Activist Working for Political Reform

Article excerpt

The twinkling blue eyes, the easy smile and the soft voice with the slight drawl don't mark Joseph McGinness Sr. as the man who is striking fear into political hearts in Madison County.

But from his wheelchair and his home in a converted church in Granite City, McGinness is conducting one of the most successful reform movements to hit the voting booths in some time.

In March, McGinness led the effort to halve the number of aldermen in Granite City to seven, and the voters approved it by almost 3-1. Seven aldermen will be out of a job next April.

And now McGinness has set his sights on the most powerful office in Madison County - the chairmanship of the county board. Not that McGinness wants to be elected chairman. No, he wants to change the way the chairman is elected and governs.

"People ask me if I'm trying to reinvent the wheel," he said. "No, I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. But I do not think there is anything wrong with trying to make it roll smoother . . . If there is an opportunity for the people to have a choice, I think that's good."

He is circulating petitions calling for a vote to end the election of the chairman by members of the county board and make the post elected by voters countywide. The chairman would be called county executive and would have much broader authority.

McGinness needs 500 signatures by Aug. 22 to place a binding referendum on the ballot on Nov. 8. He has 900 so far and hopes to have about 2,000 by the deadline.

After the chairmanship issue is settled, McGinness adds with an almost mischievous grin, he may offer county voters a chance to abolish township government. He is studying that now and believes townships may be outdated, expensive duplications of services. He said his research suggests voters would be able to eliminate townships countywide.

That is the kind of thing that most elected officials hate to hear discussed. One veteran of county politics, who asked not to be identified, said politicians are beginning to fear McGinness and his ability to organize reforms.

"They realize this man has the potential for success," the source said. If McGinness can get referendums on the ballot to change the county chairmanship and abolish township government, the voters probably will approve them, the source added.

Joseph McGinness Sr., 54, was born in Marion, Ill., and grew up traveling around the state with his family each time his father, a Pentacostal minister, moved to a new church.

McGinness said he picked up an accent people often call his "Southern drawl" when the family spent a lot of time near Cairo.

He said he regretted his failure to get a formal education, but decided long ago to make up for that by reading anything and everything he could find. He settled in Granite City, where he had relatives, and worked as a diesel mechanic for a truck line in St. Louis.

He eventually became a business agent for the Teamsters Union. He married and had three children. He is divorced now.

Over the years, he supplemented his interest in politics by meeting people such as President Dwight Eisenhower and U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, and still remembers seeing presidential candidate John F. Kennedy when he campaigned in the Granite City area. The walls of McGinness's home are decorated with framed memorabilia about Kennedy and other leaders.

McGinness also put his political interests to work by winning election as a Democratic precinct committeeman. In 1979, he ran unsuccessfully for alderman.

Joe McGinness still finds a way to smile as he describes how he came to spend his days in the motorized wheelchair that moves him around his home on Marshall Avenue.

Nine years ago, he walked into the hospital for surgery to remove a cyst on the back of his neck and what was expected to be two or three days recuperating. …