Almost half of McHenry County Board could be new after election

Candidates on both sides of the aisle expressed mixed feelings about results

Election 2024
People talk as they wait for election results during a Republican election night watch party Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, at Niko's Red Mill Tavern, 1040 Lake Ave. in Woodstock. The event was hosted by Illinois State Sen. Craig Wilcox, McHenry County Board Chairman Mike Buehler, McHenry County Coroner Michael Rein, and McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio.

Republicans on the McHenry County Board are on track to keep a supermajority of seats if Tuesday’s election results hold, suggesting a blue wave that took place in other parts of the state did not come to McHenry County.

As a result, the breakdown of the two parties on the board will look similar to the current board, which has 16 Republicans and eight Democrats.

Unofficial results for the newly downsized board show 13 Republicans to five Democrats. Of those potential winners, eight new faces could be on the board, making up almost half of the body.

The McHenry County Board was reduced from 24 to 18 seats this year after the state’s decennial redistricting process, which followed the 2020 census.

Results will be finalized in the coming weeks once the election is canvassed. In the meantime, about 4,000 mail-in ballots were sent out but not returned, and almost 3,000 have been returned but were not counted as of Thursday, according to the McHenry County Clerk’s Office website.

McHenry County offices were closed Friday for Veterans Day.

In a midterm election that saw Democrats dominate across the state and maintain much of their margins in the General Assembly, those results did not translate to McHenry County, one of the last Republican strongholds in the collar counties.

However, to McHenry County Democratic Party Chair Kristina Zahorik, the results were positive.

Along with the party long advocating for the County Board to be reduced in size, which she called a success, she pointed to what she considered a number of hurdles put in the way of the county’s Democratic candidates. Nearly maintaining the current margins was good, she said.

Specifically, she said she thinks many of the new districts were drawn to benefit Republican incumbents and hurt the Democrats. That, combined with a shortened election season due to delays in redistricting, made it harder for Democrats to make gains in a conservative area, she said.

“I think it’s very optimistic,” she said. “In an off-year election, we aren’t supposed to do well. And we did.”

County Board Chairman Mike Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, pushed back on the idea that the Republicans drew a map to benefit their own party, noting that the results kept a similar margin as the current board. That’s evidence of a fair map, he said.

Buehler, the lone board member not up for reelection, said the results were about what he expected.

“Overall, I’m pleased with the results,” he said. “The overall makeup of the board is approximately the same as it was before. I still think there’s a decent balance.”

Incumbent Republican Jeff Thorsen, R-Crystal Lake, who chairs the McHenry County Republican Party, is one of the incumbents on track to lose his seat. Also in that camp are Michael Vijuk, D-Cary; Tom Wilbeck, R-Barrington Hills; John Collins, D-Crystal Lake; Bob Nowak, R-Algonquin; Stephen Doherty, R-McHenry; and Jeffrey Schwartz, R-McHenry.

Thorsen doesn’t think he’ll make up the difference in votes over the next two weeks, noting that losing is like “attending your own wake.” He said he loved his job on the board, but to find out what went wrong, “I just need to look in the mirror,” he said.

“I could have done more,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Thorsen, however, will keep his leadership position in the local party for at least another year and a half. In that role, he said he feels the Republican Party did pretty well.

Although there were some races, such as Democratic incumbent Suzanne Ness beating Republican challenger Connie Cain in Illinois House District 66, the party had a strong showing overall.

“We have a lot of good candidates,” Thorsen said.

Gloria Van Hof, one of the five Democrats to get a seat, currently is the top vote-getter in her district. She was competing against a fellow Democrat, incumbent Collins; Republican incumbent Thorsen; Republican John Reinert; and Libertarian Jake Justen.

Van Hof said she feels the Democrats’ performance was good given the circumstances in the county. Despite the Republicans holding onto the supermajority, Van Hof said she “can work with anyone.”

Collins, who is losing his race and said he doesn’t expect to make up enough ground with the remaining ballots, said he suspects many might not have known they could vote for two people, adding that he had more than 1,000 fewer votes than Van Hof.

On the Democrats’ performance overall, he feels the party could have done better, believing they could get at least seven seats.

“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I feel like I ran a good race. … I’m going to be taking a little time off from politics but stay involved.”

Incumbent Kelli Wegener, D-Crystal Lake, is on track to retain her seat, joining Republican Terri Greeno in District 5. Greeno has been critical of Wegener throughout the campaign, at times calling her a communist.

“I’m just appreciative,” Wegener said. “I put a lot of work into this. I knocked on a lot of doors and made a lot of phone calls.”

Wegener said she was disappointed some incumbent Democrats, such as Collins and Vijuk, look like they’ll lose their races.

“It’ll be a completely different feel, I think, when we start meeting as a new board,” she said.

For Michael Skala, R-Huntley, who is currently the lead vote-getter in District 9, he said he doesn’t necessarily think of it in terms of party. He looks at the candidates first. Skala, who would be the longest-serving board member after Tuesday’s results, said he appeals to moderates on both sides.

“I think a diversified board is a healthy board,” he said. “I don’t look at it as what letter is after their name. It’s what they represent and how they are going to do the job.”

Buehler said he liked the balance of incumbents and new members. He also noted many of the new members have government experience, such as Brian Sager in District 7, who is the former mayor of Woodstock.

Van Hof also has been on the county’s Merit Commission, while John Reinert out of District 2 has been a County Board member before.

“I think it’s important to have incumbents there for experience,” Buehler said. “But others who have some experience will be helpful to have as well.”

Wegener and Skala said they were a little more nervous about the new faces. With half of the board new, combined with the fewer members in general, it’s “all different,” Wegener said.

“New blood, new faces is not a bad thing,” Skala said. “But it does make the job a little more difficult because of the learning curve.”

Van Hof said she wants to prioritize focusing on Valley Hi Nursing Home. Wegener said she has not yet put thought into her next priority, as her focus has been on the election and the upcoming property tax levy vote Nov. 15, which will be the last meeting for the current board.

“I think it’s important we stay within our budget and do whatever we can to not burden the taxpayers,” Wegener said.

For Buehler, getting used to the reduced board and figuring out the committee layout will be next. Getting new members familiar with the strategic plan also is on the docket.

“We’ve got a lot going on and a lot to look forward to,” he said.

The new board members are slated to be sworn in in early December, Buehler said. The first meeting of the group will be Dec. 15.