By Dave McKinney and Abdon Pallasch
Sun-Times staff reporters
MINNEAPOLIS - A lion of the Illinois Republican Party today called the state GOP organization "weak" in a blunt assessment of how much Republicans still must do to rebuild from the ruin left by George Ryan's corrupt tenure as governor.
Former U.S. House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.) -- who embodies the golden mystique of the Reagan era because he personally guided much of President Reagan's legislative agenda through Congress -- delivered the bitter pill to Illinois delegates as they wrapped up their convention week.
"That's why we don't have a constitutional office in Illinois, we don't have a senator in Illinois, because our organization has been weak," said Michel, a Peoria native who once was one of the state's most powerful congressmen during a 39-year career that spanned nine presidents and ended in 1995.
"All the polling ahead of time doesn't mean two hoots unless you have the ground forces to get the vote on election day, and we just haven't had that the last several years," said Michel, who is 85.
"No question, you just got to face up to reality," he said. "Let's not kid ourselves."
Michel implored everyone in the room to "go back home and stir things up" among county chairmen and precinct committeemen to regenerate interest in the party for fall legislative and congressional races and for the higher-stakes 2010 elections, when most of the Democratic-held statewide offices are up for a vote.
Michel said the "big thing" behind the party's collapse were Ryan's "misdeeds" and "ethical lapses." The former state chief executive, who left office in 2003 under a cloud of scandal, was convicted of corruption charges in 2006 and is serving a 6 ½-year federal prison term.
While Michel received a standing ovation from Illinois' delegates after his remarks, which included memories of his first Republican convention in 1952, the mood of the crowd during his straight talk was somber and represented a departure from pep-rallying of other delegation events earlier in the week.
Afterwards, one top GOP leader said it was clear to him that Michel was focusing on past Republican failures, not what is happening now with the party.
"I think he's talking about the past. He certainly can't be talking about today," said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson (R-Greenville). "We've had our problems. There's no doubt about the fact we've had. But we are rebuilding, and I think that's what he was talking about."