Closed-door vote on Tobolski successor shrouded in mystery: ‘I don’t really know anything about this person’

Closed-door vote on Tobolski successor shrouded in mystery: ‘I don’t really know anything about this person’

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

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.

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 Aguilar 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.

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

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.

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, Pederson 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, Pederson 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 acclimation 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.

“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.

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

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

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.”

Though he was a Republican state representative, 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.”

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