Local Leader Spotlight: Kristina Zahorik of McHenry County, Illinois

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Each month, the National Democratic Training Committee highlights the efforts of a local party leader who is doing outstanding work in their own community. This month we spoke with Kristina Zahorik, the Chair of the McHenry County Democratic Party, who recently wrote “An Argument to Protect Your PCs.”

“PCs (precinct commiteepeople) are volunteers for their county Parties and County Chairs should protect their PCs from being wooed away from that critical role. The volunteer work our PCs do is vital for both the Democratic Party and campaigns. They ensure election integrity, help get Democrats on the ballot, grow the Party, and get out the vote to elect Democrats.

It’s important to remember that a symbiotic relationship exists between campaigns and county Parties.”

We spoke to Kristina about what prompted her to write about the role of precinct commiteepeople, and what party-driven organization looks like in McHenry County, Illinois.

What was the impetus for writing that “An Argument to Protect Your PCs”?

I’m a new chair. We have a lot of new people coming in and some folks who have been in for quite a while. I was just trying to clarify the line between campaign-driven and party-driven organization. That party-driven organization helps our candidates, not only for a current political cycle but for the future, too.

What do you think is the difference between campaign-driven and party-driven organization?

With campaign-driven organization, the focus is on that campaign cycle - everyone is working for one or two particular candidates. Everyone is driving towards that election.

When you have more of a party-driven organization, you are building the party organization, creating a party structure. You have people on the ground in charge of their precinct. That structure is in place regardless of the election cycle, and it isn’t built around a single candidate.

What does the party-drive organization look like in McHenry County?

In our county party structure, precinct committeepeople (PCs) are the neighborhood representatives. They get to know their precinct, and initially, they’re meeting friendly people - Democrats who are already identified. Our PCs meet their neighbors, let them know they’re not alone and build from there.

But, in a county like McHenry, we don’t always know who our voters are. Historically we have not always had Democratic candidates, let alone contested Democratic primaries, so there hasn’t necessarily been a consistent reason for our voters to come out and identify themselves.

[Note: In Illinois, voters do not affiliate with a party when they register and are usually identified based on which party’s primary ballot they choose to pull]

How do you identify Democratic voters if most Democrats don’t vote in the primary?

It’s kind of chicken and egg - so candidates look at those numbers and say “I couldn’t possibly win, so why should I run.” But we have a lot of Democrats who vote in Republican primaries, or they don’t vote in the primary at all, because they don’t necessarily have a choice in the Democratic primary ballot. That makes it’s hard for us to identify them.

When you have good PCs identifying Democrats and reporting back into Votebuilder, that helps every candidate.

What does that look like?

First, we ask PCs to identify themselves to the Strong Democrats in their neighborhood. We give each PC a badge and business cards. Making that introduction is the first thing - to knock on a door or make a phone call.

Some PCs take it a step further and invite folks to their house for coffee. In a county like ours, people feel isolated, like there’s no one else in their neighborhood that thinks the way they do. We encourage people to start self-identifying. We hope they know they’re not alone.

What comes next?

The second ask is to go block by block and identify those folks we don’t know anything about. It’s not so much “are you a Republican or are you a Democrat?” It’s about the issues that they’re concerned about. We hear a lot about property taxes, but we hear about a lot of values! Our voters often feel they have been neglected, and that makes these conversations easier.

Out here the fields are pretty ripe for Democratic votes. We are seeing change. We are seeing those margins narrow.

That’s a lot of work! How many PCs are in McHenry County?

There are 212 precincts, and we currently have 93 that are represented by an elected or appointed precinct committeeperson.

[Note: In Illinois, precinct committeepeople are elected on the Democratic primary ballot in even years. The county chair can appoint PCs in precincts where no one was elected.]

Prior to 2016 there were roughly 20. This past march we had more elected PCs than ever in our history. Our party has a lot of new PCs that are really interested in knowing their role and following through. They want to identify voters, do a real GOTV effort, and be a face in their community.

What are some of the challenges that have come along with that level of growth?

There are so many people that just want to do, and they’re just waiting to be told what to do. There is confusion about what the expectations are for precinct committeepeople.

There’s a lot of asks - meeting voters in their precinct, attending meetings, being in parades, fundraisers for local candidates. And these are strong Democrats, so they’re contacted by all of the campaigns to volunteer on top of that. A lot of our folks are overwhelmed.

People haven’t necessarily thought about the role, or thought about the difference between walking a neighborhood as a volunteer and a PC.

Precinct Committeepeople have a very unique and special role. They are our party’s face in the community, and that’s why this kind of organization is so important.  If we do this right, we bring more people to us. If we do this right, we get more of our local candidates elected.

When people aren’t just voting for a party - when they know us, and they trust us, and they know we have shared values because they’ve met us - we can accomplish a lot.

Is there a leader in your local Democratic Party doing great work the world should know about? Tell us about them–either comment below or email us at [email protected]

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Jacob is a Communications Associate for NDTC. Jacob was initially an intern for NDTC in 2016 before moving on to work for both a Chicago Alderman and an Illinois State Representative. After working in Parliament in the Republic of Ireland, Jacob joined NDTC in April of 2018. Jacob is a graduate of DePaul University with a degree in Political Science. Outside of politics, Jacob tries to forget the Chicago Cub's century of losing while enjoying their recent success.