By Bob Uphues
For the first time in more than 30 years, there won't be a slate of candidates fielded by North Riverside's VIP Party when voters tick off their choices for mayor, clerk and trustee on ballots next spring.
That's because for all intents and purposes VIP is a relic of the past. On Nov. 18, a group of former VIP members filed paperwork with the Illinois State Board of Elections to create a political committee called the North Riverside United Party.
And with that filing, the party designated a full slate of candidates for next spring's election, with Joseph Mengoni its choice for mayor.
Kathy Ranieri will seek her third term as village clerk and her first as a member of the new party, while the North Riverside United Party's candidates for trustee will be incumbents Fernando Flores and Terri Sarro along with Jason Bianco, who formerly served as a VIP trustee for one term from 2015-19.
Bianco wasn't slated by the VIP in 2019, an election that saw two of the three party's candidates defeated.
At this point, Mengoni will be facing off against incumbent Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., who is running without a slate as an independent. However, Trustee Marybelle Mandel, elected as an independent in 2019 after a campaign that resulted in the VIP breakup, is expected to run for mayor as well.
While Mengoni and Hermanek are former VIP colleagues, one important difference is in their approaches to the mayor's job. Hermanek has, like his mentor Richard Scheck, believed in a hands-on approach that touches day to day operation of the village.
Mengoni, a two-term trustee, said he believes the day-to-day operation of the village is best left to professional staff, particularly the village administrator. He said trustees also should have more of a voice in helping craft policy, through the village board's committee structure.
"You have to let people have an opportunity to speak their minds and opinions and then let the people we hire run the show," Mengoni said.
While all of the North Riverside United Party candidates were members of VIP up until recently, the party's chairman says this isn't a rebranding, it's a new direction.
"Things are not the same anymore," said party chairman Martin DeLeonardis, who was one of the two VIP trustee candidates defeated in 2019. "It was time to go in a different direction. We weren't satisfied with the outcome of the last election, but we knew the reasons why."
Those reasons included VIP not directly confronting its political opponents and largely staying out of the fray on social media, where much of the political messaging took root.
Mandel, who won election as trustee in 2019 as the highest vote-getter out of six candidates, remains a strong presence on local North Riverside group pages on Facebook and clearly has many ardent supporters pushing her candidacy for mayor, though she has not announced yet.
Ranieri said technological changes being implemented at village hall to make local government more available to residents along with a wish to be part of the village's 100th anniversary celebration in 2023 factored into her decision to run for re-election. She also said VIP's reputation as an older, "closed-off" party hurt it in recent years.
"We're trying to get new members and new ideas," Ranieri said, pointing to 26-year-old Luca Melone, who is the new party's treasurer and has social media savvy, as an example of the change they're looking for. "People want to get involved whether it's politics or to have a voice."
Ranieri said she is in the process of closing out VIP's political campaign committee with the state board of elections.
"VIP is pretty much done," she said.
Hermanek has already announced he's running for a third term, this time as an independent. He has not put together a slate, saying he didn't want to draw away votes from other former VIP candidates who he still essentially supports.
Both Hermanek and Mengoni understand the peril of them splitting the vote and paving the way for a third-party challenger like Mandel, who has much less experience, win the mayor's office.
The difference this time, said Mengoni, is that the new party intends on communicating its message to voters, engaging on social media and in any public forums where candidates can air their differences.
"I think if the playing field is level in terms of communicating out our message, we can win people over," Mengoni said.
DeLeonardis also acknowledged the dangers of a three-person race, but said the campaign would be different this time around.
"We hope people can put the political part aside and look at the candidates and what they have to offer," DeLeonardis said. "We want to put the best candidate out there and let the people decide."