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Madison County board chair hopefuls used to be allies. Now they're fierce opponents

Republican Madison County Board Chair Kurt Prenzler, left, is being challenged by Madison County Treasurer Chris Slusser, right, in the GOP primary for the seat.
Belleville News-Democrat
Republican Madison County Board Chair Kurt Prenzler, left, is being challenged by Madison County Treasurer Chris Slusser, right, in the GOP primary for the seat.

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.

It’s not unusual for candidates to wage war on members of their own party during primary elections, but in the Madison County Board chairman’s race, bullets are flying at close range.

Incumbent Kurt Prenzler and challenger Chris Slusser, who now serves as county treasurer, work in offices on the same floor of the same building in Edwardsville, walk the same halls, attend the same meetings and deal with many of the same people every day.

They were once Republican allies. Slusser supported Prenzler in his successful bids to become treasurer in 2010 and 2014, and Prenzler appointed Slusser to replace him in 2016, when Prenzler was elected board chairman.

But in recent months, both campaigns have leveled sharp criticism at the other, including claims of incompetency, corruption, dishonesty and political “dirty tricks.” The primary election is March 19.

“Kurt has lost his way, especially in the last four or five years,” Slusser said. “He hired some really bad people for key positions in his administration. They were engaged in wrongdoing and not showing up for work or doing their jobs, and he wasn’t holding them accountable.”

Slusser, 46, of Wood River, said Prenzler has failed to keep board members informed, encouraged people to harass them, created chaos and controversy at meetings, caused turnover among employees and focused more on activist issues than the administrative job taxpayers are paying him to do.

Slusser said he enjoys being treasurer and wouldn’t leave that position if fellow Republicans hadn’t asked him to run and stop the “craziness.” All Republican countywide elected officials have endorsed him.

Prenzler, 68, of Edwardsville, said he makes no apologies for being a conservative activist and not being a “RINO” (Republican in name only), and he’s proud of fighting against COVID-19 mandates and drag-queen story hours at libraries and speaking out on other issues in local communities.

Prenzler said some Republicans are opposing him because he has fought for property tax caps, and they want everyone on the same page.

“They’re trying to put together the old Madison County political machine,” he said, referring to Democrats in charge for decades. “Except that they’re going to put Rs behind the names.”

In some cases, rhetoric in the local campaign resembles that of other Republican primaries across the county, reflecting divisions between right and far-right conservatives.

Republican voters in Madison County will choose Prenzler or Slusser to be their nominee for board chairman. No Democrat has yet filed to run in the general election, which will be held Nov. 5.

Ethical questions

The Madison County Administration Building on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edwardsville.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Madison County Administration Building last April in Edwardsville.

Prenzler said his problems with Slusser go back to at least 2018, when Slusser wore a listening device to record a conversation with Prenzler and others in his administration for a police task force that former Democrat State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons formed to investigate possible corruption.

The investigation resulted in no criminal charges, but the County Board fired two employees.

In a recent clash, Prenzler compared Slusser to a former Madison County treasurer who was sentenced to federal prison in 2013 for illegally structuring property tax sales to reward campaign contributors.

“Slusser’s own conduct is similar to Fred Bathon’s conduct,” Prenzler stated in an email.

Slusser called that an “insane response.” He said everyone knows that he runs a “very ethical office,” and it was because of his high standards that he agreed to help the police task force in the late 2010s.

Prenzler’s comment about Bathon last month was in reaction to a report from the county’s ethics adviser, who determined that Prenzler had violated rules against electioneering on county property when he gave a campaign business card instead of a county-issued business card to a county vendor.

Prenzler later apologized and said he should have written his cellphone number on a piece of paper instead of the business card.

Prenzler accused Slusser and his supporters of instigating the ethics investigation over a minor mistake and “weaponizing the criminal justice system.” He compared it to the situation with former President Donald Trump, who’s facing 91 felony charges in state and federal courts while a candidate.

Mick Madison, the County Board’s chairman pro tem, a Republican, asked for the ethics investigation of Prenzler. Slusser denied involvement.

The ethics report eventually prompted board members to vote 16-6 to censure Prenzler, a bipartisan sign of disapproval. Madison dismissed his claim that it was a “lynching without due process.”

“I would have to do this no matter what elected official was accused,” Madison told Prenzler. “After apologizing, you went into the public and called it a ‘witch hunt.’ You’re misleading the public that there’s people coming after you. You did this to yourself.”

Campaign contributions

Madison County States Attorney Tom Haine on Friday, July 7, 2023, in his office at the Madison County Administration Building in Edwardsville.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Madison County State's Attorney Tom Haine last July in his office at the Madison County Administration Building in Edwardsville.

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Haine, a Republican, had also referred the ethics allegation against Prenzler to the Illinois attorney general’s office and Illinois State Police. In an email, he told Madison it would be a conflict of interest for his office to prosecute if a crime had been committed.

Both agencies declined to take action on the case, which Prenzler held up as vindication.

Slusser pushed back, sending a news release stating that Illinois State Board of Elections data showed that Prenzler had accepted 150 political contributions worth $82,000 from vendors, despite his campaign promise not to take money from people working for the county.

”Based on Mr. Prenzler’s long-documented track record of hounding county vendors for political donations since he became chairman, I think it’s easy to draw the conclusion that he was attempting to shake down another county vendor in this instance,” Slusser wrote.

Prenzler responded with a news release stating that his opponents were making a “mountain out of a molehill” on the business-card issue and accusing Slusser of having his own history of dishonesty and unethical behavior.

Prenzler stated that he asked Slusser in 2016 if he had any negative employment history when he was deciding who to appoint as county treasurer, and that Slusser replied “no.”

Prenzler alleged that documents and video obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Slusser was fired from his job as a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville police officer in 2002 for taking confidential papers out of a supervisor’s briefcase and distributing copies in an effort to damage the supervisor’s reputation.

“Chris Slusser is a hypocrite who works hard to smear the reputations of others,” Prenzler wrote.

Slusser denies being fired from the SIUE job. He said a group of police officers played a “practical joke” on a supervisor involving a letter for a “mail-order bride,” resulting in a hearing but no disciplinary action, and that he and others later resigned due to a “hostile work environment.”

Regarding vendor contributions, Prenzler said he didn’t realize the board chairman had no influence over purchasing when he, as treasurer, made the campaign promise; he didn’t know some of his contributors had done work for the county; and he has never accepted money from AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), the union representing half the county’s employees, unlike Slusser.

Accounting and law

Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler sits while being questioned by other board members regarding ethics violation.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler sits while being questioned by other board members regarding ethics violation.

Prenzler is a certified public accountant with a law degree, a husband and father of three college-age children. He ran for Madison County treasurer in 2006 and lost before winning in 2010 and 2014. He was elected County Board chairman in 2016 and reelected in 2020.

Prenzler often mentions that he “blew the whistle” on Bathon to help federal officials with their bid-rigging case against him. Prenzler also emphasizes his efforts to cut existing taxes and stop the creation of new ones and to reduce county costs as treasurer and board chairman.

Prenzler said he has kept the Madison County property tax levy the same since he became chairman, resulting in decreasing tax rates.

“I will continue to push the County Board to put PTELL (Property Tax Extension Law Limit) caps on the ballot,” he wrote on a BND candidate questionnaire, referring to caps that would apply to schools and other taxing districts. “Board members have resisted my request four times: 2018, 2020, 2022 and 2023. Republicans joined with Democrats to keep tax caps off the ballot.”

Prenzler also said he:

  • Backed a non-binding resolution that voters approved in 2018, designating Madison County as a “sanctuary” to protect residents from “unconstitutional gun laws.”
  • Persuaded the Madison County Board of Health to adopt a reopening plan in May 2020, defying a “one-size-fits-all” statewide COVID-19 lockdown, and opposed mask and vaccination mandates.
  • Spoke out against drag-queen story hours at Collinsville and Glen Carbon libraries and helped Glen Carbon residents pass an advisory referendum against them.

On the questionnaire, Prenzler wrote that he supports legal immigration but is against spending county money on illegal migrants, blaming Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, for “inviting” them to Illinois.
Prenzler identifies “taxes” as the campaign’s most important issue.

“I have reduced taxes, defended our freedoms (Second Amendment and COVID freedom) and exposed and fixed corruption, helping to send Democrat Treasurer Fred Bathon to federal prison due to unethical tax sales, saving taxpayers $1 million per year,” he wrote.

Prenzler is a regular letter-to-the-editor writer, expressing his opinions on everything from a “multi-gender” bathroom that’s proposed for Edwardsville High School (he’s opposed) to what he calls “machine politics” in Granite City.

Prenzler has been endorsed by U.S. Representative Mary Miller, a Republican in Illinois’ 15th District, and the Madison County Conservative Caucus.

Policing and business

Slusser lives in Wood River with his wife and two daughters. He holds degrees in criminal justice, speech and business. Besides the SIUE police job, he formerly worked as an investment adviser, finance officer for a real-estate company and vice president of a development company.

Slusser was elected to the Madison County Board in 2008 and again in 2016 after losing a 2012 bid to become chairman. After Prenzler appointed him treasurer in 2016, he won election in 2018 and reelection in 2022.

Chris Slusser, who now serves as the Madison County Treasurer, is looking to unseat incumbent county chairman Kurt Prenzler.
Chris Slusser
via Facebook
Chris Slusser, who now serves as the Madison County Treasurer, is looking to unseat incumbent county chairman Kurt Prenzler.

Slusser emphasizes his strong involvement in church activities and programs, his long list of civic affiliations and his participation in multiple efforts to defeat referendums for tax increases and government borrowing.

“These campaigns have saved county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars,” he wrote on the BND questionnaire.

Slusser also said he:

  • Introduced a plan to put the county’s “checkbook” online as a County Board member so citizens could track spending, making it only the second county in Illinois to do so.
  • Oversaw the return of millions of dollars in taxpayer refunds as a member of the former Wood River Township Hospital Board after the taxing district was dissolved.
  • Returned money to the county’s general fund every year as treasurer after spending less than what was budgeted and overhauled its “under-performing” investment portfolio, which went from earning $4.5 million to $34 million a year.

Slusser identifies “taxes” and “economic development” as the campaign’s most important issues. He argues that the only way to reduce property taxes is to pass reforms that rely more on sales taxes to fund public schools. He calls PTELL a “gimmick” that won’t work.
On the issue of economic development, “I think it’s important that we develop a regional strategy among our communities in Madison County, so they’re not all competing against one another and just desperately throwing incentives at businesses without having a plan and engaging in property negotiations,” he wrote on the questionnaire.

“We haven’t had this type of leadership in the county chairman’s office, and our region has suffered as a result.”

Slusser said political activism is important, and he has been involved in it, but his top priority as county treasurer is operating the department in a professional and efficient manner.

Slusser has been endorsed by Haine, Madison County Sheriff Jeff Connor, Circuit Clerk Tom McRae, Auditor David Michael, County Clerk Linda Andreas, Regional Superintendent of Schools Rob Werden and Illinois State Sen. Jason Plummer of the 55th District, all Republicans.

A news release from Slusser’s campaign called it “historic” that 100% of Republican countywide elected officials had endorsed him.

If Slusser were to lose in the primary, he would remain treasurer.

Republicans in charge

The Madison County Administration Building on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Edwardsville.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Madison County Administration Building last April in Edwardsville.

The vast majority of County Board members and elected officials in Madison County were Democrats for decades.

Board members selected Democrat Alan Dunstan as chairman in 2002 before the process was changed to make the job elective. He won in 2004 and got reelected twice, beating Slusser in 2012.

Prenzler had served as county treasurer for six years by 2016, when he ran for board chairman. He beat Dunstan by only 508 votes out of nearly 125,000 cast in the general election.

“I was the first Republican to win a countywide office since John Shimkus, who went to Congress (in 1997),” Prenzler said, speaking of the former county treasurer who became a U.S. representative.

Republicans also took over the majority of County Board seats. Today, the makeup is 18 Republicans and eight Democrats, not including the chairman. All other countywide elected officials are Republican, except for one, Democrat Coroner Steve Nonn, who’s retiring this year. One Republican, Nick Novacich, but no Democrat, has filed to run for the office.

In other words, the Republican party is firmly in control.

But it’s the growing animosity between Prenzler and other Republicans, particularly Slusser, that tends to dominate news cycles. Slusser has stated that he and Prenzler agree on “99% of issues” while disagreeing on execution.

“I will actually communicate with County Board members so that they can be properly informed and on board with our agenda, and our meetings will no longer resemble a circus or a Jerry Springer episode,” Slusser wrote on the BND questionnaire.

“I plan to begin our County Board meetings with a prayer. I will also repair damaged relationships between the current chairman and the law enforcement community, including the sheriff’s and state’s attorney’s offices, and many others.”

The intra-party Republican power struggle rose to new levels in 2022, when the County Board voted 19-6 to strip away some of Prenzler’s powers, including the ability to appoint department heads, and give them to Madison and a vice chairman pro tem.

According to the ordinance, Prenzler had exhibited “chronically inept” management, lack of communication and research on important issues, lack of attention to the job and multiple “disastrous” personnel decisions, resulting in millions of dollars in legal costs and settlements.

Today, Prenzler maintains that the vote, held on July 6, 2022, was more about outrage over his support of County Board challengers who had promised to put PTELL property tax caps on the ballot and who beat incumbents in the Republican primary on June 28, 2022.

“That continues to be the issue right now,” Prenzler said, predicting that people will be unhappy with this year’s property tax bills because of higher levies set by some taxing districts.

Blowback from firings

No discussion on the race between Prenzler and Slusser is complete without mention of Rob Dorman, Madison County’s former information-technology director, and Doug Hulme, former county administrator.

Both were hired by Prenzler, and both were fired in 2020 by the County Board in two 26-1 votes.

The high-level employees had been accused of ethical violations, including the allegation that Hulme accessed emails of county employees for political purposes with Dorman’s help. Both deny wrongdoing. Hulme has said he was checking for electioneering on county time using county resources, and that he was authorized and obligated to do so.

Slusser said he had become aware of Hulme’s efforts to “dig up dirt” on Democrats and Prenzler’s failure to take action, and he felt bound to report it to authorities, leading Gibbons to form the police task force and Slusser to agree to wear a listening device.

“At the end of the day, (recording a conversation with Republican officials) was not a popular thing to do,” Slusser said. “But I’m going to do the right thing. If someone is committing felonies or engaging in wrongdoing, I’m not going to turn a blind eye, no what party it is.”

Hulme ran for county treasurer in 2022, and Slusser defeated him in the Republican primary.

Since their terminations, Dorman and Hulme have filed about 20 lawsuits against Madison County and its officials, as well as many requests for documents through the Freedom of Information Act (Dorman and Hulme estimate 150 requests; Slusser says it’s 500).

“I’m doing all this because what they did was so wrong, and if they can do it to me, they can do it to anyone in the United States,” said Dorman, who often acts as his own attorney.

In October, Slusser sent a news release that called on Prenzler to demand that his “political allies” (Dorman and Hulme) end their “continuous costly, harassing and frivolous” lawsuits against county officials.

Slusser cited Haine’s calculation that the county had spent $270,000 to fight the lawsuits and estimated that employees had worked 2,000 extra man-hours responding to the FOIA requests.

Slusser stated that the majority of Dorman and Hulme’s lawsuits had been dismissed due to “lack of merit” and that judges had sanctioned them in some cases, forcing them to pay county legal fees. He called it a “waste of taxpayer funds” and an “abuse of the legal system.”

“Anyone who claims to be a fiscal conservative and concerned about taxpayer money would’ve already called for an end to this madness,” Slusser wrote. “But our Chairman remains silent. We need a new Chairman.”

Dorman and Hulme said some of their lawsuits have been dismissed due to “technicalities” or “biased” judges in Madison County, but they have successfully petitioned to get some heard outside the Third Judicial Circuit (Madison and Bond counties).

Prenzler said he implored County Board members in 2020 not to fire Dorman and Hulme without a proper administrative review and warned them that it would result in lawsuits requiring the county to spend millions of dollars to fight litigation and pay compensation.

“Every employee is entitled to an administrative review,” Prenzler said.

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.