Will County politics can be relative
BY JON SEIDEL AND BOB OKON Sun-Times Media June 10, 2012 6:18PM
Will County Executive Larry Walsh is shown in this April 2011 file photo.
Updated: July 12, 2012 6:06AM
When Larry Walsh Jr. secured his new seat in the Illinois House of Representatives this spring, his father found himself answering an inevitable question.
Would his son have won appointment to the seat if it weren’t for his well-connected father — a former state senator and now Will County’s executive?
“Is my son not qualified to be a state representative?” Larry Walsh Sr. shot back. “He’s 41, and he’s voted in every election he was qualified to vote in.”
Walsh Jr. also was a Jackson Township trustee before he became a state lawmaker. He believes he was picked on his own merits after being rejected once before, and his father bristles at suggestions family connections could have played a role.
Still, maneuvers at the Illinois Capitol among Will County lawmakers this year reminded voters government can sometimes be a family business.
It’s nothing they haven’t seen elsewhere in Will County, around Chicago or across Illinois. But one political expert said it can cause damage no matter how pure politicians’ intentions.
“There’s this perception that politics is a closed activity,” said Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “That if you’re not part of the inside group you really don’t have a chance to get involved. It makes people cynical. It makes them reluctant.”
It all started when former state Sen. A.J. Wilhelmi stepped down from his seat. A committee of Democrats picked Pat McGuire, nephew of then state Rep. Jack McGuire, to fill Wilhelmi’s seat. Then Jack McGuire — who also is related to the Wilhelmi family through marriage — stepped down and cleared the way for the appointment of Walsh Jr.
Walsh Sr. said his son simply followed state law for filling a vacant House seat. The elder Walsh said he never spoke to anyone involved with the appointment, and he said his son still faces a vote in the fall.
“Should he not even have the opportunity to go through the due process just like everybody else did?” Walsh Sr. said of his son.
And that’s the dilemma.
Just like other children will follow their parents into private family businesses, the same can happen in political families. Will County Board member Steve Wilhelmi, A.J. Wilhelmi’s brother, said relatives often help out on the campaign trail.
“It gets under your skin and you hate it or it gets into your blood and you tend to love it,” Steve Wilhelmi said. “The same thing I’m sure happened with A.J.”
Steve Wilhelmi also disclosed another family relation — he said Jack McGuire is his wife’s uncle. Jack McGuire couldn’t be reached to comment. But Pat McGuire, Jack McGuire’s nephew, said they have other family connections to politics.
Pat McGuire’s grandfather, Emmett McGuire, was a Joliet Township road commissioner. McGuire remembers as a boy riding with his grandfather in his truck on Sundays. His grandfather would make notes of the roads and culverts that needed repairs.
“I’m proud to be a McGuire, yet I want to be elected on my own merits,” McGuire said. “Some families work in politics. Some families work in agriculture. Some families work in construction. I’m proud of my family’s government service.”
Asked if he gained an advantage by being appointed state senator midterm rather than having to get the position through election, McGuire said, “Voters will have a chance on Nov. 6 to decide whether they want to keep me as state senator or replace me.”
He did not acknowledge any advantage of incumbency, saying he has to vote on tough issues such as pension reform that could cost him support.
McGuire said he did not get special help from Uncle Jack in his political life as he was elected to the Joliet Township High School Board.
“He came to my fundraisers,” McGuire said. “I don’t remember talking shop with him.”
He said he did ask for his uncle’s endorsement when he ran for Will County treasurer in 2006.
“That might have been the first time I ever talked with him about politics,” McGuire said his uncle had no involvement in his appointment to state senator.
Redfield didn’t say politicians’ family members should be barred from entering public service. But he said transparency is key. He said politicians should “bend over backwards” to let the public know how positions are filled.
“You want people to participate,” Redfield said, “and you want people to accept what government does as legitimate.”