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Blacks and the Board

Democrats revolt in Sangamon County

Illinois Times  December 22, 1978

My Christmas present to Springfield and Sangamon County that year. The commonplace view is that politics is the lifeblood of Springfield, but apart from election coverage and abbreviated accounts by the daily papers' political columnists, local politics is the seldom written about.

I certainly didn't write about it very much for Illinois Times. I'm an issues kind of guy, but issues do not animate Sangamon County politics, and I had forgotten I'd done this piece.


In 1976, the Democratic Party captured control of the Sangamon County Board of Supervisors for the first time in forty years. Sixteen of the men and women elected that year, called themselves Democrats, leaving the party in the heady position of having three more votes on the board than the Republicans, whose domination there had been as predictable as cold snaps in January since the 1930s.


But Sangamon County's Democrats proved to be a fractious lot, as if four decades out of power at the county level had left them uncertain of the rituals and obligations of power. The "regular" Democrats feuded with Donald Gibbs, the man they'd elected chairman, and after twenty months chairman Gibbs resigned, taking the vote of another fickle Democrat with him.  The two voted with the Republicans and so gave the chairmanship back to its accustomed owners, the Republicans, and left the Democrats dazed.


When the votes were counted last November, the Democrats still held on to a board majority (a surprise, for it had been a Republican year in the county) but only by their fingernails. Counting Gibbs as a Republican, the Democrats had a majority of fifteen votes to fourteen. Two years ago, the Democrats had had to put Gibbs in the chairman's seat because one of the Democrats, Roy Richter, threatened to vote with the Republicans if the party caucus didn't back his man, Gibbs. In 1978, with Gibbs already counted as a Republican in the chairmanship calculations—Gibbs calls himself an "independent Democrat," but as far as the county party is concerned, an independent Democrat is no Democrat at all—and with Richter soundly beaten in his try for re-election, the party could again put its own man in charge.


The vote to elect the new chairman was taken on December 4. When it was over the Democrats had been outvoted fifteen to fourteen, and a Republican was still chairman of the Sangamon County board.


What happened?


The board minutes will show only that George Mimms, a veteran Democrat who represents District 27 on Springfield's east side, voted with thirteen Republicans and the renegade Gibbs for Republican candidate, the Richard Austin, instead of voting with his fellow Democrats for the party's choice, Paul Marrin. But while the minutes recorded the results of the transaction, they reveal nothing of the cause. For George Mimms is lack and Paul Marrin is white.  


A Springfield man who is a casual but perceptive student of local politics complained to me not long ago that he would rather tackle the mysteries of quantum physics than try to unsort the webs of alliances, factions and personalities that bind together the Sangamon County Board; alpha particles and mu mesons, he seemed to say, were no more ingenious in their combinations than politicians of the board, but they had the helpful merit of being more or less predictable.


The county board is among the very last bastions of politics in the old-fashioned style— party-controlled, bound by loyalties rather than ideologies, where the question, "Who's got the is paramount and its corollary, "Who's right?" rarely comes up. Those outside its sphere (and the sphere of the county board is not large) rarely pay attention to it; it is fair to say that most voters could not recall the name of their representative on the board, indeed might be surprised to learn they had one. But to those within its sphere, who get jobs through it or who must get favors from it, what happens on the board is a matter of consuming interest.


Board members are elected to staggered four-year terms so that a new board (and a new board chairman) is sworn in every two years. Elections are partisan, and votes for chairman are generally cast on party lines. The forty years that the Republicans controlled the board were a long cold winter for the Democrats, because the party which controls the board controls the chairman, and the chairman controls the jobs, and jobs are to the county parties what securities are to a banker—the source of influence and a way to make a living, a negotiable commodity.


 George Mimms has been a member of the board for six years. He was elected in 1972 with a modest majority then re-elected in 1976 with a much larger one. District 27 is comprised of eight city precincts on the east side. There are an estimated 5,000 registered voters in Twenty-seven, of whom Mimms guesses perhaps 60 percent are black and 40 percent are white. He is, of course, a precinct committeeman, in Precinct 99. Like any good committeeman, he rings the doorbells, passes out the pamphlets, drives the old people to the polls, puts up the yard signs, peddles the tickets to the picnics, does the favors, makes the phone calls. Mimms' precinct is solidly Democratic, and votes his way most of the time. His was one of the few precincts in Sangamon County to carry the whole Democratic state ticket last November, and Democratic candidates usually pull two votes for every one pulled by their Republican counterparts there. Mimms is proud of that. Those votes are the interest George Mimms collects for his investment in the party, and it is with those votes that he buys influence within the party, according to the customary economic rules of politics.


Mimms is one of three black members of the county board. The other two are Phineas (pronounced "fine-us") Hurst, who represents District 25, and Ernie Drake, who represents District 26. Hurst is a veteran like Mimms and served as board vice-chairman under Gibbs; Drake is a newcomer just beginning his first term. Like Mimms, Hurst and Drake are Democrats, and like Mimms they were elected from districts that are mostly, but not overwhelmingly, black, Along with Springfield school board member Leroy Jordan, they occupy the highest elective offices held by black persons in Sangamon County.


Springfield's black neighborhoods have been giving votes to the Democratic party for a long time. In a county like Sangamon in particular, where the balance of political power between city and county, Democrat and Republican, is delicate, the black vote has been crucial to the Democrats' fortunes.


"Blacks carry the party in this country, George Mimms said the day after his stunning turnabout. "Look at the southeast part of town. Those are all straight Democrat precincts. A lot of precincts in other parts of town can't brag on that. We've supported the Democrat Party for forty years."


But though blacks helped pay for the dinner, they were (or so many black leaders felt) rarely allowed to sit down at the table with the rest of the regulars. For example, black loyalists were reported to be unhappy at what they thought was the lack of enthusiasm shown by the organization locally for Roland Burris, the black Democratic candidate for state comptroller, who ran well behind other Democrats in Sangamon County. They pointed to the fact that of all the patronage jobs handed out, the ones held by blacks are the lowest paid. Key committee assignments and appointive posts did not go to blacks, they said. And when incumbent Stan Catherwood, (who is white) changed his mind and decided to run for the board seat from District 26 after Ernie Drake (who is black) announced he would run for it, some blacks complained that Catherwood had been pushed back into the race by the regular party to stop the election of another black man to the board.


It was, however, during the fight for the chairmanship that black resentment with the Democratic leadership broke into the open. As the date approached for the November 16 party caucus at which the new Democratic members would choose their candidates for the chairmanship, attention began to be focused on Phineas Hurst. Mimms and his fellow blacks figured that with the election of a third black member it was time the blacks, acting as a block, put their weight behind a black man for the post. There was no clear favorite prior to the caucus; two or three men expressed an interest in the post, and the party organization maintained a reserved silence on the subject. Hurst had experience, seniority, background as vice chairman.


The day before the caucus met, Mimms told a reporter, "We think we deserve a piece of the pie, and we're not getting it. The Sangamon County Democratic leadership is on trial in the black community." Hurst would be their man, Mimms promised, and if the caucus failed to endorse his candidacy, Mimms threatened that the black bloc would vote for Hurst anyway, at the board's organizational meeting in seventeen days. That would give the board back to the Republicans.


But when the caucus emerged from its Ash Street headquarters later that night, the Hurst candidacy—and with it black hopes for the chairmanship—had dissolved. Hurst had withdrawn his name. Many black leaders thought (and still think) that Hurst was pressured to pull out. Hurst, they pointed out, owed his job with the Secretary of State to the party, and he has kids to feed. Hurst gave no public explanation for his withdrawal, but he reportedly told associates later that there was not pressure, that he merely wanted to avoid what he saw as a party split over his candidacy, that his doctor had warned him against taking on too much. Whatever his motive, many in the black community were convinced that if the party would have backed Hurst it could have put him over, that it didn't want to because he was black, and to get him out of it the party had threatened to pull Hurst's card.


That night, though, there was not a hint of trouble. The black bloc collapsed with Hurst's withdrawal. Neither Mimms nor Drake was then suggested as a second black alternative to the post. Instead, it looked like the caucus would swing to Paul Marrin, a two-year vet of the board from the north side, as a compromise choice—even though Marrin complained to reporters that he didn't even want the job. Still, he was acceptable to the party, even, apparently, to the black bloc; Mimms told the press that Marrin "might be" acceptable, and Drake was behind Marrin because the latter had helped Drake in his campaign. So it looked like the sore opened up by the chairmanship between black Democrats and the rest of them might be soothed, after all. One reporter wrote that peace among the factions "may be close at hand."


* * *


A few days before the new county board was to sit down and choose its new chairman, George Mimms convened a meeting of twenty-one black leaders at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church on Springfield's east side. Present were members of the Black Ministerial Alliance, Democratic committeemen from key black precincts, veteran community organizers and others, including Mimms himself and his board compatriot Ernie Drake. The guest was Todd Renfrow.


 To Sangamon County Democrats, "the party" is Todd Renfrow, the county chairman. Renfrow runs an auto parts business in Springfield, which is how he makes his living, but his profession is politics. Like any good county chairman, he is accomplished in the trading of power. He is a man of inestimable influence, because his influence so often shows only behind the whirring gears of the party machine he pilots. It is assumed that he is a man of great power, and if that reputation is unfairly flattering he is not likely to contradict it, for a reputation for power is a useful thing for a county chairman to have.


Ideology does not consume Renfrow; that is the sort of thing county chairmen are usually happy to leave to the national party. At the county level, ideology ' is reduced to a single imperative: Put your people to Work. Renfrow puts people to work. He is assumed to control who sits down at the party's most lavishly set patronage table, that belonging to secretary of state Alan Dixon, for whom Renfrow briefly worked as an assistant. Says one veteran Democrat: "He has the only game in town. It's a big club and he uses it well. We don't have the governor's office. We don't have the city. We lost the sheriff's office, because the county pretty much went Republican this time."


A job is a large debt to owe someone, and it may be assumed that Renfrow keeps his books in order. It is worth noting that George Mimms does not owe his job to Renfrow but to Springfield utilities commissioner Jim Henneberry, who is said to still' be nursing wounds received in past fights with Renfrow.


The meeting at Pleasant Grove was ostensibly called to give Renfrow a chance to explain the facts behind the collapse of the Hurst candidacy in the caucus two weeks previous. Many blacks were skeptical of reports that Hurst had pulled out voluntarily, and they wanted to confront Renfrow about it. (The chairman has not yet made a public response to Mimms' move, or the complaints offered by Mimms in support of it.)


But the agenda, Renfrow learned, was a lot broader than that. Mimms explained the purpose of the gathering at the outset. "We've had a lot of aggravation out in our neighborhoods concerning the Democratic Party not being responsible to black needs (in) appointing them to responsible positions. After Ernie got in, we got three blacks on the county board. But still we have to do extraordinary things to get anything, because a lot of times we're measured on the color of our skins and not our merit." Mimms explained that he backed Hurst, that when Hurst withdrew his name he, Mimms, couldn't in conscience vote for the white alternative and that he was "putting my name in" for the post. So, "I told Mr. Renfrow he had to come out here and tell you people why he is having trouble appointing blacks to responsible positions."


The first question from the floor—"Who put the pressure on Phineas for him to withdraw?''—fairly caught the mood of the group. For nearly an hour the two sides—Renfrow and one or two black Democratic loyalists, Mimms and his disgruntled supporters—found it impossible to talk with each other, and so chose instead to talk at each other.


"I didn't tell anyone on the board how to vote, either for Paul Marrin or Phineas Hurst, for or against . . .


"A things that disturbs me is that there aren't any black persons serving on some of our boards . . .


"Everybody come to my house during the election. I got so much mail it wasn't funny! Do you think I have a short memory?


The subject of Hurst's withdrawal came up. "No pressure" was what he had told friends, who reported that assertion to the meeting; Hurst had seen he would get only three votes in the caucus, he'd said, and in the face of Mimms' threat to cast his vote for Hurst even if the caucus failed to go along, Hurst pulled out to avoid surrendering the party chairmanship to the Republicans. But why could Hurst count on only the three black votes in the caucus? Where was Renfrow? The caucus would choose Bugs Bunny for chairman if Renfrow told them to. Why didn't he back Hurst? Renfrow repeated that the race for chairman was open, and he would not issue orders on behalf of anyone. And the talk, which was taped, went on


"What am I going to get when I vote for a Democrat? I don't want no five dollars and I don't want no pint of liquor. I want something more . . .


"You can not see no blacks that would be able to unify the party, bring leadership to it, working along with others . . .


"Black folk are about tired of waitin'. It's time for black folk to start unitin'. We have three people on the county board. You talk about merits. What more merits would you want? The only merit he don't have is white skin. If this would have been any white person, with six years on the county board, we would not be having this discussion right here today. He'd automatically be the chairperson. It's time for black folk to face that and wake up to it. We must unite, because we're getting shafted . . .


"I went to the penitentiary. I came back and I asked the Democratic party for help. They didn't have any jobs when I came back. But they made a job for me, they invented a job for me to put me to work to take care of my family. . .


"We're not here to talk about party politics. We gave the Democratic Party the majority on the county board, and we want some representation on that board in a strong way . . .


"George's name did not even come up in the last caucus that we had . . .


The question of reopening the caucus came up. Couldn't Renfrow go back to the members and "suggest" Mimms' name for chairman? Yes, answered Renfrow, but what about the rumors that the black leaders were pressuring Mimms and the other black members to break with the party if the party's choice for the chair were not black? Loyalty was the issue behind the issue, the quality of the black members' loyalty to the party, the quality of the party's loyalty to its black supporters.


"I will not dictate to the board. If I go back and dictate who it shall be, then I come under criticism that they have no mind of their own . . .


"You say these men have given some ultimatums that they won't vote for a man they don't feel justified in supporting. Aren't they within their political rights to do what they are doing without being penalized by you? They are playing a political game, and so are you . . .


Mimms and his supporters left thinking that Renfrow could have handed Mimms the chair and wouldn't; Renfrow left irritated at being set up, and more firmly resolved than ever not to cave in. He had a point to make too, and he, like Mimms, was willing to pay for it with the loss of the chairmanship. Mimms' constituency was the larger black community as represented at the meeting—ministers, Republicans, others. Renfrow's constituency was the Democratic Party. Each knew exactly where his loyalties lay.


"What we're really talking about here is a black functioning at the level where the conceptualization takes place. We're all law-abiding people, and we don't know how to take up arms. So we gotta do that next best thing—a lot of praying and this kind of thing. I really would pray that these guys have the nuts and the guts to do it to you if you don't give George that job."


A few days later, George didn't get the job, so George did it to Renfrow and the Democrats. When a reporter asked him afterwards why he did it, he said it was a matter of pride.


* * *


 Ernie Drake is a politician who hasn't been at it long enough to learn the politician's gift for evasion. Drake sits on the county board with George Mimms, where he casts his ballots for the people of District 26. Perhaps 60 percent of that district is black, and Drake, making his first try for elective office, carried it with 58 percent of the vote. He spoke about Mimms, black people and the Democratic Party in mid-December, when the smoke from the Monday Night Massacre still hung in the air.


"George sold us all down the river," Drake said. "George Mimms can't speak for the black committeemen. I know he can't speak for myself." Whatever applause Mimms' sabotage of the Democrats earned him among the city's Republican and unaligned blacks, most black Democratic loyalists regarded it as a betrayal. About his own role in the affair, Drake explains, "I was committed to Hurst, along with George, but when Hurst withdrew I supported Marrin. Marrin helped me out in a couple of precincts where he was strong. Politics is politics. It's a shrewd game. He was in tight with Stan, so he was against me in the primary, but he was for me in the general election, so I supported him."


"Stan" is Stan Catherwood, the white incumbent from Drake's district. Originally he had withdrawn from the race, but when Drake announced for it, changed his mind and re-entered. Some blacks saw in that reversal a move by the Democratic organization to keep a black man off the board. "Yeah, I heard rumors that Todd wanted Catherwood in. They were supposed to have him resign after he beat me so they could appoint somebody else they wanted, because Stan didn't really want it. I don't know anything about that. I do know that Todd supported me 120 percent in the general election.


"I think that Mr. Mimms sold everybody on the east side down the river, at least the Democrats. He says his people told him to stick it to Todd. Maybe two or three people told him that, but he stabbed the rest of them in the back. George made a deal. You can't tell me he didn't. That's the only way the Republicans are going to be able to keep the board."


Drake was at the Pleasant Grove meeting. "Most of the Minsterial Alliance are Republicans anyway," he points out; the Alliance, composed of the city's black church leaders and one of the fulcrum points in the black community, endorsed Drake's opponent. "He set Todd up, don't you see. He didn't invite any of the black committeemen from his own district, people like Hattie Cob, who are strong for the party."


"You know, once in a while I hear people saying Todd's a racist. But he put me in a position where I can put so many of my own people to work that I've been able to build my own base. He wouldn't do that if he was a racist, would he? Todd's been good to me, and I'll tell that to anybody. But I'm not going to be controlled by anybody. I'm going to do what's right for the people in my district, and the whole east side."


While the wrangling goes on among the parties to the divorce between Mimms and the Democrats (perhaps trial separation is a more accurate term) the public at large wonders what difference it all makes whether the county board chairman is Democratic or Republican, white or black. The county will still plow the highways when the snow falls, still pick up stray dogs, still collect the taxes and file marriage certificates.


Well, it makes a difference to George Mimms. Ernie Drake predicts that Mimms is dead within the Democratic Party, and Mimms himself told a reporter for The Voice, the black weekly published in Springfield and Decatur, that it was doubtful if he would run for office again as a Democrat. He's already received a telephone threat warning him that he won't finish his term; "I got the gun to my head now," he says about it, in an ominous metaphor. The Democratic organization—has—for—other reasons) political war on Mimms ' employer, utilities commissioner Jim Henneberry, and if Henneberry loses in the April city elections Mimms is likely to be out of a job as well as a party.


But it also makes a difference to black people. County politics remains one of the few avenues of advancement open to blacks, whose vote is in many ways their sole claim on the attention of the white political system. For two generations they have shared only fitfully in the spoils of the political battles they've helped win. Now blacks want a bigger role—they want to "conceptualize the concepts" in the words of one of the participants in the Pleasant Grove meeting—more reflective of their higher aspirations.


So far in Sangamon County, they say, the Democratic Party has not given it to them, and those blacks who do not say it often, though not always, owe their livings to the party. "I have two sons who just recently signed up to vote," said a minister at the Pleasant Grove meeting. "We have a house full of kids who will be future voters. Am I going to tell my children to vote Democrat when we see people leaving the Democrat Party? After we've heard some things that have been said in the community concerning the Democrats and how they feel about black persons? President Carter himself would not have been president of the United States had it not been for the black vote. These people who are on these boards here certainly they need white votes, but they got to get black votes too. What are we going to get, as citizens?"


The party, speaking through its chairman and its loyal member, argues that Mimms' gesture was opportunism wrapped in the rhetoric of race. "He did it for personal gain,'" is a phrase that comes up constantly in conversations with party loyalists of all colors. But of course politics at this level is personal gain institutionalized, "just another means," as one sociologist puts it, "by which individuals may improve themselves socially and economically. '


All of which suggests that the party may be missing the point. Mimms' move was politics at a different level, a symbolic level, and one suspects—though it is too early to tell—that it is as symbolism that it will be interpreted by those for whom questions of politics are not reflexively reduced to questions of party—The question George Mimms asked in the weeks leading to the election of the new board chairman was essentially this: Is it possible in Sangamon County to be both a black person and a Democrat? The answer to that question is not as important as the fact that, after forty years, it is finally being asked. ●



Sidebar: A Primer on the County Board


The civics books tell everything about how the county board is organized, and almost nothing at all about how it works. Officially, the board is made up of twenty-nine members representing each of twenty-nine districts that, cover the county, including the city of Springfield. Since 1974, board , members are elected to staggered four-year terms at every general election. Because the county is the basic unit of government in Illinois, the board is responsible under the constitution for the general oversight of county officers, a function performed mainly through its power to control their budgets. In addition, the board has a number of services it performs over which it has direct jurisdiction; these include zoning and planning (the latter in conjunction with other governmental units) and county highways. It also includes such arcana as running the animal shelter, a tuberculosis board and a veterans assistance commission.


The board sets about its work through eight standing committees. Members receive no salary but are paid $35 for every board meeting they go to, and another $25 for every committee meeting they attend; in the past, it was customary for board members to draw pay for meetings they never attended, but the practice is frowned on, at least for the moment, and in any event no member makes more than two or three thousand dollars a year directly for his or her service on the board.


There was a time, of course, when politics meant everything, and everything from schoolteacher and janitor at the statehouse to milk inspector for the county was a patronage position. Civil service has reduced the range of opportunities for political patronage. Politics still reigns in county government, however. It is here, in the courthouses, that the remnants of this essentially nineteenth century subculture cling to life. Candidates for board seats, for example, are chosen in party caucus, not in primary elections. If a board seat falls vacant, it is filled by a vote of the precinct committeemen of the same party and from the same district as the departed member.


The chairman is a pivotal post in the board system. The chairman is elected by a majority vote of the board for a term of two years. Chairmen are typically elected by party line vote, though the opportunities for alliances are unlimited. The chairman also appoints members to committees, though in practice this too is done in party caucus and the chairman merely endorses them in public session. The distribution of favors through the committee system is crucial in several respects. Among other things, it is a means of enforcing party discipline. A few years ago, Democrat Roy Richter refused to vote with the party on the chairmanship of the Sangamon County Board. His man lost, and he was left off every committee, shorn of the influence and income that committee membership affords. In county government, partisan politics is not a corruption of the system. It is the system. ●




John Hallwas

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The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

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An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

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