes of being reinstated.
In one such case now under review by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, District Judge Milton Shadur ruled Republicans acted within their First Amendment freedom of association right to select their own leaders when they ousted the 29th and 36th Ward committeemen.
If it’s that easy to thwart the will of the voters, Graves laments, why even hold public elections for political party positions?
I met Graves for the first time Monday outside the courtroom of Cook County Circuit Judge Margarita Kulys Hoffman, who could rule on his lawsuit in September.
Graves has been emailing me updates on his case for the past year while growing increasingly frustrated.
“I won the election fair and square. They should be asking me how I did it. Instead, they kicked me to the curb,” Graves said.
Graves acknowledged he is a former 19th Ward Democratic precinct captain and an ex-employee in the Cook County assessor’s office, both under former Assessor and Democratic Party boss Thomas Hynes.
But Graves said he soured on the Democrats.
“I say the Democratic Party left me,” he said. As to why he would want to be committeeman, an unpaid party post with little clout in 21st century Chicago politics, Graves said: “I wanted to increase the voice of the 19th Ward Republicans.”
“He’s not trying to pull a fast one,” chimed in his wife, Susan, a hairdresser who worked on his campaign and joined him in court.
“He’s not a plant,” said his lawyer, Kevin Sterk.
Chicago Republican Chairman Christopher Cleveland casts doubt on Graves’ sincerity and said the GOP’s goal is to block election fraud by Democrats. If Democrats masquerading as Republicans are allowed to pick election judges, GOP candidates and voters will have no protection against fraud in some polling places, he said.
“What are we supposed to do here, just lay down?” Cleveland asked.
The Cook County GOP has long been a refuge for opportunistic Democrats, some of whom are indeed Democratic Party plants.
I just have trouble with the idea that the voters’ choice can be so easily nullified.