It could be argued that Gordy Hulten is the most electable Republican in Champaign County. His jovial personality combined with a hard-nosed approach to local politics and its place in a community have made him into an undefeated opponent, drawing votes from his own Republican Party, of course, but also from the other side of the aisle, even from way far across.
He grew up in Troy, IL, a very small town outside of Metro East, and joined the United States Army and was reserve between 1994 and 2001. He attended the University of Illinois, graduating in 2001 with a B.A. in Political Science. For the next ten years or so, he worked for the Devonshire Group in business development, and consulted to a variety of organizations, as well.
All the while, he quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, helped to run Illini Pundit and later, Champaign Pundit, which was a local blog / news site / chat room that focused on catering to mainly conservative voices in the community. It made a true impact, and was, at the time it was operational, a daily stop for local politicos, armchair quarterbacks, and shit for brains pre-Tea Party Republicans. The flame wars were epic. The vitriol felt overwhelming at times. This was pre-Facebook fights, or Twitter trolling. It was a different sort of internet then, one that lacked emojis and endless ways to leave or fill in the gaps. Then, in 2007, somehow, Gordy published one of the biggest scoops in local news history:
The Chief was going to be retired.
And that made it official. A local blog had bested the local paper, radio stations, and television newsrooms, and that was how it was going to be, little by little, for the foreseeable future.
Needless to say, it made his name synonymous with a behind-the-scenes politically driven world, and in 2010, when he was appointed over two other applicants to the Champaign City Council after Dave Johnson left the seat, he sold Champaign Pundit to an “Anonymous” buyer.
Since then, Gordy Hulten has been working towards a true career in politics as an elected official. Here’s how it happened:
In 2010, Mark Sheldon won the County Clerk job as an unopposed Republican. A month later, however, he resigned to work for Congressman Tim Johnson as his Chief of Staff. That vacancy was filled by Hulten, who was approved unanimously by a County Board that held a Democratic majority. From there, he had to run in 2012 to keep the seat, and he bested current Urbana City Clerk, Charlie Smyth, 54% to 45%, in a year when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney 51% to 44% countywide. Smyth, who is a popular and very well liked figure in town, does good work so the Hulten victory was a signal to many people that his ability to be attractive to more than just Republicans was to be considered, and perhaps even feared by the local Democrats.
In 2014, just two years later, he won again, this time beating Scott Hays, another well liked Democrat, 60% to 39%.
And that brings us to the 2018 election. He is departing the County Clerk seat in order to run for the newly designed position of Champaign County Executive, which was proposed to the electorate in 2016 by the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, and the Farm Bureau.
Full disclosure: I voted for Hulten in both 2012 and 2014, and I consider him to be a friend. He is one of only a very small group of Republicans I’ve voted for over the years. Needless to say, the face of the GOP has changed, and the tenor of its leadership and how it is playing with its base has changed, too.
I caught up with Gordy to ask him more about how he sees the role of County Executive changing the political landscape, but also, how anyone from the outside, or even the inside of the more traditional, conservative GOP, can trust the state of its current leadership right now.
Smile Politely: For those reading who don't really understand what a County Executive does, can you help better explain what your role will be if you are elected this November? How will this change the makeup of the County Board and how it governs?
Gordy Hulten: The County Executive is a little like a Mayor for the County, having responsibility for day-to-day operations of County government (other than those duties of other independently elected officials) and having considerable collaborations and interactions with the County Board. The County Executive form of government is a much more traditional "checks and balances" division of authority, comparable to what we see at the state and federal level. The County Board will remain the legislative and policymaking body, with the Executive presiding at meetings, having veto power (which can be overridden), preparing a budget and making appointments (subject to approval by the Board). The Executive form of government creates a need for close collaboration and communication between the Executive and the Board.
SP: So how did this all come about? From a broad perspective, it seems like the County Board is always tipped like 55/45 Democrat to Republican. Is this what you'd call a power move on the part of the Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau in order to better assure that the GOP has stronger representation and more ability to execute?
Hulten: The Board map is heavily gerrymandered by a Democratic majority (and has been for decades by whichever party was in power), to the point where I believe only three of 22 current members have faced a General Election opponent prior to this year. This reduced competition has made it very difficult for the Board to make decisions across partisan lines, and that frustration led the Chamber and Farm Bureau to explore asking the voters about changing to the Executive form of government. I don't think it's a partisan change (both organizations are non-partisan and both organizations have endorsed candidates from both parties this year) as much as it's an attempt to break the partisan gridlock on the Board.
From my perspective, I supported the Executive referenda because I think everyone in the County should vote on who leads County government, rather than having the Board choose from among themselves a member elected only by the Primary voters of one party in a single gerrymandered district. I do think it will be more effective representation for the County as a whole. At a fundamental level, the responsibilities of the Executive don't lend themselves to partisanship.
SP: You are a registered Republican, and an elected official (as County Clerk) with that party, Gordy. What does that mean to you today, here and now. What does it mean to be a Republican?
Hulten: I decided long ago that my public service would have the greatest impact at the local level. A few years ago, I declined to run for a state office, in part because politics at that level (and Federal) is so partisan and broken.
At the local level, I'm trying to have a positive impact, both in office and politically. In office, we've expanded early voting so that our voters have greater access than any others in Illinois. We've broken voter registration and turnout records. We've used technology to improve services and cut costs. Politically, at the local level, I'm proud to be associated with other incredible Republicans like Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman. Our non-partisan Mayor of Champaign, Deb Feinen, is a close friend and mentor. I'm proud to be running this year with incredible community servants like PJ Trautman, Ginny Holder, Traci Nally, Matt Grandone and Allen Jones. My leadership in our local Republican Party is hopefully a reflection that at the local level, Republicans officials are excellent public servants, focused and effective. I'm hopeful that we'll be successful here in November and other will notice our example.
SP: I think that's a fine answer, and it's the reason I voted for you last time out, but something has turned extraordinarily rotten inside of the GOP, from the perspective of many, and not just the left side. George Will, a local from Urbana, who was for a long time one of the most prominent Republican voices in the nation, even said, "This is not my party." How do you personally reconcile with your affiliation after everything that's happened with the Trump presidency, and with what happens inside of Congress, almost daily?
Hulten: I don't pay much attention to national politics. To me it seems like two dogs barking across a fence at each other: lots of noise, and both sides are convinced they're accomplishing something, but mostly it's just annoying to everyone but the dogs. I actually have muted on Twitter the words "Trump," "Clinton," etc. to make the platform somewhat useful for interacting with constituents.
I generally try to avoid politics unless something affects my office directly. First, because I think it's prudent to stay in my own lane. Second, because nobody cares what I think about state and national stuff and so the impact of my weighing in on this or that controversy is pretty limited. I was reminded again of that lesson pretty clearly when I got thumped as a candidate for Presidential delegate in 2016. Third, because I have no time to be as educated as I need to be on so many of these issues. I don't know federal tax policy, or state medicaid reimbursement criteria, or the higher education budget. I do know a little bit about election administration in Illinois, my own office and team, and my plans as County Executive, so I focus on them.
SP: I feel like that's a common refrain these days (from moderate Republicans), but to me, it sounds a little bit like dodging a very stark reality. You are running for office as a Republican, and you have been working as County Clerk as a Republican, and that means that no matter how much you tune it out, for the average voter, you have to at least have some sense of what party you represent, and what party represents you. So, how do you reconcile with really controversial matters like Trump being accused of sexual assault by a dozen women, or enforcing a policy that separates children from families at the border, or even being unable to simply state that Neo-Nazi rallies are to be condemned, point blank?
I am asking you this because as someone who has voted for you in the past, and have intentions of doing so again. But it's getting very hard for me to justify filling in any bubble with an (R) next to it without that candidate sort of pulling a George Will, and roundly rejecting the lies and gaslighting and dangerous rhetoric that the Trump administration is so deeply entrenched in.
Honestly, help me find a path here, because right now, I am not seeing it, and I know you to be a good person, and a moral person. Despite our political differences, I need to be sold something outside of "I don't pay attention to national politics" to get there.
Hulten: If you feel so strongly about President Trump that you hold every Republican personally responsible for Trump regardless of their past actions and record, then there's nothing I can do to appeal for your vote. I'm not going to be vocal about national or state political controversies regardless of who or what is involved. I haven't done so for eight years as Clerk, during which I was providing service to Champaign County that has won bipartisan support and praise, and of which I'm very proud. I haven't done so because I don't believe doing so is what my constituents expect of their County Clerk.
If Trump is your litmus test for every local office, then please consider voting for me as an indication of the sort of behavior and record in Republican officials and candidates that you hope to reward: bipartisan, even-tempered, collaborative, creative, open-minded, and innovative. If you believe that I don't have those characteristics, or if you believe that those characteristics of mine are outweighed by someone else's just because of a political party label, then so be it. I have tried to earn votes through hard work in office and as a candidate, and through good faith efforts to serve my community well.
As Maya Angelou said, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them." Through my actions in office and as a candidate, I've shown voters in Champaign County who I am.
SP: I think that's a good answer. I am still uneasy, and I think most people who lean left are, about casting any vote that would in some way support the efforts of what is a mostly white and nationalist regime in Washington, but I think that at least plays with me and my family. But that brings me to the new tax code, and the idea that it will add up to $1.5T to the deficit. If that is the national benchmark for the new Conservatism, locally here, what does it mean for us and taking care of our own needs at home? Champaign County has been saddled with financial problems for years, so the simple question is, are we spending too much, or do we need to find meaningful ways to bring in more?
Hulten: The County's financial difficulties have two causes: mismanagement of the Nursing Home and state mandates coupled with revenue reductions.
Once the Nursing Home sale is completed (hopefully October 31st), we'll need some time to reevaluate county finances and determine our new normal. If I'm elected as Executive, I'm excited to dig in to County operations to see where and how we can improve efficiency and better utilize technology, as we have in the Clerk's office. If after that period of evaluation and adjustment, we can have an evidence-based discussion of realistic revenue.
SP: So, what does "realistic revenue" look like to you? By my count, we simply don't have enough money to execute, and not just from a County perspective. Just recently, Unit 4 is once again at odds with Champaign Federation of Teachers. The City of Urbana is having to choose between cops and economic development initiatives. Potholes are everywhere, every winter. Is it conceivable that we might have to consider all chipping in just a little bit more?
Hulten: For those other units of local government, I don't know what is realistic.
For County government, the Nursing Home lost an average of $90,000 per month for 12+ years. It's going to take some time after the sale is completed for County finances to stabilize. Let's take some time to do an evaluation, and then decide in collaboration with the County Board.
SP: Does the public have a responsibility to its community to care for the elderly, especially those left without any family, or who have illnesses that are beyond what home care can manage? Why was the right move to sell the nursing home, and not better manage it, so that it's not under private ownership in the hands of a for profit company like Extended Care Clinical LLC and Altitude Health Services Inc.?
Hulten: The public handles our responsibility for healthcare to the elderly and indigent through Medicare and Medicaid, and both private and public nursing homes accept patients covered by those plans. The Champaign County Nursing Home, while well-intentioned, was poorly managed for decades as health care, insurance, and compliance became more and more complex. The Nursing Home's poor management resulted in poor quality of care to patients, and the financial instability threatened the patients, employees, and the rest of county government. The Home owes roughly $5 million to vendors and County government and as vendors threatened to refuse services due to lack of payments, there was a real risk of an emergency closure of the home. That would have been catastrophic for patients and staff, and irresponsible of county government. Selling the home to a well-capitalized private owner whose core competency is managing nursing homes and providing care to Medicare and Medicaid patient was the only option left, and I'm proud to have helped to assembly the bipartisan supermajority that voted to sell it in May. Even with the sale, it will take years for County finances to recover from the financial mismanagement of the Home.
SP: What would the first 100 days look like for you? What comes first?
Hulten: My plan for the first 100 days is getting established procedurally with the Board, and meeting with Department Heads and staff to better learn about our operations in other departments. This new form of government is a change for everyone and I want to be careful to move deliberately and collaboratively, especially at first.
SP: Does the idea of a County Executive, which will spend another $100K+ on someone to do the work that is already being done, in some ways, fly in the face of a conservative approach to Government?
Hulten: I view the Executive position as a combination of the Board Chair and Administrator, in many respects, so I don't view it as an extravagance. I also think there are many things that County government should be doing now but need to be done, and I expect as Executive to assume many of those responsibilities.
Republican Gordy Hulten is running for County Executive against Democrat Darlene Kloeppel on November 6, 2018.