By Bob Uphues
For more than 30 years there's been no dispute that the most powerful political force in North Riverside has been the Voter's Improvement Party, or VIP, for short.
Since 1989, the year Richard Scheck won election to the first of his five terms as mayor, the village board has been, and continues to be, dominated by candidates slated by VIP.
But all of that appears to be changing.
Stung by a close call in the 2017 mayoral race and rocked by a 2019 election that saw two of its three candidates go down in defeat to independents H. Bob Demopoulos and Marybelle Mandel, VIP began to fracture.
In the subsequent fallout amid blame-placing for a lackluster 2019 campaign and the resultant humiliation at the polls, some longtime VIP stalwarts exited the party.
Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. confirmed to the Landmark that he quietly broke with VIP late last summer.
"There was a faction of VIP that I began having irreconcilable differences with," said Hermanek in a phone interview last week. "I thought it'd be in everybody's best interest to separate from the party."
Hermanek has been slated by VIP three times, winning election as trustee in 2009 before two successful runs for mayor in 2013 and 2017.
He said he hasn't decided if he'll run as an independent for a third term as mayor or put together a slate.
"I'll make a decision soon whether to run as an independent versus or with a different party or a changed VIP Party with different members," Hermanek said. "But, a decision has to be made soon."
In December or January, party chairwoman Sherri Belmonte confirmed that she left the party, although she's still listed as chair of VIP's political committee on the Illinois Board of Elections website.
Belmonte, who was in charge of VIP's 2019 election campaign, acknowledged how much that defeat hurt.
"We didn't run a great campaign and everybody knew that," Belmonte said in a phone interview. "It was devastating. Whatever happened between the mayor and other members of VIP, they didn't see eye to eye on how the campaign was run."
Also rumored to have left the party was Belmonte's father, Guy, who retired after two decades as North Riverside's village administrator in March. But, Sherri said her father "didn't really leave."
"He just told the VIP Party he was taking more of a back seat approach to politics once he retired," she said.
Sherri Belmonte worked as an administrative assistant in village hall starting in 2002 before moving to a new position in early 2020 in the records department of the North Riverside Police Department.
She chalked up her decision to leave the party to taking on the new job and working more nights as a clients' rights counselor for the courts.
"If I can't give it my all – it's not fair to other people and it's not fair to me – I don't want to be going to political meetings," Belmonte said.
What remains of the party membership has not met as a group since January, and the political committee has not raised any money or spent any of the roughly $12,000 in the party's war chest for the past six months.
"We're all trying to figure things out," said Village Clerk Kathy Ranieri, whose mother, Charmaine Kutt, was a VIP Party co-founder and longtime village clerk. "We're still a party trying to regroup."
The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't helped. Ranieri said some VIP members have met via Zoom to discuss the party's future, but the inability to gather a full party has hindered progress on that front.
"Several people have expressed interest in joining," Ranieri said. "We just haven't gotten a chance to meet and discuss."
All of the turmoil was shielded from public view, and you wouldn't necessarily know what was transpiring behind the scenes at the village board table. Hermanek remains friendly with many who remain part of VIP, like Ranieri and trustees Terri Sarro, Fernando Flores and Deborah Czajka.
"I still work great with the mayor," said Sarro. "We didn't see eye to eye on a few things, but those have been handled."
But the trouble within the party recently popped into the open courtesy of a routine filing with the Illinois Board of Elections.
On July 15, longtime VIP member and treasurer Ken Rouleau – the village's former fire chief, an elected member of the North Riverside Public Library Board of Trustees and still an employee of the village's building department – notified the Illinois Board of Elections via an email that he was no longer affiliated with the party.
The date of the letter coincided with the deadline for the quarterly campaign disclosure filing for VIP's political committee. Six days later, Ranieri, who is not listed anywhere as an officer of the party, though she has been a longtime member, filed the disclosure form.
Rouleau declined to talk about his decision to leave the party.
The uncertainty is a problem for the party, because there's an important election on the horizon. In April 2021, North Riverside voters will select a mayor, clerk and three trustees.
Will VIP field a slate? Will the party even exist as VIP or rebrand entirely? Everything is up in the air with the period for collecting signatures for nominating petitions less than two months away.
"I don't know," said Trustee Joseph Mengoni, who has been viewed as a logical choice for VIP's next candidate for mayor and has served as the party's unofficial liaison with village hall.
Mengoni, whose professional life as an executive with UCP Seguin has been complicated by the pandemic's threats to those living and working in the nonprofit's group homes, said he's not sure he'll be running at all in 2021.
With UCP Seguin's CEO set to retire in mid-2021, Mengoni said that could mean big changes for him personally and the nonprofit.
"I've got to figure out what I want to do at work," Mengoni said. "Everything is up in the air with what's going on."
Asked to characterize his relationship with Hermanek, Mengoni said it was "cordial."
While Scheck remains a presence in the party, all VIP members interviewed for this story said he is maintains a background presence as a consultant, not actively pushing party policy.
"He's there if we have questions and for his history and political experience," Mengoni said.
What the party needs most, they say, is younger members who want to be involved.
"We're going to have to get together soon and decide where we want to go," Mengoni said. "Are we going to change our name? All of the original [party] members have either passed on or moved on. We need younger, different people. Let's see what we're going to want to do."