Gill again challenging Johnson for seat in Washington

Gill again challenging Johnson for seat in Washington

If the names on the ballot for the 15th Congressional District look familiar, it's because this is a rematch.

Democratic challenger Dr. David Gill, an emergency room physician from Clinton, is trying for the second time to unseat U.S. Rep. Timothy Johnson of Urbana, now in his third term.

The first bout wasn't much of a fight. Johnson, who's never lost an election, beat the political newcomer comfortably – 60 percent to 40 percent – in the heavily Republican 22-county district of eastern Illinois. Gill beat Johnson by 10 points in Champaign and by a 2-1 margin in Urbana, but it wasn't enough to offset GOP votes elsewhere.

"This is a district that's very hard for Democrats to win," said Brian Gaines, professor of political science at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

And Johnson, Gaines said, has displayed some political independence and "knows how to cater to district interests. It's a hard incumbent to beat."

Gill believes he has a better shot this time. He's learned a lot about politics since he started in December 2002 as "a guy driving around in a car" – swapped at one point for an orange-and-white ambulance. He now targets his appearances to cities where the most voters live, "rather than driving four hours each way to something where I'd meet six people."

Though he won no funding from the Democratic Party, which is focusing on key swing districts nationally, he's collected $180,000 in campaign contributions – almost all from individuals. He's built up a strong grass-roots network and is better acquainted with county Democratic organizations.

And Gill thinks Johnson is more vulnerable. With U.S. troops mired in Iraq and the GOP dealing with the congressional page scandal, it's not a banner year for Republicans.

Gill said he's seen a dramatic shift in voter sentiment on Iraq in the last two years.

"My position cost me votes last time," he said. "It's just turned 180 degrees."

Gill spoke just after attending a community lunch Tuesday at a Gibson City senior center, where he found people "passionate about being deceived about Iraq and upset with those who led us into Iraq."

Johnson, too, has noticed a change in public sentiment, and his position on Iraq has evolved in recent months. In a survey by Project Vote Smart in June, Johnson answered "no" to the question, "Should the United States withdraw its troops from Iraq?" Gill answered "yes."

Johnson now says the troops should be withdrawn in an "expedited" fashion but won't name a specific timetable.

"I do believe very strongly that we need to have a plan in place and implemented to draw down and eventually withdraw American troops from Iraq," he said last week. "Anything less than that will be unacceptable to me."

"In two years, before the next election, I hope I'm not talking about the same issue."

The plan would include a return of operations to a competent Iraqi military and a "stable and operating democratic government" that can deal with a nation divided along ethnic and religious lines.

"I think we've gone a long way toward achieving that," he said.

Johnson said he's frustrated by the impasse in Iraq. The fight against terrorism can't come at the price of an indefinite commitment of American lives and resources in the Middle East, he said.

"This cannot be an indefinite occupation. Without engaging in the proverbial 'cut and run,' which I don't support, we need to ensure that we're not there on an indefinite basis and this doesn't become another Vietnam," he said.

Johnson wouldn't say if he regrets his initial vote to go to war in Iraq, calling it "Monday morning quarterbacking." But he did say that vote was "less than completely informed," referring to intelligence reports, later refuted, that claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"I'm not suggesting we were misled, but the facts are very different than we thought they were," he said. "I can't go back and make decisions again that were made two or three years ago. Now, we need to support the troops in Iraq. We can't leave them without armor, we can't leave them without assistance, and we can't leave tomorrow."

Gill notes that he was against the invasion of Iraq from the start, "on Sunday before kickoff." He calls for a prompt withdrawal from Iraq – anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

The U.S. should begin to "significantly decrease" troop levels while ramping up deployment of Iraqi troops and giving Iraqis complete control over their oil reserves, he said. As with the Marshall Plan, U.S. investment should focus on helping Iraqis rebuild their infrastructure, schools, factories and refineries.

"It's a civil war now, and it was essentially destined to be a civil war from the end of World War I, when the powers that be boxed these people from three cultures into one country called Iraq," he said. "The Shiites say we're in league with the Sunnis, the Sunnis say we're in league with the Shiites. It'll never settle down with our presence there."

Johnson has distanced himself from President Bush on other issues, voting with the president 54 percent of the time in 2005, down from 74 percent in 2001, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis. He voted against reauthorization of the Patriot Act and recent electronic surveillance legislation on civil liberties grounds. He also rejected the Deficit Reduction Act because of its disproportionate impact on farmers, college students and the poor. He's consistently opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He won an 83 rating on the League of Conservation's recent report card and was endorsed by the Sierra Club, National Education Association and Public Interest Research Group. Even Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal watchdog group, gave him a 40 percent score fairly high for a Republican, Gaines said.

"He hasn't been toeing the party line," Gaines said.

Yet he's supported Bush on many tax, immigration, budget and national security issues. He voted with the House majority last month to build a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico and impose criminal sanctions on undocumented workers and the people who hire them. He supports a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. He's won the backing of business groups for his votes on free trade and energy issues, among others.

"I am in no way embarrassed to be a Republican," he said. "When I agree with the president, I'm going to vote with the president. ... (But) my first obligation is to the voters of the 15th district and to my own conscience."

He's based his campaign on his record of constituent service – resolving problems with Social Security claims, obtaining community grants and the like. Asked about the most important legislation he's sponsored, Johnson instead talks about the money he's helped bring back to the district: grants for its five universities and eight community colleges, funding for biofuels, targeted tax incentives for small businesses. He estimates he spends half his time back in the 10,000-square-mile district, which stretches from Livingston County on the north to Gallatin on the south.

"The most dangerous place to be in Washington, D.C., is between me and the airplane on the days I'm headed back to Illinois," he said.

Gill said he would work to provide the same constituent service but would better use his time in Washington.

"That's good, that's important, but we need someone to be a lawmaker for the world's remaining superpower, not just a social worker," Gill said. "We can have somebody who works a lot harder for us in Washington."

This is the year Johnson was supposed to retire from his seat in the House. Embroiled in a tough four-way primary in 2000, he promised if elected to serve only three terms, and won backing – and TV ads – from the U.S. Term Limits organization.

Two years later, in October 2002, Johnson said he'd made a mistake and could no longer abide by the pledge. Johnson said he realized within months of his first election that the term-limits promise limited his effectiveness.

"You become a lame duck from the beginning," he said. "It makes you far less effective, far less able to get things done for your district."

He said he was forthright, announcing his charge of heart a month before the November 2002 election so voters would be fully aware of his stance. He still won more than 60 percent of the vote.

"I didn't wait until the end of my sixth year," he said. "If I misled anyone, it wasn't deliberate. I still believe in term limits very strongly, as a matter of principle. But they have to be institutional, rather than individual. "

Johnson calls himself "one of the most independent Republicans in Congress," and Gill is presented as "a different kind of Democrat." Indeed, the two candidates have similar views on a number of issues.

Both agree with the president's stance on Korea, emphasizing sanctions and multilateral diplomatic efforts over military action, at least for now. Both strongly support ethanol development, if water-use issues can be resolved. Both believe the No Child Left Behind Act needs to be tweaked to de-emphasize the one-size-fits-all approach to learning goals and over-reliance on testing. And both are Second Amendment supporters. Gill's Project Vote Smart survey said gun issues should be "settled by locality, rather than at the federal level."

On health care, though, they're poles apart. Gill made health-care reform a centerpiece of his last campaign and remains committed to a single-payer universal plan. Rather than insurance premiums and co-payments, Americans would have a taxpayer-supported, privately delivered health-care system available to everyone.

"It becomes more necessary every day," Gill said, noting the number of uninsured Americans has risen to 47 million, with another 100 million underinsured.

Overall costs would be lower, he said, as 30 cents of every health care dollar now go to administration and profits. Under the government-funded Medicare system, overhead is 2 percent to 3 percent.

Johnson questions the proposed savings: "If you think health care is costly now, just wait until it's free."

He acknowledges health-care access is a problem but calls for better funding of government programs to reach the uninsured, associated health plans for small businesses, tax-free medical savings accounts and the like. He said similar plans in Canada and other countries have failed to deliver savings or quality health care.

But Gill said the Canadian system is unfairly maligned. Canadians wait for some surgeries, such as knee replacements, but not for essential procedures, he said. And the U.S. spends twice as much as Canada on health care, so it likely wouldn't have the same problems, he said.

The same "myths" were raised when Medicare was created in 1965, by the same interests – insurance and pharmaceutical firms and the American Medical Association, which now represents less than 40 percent of doctors, Gill said.

Gill, former board president for Clinton's John Warner Hospital, said the National Health Insurance Act already has 70 sponsors and verbal support from 70 more representatives.

"It's coming," he said. "Big business and small businesses are increasingly calling for something like this."

Gill pitches his campaign as "ordinary citizen vs. career politician." He criticizes Johnson for taking contributions from energy companies, AT&T and other corporations.

He said the nation must "get serious" about global warming and invest in alternative energy such as biofuels, solar wind and geothermal power. The 2005 energy bill, which Johnson supported, did not raise fuel efficiency standards and gave billions in subsidies to oil companies, Gill complained.

Gill would also reverse parts of the 2001 Bush tax cuts that benefited "the extremely wealthy in this country." He'd put the money back into education, including Pell grants and other financial aid programs.

Johnson said his priorities are targeted tax cuts for people across the economic spectrum. He said he believes in a more limited role for government and has a stronger commitment to "fiscal restraint."

"I fundamentally believe people can decide their own lives and fate better than government can decide it for them," he said.

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