As campaigns gear up for next year's elections, so do committeemen, committeewomen
By CARL H. HENDRICKSON
For the Call
As campaigns start gearing up in anticipation of next year's presidential race and other elections, the work of "selling'' the candidates and party platforms will fall to a virtually unknown group of people — township committeemen and committeewomen.
St. Louis County is comprised of 28 townships and each township has a Democratic and a Republican committeeman and a Democratic and a Republican committeewoman. Organized third parties also have committeemen and committeewomen in the townships.
The 56 committee people of each party constitute the party's central committee and meet regularly, usually monthly, to discuss matters of interest and importance to their party, according to John Winston, Gravois Township Republican committeeman and chairman of the St. Louis County Republican Central Committee.
Committeemen and committeewomen, regardless of party affiliation, perform the grass-roots politics for their political party.
"Every four years, in a presidential election year, committee people are chosen in the August primary,'' Winston explained. "Those who ask for a Democratic ballot will select the Democratic committeeman and committeewoman, and those taking the Republican ballot, the Republican committeeman and Republican committeewoman. If one selects the ballot of a third party, he or she will be voting for the committee people of that party."
Committee people receive no pay for the long hours they are required to spend in helping to elect the candidates of their party. They are invited to candidate fund-raisers, which may require them to spend their own money — although as a "thank-you" for their services, many candidates provide complimentary tickets to committee people.
Because of the work involved, the public's lack of understanding of the function of committee people and the cost factor if one must expend his or her own money in attending political events, often there is no contest for this very important position.
But in August 2000, seven committee races in the Call's readership area were contested — something political observers said was unusual for such unpaid elected posts.
Committee people are not required to follow any specific guidelines in performing their duties, according to Winston.
Each is left to decide how best to carry out his or her responsibilities.
However, local committee people told the Call that their responsibilities include registering people to vote, turning out voters on election day, recruiting candidates to seek public office, assisting candidates in raising funds and finding volunteers, helping with the distribution of literature door to door and at the polls, finding locations for yard signs and assisting the candidates in placing these signs before an election.
Committee people also provide advice to candidates on campaign tactics and campaign literature and assist local election authorities in recruiting poll judges to work on election day.
To assist them in their efforts, many committee people have a township organization that functions year in and year out, in election years and in non-election years.
Some of the organizations publish the time and date of their meetings in local newspapers with the hope of recruiting new members. It is from the organization membership that committee people and candidates find the volunteers to assist in the campaigns. By observing the organization members, the committee people are able to determine which members have the potential to run for and to hold public office.
Although most committee people are involved primarily in politics, some also hold office. For example, state Rep. Michael Vogt, D-Affton, also serves as committeeman in Gravois Township. He told the Call that one of the more important functions of committee people is to endorse candidates for political office.
"We never fail to endorse, even in primary elections,'' he said, noting that once candidates are endorsed by a simple majority of the Democratic Executive Committee in Gravois Township, their names will appear on the sample ballot distributed to voters prior to an election to assist voters in deciding which candidate to support.
But not all committee people consider endorsing candidates in a primary to be a high priority. In Tesson Ferry Township, the Republican organization requires a "supermajority" vote of the Executive Committee and of the organization before a candidate can obtain a primary election endorsement. The Republican township leader, Committeeman Joe Matuszak, is reluctant to see the organization split over a primary endorsement when none of the candidates have the support of a strong or supermajority.
Matuszak's counterpart in Tesson Ferry Township is Democrat committeeman Ed Koeller, who told the Call that he considers the two most important functions of committee people are to convince individuals to register to vote and then to convince them to vote on election day. And, as the Democratic committeeman, he "sells" the Democratic candidates to the registered voters.
"Other important functions are to recruit candidates and help them run for office," Koeller said. His township partner, Committeewoman Julie Leicht, believes it is important to organize Democrats at the grass-roots level and support the party's candidates.
"Ed and I work together well in the township. Each of us has special qualities that complement the other," Leicht told the Call.
A problem committee people face, Vogt said, is "convincing individuals, especially young people, to become involved in the process of grass-roots politics."
Committee people often find it difficult to recruit volunteers for their organizations among the busy, the uninterested and the indifferent.
This is unfortunate, according to committee people, because it is through the political process that the people provide their standards of judgment regarding government and choose the public officials able to apply those standards to obtain a result acceptable to the majority of the people. If we are to continue to have a government of and by the people, it is essential that people, especially the younger generation, become involved in the process of politics, the committee people said.
Another problem, according to Winston, is the litigation pending over the 2002 redistricting of the township boundaries in St. Louis County. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has challenged the boundaries, claiming that too few African American committee people can be elected.
"This suit is set for trial in December, with a final decision expected by February,'' Winston said. "If the court redraws the lines, it could affect who will be candidates next year for the positions of committee people."
Winston is concerned that a substantial redistricting could force some committee people out of their current townships.