Races in newly drawn 13th District star old rivals and new faces
It's been awhile since voters in the congressional district that covers Champaign-Urbana had a primary election. For Republicans, the last one was in 2000, when Tim Johnson, then a state representative, won a four-way contest in the 15th Congressional District; for Democrats, it was in 2004.
This time, both parties have primary races in the newly drawn 13th Congressional District, a more Democratic-friendly territory that includes Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Springfield, parts of Bloomington and Normal, and Collinsville and Edwardsville.
Democrats have a late-developing race between David Gill, who has run against Johnson three times and lost, and Matthew Goetten, the Greene County state's attorney who was persuaded to run by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
In the Republican Party, Johnson, an Urbana native, has two opponents — Frank Metzger of Glen Carbon and Michael Firsching of Moro — but neither has campaigned nor raised any money to present a substantial challenge.
Goetten and Gill have differed on a number of issues including abortion rights, military spending, a single-payer health care plan, term limits and political action committee campaign contributions.
Gill has repeatedly stated that he is "100 percent pro-choice," and challenged Goetten, who is Catholic, to make clear his position on abortion rights issues.
"Doctor Gill, you know that I'm pro-choice. You know that I will support Planned Parenthood if elected to Congress," Goetten said at a meeting of Champaign County Democrats last week.
But in a debate at WILL-TV last week Gill asserted, "We do disagree, Matthew. I consider myself 100 percent pro-choice. You were quoted in an article last year that you are a pro-choice Catholic who always chooses life.
"That's code. You're trying to have it both ways when you talk like that."
But Goetten reiterated, both in the debate and after it, that his position is the same as Gill's.
"I don't think you and I disagree on this issue," Goetten said,
After the debate, when asked if he supported partial-birth abortion, Goetten responded, "I believe like David that that's an issue best left between a patient and her doctor."
Regarding military spending, Gill endorsed cuts offered by the Obama administration, calling them "a responsible means of reining in spending. I don't think those steps proposed by the president make anybody here in central Illinois any less safe."
But Goetten said the cuts would be too deep.
"Is there room to cut and the specific cuts that the Congress is going to have the (Defense Department take), I don't agree with that," he said. "If we take ... a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer to it, I think it can be done in a rational way."
Gill said a single-payer national health care system is affordable and would be superior to Obama's plan.
"We need a national health care plan. We need a single-payer and improved Medicare for all plan," said Gill, a physician who has argued consistently for such a plan during all of his campaigns for Congress.
Goetten said Obama's health care measure is "an imperfect fix and something that needs to be worked on." But he did not endorse Gill's single-payer plan, questioning its cost.
"Something's picking the bill up and it's the federal government," Goetten said. "At a time when Congress is broken and they're talking about ending Medicare as we know it, at a time when they're talking about veterans not getting the services they need because we can't figure out how to pay for it ... I don't know how we can say we can afford what you are proposing."
Gill said he supports term limits for congressmen and senators but did not suggest a particular measure.
"I want term limits for all congresspeople, not just David Gill. We can figure it out as we go, whether it's four two-year terms for House members, two six-year terms for senators," Gill said. "I don't have a specific plan, but do your service for a little while and then go home. We've got all kinds of brilliant, big-hearted people in this country that need to have a seat at the table."
Goetten disagreed, saying it would lead to the lack of "institutional knowledge" that incumbents provide.
"It's definitely something to consider. I suppose I could pledge and then break it later like Congressman Johnson, right? I'm just not going to do that," Goetten said in reference to Johnson's initial pledge to abide by term limits, a promise he later discarded.
Gill also said he would not accept corporate or special-interest campaign contributions; Goetten has done so.
Both candidates said they oppose free trade agreements, and support same-sex marriage, the repeal of Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. On the last issue, however, Goetten urged "a measured withdrawal."
"You can't do that overnight and keep our men and women safe," Goetten said. "I don't think a deadline set by a politician is appropriate. It should be set by the generals."
The centerpiece of Goetten's campaign is his jobs plan, which includes a commitment to work for job-creating infrastructure projects.
The Republican campaign has been a much quieter affair, with only Johnson making local appearances.
Last month in Normal, the six-term congressman warned that Americans have "to engage in shared sacrifice."
"Everybody's all in favor of reducing the national debt as long as it doesn't impact their lives and what they're interested in," Johnson said. "This is a problem that is going to destroy our economy, folks. It's going to destroy the America that we've come to appreciate and love. A $17 trillion debt is unsustainable. And you can't reduce that debt by hoping it away. You've got to do it with tough decisions."
Revenue increases are not off the table, he said in a comment that got him in trouble with Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
"I agree that we need to look at the revenue side of the picture. I absolutely agree with that," Johnson said.
He argued with a constituent that he had never signed a no-tax pledge.
"I have not signed anything," he said, acknowledging that in 2001 he agreed to what he called "a six-month program of no tax increases."
"But I have not signed any commitment with respect to tax increases. I'm willing to listen to people ... including looking at areas where we can enhance revenues," Johnson said.
Tax increases "are not my first avenue," Johnson said. "I am not willing to look out and create revenue with tax increases. I don't think that's the answer. Those tax cuts for the most part have engendered a robust economy. ... But I am not close-minded to the potential of looking for new sources of revenue."
And sounding much like Gill, the congressman again called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East.
"We've killed hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis, most of whom are innocent bystanders," he said. "We've lost thousands of American servicemen and -women, and we've indebted this country for $3 trillion. I don't think anybody in Normal or Piper City is one iota safer because we've chosen to engage in police actions around the world.
"We don't need to have hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and -women in an area of the world that is never going to be subjugated, that doesn't want to be subjugated and can't take our standards of democracy and humanitarian values."
Michael Firsching, another GOP candidate who is a veterinarian in Moro, near Edwardsville, is running as what he called "a freedom guy."
"It's in the libertarian category, but to me freedom is a concept you see in the Constitution as opposed to anything else. I do have libertarian concepts that I follow."
That includes pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and not trying to disrupt Iran's nuclear weapons program.
"I think we have a military that is supposed to go out there and kick butt, but when we don't have a well-defined goal, when we don't know what we're doing, I think that's a misuse of the military," Firsching said.
As for Iran, he said "sticking our nose in there is not appropriate. I think if we keep our nose out of there that's our best hope for Iran correcting things. If they do something that really is a threat to our country I'll change my mind."
He proposes eliminating the federal departments of commerce, housing, education and energy, and cutting the Agriculture Department in half. He favors a flat tax with a single deduction.
Firsching said he "loves NASA. It's a chance for humanity to go out an do some great and wonderful things. However, we can't afford it and it's unconstitutional."
Instead it "should be funded by private donations," he said. "It should not be a budgetary item. If I can keep money in my hands and I'm not taxed so heavily, I'll be glad to donate directly to the NASA program."
Enrollment in Social Security also should be voluntary, he said, with benefits dependent upon the amount of money put into the program. President Obama's Affordable Care Act should be repealed, he said.
He supports term limits, but does not have a favored proposal at this time.
"I can certainly say that when you have people who have been in office for 30 years we just have to recognize as voters that having good, fresh ideas from someone new is good," he said.
Firsching said abortion should be legal and that marriage is none of the government's business.
"Those social issues tend to be my nemesis with traditional Republicans," Firsching said. "For abortion my belief is that although it's not spelled out in the Constitution, I think we have a right to privacy. And that means we have a right to control our own bodies and our own health, and government can't infringe on that."
And marriage, he said, "is a non-government function. I think government should care less whether you are married or not."
Frank Metzger of Glen Carbon, a small business owner and one of Johnson's Republican opponents, could not be reached for comment. His phone number has been disconnected.