When a tea party conservative defeated a 24-year officeholder in last month's Republican primary, it ended one of the longest-running political dynasties in the Chicago area, spanning three generations over about half a century.
The office at stake — the Algonquin Township Highway Department — is hardly glamorous. It maintains a patchwork of 60 miles of roads, runs a recycling center and operates a bus service for seniors. The department has been controlled by Commissioner Bob Miller's family since the 1960s — previously through his father and grandfather — and Miller himself has worked there for more than 40 years.
But this winter, the tiny agency in the southeast corner of McHenry County, Illinois, became the site of a big, bitter political fight.
Challenger Andrew Gasser ripped Miller for having three relatives on the payroll — including his wife and two sons-in-law — at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $400,000 in total annual compensation, including benefits, according to department figures.
Miller countered that Gasser, also a McHenry County Board member, was "unqualified," noting he had no experience in road building and criticizing him for living with his mother and not paying property taxes in his name.
In the end, Gasser won by just 145 votes, a margin of about two voters per precinct. His victory represents a backlash against traditional politics at the most local level, in an election cycle also marked by the victory of President Trump, an outsider at the highest level of government.
Gasser — who said he moved in with his mother in Fox River Grove to take care of her and pays property taxes for the house under her name — saw his victory as a rejection of nepotism and vindication of his support of smaller government and lower taxes.
"I won because voters said no to nepotism," Gasser said. After his victory shocked political insiders, Gasser said, "Now everybody's freaking out."
Miller, however, blamed his loss on negative campaigning and "fake news," including politically sponsored newspapers and a controversial video from years ago that resurfaced just before the Republican primary on Feb. 28.
"I didn't lose because I did a bad job. I lost because somebody lied and cheated," Miller said.
The video, which Gasser posted on his campaign website but has since been removed, shows three men, including someone who worked for the highway department at the time, unleashing a barrage of gunfire at an empty car, then crushing it with a front end loader. One of the men could be heard saying, "The highway department at work." The footage was apparently shot on property next to, and since acquired by, the highway department offices.
Miller said that incident occurred about 15 years ago and that the employee was let go long ago. But he said the attention it received just before the election likely swayed votes against him.
He also responded to the nepotism charges, saying his family members work hard and that his sons-in-law started working at the department before they married into the family.
Miller's grandfather, Julian Dvorak, became highway commissioner in 1963 following a 12-year stint as the mayor of Fox River Grove, according to Dvorak's obituary.
His son-in-law and Bob Miller's father, Delbert Miller, took over the in 1970s, and Bob himself started working at the department when he was 18. Now 62, he recalled digging the foundation for the current township office building. He was appointed to the top job in 1993 after his father died of a stroke, and he was elected six times over 24 years.
While the department's budget has grown over time to $3 million annually, Miller cut the levy by 10 percent last year. He was also president of the Township Officials of Illinois, but he stepped down after his recent defeat.
He lost the seat despite the backing of much of the political establishment in McHenry County, which is dominated by Republicans. He claimed the endorsements of every mayor and village president in the township, and every other highway commissioner in McHenry County, as well as state Sen. Pam Althoff, State Rep. Barbara Wheeler, and former state representative and county party Chairman Mike Tryon.
Top contributors to Gasser's campaign fund included Republican state Rep. David McSweeney, McHenry County Assistant State's Attorney Demetrios Tsilimigras and the campaign fund for recently retired county state's attorney, Lou Bianchi.
Gasser also had the endorsements of numerous officeholders when he ran and won as a newcomer for County Board in 2014, but this time his highest-profile support came from controversial former Congressman Joe Walsh and conservative radio host and political funds coordinator Dan Proft.
Proft's McHenry Times newspaper, one of 19 conservative papers he publishes around the state, provided critical coverage of Miller, and Proft said in an interview that Gasser's victory, while for a relatively minor office, was "a big deal."
"It sends the message that you can go up against the political establishment ... and win," he said.
Gasser, 44, a retired Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan and who has a degree in criminology, promises more transparency in the office by putting bids and contracts online. Despite not having experience in road building, he said he is assembling a team with extensive experience. He also supports the 10 percent cut in the county tax levy backed by the new Democratic County Board Chairman Jack Franks.
Miller estimated that he spent $30,000 to $40,000 on the campaign, an unusually large amount for a road commissioner race. Gasser said he spent about $17,000.
Now, unopposed in the April 4 general election and due to take office in May, Gasser won't say what he will do with his County Board seat. Gasser has supported consolidating some of the more than 1,400 township offices statewide, which Miller opposed.