Candidates running for Congress in Illinois’ 12th district hope to represent a chunk of the state that, until two years ago, had been in Democratic control for decades.
The incumbent, Republican Mike Bost of Murphysboro, is challenged by Democratic attorney C.J. Baricevic of Belleville and Green Party perennial Paula Bradshaw of Carbondale.
Politics site Ballotpedia has called the district “safely Republican” despite its history as a Democratic stronghold. Bost upset Democratic incumbent Bill Enyart in 2014 to steal the seat away from the Democrats who had controlled it for decades.
Mainstay issues in the district that stretches from Alton in the north to Cairo in the south and from Valmeyer in the west to Belle Rive in the east include coal, steel and military affairs.
Greg Erwin, 20, of New Athens wants a representative in Congress who’s willing to work with everyone to come to compromise solutions. “Somebody who genuinely cares about what’s going on back home,” he said.
While voters are concerned about issues surrounding the coal and steel industries and the future of Scott Air Force Base, they also want something more fundamental out of the representative: Someone who can ignore partisan bickering and compromise to do what’s best for the district, politics aside.
Greg Erwin, a 20-year-old Southwestern Illinois College student from New Athens, said he wants politicians to act independently of their party for the good of their people.
He wants someone who values “working across lines and doing what’s best for the district you’re representing,” he said. “Somebody who genuinely cares about what’s going on back home.”
Economics and steel
Jeff Brown, a 57-year-old Granite City resident who used to own a lawn mower repair shop, said the idling of the U.S. Steel Granite City plant starting last year has devastated the city and region, a sight that he says breaks his heart.
“It’s a shame that the people that have worked and got that plant to where it was, have gone on and now it’s in the state it is. It breaks my heart to see that,” Brown said. “We have such an opportunity here to make this city great, but it’s not because of our government and their trade ideas.”
Brown said he’s also frustrated by how long it takes government to respond to conditions that forced the plant to go dark: The subsidizing and dumping by foreign nations of similar steel products in the U.S. at a much lower cost than steel produced in Granite City.
Firms in search of steel read in dollars, buying up the cheaper stuff. It’s good for some folks’ bottom lines, but not for the workers who’ve been out of a job nearly a year.
Sometimes getting up in the morning sucks. But you just gotta get up, you gotta trudge through it and go to work. That’s what I’d like to see (politicians) do. It might not be perfect. It might not be the plan that fixes everything, the glory plan. But at least it would be a step in the right direction. Keep stepping
Jeff Brown of Granite City
Each candidate bemoans the idling of the plant, opposes federal trade deals that put local manufacturing jobs at risk and supports measures to create better conditions for employers.
Bost opposes the hot-button Trans-Pacific Partnership because he says it does too little to protect American manufacturers such as steel mills. He co-sponsored the American Trade Enforcement Effectiveness Act last year that slapped tariffs on steel products coming from countries known to have dumped cheap steel in the U.S.
Baricevic’s campaign leans heavily on his time as a worker at U.S. Steel’s Granite City works; he has received the United Steelworkers union endorsement. Baricevic opposes TPP and has said he would work to “prevent foreign governments from unfairly subsidizing” industries. He has said he would support legislation that rewards companies that keep their jobs in the U.S.
Bradshaw favors her party’s Green New Deal, a massive infrastructure project aimed at improving the nation’s roads, bridges, ports, airports and railways and also aims to dramatically increase the prevalence of renewable energy across the country. She has said the program would put unemployed workers back to work and also “would involve increased domestic demand for steel.”
The coal dilemma
While the steel industry’s woes dominate the conversations in the urban and suburban parts of the metro-east, the conversation shifts to coal in rural parts of the district affected by years of closures of mines and financial troubles with the companies that own them. More recent news hasn’t helped: New rules championed by President Barack Obama to cut emissions from coal-fired plants force the plants to face dire alternatives.
One is to invest in costly scrubbers required to allow plants to burn Illinois coal, notorious for its dirtiness. That’s a tall order, considering energy prices have dropped thanks to an abundance of natural gas that’s forced coal to compete in a way it hasn’t had to in its lifetime. It’s caused some coal companies to go bankrupt and many to lay off miners.
Many miners hold ill will toward Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for President, who on the campaign trail addressed the clean air rules at one point by saying coal miners would be put “out of business.”
Another alternative is to continue shipping in trainloads of coal from Wyoming. That coal burns more cleanly, but using it keeps local miners out of mines and out of work.
A third alternative is to ride the natural gas wave, converting coal-fired plants into ones that burn gas. Plant workers could be retrained, but that still leaves the problem of keeping miners out of mines.
If we’re putting them into office, what are they going to do for us? That’s what it comes down to. Are they going to keep with what they say? They can tell you anything they want. I can tell you I’m going to give you a million dollars tomorrow
Andrew Gehling of Granite City
Baricevic has said he “strongly” disagrees with his party’s stance on coal. He said coal can remain a viable energy source if scrubbing and carbon capturing technologies are supported alongside renewable energy technologies.
Bradshaw and the Green Party believe coal should be left in the ground. She has said the Green New Deal would address an ensuing power-generation shortage by ramping up the renewable energy network as coal- and gas-fired plants are idled down.
Bost has said he supports renewable energy and wants clean air, but believes the government has been too hasty trying to shut down coal plants. He said coal-fired plants produce too large a percentage of electricity in Illinois to quickly shutter them without a crisis. He instead supports continuing the burning of coal — and the continued employment of coal miners — while the renewable energy footprint expands. He has received the endorsement of the United Mine Workers union.
Sharon Zajac, 69, of Fairview Heights, says the military’s presence has been critical to the local economy. She said “keeping Scott Air Force Base alive” is crucial, and that the district needs an experienced representative in Congress to ensure the base’s future isn’t put in jeopardy.
“We need someone who’s going to be there a while,” she said. She referred to Jerry Costello, a Democrat who for many years represented the district. She said his seniority in Congress helped keep Scott off the chopping block over the years.
The Green Party favors demilitarization and ending American armed intervention overseas. Savings realized by demilitarization, Bradshaw believes, would help pay for expanded domestic programs. However, she also supports Scott Air Force Base and believes it’s an example of how a local economy is positively affected by a government presence.
Bost, who served three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, believes the U.S. military needs to be the most advanced and best-trained in the world. He opposes cuts in military spending and sees Scott Air Force Base as a vital economic engine in the district. He said Democrats and Republicans need to work together to fight off attempts to close military installations.
Baricevic favors developing “next-generation military advances” at Scott and said he supports anything that would help secure the base’s long-term future. He said the construction of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters at the base would have helped to do that and that he would continue searching for similar opportunities.
Frustrating campaign season
Another issue plaguing voters in the district is one that likely plagues everyone everywhere: Frustration at a nasty presidential campaign and the belief that politicians generally don’t care about their constituents.
“It’s about integrity. What kind of integrity do you have? What are you going to do? Are you going to try and do what you say you’re going to do instead of just blowing smoke?” said Brown, the Granite City resident. “That’s kind of what aggravates me most about the whole thing. You can’t be naive to think these people can do everything they say they’re going to do. But they can at least try.”
Brown added that he wants his representative in Congress to do what he and other regular people do every day.
“Sometimes getting up in the morning sucks. But you just gotta get up, you gotta trudge through it and go to work. That’s what I’d like to see them do. It might not be perfect. It might not be the plan that fixes everything, the glory plan. But at least it would be a step in the right direction. Keep stepping,” he said.
The parties and the candidates forgot who elected them. The minute they got into (office), they started doing whatever the party wanted them to do. What specifically are you going to do to distance yourself from your party? Do you vote for the people who elected you or for the party?
Sharon Zajac of Fairview Heights
Andrew Gehling, 30, of Granite City said he wants a representative who will keep promises.
“If we’re putting them into office, what are they going to do for us? That’s what it comes down to,” Gehling said. “Are they going to keep with what they say? They can tell you anything they want. I can tell you I’m going to give you a million dollars tomorrow.”
Zajac, the Fairview Heights resident, wants politicians to stay grounded and be independent.
“The parties and the candidates forgot who elected them. The minute they got into (office), they started doing whatever the party wanted them to do,” she said. “What specifically are you going to do to distance yourself from your party? Do you vote for the people who elected you or for the party?”
And she wants them to answer honestly.
“Not the ‘apple pie and motherhood’ answers they always give,” she said.