Lake County Republicans took steps both forward and backward last week in their caucus election of a new county assessor, and time will tell if it’s a shining party moment or a colossal failure to achieve unity.
It all depends on the crucial next move of party leadership, but Lake County GOP party Chairman Dan Dernulc took a step in the right direction Monday night.
On one hand, the party precinct committeemen chose Jolie Covaciu to replace the late assessor – and local party hero -- Hank Adams. Just as Adams’ election in 2010 made history with the ascension of the first GOP candidate to a county-wide office in 50 years, Covaciu’s caucus election Friday marked the first woman ever – from either party – to hold the assessor’s office.
In that sense, Covaciu’s victory in caucus election was a big step forward for the local GOP – often associated with the same old men’s club stigma of the national party. A qualified woman capturing an office that always had been occupied by men is a victory for Lake County politics in general.
But Covaciu’s success also revealed some of the deep fractures that persist in the local party. She was not the party leadership’s pick to carry forth the legacy of reform created by Adams, who died recently after a long fight with cancer.
Dernulc and other party leadership had anointed another woman, assessor’s office employee Debra Johnson, to become Adams’ successor. Adams’ widow, St. John Township Trustee Jean Shepherd, also endorsed Johnson as the person Adams would have wanted to succeed him.
Another faction of the local party, however, including former Chairwoman Kim Krull, favored Covaciu over Johnson. That faction got its way in a very close vote, with some Johnson detractors questioning her last-minute establishment of property ownership in the county – a requirement for assessors in the Hoosier state.
So what does all this mean?
It shows first and foremost that local Republicans aren’t nearly as united as they will need to be to achieve goals in forthcoming elections against highly entrenched Lake County Democrats.
So sure was Dernulc that Johnson was the right candidate, he certified her as a Republican even though she had a partial voting past as a Democrat. It was the right thing to do for an office that required certain certifications and experience that Johnson possessed. I lauded him last week for reaching across party lines in this decision.
But he declined to certify Covaciu as a Republican ahead of the caucus, which was a misstep. It inflamed some in the party and emboldened their decision to contradict Dernulc’s choice at the caucus.
Dernulc made that right Monday night. He said he met with the victorious Covaciu and certified her as a Republican, even though Covaciu, like Johnson, has voted in past Democratic primaries.
A party that constantly is several votes behind in achieving its political agenda can’t afford to ignore opportunities for finding common ground within its own ranks. It’s up to party leaders to decide if Covaciu’s election becomes a gaping wound for the party – or a source of unity and strength.