103rd candidates say campaign will be based on issues
Five months out from Election Day, both sides in the 103rd state representative race — the contest to succeed Urbana Democrat Naomi Jakobsson in the Illinois House — are promising a positive, issued-based, grass-roots campaign.
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Let's hope it stays that way because there will be numerous races this fall that won't be positive.
"Absolutely. You saw the primary. We were trying to stay as positive as we can in our race," said Carol Ammons, the Urbana City Council member who won the Democratic primary over Champaign attorney Sam Rosenberg. "There are a lot of people who are interested in our race and they'll do what they want to do but as far as we're concerned, we want to continue to run a strong, connected and community-involved campaign."
On the Republican side, Kristin Williamson knows that she has to appeal to independents and Democrats in order to pull off what would be an upset of statewide significance. The district, which includes almost all of Champaign and Urbana, has become progressively Democratic, and in the last House race, Jakobsson won 69 percent to 31 percent.
At a recent meeting of a group of senior Republicans, a voter lobbed a softball of a question: What's been the most harmful legislative vote to Champaign-Urbana in the last several years? If this was a Republican district, Williamson could have cited Jakobsson's vote for a Democratic-backed "pension holiday," in which the Legislature opted to underfund state pensions for a year.
Instead, Williamson avoided attacking Jakobsson and that vote.
"I think in order for us to fix the challenges we face today, we have to be positive. For me to go beating up on policies that were implemented in the past, that's not going to fix what we're facing today," said Williamson, the director of public relations at Benefit Planning Consultants in Champaign. "This issue is so critical to our community that I want to make sure that I can work with Republicans, Democrats, independents effectively, and me going after someone's previous votes or positions isn't going to help us be productive."
Williamson told the Republican group that the 103rd "leans heavily Democratic," but cited Judy Baar Topinka's 48 percent of the vote in the district in 2010 as an example of how well a Republican can do. That's probably too optimistic, given Topinka's frequent appearance on statewide ballots and that fact that she was running against David Miller, a virtual unknown, for comptroller. That year Jakobsson won the district with 63 percent of the vote.
On the other hand, this is the best chance Republicans have had in the 103rd since Jakobsson wrested it from Republican Rep. Tom Berns in 2002. It's a non-presidential election year, Republicans statewide likely will have a fundraising advantage with Bruce Rauner at the top of the ticket and Democrats have lost Jakobsson's incumbency advantage.
"People knew her very well and because of that, it made any challenge of her very difficult," Williamson said of Jakobsson. "Now we're going to be taking out that power of incumbency, and the policies and the issues are much different. The political climate in Illinois is so much different.
"This race is 100 percent local. That means I'm going to be spending my days knocking on the doors of Republicans, but if you don't see me at (Republican) events and whatnot, it's probably because I'm at a Democrat's door asking for their vote. That is what I will be doing a significant part of this summer," she told the GOP gathering. "I believe that not only do we need those votes to win, but we need to have a representative who can work with both parties and collaborate with both parties. And if you followed the Democratic primary, there was a great deal of division among their party locally."
Indeed, the local Democrats were badly split between Ammons and Rosenberg. But the healing apparently has begun. Early on, Rosenberg said he'd back Ammons, and Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing and Champaign Mayor Don Gerard each said Tuesday that they're behind her.
"I'm supporting her. I gave her a campaign contribution," Prussing said of Ammons.
"I support the Democratic nominee," said Gerard.
As for Jakobsson, who was out front with her husband, Eric, in supporting Rosenberg, Ammons said she expects to get her endorsement too.
"I think ultimately that's where we're going," Ammons said.
Ammons ran a disciplined race in the primary and was backed by a large network of volunteers, the kind of relatively low-budget campaign that can work in a compact community like Champaign-Urbana.
"We'll have the resources to run the type of grass-roots campaign that's going to be necessary to win in November," Williamson told the senior Republicans. "I don't know if you watched the Democratic primary too closely, but that was a grass-roots victory. That was all about identifying your voters, making sure they turn out on Election Day. And that is our focus 100 percent."
While there are personal and political similarities between Ammons and Williamson — both live in Urbana, have children in the public schools, have overcome difficult times and support same-sex marriage, for example — there are plenty of issues that separate them.
Ammons favors extending the 5 percent state income tax rate, Williamson opposes it. Ammons favors a graduated income tax and a higher minimum wage, Williamson doesn't. More issues and differences will be highlighted in the campaign.
If we're lucky, that's the kind of campaign it will be, decided on issues, not snarky radio ads and deceptive television spots.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.