Monday, February 25, 2008

Adeline Geo-Karis: Role Model and Cautionary Tale

With the passing of former State Sen. Adeline Geo-Karis of Zion a few weeks ago a host of glowing tributes were offered to that pioneering woman. Though well-deserved, Geo-Karis’ story was a lot more complicated than the tributes indicated. If Geo-Karis showed the way for many Republican leaders, particularly women, she also became an object lesson in how not to pass on the torch without damaging a life’s work.

I was in high school when she was first elected to the Illinois Legislature. Right from the start she cast a large shadow in politics in Lake County. In the late 70’s a couple friends of mine and I took an extended trip meandering about the country. It was a marvelous experience, but for all the adventure involved, one still gets a little homesick. One crisp fall night we were all feeling a bit melancholy, wandering the streets of Bar Harbor, Maine. Coming around a corner we were startled to see an old Buick plastered with stickers urging us to re-elect Adeline Geo-Karis. “Good God, the woman’s everywhere,” one friend exclaimed as we all busted out in laughter. It was the secret to her success.

As she rose Geo (as everyone called her) served as mentor to a whole generation of politicians and activists in Lake County. From the mid-80’s through the early 90’s I was one of them. I drove her around, wrote some one-liners for her and plotted strategy with her. Traveling with her was astonishing. We would hit a couple of events – and that would be the shortest part of the day. She knew about every funeral, every christening, every wedding and every bar mitzvah that went on in her district. We would stop by unannounced at three to seven such events every time I accompanied her. There was no room for any sort of life beyond politics for her. It was an electoral strength, but I began to think the woman was terribly lonely sometimes, even amidst the crowds in which she was the constant center of attention.

There was a joke in those days that the most dangerous place to be was between Geo and a microphone or a TV camera. During the Bears great Super Bowl season, we even joked that the real test for the offensive line would be to try to block her out from a public microphone. I benefitted from that trait in 1988 as Ronald Reagan was making his valedictory tour around the country. He threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game and gave a speech that evening at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Geo asked me if I wanted to take her there. Gosh, the chance to listen to Reagan at the end of his great presidency; that was a no-brainer. When we arrived, Geo had ordinary tickets. But she was Geo and bulled her way right to the front row, dead center. So I got to watch and hear Reagan from a distance of 15 yards.

Geo was not particularly ideologically motivated; constituent service was her hallmark. She was very good at it, doggedly working to solve any problem a constituent brought her. In her heyday, she was the one I would go to when anyone brought me a problem they were having with government. Whether they were in her district or not she would almost always get action – and always cared to make it happen. She had no family of her own. In a very real way, the people she served became her surrogate family.

Sometime in the early to mid-90’s something began to change. Geo did become far more ideologically driven on certain matters. One evening we went to dinner after a series of events and she told me earnestly that the party had to get off this pro-life stuff. I was a bit taken aback and told her that for many of us, including me, it was a key principle and one of the main reasons we were Republican. She told me it was a loser and we really needed to drop it. I don’t know who was more shocked; me, to hear her say this or her, to hear me say I would cease to be a Republican before I would cease to be pro-life. From that time on I don’t think I ever saw her without her earnestly trying to convince me to drop the pro-life business. It was the classic divide in politics: some choose issues to advance their party while others choose their party to advance their issues. Both are a little bewildered by the other.

Without adopting the fringe politics of the feminist movement, Geo became very decidedly feminist in political practice. She began to reflexively support any woman running against any man, while candidly saying she thought we needed more women in office. It was the one form of identity politics she unabashedly supported. Some of her old alliances became strained, even broken as it continued. Former Illinois House Majority Leader Bob Churchill had been one of her closest protégés as he rose in politics. I never knew exactly what happened, but the relationship between them did not just get strained, it got broken. Though a dramatic break, it was not an aberration. It was symptomatic of an undercurrent that was developing between Geo and a lot of her old comrades.

For much of her career Geo was a pioneer, storming the barricades of country club Republicanism. She was the first woman this, the first woman that…so many firsts you couldn’t keep up with it all. She was the pride of the very large Greek community in Lake County. If you ever spend time there and note that there are quite a lot of Greek office-holders and judges, Geo had a lot to do with it. In the 70’s, 80’s and into the early 90’s she played a huge role in building the Republican Party and bringing in a host of new people who had either not been in before or, despite great talent, had been shut out.

Throughout her career her constituents adored her. Heaven knows, she had danced at most of their weddings, mourned at their funerals, prayed at their baptisms – she was one of the family for almost every family in Lake County. My own children still speak of her as Auntie Geo. But the tensions from internal feuds began taking their toll in the last 15 years. Though the feuds rarely entered into public view, more and more frequently colleagues and Geo found themselves working at cross purposes in muffled battles over both issues and political predominance. Some became irritated at what they considered a sense of entitlement growing in her. They would complain that Geo more frequently expected people to do things her way because it was she who wanted it rather than to advocate on the merits.

As illness and age took their toll, many political leaders began worrying that her Senate seat was beginning to look vulnerable. When longtime Congressman Phil Crane was unexpectedly toppled by Melissa Bean in 2004, local leaders sat up and took notice. Crane had been a local hero in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But his seat got progressively more vulnerable as he stayed on long past the period when he had had impact. Many Republicans began to fear that in Geo, they had a Crane scenario in the making if they didn’t do something. They feared, though, that Geo wouldn’t have it. It was a terrible irony: she who had successfully stormed so many barricades in building the Republican Party was now considered to be the main barricade by many who sought to continue that work.

But Geo surprised them. She, too, understood the toll that age and illness was taking. She had groomed a longtime protégé, Warren Twp. Supervisor Sue Simpson to replace her and was clearing the field for Simpson. Many insiders breathed a deep sigh of relief. Lake County Dem. Chairman and State Sen. Terry Link was obviously targeting that seat. Few, even among those who loved Geo best, believed the seat could be held under sustained assault if Geo were to run again. In public she often nodded off, traveled with an oxygen tank in tow, and more than occasionally lost track of what the subject at hand was in public debate. The best hope to retain the seat was to have a younger, vigorous successor supported by Geo. Everyone believed that was what had happened.

Something went wrong, though. Somewhere along the line Geo decided it was not time to move on, after all. But her designated successor, Sue Simpson, did not bow out. After spending several decades as Geo’s protégé, Simpson was now treated as her bitterest enemy. A deep, new feud burst into public view. An already divided Republican Party in Lake County became even more divided as good people settled on either Geo or Simpson. I will confess that I thought Geo was going to win the primary going away, that her surrogate family was going to give her one more tour of duty. It didn’t happen that way. Though her constituents still loved her, they sent her the painful message as gently as they could – that they loved her but it was time. Geo was hurt. Sadly, the pain of rejection morphed into a bitter repudiation of all that she had stood for in her long career. She, who stormed the barricades, who expanded and grew the party, who put service first, now threw her support to the Democrat, Michael Bond, doing everything she could to defeat her old protégé, Simpson, and, in the process, shrink and divide the local party she had done so much to grow and unite. While her old constituents had told her it was time to go, they still loved her and honored her by making the Democrat she supported into their new state senator.

There are still some Republicans in Lake County who bear each other ill will because of that bitter election. Those who loyally supported Geo to the end did not act dishonorably. Those who thought it time to move on did not, either. Most likely the only way the seat could have been held was with a successor who had her support. It was an impossible situation for Republican leaders.

I loved and admired Geo. The first 20 years of her career serve as a real lesson in how to build and grow a strong organization. The last few serve as a cautionary tale to leaders on how easy it is to damage what they have spent a lifetime building. She was an archetype of politician as noble servant to her constituents. May all remember that as her enduring legacy – and remember that when it ceases to be about service and begins to be about entitlement, it is time to move on, lest you mar the best work of your own hands.

9 comments:

Paul, just this guy, you know? 2:20 PM  

Thanks for this history! I moved into her district six years ago, and this is of great interest and value to me.

Team America 3:34 PM  

Charlie- A deeply thoughtful and moving post.

I am frankly disgusted by the Lake County Dems who are now embracing Geo's memory, as if they would not have been the very same people who would clearly have been trying to cut her heart out if she had been the candidate in the general election. That Geo was not able to see through that, and ended up suporting a Dem for her office, is the real tragedy.

Shame on all those who took advantage of an old lady's pride and vanity for their own political ends, and who continue to do so even after she is gone from us.

Anonymous,  11:08 PM  

any way we could send this to the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign? Somehow, though, I think HRC and her staff are to think to see the links...

Anonymous,  11:44 PM  

Sorry Charlie and Team America,

Charlie, you wrote a beautiful piece but several portions of it are not very accurate.

Two weeks after her death and I am stunned as to how many people claimed to know her and how few people really knew her. Many drove her around. Many attended events with her. Many held her purse. Few understood what drove her to become what she became.

You both know that I was a Geo "insider." Few were allowed to hold such a position in her life. It was an honor to be admitted to such a status.

Geo was ideologically driven here entire life. She was an ardent supporter of the ERA and of women running for office from the start. She often took positions that annoyed "platform Republicans" and was an avid scholar of Abraham Lincoln. Geo often stated that platform Republicans would have hated Abraham Lincoln if he reappeared in the 20th century. He would have been too progressive for them. Her admiration of Lincoln was such that she often tried to emulate him.

To claim that she gradually adopted views that she held her entire life is just as silly as the "astonished realization" by some Republicans in 2005-2006 that Geo was old and in less than pristine health. Geo served Lake County in Springfield AS A SENIOR CITIZEN for 27 out of her 35 years in office. And the last twelve were in a wheelchair or motorized scooter.

A lifelong Republican, she did not choose the party out of convenience. Yet at the end she was quick to say that she did not leave the party, the party left her. On February 5, 2008, she was reelected a Republican Precinct Committeewoman, a position she held for over a half century. She died five days later.

We need to remember that she ran for office many times without the endorsement of the party in Lake County. She was told repeatedly not to run. She lost her first few elections, as early as 1962. During her last campaign she was told not to run by some rocket scientists who still hold positions of power in the GOP and was threatened that it would be nasty and personal if she did. Throughout her career, she took on the GOP establishment and bulled her way into it. Those who knew her best were not surprised by her decision to run again.

And it got nasty. Funny things about nasty primaries. They always come back to haunt the winners of them.

Her legacy remained intact following her last campaign for office. Lake County Republican mythology claims otherwise. Those glowing testimonials (save for one idiotic one by Tom Roeser) are proof of that. But for a mailer attacking her and linking her with the 1972 version of "Hanoi Jane," something which deeply hurt her, a proud military veteran, to no end, and a foolish letter written by the then chairman of the Lake County GOP claiming that Geo could no longer be "trusted" to vote the correct Republican way, another deep and hurtful wound, no endorsement of Bond would have occurred.

We handful of Geo "insiders" know.

Did Adeline Geo-Karis shrink the GOP in Lake County? Or did the GOP in Lake County shrink itself by engaging in bitter in fighting, civil wars and feuds?

Wasn't it really the Republican Assembly of Lake County vs. Lake County Republican Central Committee vs. Lake County Republican Federation vs. Cuba Township vs. Antioch and Lake Villa Township, etc. etc. etc. that did in the GOP in Lake County? Republicans publishing magazines attacking Republicans? Republicans throwing fellow Republicans out of meetings? Republicans suing fellow Republicans over trivial rules? Republican boycotting Republican events and causes because they didn't like which group was sponsoring them?

That soup mixed and brewed by factions of the Lake County GOP became so poisonous that any restaurant that dared serve it would have been condemned and closed.

Yet the feuding persists today. And Geo is now gone. Coincidentally, Geo talked to all factions and managed to get along with them. Come November, will the oblivious in the Lake County GOP put aside their differences to rally against the rising Democratic tide, or will they continue to try to lay blame on Geo, rather than blame themselves.

You both know the correct answers to the questions I ask above.

She was a public servant to the very end. If she had been more selfish, she would have persevered and answered those personal attacks with some of her own. But she didn't. Because such tactics were not "fair" in her eyes.

May she rest in peace.

Louis G. Atsaves

Team America 10:27 AM  

Lou- as usual, you have some good insights, and everyone in the know understands that you have a better understanding of Geo than almost anyone. And, the issue of inter-party warfare and how it relates to Geo's last years and vice-versa is certainly fodder for much analysis and conversation.

But, I don't think it can be argued that the Dems are guilty of shameless profiting and exploitation of the situation, as well as base hypocracy for accusing certain Republicans of doing exactly what the Dems would have done (in fact, far, far worse) to Geo if she had remained the GOP candidate. That's my only point.

Anonymous,  11:44 AM  

Although they claim otherwise, they were prepared to take her on. No question about it.

The best analogy is that the Democrats behaved like those witnesses on the stand during a trial. Give them an opening and they will drive an 18-wheeler through it.

And they were given that opening.

Louis G. Atsaves

Charlie Johnston 12:08 PM  

I rarely respond to comments on my posts anymore...let the chips fall where they may, I think. But Lou, you truly were one of Geo's dearest friends and great loyalists and noble supporters. There is much truth in what you say.

As I tried to make clear in my piece, I was close to Geo from the mid-80's through the early 90's. There was never any trouble between us, but as time went on in the 90's we weren't in contact much anymore. My memories of her are very fond.

You are a noble and good man - and I hope you will continue the work that YOU are doing...helping to build and re-unite Lake County Republicans. You are, indeed, living her authentic legacy. Best to you.

Anonymous,  7:18 PM  

What an amazing woman. Rest in peace, Geo. We love and miss you.

Anonymous,  4:33 PM  

It is now 40 days since "Geo" died, and I have just read all the comments rergarding "Geo".

I was fortunate to have known "Geo" for almost 47 yrs. and to have worked as a Volunteer in her 1st Campaign in 1962 for the U.S.Senate, and I can tell you all that we all learned early on that "Geo" believed in her whole being, that a Candidate attacks issues, and not the Candidates they oppose.

I was blessed to be a part of "Geo's" family, and I would come from Orlando,Fl.and for many years help in her campaigns, and drive many miles with "Geo" in the passenger side, and on her phone not only attending to her Senate work, but her Law Clients also.

"Geo" was not in the Wheelchair for the last 12yrs.and if memory serves me and Louie Atsaves correctly, it may be that she was in the wheelchair roughfly about 5 yrs.

Why do I say this! My husband and I returned to Waukegan July 2003 to celebrate our 35th Wedding Anniversary and share it with "Geo" as she gave us our Wedding Reception in 1968.

In 2003, "Geo" was not in a wheelchair!

In "Geo's" house is a needlepoint that our daughter stitched for her Auntie Geo several years ago, and it reads:

"REPUBLICAN BORN, REPUBLICAN BRED, AND WHEN I DIE, I'LL BE REPUBLICAN DEAD".

This being said, "Geo" loved, and believed that regardless of what Party any of us chose to support, "Geo" worked both sides of the aisle, for the common good of her District.

She was more amazing in many ways, than a lot of people realized.

"Geo" will continue to live on in our Memories, and how blessed we were to have been able to share life with "Geo".

Louie Atsaves's comments regarding "Geo" were so true.

Louie and I for years shared in seeing to "Geo", and her well being, and if asked, we both would gladly take the time we did in making sure that all went well with whatever was needed for "Geo".


I called her daily for years, and I can say, that "Geo" will forever live on in those of us who truly loved and cared about her.

There will never be another "Geo"!

On March 29th, "Geo" would have turned 90 years old.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY GEO, AND MAY YOU REST IN PEACE.

BARBARA JOHNSON
Orlando, F.

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