If Charles John Baricevic wins his election Nov. 8, he’d become the youngest member of the U.S. Congress.
But “C.J.,” a Democrat from Belleville, only sees his age — he’s 31 — as a good thing, despite never having held public office.
“I think one of the real problems with politics right now is that we consider other offices as stepping stools. Municipal, county, state and federal offices are all extremely important in their own right,” Baricevic said. “The ultimate reason why I ran is because it was an opportunity to help as much as I possibly could an area that I love, where I’m from, where I intend to stay.”
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Baricevic has previously served as an intern for U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, who from 1988 until his retirement in 2012 represented the metro-east and part of Southern Illinois.
“It was a great experience, he was a remarkable leader,” Baricevic said. “I saw how well-respected and effective he was as a leader. He was a real role model for me in terms of public service.”
Baricevic studied political science at Miami University in Ohio. As he’s quick to point out on the campaign trail, he worked under coke ovens at U.S. Steel’s Granite City works to help pay for law school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
“(Working in the steel mill) was a great job preparing me for the difficulties of law school but it also put a little money in my pocket to help pay for it,” he said.
Since finishing law school, Baricevic has worked in his family’s Belleville law practice and also is a part-time public defender.
Following the 2014 elections, Baricevic said he was approached by his party about running for Congress.
“Several of the local leaders approached me and asked me to consider it. We traveled the district for three months or so,” Baricevic said. “We got a lot of positive response and started our campaign.”
But he wasn’t the only one: National party leaders wanted St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson to run and brought him to Washington, D.C. in July 2015 to talk it over. A week later, Watson announced he didn’t want the job.
Where he stands
Baricevic touts his time working in the steel mill when he makes his pitch to voters concerned about the economy. He supports holding accountable foreign countries known to subsidize steel production before undercutting American-made products in the U.S. market. He also opposes “bad trade deals,” including the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership and NAFTA.
He also favors providing “tax incentives to corporations that invest in their own businesses.”
Baricevic said that energy production is closely tied to the economy. One need look no further, he said, than the coal that steel plants must burn to heat ovens to make their products.
He departs from his party here, insisting that burning coal remains a viable source for energy. He supports coal because he supports the miners who dig it out of the ground, and wrote in a questionnaire response that emission mitigation technologies such as carbon capturing and carbon dioxide scrubbers deserve “the same investments as any other renewable energy source so that we can preserve Southern Illinois’ place as a home to good-paying, middle-class jobs.”
“There are two issues here. One is people need to go to work. The other is we’re negatively affecting our environment. Climate change is a real thing,” Baricevic said. “We have to appreciate what’s going on. But we also need to bring folks to work. If we have clean air, clean water and no jobs, we riot. And if we have dirty air, dirty water and everybody’s working, we die. There has to be a middle ground here. I think I represent a pragmatic approach to the situation.”
But what happens when the ground is empty of coal?
“As we move forward, we’ve got to focus on job training and transition planning,” he said. “This isn’t just sending folks back to college. It’s trade school or other forms of industry.”
Baricevic takes a pro-middle class stance on healthcare, too. He supports the Affordable Care Act and favors eliminating that law’s tax on healthcare plans for dangerous jobs. He also favors expanding health insurance subsidies so more working families can get insurance through the Act.
Baricevic said other federal programs need some work, including Medicare and Social Security. Those programs are headed to fiscal insolvency as there are more retirees drawing on them while also living longer.
“We’ve got to consider new revenue streams. We have to do it,” he said. “And I think we can do it where my generation takes on the burden of those new revenue streams. Not only are people living longer, we’re having fewer children. The young people in our population is not growing how they intended when Social Security was first created.”
That new revenue could come from new taxes on the wealthy. Baricevic said “the country has provided them with an opportunity to earn that kind of income and I think if we took the cap off of Social Security tax, we’d be able to finance Social Security into the future.”
Baricevic said he’ll remember this campaign for the rest of his life.
“It was an unbelievable experience, something I’ll never forget,” he said. “This sounds like political one-liners, but I was 29 years old and I filed paperwork with the (Federal Election Commission). People, I think, were excited to see someone who had not been in state office before, who had experiences, who paid for school on their own, who wanted to approach things for the right reasons, someone who wasn’t a party hack, someone who would get work done. Maybe I’m still young enough to be idealistic and love where I’m from and be very hopeful for our future, but it’s been a truly unbelievable experience.”
And he’s not worried about critics who swear that, given Baricevic’s family’s history of running for and holding political office in the metro-east, he’s merely riding his surname to Congress.
“I think the only benefit of my last name is that I get to call my dad at night and ask for his advice. The people who approached me to run were labor leaders. My dad didn’t approach me to run. (Local) party leaders wouldn’t support me unless I had the support of the other 11 counties,” he said. “It’s a testament of other folks who were supportive of my campaign, from Alton to Cairo.”
Baricevic believes he’s got the right mixture of experience, the will to serve and youthful energy to make positive change in a chamber desperately in need of it.
“We need a Congress that mirrors the population, and we’ve got a bunch of old, rich folks. There’s no voice from my generation,” Baricevic said. And that’s a problem. “Our generation is going to inherit the mistakes of the previous, partisan Congress. We’ve got to stop it, and it’s not going to happen unless we step up to the plate.”