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With Democrats in control, can conservative Costello and Bristow be influential in legislature?

Conservative Democratic state Reps. Jerry Costello II and Monica Bristow

With Democrats having a supermajority in the Illinois House, what does that mean for conservative Democrats Jerry Costello of Smithton and Monica Bristow of Godfrey? How much leverage do they have? How tough is it for them to push their views?
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With Democrats having a supermajority in the Illinois House, what does that mean for conservative Democrats Jerry Costello of Smithton and Monica Bristow of Godfrey? How much leverage do they have? How tough is it for them to push their views?

When the state House considered the minimum wage increase, state Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, was hoping there would be a longer ramp up for the phased-in increase, or some regional considerations.

State Rep. Monica Bristow, D-Godfrey, had concerns for small businesses.

Ultimately the two conservative Democrats were among the four Democratic members to vote no on the minimum wage bill that was pushed by their fellow Democrats, who hold a 73 to 44 supermajority in the House. There is one vacant seat, which was previously held by a Democrat.

The push to increase the minimum wage ultimately passed the house in a 69-47 vote. The bill was an improvement, Costello said, over previous years’ proposals, as it included tip credits and a lower minimum wage for teenagers who work seasonally.

With the veto-proof margin, along with a Democratic governor in the state, what, if any influence can the downstate conservative Democrats have over their caucus?

Because Democrats control the governor’s mansion, and have supermajorities in both chambers, the leverage downstate conservatives have may be diminished.

“Ultimately they have less leverage to stop things, but their presence is important in terms of ... the kind of world view of the caucus in terms of taking a broader perspective,” said Kent Redfield, a longtime Illinois political observer.

There only needs to be 60 votes for something to pass the House. There needs to be 71 to override the veto, but the Democratic legislative leaders and governor will probably be on the same page, Redfield said.

“When you need 60 (votes) to pass a bill and got 73, you got a lot of flexibility to protect members in terms of roll calls,” Redfield said.

That protection would keep Costello and Bristow from taking the uncomfortable votes.

“When you got the governor who is at the high point in terms of his political capital, when the governor and the two legislative leaders … are on the some page and want to get something done, they’re certainly not going to pressure the people we just talked about to vote for the bill, because Madigan wants them to get re-elected in 2020 ... He wants to help the governor, but he wants to help his members to have a solid base in which to run on,” Redfield said.

Close elections

Bristow had a very close election in November, defeating Republican challenger Mike Babcock by 356 votes. Costello won his race against David Friess by less than 3,000 votes, or about 7 percentage points.

With those margins, Redfield said he would expect to see downstate interests represented in legislation or other initiatives.

“Democrats can’t afford to write off downstate,” Redfield said.

Despite not supporting many of the measures that may come out of the liberal part of the party, Costello and Bristow can still have their roles and influence, said Steve Brown, spokesman for Speaker Mike Madigan.

“Jerry, as you know, is a fairly senior member so I think people would value his opinion. I think he’ll have influence on the issues when he engages and wants to extend himself,” Brown said. “That probably will vary on issue to issue. I think on things like the minimum wage. The negotiations resulted in a longer implementation ramp and resulting in a tax credit. So I mean I think there were things that ended up on the final bill that probably weren’t in the initial product.”

Brown added having the conservative members is a demonstration of the diversity within the Democratic Party.

“You know people from all parts of the political spectrum representing all regions of the state whether it’s urban Chicago, urban metropolitan areas, (or) downstate rural areas it’s something that the Republicans certainly don’t offer don’t even think about right,” Brown said. “I think (Costello and Bristow’s) point of view is heard in caucus, is heard in committees and they’re well respected.”

Ultimately Costello and Bristow, and all representatives, are responsible to their districts.

“They’re going to represent their districts since. That’s what everybody does and not every district is as progressive as the other you know,” Brown said. “So that’s a reality. That’s the good part about the Democratic Party those people can come in, have give and take with their colleagues, get some points across that frankly doesn’t happen in other places. It’s very obvious. You listen to (former Republican Gov. Bruce) Rauner years ... ‘(It’s) my way or the highway.’ That was all that he tolerated.”

Conservative leanings

With the Democratic margins in place, both Costello and Bristow are showing off their conservative chops.

Costello in this legislative session is proposing banning abortion after 20 weeks, bringing back the death penalty in certain instances, joined onto a Republican resolution against taxing retirement income, and wants to prevent the Illinois State Police from keeping or distributing information that was previously collected under a firearm transfer inquiry system check.

Bristow and Costello have signed onto legislation that calls for preventing the state police from keeping a registry with information about firearms purchases and for allowing for an electronic version of FOID cards, such as being displayed on a smart phone.

Costello has signed onto a resolution as a chief co-sponsor with Republican state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, opposing a graduated income tax in the state, which has been pushed by his fellow Democrats and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

‘Try like hell’

Bristow said pushing for downstate conservative values is tough, but didn’t know how hard it will be with other Democrats.

“We’re gonna try like hell. You know we really do,” Bristow said. “And our message is we are not the same as Chicago and the northern part of the state. It’s a very different demographic. It just is.”

Bristow said she may find herself aligning and working with Republicans more.

“I wish we all worked together better across the aisle. Again one size does not fit. We’ve got to come together, we’ve got to compromise. We’ve got to help each other,” Bristow said.

She said her job is to be the voice for her district.

Bristow said ultimately what makes her a Democrat, is social services.

“We’ve got to offer a hand up not a handout but a hand up and there are so many people that are disadvantaged and there we can support programs that support and help them,” Bristow said.

Costello, who is the son of a former longtime Democratic congressman Jerry Costello, has said one of his jobs is to reiterate to fellow lawmakers, that Illinois is a diverse state, rather than two states.

Costello in an interview said he does pride himself in being ranked as the most conservative Democrat of the Illinois General Assembly.

When speaking to members he is trying to make sure they see the conservative point of view.

“I try to help people make things more palatable or better and there are certain downstate issues whether it involves coal or whether it involves guns, hunting, agriculture or things like that or there may be some crossover and other bills or unintended consequences and a lot of my colleagues talk to me about those issues and we try to work through things you know to hopefully minimize unintended consequences,” Costello said.

He is the last deep southern Illinois Democrat in the General Assembly.

“I mean a win for me is being able to temper hopefully some of the pieces of legislation,” Costello said. “It’s to make sure that at the end of the day that there’s a negotiation that takes place in an attempt to balance some of this out because you know a lot of it does seem to be moving pretty far to the left and you know give them more people that I can try to bring to the table together to negotiate bills you know from both parties you know the better off we are. And that’s something that I pride myself in being able to do.”

Costello said even though pushing for his district’s views in the Democratic caucus can be difficult, he has been able to build relationships with colleagues will help work things out and help them understand the conservative concerns in the state.

“I’ve been lucky enough to build relationships over the years and you know a number of my colleagues will listen to me and we will try to hash things out,” Costello said. “I have a much more conservative tilt then than most of the party and in most of the (Democratic) members of the legislature right now.”

At times when Costello is in a caucus he said at times he feel lonely.

“When we go into a Democratic caucus and there’s now 74 members and you know everybody will in confidence speak their minds in caucus,” Costello said. “And you know there’s a lot of issues that I may bring up or speak to that you know maybe myself or just you know one or two members kind of possibly have that view.”

Even though he is sponsoring bills that traditionally would be pushed by Republican members, Costello says there are issues that bring him to the Democratic side.

“I would say what really makes me a Democrat is I have very strong labor views. And you know that’s probably you know if someone wanted to point to a single issue you know it would honestly be my labor views and working for you know blue collar men and women,” Costello said.

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referendums.


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