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Mystery shrouds closed-door vote on Tobolski successor: ‘I don’t really know anything about this person’

The Democratic committeepersons who tapped former Republican state Rep. Frank Aguilar are saying little about what happened in the room at the Italian American Civic Organization in Berwyn.

Then Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski leaves a board meeting of the Cook County Forrest Preserve in December.
Then Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski leaves a board meeting of the Cook County Forrest Preserve in December.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Hours after they walked past protesters begging them to pick anyone but former Republican state Rep. Frank Aguilar, half a dozen Cook County Democrats convened in a closed-door meeting in Berwyn and chose the longtime Cicero town official to fill an open County Board seat.

“He had the votes,” said Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who participated in her role as Proviso Township Democratic committeeperson. “He had the votes. That’s what this all comes down to.”

That explains the ‘how’ Aguilar was chosen at the Wednesday night meeting. But on Thursday, no one was talking about the ‘why.’

The Democratic committeepersons involved have largely been quiet or unwilling to say very much about what happened in the room at the Italian American Civic Organization in Berwyn that culminated in the selection of Aguilar, who got his start in the political organization of convicted former Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese.

Their decision came hours after County Democratic Chair Toni Preckwinkle lectured Democrats on party unity during a separate online meeting.

At an unrelated news conference Thursday, Preckwinkle declined to comment on the committee picking someone with Republican ties to the seat, because she’s “a Democrat.”

“I don’t really know anything about this person, and so I can’t really comment on him, or his capability for the job or people who were protesting his potential appointment,” Preckwinkle said. “I’m not a member of the committee that made this choice, I wasn’t present, I don’t know anything about the proceedings.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle addresses the Cook County Democratic Party in her role as party chair on Wednesday.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle addresses the Cook County Democratic Party in her role as party chair on Wednesday.
Screen image

Barrett Pedersen, Leyden Township Democratic committeeperson, said the panel heard from seven wannabe commissioners hoping to succeed Jeff Tobolski, who stepped down after the feds raided his office in suburban McCook, where he also served as mayor.

Pedersen arrived late after listening over the phone as Aguilar made his case for the position.

Questions were raised about Aguilar’s views on abortion, Pedersen said, and Aguilar said he had “religious beliefs” on the issue but wouldn’t let those interfere with representing his constituents.

If Aguilar specifically said he is now a Democrat, Pedersen didn’t hear it.

Eight Democrats were entitled to participate in the selection process, because they represent parts of Tobolski’s old commissioner district. Six were present. One voted by proxy and another was on a conference line.

The first round of voting failed to provide a winner.

Because the votes were weighted based on past election results, it only really took three committeepersons to throw their support behind Aguilar for him to win.

But Pedersen wouldn’t provide their names. The committeepersons for Berwyn, Cicero and Lyons Townships, who hold the lion’s share of the weighted vote — didn’t respond to requests for comment.

And Berwyn police officers and an alderman from the western suburb refused to allow reporters into the closed-door meeting Wednesday night.

The vote was not by acclamation or by unanimous agreement, Pedersen said.

As for whether or not Aguilar made a good case for himself, Pedersen said he couldn’t comment on that as Aguilar is “going to be my county commissioner.”

State Rep. Aaron Ortiz, the 14th Ward committeeperson, said he didn’t vote for Aguilar.

Michelle Ramirez and Anna De La Torre protest outside of the Italian American Civic Organization in Berwyn Wednesday
Michelle Ramirez and Anna De La Torre protest outside of the Italian American Civic Organization in Berwyn Wednesday
Rachel Hinton/Sun-Times

“I am disappointed in the fact that the majority of committeemen voted to support a candidate who has aligned himself with Republican values at one point, and also is kind of toeing the line on a lot of policies that are a lot more conservative than that the Democratic Party represents at the moment,” Ortiz said.

The protesters who stood outside Wednesday were unhappy with Aguilar’s tenure on the board of trustees at Morton College.

Aguilar said he was told around midnight that he secured the votes.

Then state Rep. Frank Aguilar, R-Cicero in 2003.
Then state Rep. Frank Aguilar, R-Cicero in 2003.
From www.ilga.gov

He said he’s already gotten to work putting together a task force against the coronavirus.

“I have to prove myself — and I will,” he said. “I think my experience speaks for itself, and I’ll work as hard as I can to move forward and … have a transparent administration.”

Aguilar, who came out of Loren-Maltese’s GOP organization, served one term in the Legislature, and was an ally of Town President Ramiro Gonzalez, the Loren-Maltese protégé who succeeded her when she went to prison. Aguilar also served as a top aide to Town President Larry Dominick, who ousted Gonzalez.

Though Aguilar was a Republican, he’s since moved away from the party after feeling disappointed by it, he has said.

Aguilar says he’s been in community service “practically my whole life — both as a volunteer and as my profession.” He points to his experience with labor relations and local, small businesses as things he thinks will help him be effective.

As for the protesters who came out, Aguilar said he has “an open ear.”

“I think they have a right to view this position and have concerns, that’s understandable,” Aguilar said. “First and foremost my job is to listen to constituents and community leaders and hear what they expect from me and I have an obligation to hear them out.”