Rochelle’s election history

Tom McDermott

Lane was initially incorporated as a village in 1861. With incorporation came the need for an organized government. In 1861 Enoch Hinkley became the first president of Lane. The 1865 name change gave birth to the Village of Rochelle and in 1872 the area was reincorporated as the City of Rochelle. The first mayor elected in 1872 to direct Rochelle was Henry O. Rogers. Henry received 202 votes and defeated Joseph Parker, who garnered 107 votes. The City of Rochelle government was aldermanic. Three wards were served by two aldermen each and the mayor was elected at large to represent the whole of the city. Elections were also held for city clerk, city treasurer and police magistrate. 

Elections were held every two years with a fairly good variety of individuals elected. There were wide victories, and there were close races. The election of 1891 saw Aron Cass winning over William Stocking 191 votes to 187, four votes. 

Rochelle has seen a few elected work horses; Bill Cipolla served one term as a council member and four terms as mayor for 20 years of service, while Chet Olson logged in four terms as mayor for 16 years of service.

When it comes to being elected, Rochelle’s most electable politician has to have been Wilbur B. McHenry. Wilbur won his first election in 1897 with a run for city clerk. Wilbur won the office and repeated in 1899. 

After four years as city clerk, Wilbur was ready for the big time, mayor. Wilbur McHenry ran for mayor in 1901 and pulled in 397 votes, enough to win the election. He repeated in 1903, winning his fourth run for a political office. 

Wilbur did not run for office in 1905, but he was back in 1907. Wilbur McHenry was elected to the office of mayor in 1907, 1909 and 1911, with the 1911 election being the first four-year term. The 1911 election saw the form of government changed from aldermanic to the commission form. The referendum to change the form of government passed 265 yes to 256 no, nine votes decided the new direction of the city. 

In 1911 Wilbur won with 453 votes. The election of 1915 he won with 878 votes, the change in numbers was due to the passage in Illinois of women’s suffrage in 1913.

Wilbur ran for office in 1919 but was defeated by 24 votes. E.O. Branch was the new mayor.  

Wilbur ran again in 1927 and once again emerged victorious. He served only three years of his term as he was offered the position of Illinois director of labor under Governor Emmerson. Joseph Herrmann finished out the final year as mayor. 

Wilbur McHenry was on the ballot again in 1939 and once more he was elected mayor. This was his last election victory. During his political career he won 10 elections, eight as mayor. Wilbur served 27 years in elected office, 23 as mayor of Rochelle, He is the longest-serving elected official in the history of Rochelle. 

There have been many changes over the years. In 1915, Laura Fessler became the first woman to run for office in Rochelle. Laura failed to win her race and it wasn’t until 1979 that Cynthia Cronick became the first woman to be elected in Rochelle. Yes, it took 84 years, although it should be noted that very few women ran for office. The first female elected to the office of mayor was Gail Loefgren in 1987. The first Hispanic elected to office in Rochelle was Rosaelia Arteaga in 2021.

The voters of 1893 faced a referendum, would the City of Rochelle develop its own power plant? The voters chose 206 yes and 40 no. Rochelle would generate electricity. For almost 130 years Rochelle has kept the lights on.

The voters of Rochelle decided in 1994 to once again change the form of government. With a vote of 1,095 yes and 986 no Rochelle went to a council-manager form of government. 

The largest turnout of voters was in 1967 when 2,882 voters came out to cast their ballots. The latest election for mayor, 2021, had a voter turn-out of about 1,600. The drop of more than 1,200 votes is a cause for concern. Your vote is your voice in local affairs. You can choose to be heard or you can choose to be silent.         

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.