Is Cook County ready for reform? Or at least sassy T-shirts?

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It’s arguably the best time ever to be selling IMPEACH BLAGO T-shirts (click here, then on the link in the right-hand column), but Cook County Republican Party chairman Lee Roupas says that’s not the only opportunity available to his organization in the wake of the gov’s most recent troubles. He says it’s the right time for local Republicans to sit down with Democrats and implement tough new ethics standards and election reform—and he actually sounds serious.

First, though, Roupas has to remind people that there are local Republicans. Cleft by infighting, unresponsive to suburban population shifts, undermined by Democratic power plays, the Cook County GOP has been little more than a name for years—it even had to issue an online appeal for candidates before February’s primaries, and only one made the ballot.

Roupas worked for a series of Republican campaigns on the east coast before moving home a few years ago to attend law school at Loyola University and get involved in local politics. In 2006, when he was just 23, he was elected the Palos Township Republican committeeman, and last March other GOP committeemen chose him as county chairman. Predictably, not everyone was happy, but Roupas says he's intent on bridging divides.

Here’s his take on Blagojevich and his party’s prospects.

MD: So what was your reaction to the news of the governor’s arrest?
LR: I don’t think it came as any surprise that he was in trouble, but the arrogance, the extent to which he was willing to engage in pay-to-play, is shocking. When you get into the details of how he was scheming to sell a U.S. Senate seat, you realize at no point was he thinking about who was best for the job—it was all about who was best for him. It shocks me that he had such little respect for our system of government. I think it’s just become a systematic problem in Illinois and Cook County that politics trumps policy.

But every elected official makes political calculations. Horse trading is how things get done.
There’s no doubt there’s a political component to the decisions of elected officials. What’s shocking here is that politics was the only consideration—and there was an expectation of a quid pro quo. It leaps over the line of horse trading when you say someone’s only getting the appointment if that directly benefits you as an individual. It didn’t involve considerations like who’s going to be the biggest supporter or person I could trust in the seat, or who’s going to have my back. He’s talking about financial benefits for him and his family.

Pay-to-play has become such an accepted practice in the city of Chicago, in Cook County, and in Springfield that really what we need to do, people in both parties, is look at what opportunities can arise from this disaster. We have a new ethics law taking effect at the state level in January; how about ethics reform in Cook County? How about looking at the way we elect people [to the state legislature], and not just gerrymandering districts [PDF], so we can have fair elections? This is really an opportunity for those of us in this state to get it right.

You say this is something both parties can do, but what can yours realistically do in Cook County? Do you have enough of an organization to actually do anything?
You’re correct in noting that one of the problems has been that we’ve developed, certainly in Cook County for a long time, and now in the state of Illinois, into a one-party system. What we as Republicans are in a position to do is offer an alternative. Recognizing that there are some good Democrats out there with whom we can have some real, honest policy differences, but what we can do is offer some alternative candidates—some people with good resumes who offer fiscal responsibility and good government.

I took over this role in March of this year. We put together a plan, almost starting from nothing, knowing that we could do limited things in the 08 elections. We had one countywide candidate in the 2008 primary; I took this position in March, and we filled the slate for the 2008 general election. We even had candidates who were endorsed by the Tribune. I think we’re going to be a strong alternative in the future—we hope by 2010.

I’ve heard you talking about accountability and fiscal responsibility, but not much about ideological issues like abortion that have defined the GOP in recent years.
As Republicans, we have failed at not working together, whether it be as a centrist moderate Republican or a conservative Republican. We have both kinds of people in our party, and we need to recognize they’re all important.

Now, as Cook County chairman, what’s important here is fiscal policy and government reform. We have rampant pay-to-play politics, as documented [PDF] by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. We have one of the highest tax rates in the country. We have rising crime. So when we put forward our platform for 2010 we will be emphasizing the problems in Cook County, and we will have quality candidates who will address these problems.

For the last couple of election cycles Tony Peraica has essentially been the lone face and voice of Cook County Republicans. Will he be a candidate again?
Commissioner Peraica has a longstanding record on the county board of standing up on important issues and being a whistleblower where some politicians haven’t wanted the spotlight to be shined, and he should be commended for that. Now I can’t speak directly about his intensions for 2010, but we have spoken since the election and we continue to have a dialogue. Moving forward, commissioner Peraica clearly has a role, given what he’s talked about, and our other Republican commissioners on the county board also have a role.

So what should be done about the governor right now?
I think the right thing for him to do is resign, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to do that, so the legislature is going to have to act. We just can’t have him in that office. Then we think there should be a special election for the Senate seat—give the voters an opportunity to do it right. We’ve become a national embarrassment in Illinois.

I noticed you’re selling some T-shirts on your Web site.
We’d printed them up and sold them and gave them to volunteers in June, and we actually sold a lot of them. Then we put [the ad for them] up on our site last night. Now we’ve got to put a donation link up there too.

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