Trump’s Illinois delegates: Some tout election denials, others claim vaccines were useless or QR codes lead to government tracking

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The 51 Illinoisans running as Republican Party delegates in the March 19 primary who are pledged to make Donald Trump the GOP nominee for president include two members of Congress, several candidates for the U.S. House, former and current locally elected officials and a few frequent and often unsuccessful contenders for other public offices across the state.

Many of Trump’s delegate candidates share the former president’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol was merely a protest of “patriots.” But a deeper examination of the delegates’ backgrounds, their public comments and social media posts shows some also have repeatedly promoted the belief that COVID-19 vaccines were useless — including a state veterans’ home nurse — and some have pushed conspiracy theories that 5G phone transmission towers, wind turbines and QR codes lead to digital government tracking.

Despite the Republicans’ call for election integrity in the wake of Trump’s 2020 loss, one of his downstate delegate candidates was previously indicted for forgery over his petitions in a failed bid for Congress. The case was later dismissed on a technicality.

Another Trump delegate candidate is a former congressional contender from Chicago who appeared at a conference known for featuring neo-Nazis and white supremacists. One candidate from Park Ridge vouched for the truthfulness of a conspiracy-spreading Trump election lawyer who later pleaded guilty to election interference. And another delegate candidate, who is from Lake Forest, faced protests after the Lake County Republican Party he headed at the time featured a gun raffle less than two weeks after the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history.

Republican voters in Illinois will elect three delegates from their congressional district to attend the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee in July — 51 in all, plus another 13 at-large delegates to be chosen later by party leaders — where they are expected to formally nominate Trump for president and tend to other party responsibilities.

The Trump delegate names will appear on the ballots along with the names of other Republicans and their delegates who have since abandoned their White House quest. With Nikki Haley’s decision last week to suspend her campaign, Trump is the last candidate standing, and it is expected his delegate slate will be elected to represent Illinois at the RNC.

Most delegate candidates contacted by the Tribune either never responded to requests for comment or said they were instructed to refer inquiries to a Trump campaign aide who works with Republican state party organizations. That aide, Clayton Henson, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

One delegate candidate provided what appeared to be a campaign-generated statement saying, “We express profound gratitude to President Trump for his unwavering commitment to the American people and look forward to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow delegates in advancing the principles that define our great nation.”

David Yepsen, the former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a former national political journalist, said fealty to Trump’s beliefs, even at the extremes, is understandable among the delegate candidates. But he warned it is a detriment toward trying to rejuvenate a moribund Republican Party in Illinois, a state the former president has little chance of winning in November.

“I do think it hurts in terms of the larger question of trying to build up a Republican Party in Illinois. If they come off as a bunch of crazies in red hats, that’s not going to have much appeal to suburban voters,” Yepsen said. “What kind of face do they want to present to the people of Illinois? They’re going to turn off people.”

‘Trump supporters were set up!’

One suburban Trump delegate candidate is Suzanne Rickman, a music instructor from Homewood, in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

“‘Smart meters.’ ‘Smart cars.’ ‘Smart phones.’ ‘Smart cities.’ ‘Smart homes.’ The word ‘SMART’ refers to ‘self-monitoring, analysis and reporting technology.’ A smart illusion of safety and convenience, but actually it’s about tricking us into digital control and surveillance,” Rickman reposted on her Facebook site from another conspiracy-filled site in October.

A month earlier, Rickman went on Facebook to label as “True” a meme that read: “When your car stops halfway home because the chip inside detected that you have used your monthly allowance of gasoline, remember that it started with a mask and a shot, and you complied.”

Joining Rickman as a delegate candidate in the 2nd Congressional District is Kelly Vera, a Navy veteran and a nurse at the state Veterans’ Home at Manteno since February 2020, according to her social media and public records.

Vera joined Manteno at a time when COVID-19 was spreading rapidly and, after a vaccine was developed in December 2020, the state imposed a vaccination mandate on health care workers in veterans’ homes. Court records show she was among a number of state employees who filed losing lawsuits challenging the directive.

Vera’s social media is filled with COVID-19 conspiracies and repudiations of the vaccine, including links to movies alleging the disease was a government plot. At least three COVID-19 outbreaks occurred at the Manteno facility since her employment.

Vera also has shared links to a conspiracy account on TikTok that includes an explanation of how human technology is used to stage alien visits from outer space and a fake video using a fake voice of Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin saying he never went to the moon and that the International Space Station is fake. The account also features a false report that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is moving to the United States and is getting Secret Service protection.

Last August, she posted a meme reading: “Go out and get yourself a conspiracy theorist friend. You’re going to need one to explain what’s about to happen.” Above it, she wrote: “That’s me. I’m that friend! Grab some popcorn and a bottle of adult beverage and hold on to your boot straps. ITS A BUMPY RIDE!”

On Jan. 7, 2021, the day after Trump backers engaged in the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol aimed at blocking the counting of Electoral College votes that made Democrat Joe Biden the president, Vera maintained on Facebook that “Trump supporters were set up!”

‘It’s everything about control’

In the neighboring 1st Congressional District, Christina Clausen of Homer Glen is a Trump delegate along with her political mentor, Steve Balich, who evolved from a local tea party leader into the outspoken and controversial Homer Township supervisor and ranking Republican on the Will County Board.

The founder of the far-right grassroots conservative group Illinois Patriots and president of a bridge construction firm, Clausen lost a bid for Homer Glen village trustee last year running on a slate backed by Balich. Last year, Balich appointed Clausen’s husband, Mike, as township collector and then months later as a Homer Township trustee, just days after Mike Clausen finished sixth out of eight candidates on a right-wing slate seeking a seat on the Lockport Township High School District 205 board.

At a Homer Glen school board meeting in June of 2021, Christina Clausen opposed mask mandates for COVID-19 and told board members, “This isn’t about our kids’ health anymore and you know it. It’s everything about control.”

She also endorsed Jack Lombardi Jr.’s failed bid for the Republican congressional nomination in the 14th District in 2022 and said on social media she still considers him a good friend.

Lombardi, a right-wing internet provocateur, gained recent notoriety for posting on X that the Super Bowl was fixed for the Kansas City Chiefs as part of a conspiracy involving singer Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, to endorse Biden for reelection. Kansas City won, but the endorsement never happened.

Susan Sweeney, a leader of the Republican Women of Park Ridge club, is one of the three Trump delegate candidates from the 9th Congressional District, which stretches from Chicago’s Far North Side to parts of the north and northwest suburbs.

After Trump’s 2020 loss, she reposted on X a link to an interview with attorney Sidney Powell about unproven election fraud. The link was titled, “I know Sidney Powell. She is telling the truth.”

Powell pleaded guilty in October last year to lesser misdemeanor charges of intentional election interference in Georgia after falsely claiming that Dominion Voting Systems equipment was manipulated to switch votes from Trump. She had strenuously pushed unfounded conspiracy theories about a stolen election.

‘They did this in East Germany’

In the 11th Congressional District, which includes far western and southern suburbs, Karen Tirio of Woodstock, chair of the McHenry County Conservative Political Action Committee, is running as a Trump delegate.

Last October, the group featured Donald Trump Jr. at a fundraiser in Addison, where she labeled Jan. 6 a “supposed insurrection” and echoed a baseless conspiratorial claim that it “has now been proven to be an inside job.”

The wife of McHenry County Clerk Joseph Tirio, Karen Tirio posts on Facebook using the name “Karenina Tirio.” On March 5, 2021, she posted a meme targeted at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which developed one of the COVID-19 vaccines. The Facebook meme displayed an image from the movie “Austin Powers” showing a group of its villains laughing along with the words “Pfizer Executives” and the line, “And when people start dying from the vaccine we will blame the virus and use that to sell more vaccines!”

Just six weeks after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, Tirio reposted on Facebook a meme stating, “Ignoring evidence of election fraud because the election is already over is like ignoring a murder because the victim is already dead.”

In the central and southwestern 13th Congressional District, Trump delegate candidate Elizabeth Bron of Springfield has touted her German heritage on social media and, in a Facebook post in February 2021, compared FBI questioning of a friend who she said attended the Jan. 6 event “peacefully” to what happened in the communist-run part of Germany.

“They did this in East Germany under the Stasi,” she wrote, referring to the East German secret police agency.

On Jan. 6 of this year, she posted on Facebook: “It’s Ashley Babbitt Day” — a misspelled reference to Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed by a Capitol Police officer during the 2021 insurrection attempt while trying to climb through a broken window of a barricaded Speaker’s Lobby inside the Capitol.

Expressing fears of government control, in August she posted a meme comparing a person with a Holocaust tattoo next to a person wearing a QR-coded bracelet saying: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

In an October post on Facebook, announcing her candidacy as a Trump delegate, she said she knew her running “will probably make me a target, as he has been.”

“There will likely be character assasinations (sic), false accusations, threats, and generally mean and divisive attacks. With God, I stand firm against all of this. Pray for safety for me as I move forward in this capacity,” she wrote.

This past Wednesday, Bron appeared at a Springfield fundraiser for Mike Lindell, the CEO of My Pillow, an ardent Trump supporter who has spread unsubstantiated conspiracy theories of how voting machines were hacked to elect Biden.

Election fraud questions

A day earlier, 6th Congressional District delegate candidate Scott Kaspar of Orland Park featured Lindell at a Bolingbrook fundraiser along with Mark Vargas for Lindell’s “Election Crime Bureau” initiative. Vargas is editor-in-chief of the far-right internet publication Illinois Review, and Kaspar is now listed as its publisher emeritus.

Vargas served as a conduit between Trump and disgraced former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who received a presidential commutation from Trump in 2020 after serving eight of his 14-year federal corruption prison sentence.

In the wake of Trump’s unproven insistence of election fraud nationally in his 2020 loss, the Illinois Republican Party has put an emphasis on partnering in what it calls an “election integrity” program launched by a 2020 election denier to “ensure fair and transparent elections.”

But in the 14th Congressional District, which runs from the Wisconsin border to the outskirts of Joliet, Trump delegate candidate and former Putnam County GOP Chair Jaye DeBates of Granville had an issue with election integrity when he made a 2018 bid for the GOP congressional nomination in the previous 16th District to challenge then-U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger.

DeBates withdrew from the race after allies of Kinzinger and another GOP contender challenged the validity of his candidacy petitions.

“As a first-time candidate, I simply underestimated the high hurdle a candidate faces when pulled into the petition challenge process,” DeBates told the Putnam County Record as he withdrew from the race.

But a Boone County grand jury later indicted DeBates on eight counts of forgery for using allegedly fraudulent signatures of county residents on his petitions.

The case against DeBates was ultimately tossed in 2021. A state appellate court agreed with a lower court ruling that vacated the case for improper venue because the charges were filed in Boone County rather than in Springfield where the petitions were submitted. No further action was taken.

DeBates is part of a group of insurgent right-wing Republicans critical of the state GOP’s leadership. On Facebook, he has repeatedly reposted items from U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right Freedom Caucus member from Georgia, and in recent days has reposted long-debunked items that falsely claim Sasha and Malia Obama are not the real children of former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

One of the challenges DeBates faced to his 2018 nominating petitions came from James Marter. Marter, of Oswego, is also a 14th Congressional District delegate for Trump and a candidate for the district’s GOP nomination to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood of Naperville.

Marter, the Kendall County GOP chairman, has become a perennial candidate, losing bids for GOP congressional nominations in 2022, 2020 and 2018. He also lost a 2016 primary challenge for the U.S. Senate.

‘A haven for neo-Nazis’

Another unsuccessful GOP candidate seeking a Trump delegate slot is Chicago attorney Alan J. Spitz, who lost two bids for the Illinois House in 1988 and 1990 and a race for Congress against Blagojevich in 1998. Spitz is a delegate in the 5th Congressional District, which encompasses much of Chicago’s North and Northwest sides as well as several suburbs.

After becoming the GOP congressional nominee in 1998, Spitz was a featured speaker at a gathering known as American Renaissance. The Southern Poverty Law Center says the group’s annual get together outside of Nashville, Tennessee, “has served as a haven for neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Klansmen and other prominent figures in the American and international racist right throughout the years.”

The Illinois GOP’s vice chair, Mark Shaw of Lake Forest, is a 10th Congressional District Trump delegate and also a senior adviser to the former president’s 2024 election bid.

Shaw stepped down as Lake County GOP chairman amid local discontent among Republicans as the county turned more Democratic. His tenure also came with controversy.

In 2017, a party fundraiser featuring a gun raffle was held less than two weeks after 60 people were killed in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in the nation’s history. The raffle drew protests, including from some Republican officials.

Two years later, the county GOP chairmen’s group he then headed posted an image to Facebook featuring a faux movie poster of four Democratic congresswomen of color, referred to the women as the “Jihad Squad,” and then added: “Political jihad is their game. If you don’t agree with their socialist ideology, you’re racist.”

The fake movie poster displayed images of Democratic U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and was topped by Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who wears a hijab. Two of the women were displayed with firearms.

That post, which gained national attention, was subsequently removed, and Shaw said the posting was “not authorized by me.”

Downstate, two of Illinois’ three Republican members of Congress are on the ballot as Trump delegates — U.S. Reps. Mike Bost of Murphysboro in far Southern Illinois’ 12th District and Mary Miller of Hindsboro in the neighboring 15th District.

Joining Bost on the district delegate slate is his GOP congressional primary opponent Darren Bailey, the defeated Republican candidate for governor in 2022. Trump has endorsed Bost, the five-term incumbent in the congressional race.

Miller is a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus and has served as a loyal Trump ally.

Yepsen, the former Simon institute director, said the delegates’ views represent how politics has changed in Illinois and America.

“In the old days, politics was getting addition. Now it’s not. It’s a game of turnout suppression,” he said. “That group of people reflect what the modern-day Republican Party has become in Illinois. And it’s true all over the country.”