Recent moves by two metro-east Democratic state representatives who are facing Republican challengers in November's election could be seen as listening to constituents' concerns as well as political expediency.
Last week, state Reps. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, and Monica Bristow, D-Godfrey, voiced support for bringing back the death penalty in cases beyond doubt where a firefighter or police officer is killed, or there is a mass murder.
Costello filed legislation calling for the death penalty in those cases, after Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed it in an amendatory veto. Bristow is serving as a co-sponsor on Costello's bill, which now has Republican House Leader Jim Durkin as a chief co-sponsor.
Costello and Bristow both are facing Republican challengers in the fall in districts that have conservative leanings. Out of all the seats held by Democrats in the House of Representatives, Costello's is considered to be the most Republican-leaning. Bristow's district is the fourth-most Republican, according to the website Illinois Election Data.
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Bristow and Costello also recently voted against legislation that would allow for a mechanism to temporarily take someone's guns away if they're deemed dangerous. On Tuesday, they voted against a new version of a proposed gun dealer licensing bill.
Bristow said the gun dealer licensing bill could hurt Olin Corp., a large employer in East Alton, if the business were to fail inspections mandated by the legislation.
“If Olin lost their certificate they would in effect be shutting down a major ammunition manufacturer in our country, the largest employer in my district, and they will not be able to operate because the state pulled their state license,” Bristow said during debate.
Costello added during a news conference, which included Republican members of the House, that he would vote against the governor's proposed amendatory veto, which calls for a 72-hour waiting period on assault-type weapons.
“The 72-hour waiting period, in my opinion, would be a diminishment of Second Amendment rights,” Costello said.
Costello said during the news conference he believes there is support for the death penalty in his district.
“I would think the support is fairly high in the district," Costello said. "It’s something a number of people, a number of my constituents have talked to me about.”
The death penalty proposal came after Rauner’s amendatory veto. Costello said he had supported previous bills calling for bringing back the death penalty.
“My stance on the death penalty isn’t anything new," Costello said. "With the governor kind of heightening awareness, I thought this was a good time to have that conversation, and if need be it was important for people to understand my stance.”
He also voted against the income tax increase approved last year and said he is one of the most conservative Democratic representatives in Springfield.
“I do what I think is right. I don’t necessarily follow party lines on votes. I do what I think is right for my district, for Southern Illinois,” Costello said.
Costello is the chief co-sponsor of a resolution, offered by state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, saying the state should stay with its flat income tax system. He also voted against a resolution that called for the state to adopt a progressive income tax system, which has been called for by members of the Democratic Party, including its gubernatorial nominee, J.B. Pritzker.
Bristow, however, voted in favor of the resolution calling for a progressive income tax.
Bristow's Republican opponent in the November election, Wood River Township Supervisor Mike Babcock, said Bristow's vote on the tax resolution shows her true leanings.
“Rep. Bristow’s first session as a lawmaker is wrapping up and we know that she wants a pay raise for legislators and higher taxes for working families," Babcock said. "Bristow just voted in favor of a graduated income tax hike crafted by Chicago democrats. She has shown time and again that when [Speaker of the Illinois House] Mike Madigan asks for her help in sticking it to taxpayers, she follows along."
Bristow and Costello on Tuesday also participated in a news conference where a bipartisan group of legislators objected to taxpayer-funded abortions being included in the state budget. Rauner signed a bill last year to provide state-mandated health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions.
“I will not vote for a budget that has taxpayer-funded abortions in it,” Costello said.
Andrew Theising, an associate professor and chairman of the political science department at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, said incumbents who garner less than 60 percent of the vote in an election tend to get challengers in a following election.
Bristow was appointed to her seat late last year, after Daniel Beiser resigned.
Beiser in 2016 defeated Babcock in the 111th House District, which includes a large portion of Madison County and a small portion of Jersey County. Beiser received 52.6 percent of the vote, while Babcock garnered 47.4 percent.
Beiser was unopposed in 2014 and won with 58 percent of the vote in 2012.
Babcock said he believes the moves by Bristow were done out of political expediency.
"I think she’s doing it for sending the message somehow she’s going to be pro-Second Amendment. That's fine with me if that’s what she believes in," Babcock said. "She has one individual she has to respond to. That's Michael Madigan ... Michael Madigan allowed her to do that. She's following Madigan's protocol for election."
Bristow did not return a phone call seeking comment.
In an interview in March, shortly after the House passed a package of gun control-related bills following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Bristow said she voted against the proposals after receiving hundreds of phone calls and emails from constituents asking her to oppose the measures.
"It's a pro-gun district, a pro-Second Amendment district," Bristow said.
She said she had concerns about legislation to ban bump stocks, saying it wasn't a clean bill.
Costello was appointed in 2011 to the seat in the 116th district, which includes southern St. Clair County, part of Perry County and all of Monroe and Randolph counties.
He won the 2012 election with 62 percent of the vote, and was unopposed in 2014 and 2016. This year, Costello is being challenged by David Friess, of Red Bud.
Friess said he thinks some of Costello's recent media appearances are campaign-motivated.
“It is campaign season," Friess said. "It’s his way of trying to assure the voters, ‘Hey, although I’m a Democrat, ... I’m conservative, just like 75 to 80 percent of the constituency in the 116th district.’ Again at the end of the day, he could be pro-gun, he could be pro-life, (but) those issues, with Mike Madigan as speaker of the House, they’re not going anywhere."
Costello also has not endorsed anyone for governor and doesn’t know if he’ll formally back any candidate. He was not present when Democratic legislators from the metro-east formally backed Pritzker in December, which was done shortly before Beiser announced his resignation.
“I just need to probably do a little bit of research on both sides and at the end of the day, I most likely will come out for the Democrat, but that being said, I have to be very comfortable with him,” Costello said.
Theising said the recent media appearances also may be politically motivated.
"Sometimes politicians are very comfortable when they don’t have competition surfacing, but when competition comes up, politicians are then motivated to jump on issues that are popular and make good headlines," Theising said.
Calling for the death penalty and voting against certain gun-control measures also is a way of listening to area voters.
“Southern Illinois is rather conservative,” Theising said. “The farther south we go in Illinois, the constituency is more and more conservative, and that’s an important element down there. Someone who wants to win re-election is going to have to stir those voters or speak to those voters. Those voters tend to show up and tend to be active.”