St. Clair County Board Chairman candidates Steve Reeb (left) and Mark Kern.

Steve Reeb in a lighter debate moment.

Mark Kern at the podium during Tuesday's debate.

A Republican take over of St. Clair County's top job would send cultural shock waves above the hill, below the hill and beyond the county's borders.

Republican Steve Reeb, St. Clair County board member and real estate developer, faces businessman Democrat Belleville Mayor Mark Kern in a close dual for St. Clair County Board Chairman.

"Reeb's victory would be like the proverbial new sheriff in town," said former Republican county board member Joe Behnken of O'Fallon. "A Republican coming in would not have ownership of the problems plaguing the county like the Democrats do. Reeb could essentially employ a scorch and burn policy and start an administration with a clean slate."

A floundering Mid-America St. Louis Airport is a shining example of failed Democratic leadership, Behnken said. The airport, which is operated by the county, has not been able to retain steady airline passenger service and operating costs continue to increase.

"The airport is a problem for Democrats," Behnken said. "They own it, starting with (Congressmen) Mel Price and Jerry Costello."

Outgoing Chairman John Baricevic, a powerful Democrat who's held the job since 1989, is leaving the headaches of county administration behind, running unopposed for St. Clair County Circuit Judge.

Illinois Republican Party vice chairman Steve McGlynn, a Belleville trial attorney, said that a Reeb victory would signal the beginning of the end for one of the most powerful political machines in the midwest.

"Historic is a word that is often over used," McGlynn said. "But this election, if it goes in Steve's favor, would be historic. It would break the Democratic machine that has run everything into the ground, everything that it can control."

McGlynn, former St. Clair County GOP chair, said that the climate for businesses and civic minded people would improve under Republican leadership. He also cited internal polling data which had Reeb leading Kern by several points.

"If Reeb and (Republican Illinois Supreme Court candidate) Karmeier win doctors will stay and we'll see businesses start taking another look at the area," McGlynn said.

McGlynn believes that voters "below the hill," a geographic reference to East St. Louis which lies below Mississippi River bluffs, will abandon tradition and favor Reeb.

"African Americans are going to vote for Reeb in numbers not seen for Republicans since the 1960s," he said. "They recognize that they have terrible schools run by politicians. They have teachers being paid more than in other schools in the county. Tons of money is being spent but they're not getting any quality. And they resent it."

By no means a political novice, Reeb lost a close race to Jay Hoffman in 1998 when he ran for state representative in the 112th District.

With the exception of $10,000 given by the Illinois Republican Party and $12,000 from St. Clair County Republicans, contributions to Reeb have mostly come in small amounts. Reeb has contributed $15,303 to his election effort.

By some accounts a wealthy businessman, Kern has poured plenty of his own money into his campaign. In October, Kern's business PM Associates, contributed $72,000 for advertising. In total, Kern has outlayed $178,000 to his campaign.

The candidates, who bickered for weeks over where and when to debate, finally met face-to-face Tuesday at a forum in O'Fallon.

Reeb, whose campaign has focused on the doctor exodus and medical malpractice issue, reiterated his theme calling for tort reform. He also said he supports privatizing operations at Mid American Airport.

At the taped debate Kern said caps on malpractice awards would not pass in the state legislature.

“If caps were passed today in Springfield, they would be unconstitutional” Kern said. He also said that he would work to lobby U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (D-Springfield) and Barack Obama, if elected, to solve doctor exodus.

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