Interim County Executive
Will County, Ill.
Inclusion makes counties stronger!
I’m Denise Winfrey, county executive of Will County, Illinois. I’m running for second vice president of NACo and I want your vote.
Some of you may have talked with me at the Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., or seen me speak during the General Session. My plan was to spend time talking and networking with you during the National Organization of Black County Officials (NOBCO) Economic Development Conference in Atlanta. I was scheduled to attend the Western Interstate Region Conference (WIR), and Board of Director’s meeting in Yosemite and would have spent time with you there, and of course I would have talked with as many of you as possible during the Annual Conference in Orange County so that you could get to know me firsthand.
I have just celebrated 11 years as a county board member. During that time, I was chair of a significant county building campaign which includes a new courthouse which will open this fall; a county health department which opened this spring; an animal control facility and emergency management facility which also opened this spring. We have also built a new law enforcement complex which includes a 911 dispatch center. My time in county government has helped me to gain knowledge about and a more comprehensive understanding of the needs of counties. Being the speaker (chair in some counties) has provided me with many opportunities to network with mayors and village presidents across our county of 700,000.
Will County is in the heart of the Midwest and is home to the largest inland port in North America. We have rail, truck and waterway traffic. This increased business brings revenues, but also issues. Like many of you, we are dealing with infrastructure that wasn’t intended for the level of use that we are seeing today; housing has not kept up with the demands of increased population; and even though we now have drug, mental health and veterans courts, we still struggle with social issues and with how to fund ever increasing needs.
My county is rural, with generational farmlands where a small group of taxpayers carry the full load of schools in the area. Our farmers are fearful that our growth as an inland port coupled with increased infrastructure needs will cause the decline of local agriculture. We are also suburban, with villages and commuter communities who enjoy being close to our larger cities, but still want to live separate from them. We also have urban, heavily metropolitan areas, many being multinational and multilingual. We are dealing with insensitivity and intolerance in our county, just like many of you. In other words, my county is a microcosm not only of the country, but also of NACo with respect to the issues the membership must address in their counties.
I am also celebrating 11 years as a NACo member. That membership has been one of action and involvement. My NACo work includes Community and Economic Development (CEWD) Steering Committee, Vice-Chair; NACo ambassador; Membership Committee; Large Urban Counties Caucus (LUCC); Women of NACo (WON); National Association of Black County Officials (NABCO); International Economic Development Task Force; NACo’s High Performance Leadership Academy (HPLA) , and NACo Board of Directors. Each of these responsibilities has allowed me an opportunity to grow and develop as a county board member and as a NACo member. I have been able to use my experiences at NACo to improve myself; improve the way I interact with my colleagues, and bring new ideas and resources to my county.
I’m running because I believe in the value of NACo to counties. I want to help NACo promote and increase diversity and inclusion among its members and officers.
Now, more than ever, there is a need for counties to be united across the country for the common good. Our strength as an organization comes from inclusion. It is imperative that we ensure our organization is one that actively works for and with all members of the community.
I want to be the person who helps our organization to foster an increased focus on inclusion. Together, we can connect those who have previously been unconnected; we can and should join in support of the elderly and infirm among us; we should become stronger allies to our LGBTQ+ family; we need to embrace our Latinx population; we need to help counties create programs that lift our children from lives of poverty, and we must continue to promote increased criminal justice reform.
Like many of you, our county is dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, trying to provide healthcare access and supplies, and worrying about the possibility of another outbreak.
This pandemic has also made clear the disparities in health care, the disproportionate number of poor people deemed essential, and the myriad ways the continued disenfranchisement of those living at or below the poverty line are allowed to continue.
This is just one of many facets of inclusion where I believe as NACo members, we can make our voices heard more strongly.
With inclusion as our mindset, we can be a support for communities of color when we lobby for housing, transportation, economic development, waterways, and agriculture. By using inclusion as the proving ground for our decisions, programs and policies, we will consider not only the issue itself, but other ramifications and unintended consequences that might work to defeat the goals we set. We can be a greater resource to our counties in their struggle to achieve parity for their residents by modeling the behaviors and best practices they seek. We can help our counties do even greater things and provide more resources to their communities.
NACo is a great value to our counties, and I want to help the organization be even more relevant going forward.
I want to help lead NACo as it continues to grow, continues to reach out to all parts of the community and continues to provide timely, useful resources. I want to partner with each of you to help NACo poll counties to see where we can do more to gather information that better reflects the needs of communities that have historically been left out of the planning of programs. I want to hear from those who have traditionally and sometimes systemically been overlooked.
We have the opportunity before us to change in ways that can be impactful for all counties, and through them, impact our country.
I’m asking for your vote, and your help to further the mission of continually making NACo a more formidable, respected and effective association for all county officials.
Inclusion makes stronger counties — stronger communities!
A brief interview with County News prior to the 2020 Legislative Conference
Why are you interested in serving as a NACo officer?
I am interested in serving as a NACo officer because I believe in the value of NACo membership to counties, and the services NACo can provide to all 3,069 counties across the country. When I joined the Will County Board, I was encouraged by a colleague to join and be active in NACo. That was May of 2009. He said many board members didn’t understand the benefits of being involved. Unfortunately, that is still true, not only on my board but across the country.
Being an officer of NACo would help not only with my goals for Will County, but also help to convince other counties in Illinois of the benefit of NACo membership. We have been making great progress with our state association, but I would like to see us become a 100 percent state. If Illinois were to be the home of the next Second Vice President, other counties might be inspired to join. I would certainly be pushing that agenda.
Looking at some of the past presidential initiatives, I see one consistent theme: inclusion. As Ralph Ellison said, “America is woven of many strands. I would recognize them and let them so remain…Our fate is to become one, and yet many.”
Inclusion encompasses many things — breaking the cycle of poverty; lowering infant mortality; connecting people from all walks of life; ensuring health care for all; protecting our seniors and elderly; being allies to the LGBTQ+ community and criminal justice reform — in short, inclusion means valuing each and every person in our communities.
What do you consider to be your most important contribution to the National Association of Counties to date? What do you consider to be your most important contribution to your state association of counties?
I believe that being a NACo Ambassador allows me the opportunity to share with newcomers the value of NACo and the benefit my county and I have gained from being involved. I am also able to serve as a resource of NACo information for my county and for other counties in my state who may be thinking of joining. As a graduate of the NACo High Performance Leadership Academy, I know at a personal as well as a county level, the value of belonging to NACo, and see that as a benefit for my state association. That course will also serve me and the NACo organization well in my position as a NACo officer.
What do you consider to be the two or three most important challenges facing NACo in the near future on which the Officers/Executive Committee/Board of Directors should focus? Why?
I see changing demographics as a challenge to NACo. Elected officials are getting younger every day. This provides energy and new ideas but does not preserve the historical knowledge and relationships that allow us to build alliances that support and sustain the organization. Supporting counties in ways they feel are relevant and useful depends on knowing the changing face of counties and including everyone in the strategy development.
As the look of the organization changes, it is imperative that we tell our story. Both new and existing members need to know who we are, where we’ve been, what we offer and how they can be part of this phenomenal group.
What measures would you recommend to increase and retain NACo membership and to encourage broad participation in NACo by elected officials and employees of NACo member counties? What specific role would you be willing to assume to help build and sustain membership in NACo?
I would recommend a speaker’s group to help tell the NACo story. We currently have people from staff going out to solicit membership, and they do a great job. I think adding some member county volunteers to that touring group could help increase our appeal and give prospective members a firsthand account of the benefits of belonging. An old ad line ran “membership has its privileges.” That is true of NACo, and we need to make sure people know it.
I would be willing to speak to prospective counties at their state association meetings and to be part of advertising material focused on membership. I recommend ad material featuring actual county board members instead of actors. Identify the individuals’ state and county in the ads. Those featured should be reflective of an inclusive membership.
All our counties need to understand what a benefit it is to be a part of NACo.