MORTON — On Nov. 6, Keith Sommer, the Republican incumbent with 20 years in the 88th Illinois House District, will be facing his first Democratic challenger in 10 years. Jill Blair of Bloomington is making her first run at political office. In June she quit her job as a communications analyst with Country Financial to concentrate on campaigning.
Sommer, 72, takes pride in some of the little things he has been able to do for his constituents over the years.
Most recently, Sommer and Chuck Weaver (R-Peoria) introduced House Bill 4369, which requires the Illinois State Board of Education to develop a dyslexia guidance handbook. The book will help teachers, parents and guardians identify signs of dyslexia, and provides educational strategies to help improve academic performance.
“One in five students potentially have some form of dyslexia, but there is a real hesitancy in education to get involved,” said Sommer, during a recent interview at the Journal Star offices. When the legislation passed in May the response on social media was tremendous, said Sommer.
“We got responses from people all over the state,” he said.
A lifelong Morton resident, Sommer has served in many public offices. He was on the Morton Village Board from 1977-1986, served as Tri-County Regional Planning Commissioner from 1977-1982, was the Tazewell County Recorder from 1984-1988, and on the Tazewell County Board from 1994-1998. He is a 1964 graduate of Morton High School and owns Keith Sommer Realty in Morton.
Having such deep roots in the Morton area has helped Sommer understand what his constituents want. Even when the legislature is in session, Sommer drives the 60+ miles home each night to be in his community.
“Coming home every day grounds you,” he said. “Those of us who live close to Springfield don’t lose track of those we represent.”
Six years ago, when the boundaries of his district were redrawn, Sommer found himself representing a very different group of people.
“It used to be all rural, and now it’s more urban. In Bloomington, I represent some inner city residents and it’s given me a different perspective,” he said. “It’s made me pause and consider other viewpoints I hadn’t thought of before.”
Sommer’s three goals for his next two years in office would be to make Illinois a business friendly destination state, to provide a budget based on true job growth, and to guarantee educational opportunities for students through treatment of all disabilities. He agrees pension reform is necessary, and would consider a 401(k) system for new hires and explore employee or retiree lump sum buyouts to reduce long-term benefit cost. A re-amortization of the debt is also necessary, he said.
Sommer is against new taxes and for term limits, which he says should be capped at less than 10 years.
“The real solution to power entrenchment is to have remapping taken out of the hands of legislative leaders, as in the Fair Map plan,” said Sommer.
Sommer also is concerned about school funding.
“The state continues to short change some of our best school districts with decreased funding when a strong property tax base exists,” he said. “The quickest thing we could do to financially help our schools would be to eliminate mandates that don’t have a state funding source.”
On the issue of legalizing recreational cannabis, Sommer expressed doubts.
“I have issues with full legalization. Law enforcement is concerned, and employers have problems with it,” he said.
As a political newcomer, Blair, 41, has been knocking on doors and introducing herself to voters for more than a year.
“I think that’s the best way. When you are standing on someone’s doorstep and they can ask questions of you and form a relationship,” said Blair. “I’ve also been doing public events, meet and greets, anything I can do to get in front of voters. We’ve just kind of been going all out — it’s exhausting.”
Two issues inspired Blair to run for office — the Illinois budget crisis, and results of the 2016 presidential election.
“The budget got my attention and got me more attuned to what was going on. The 2016 election made me realize I have to do more. That was sort of the last straw. It’s not enough to vote and talk to my family and friends and neighbors. I need to be more involved,” said Blair.
When it became clear no one else was stepping up to run against Sommer, Blair decided to do it herself. Sommer has not had a Democratic challenger in the last 5 elections.
“I think uncontested elections are bad,” said Blair. “We can’t afford to let elections go uncontested because we think our county is majority one way or the other.”
The notion that voters in the 88th District are staunchly Republican is an issue Blair is testing.
“I’m finding this again and again, as I talk to voters and knock on doors, very few people are hyper-partisan,” said Blair. “For the majority of the people it’s about who you are (as a candidate), what you think, and what you value, and do they trust you. Are you the kind of person who will have my best interest at heart?”
If elected, Blair’s top three goals would be: to address the pension deficit through an honest analysis, including re-amortization of the debt and adjustments to the actuarial tables and assumptions about investment returns; increasing investment in education, including supporting the new K-12 funding formula and increasing funding for higher education; and working to eliminate the structural budget deficit by passing a progressive income tax.
“The progressive income tax would start with household incomes of $300,000 or more,” said Blair. “I’m really not interested in raising taxes on people who are making middle class income.”
Blair said the flat tax is outdated and a progressive tax is more fair.
“I think when we wrote that flat tax into our constitution in 1970, it seemed fair at the time. CEOs were making about 20 times what the average worker made, now they make 300 times what the average worker makes,” she said.
Blair is also in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis in an effort to raise more revenue for the state.
“I think if we do that right, if we can be the first state in the Midwest to go that route, we could see some great revenue raised in taxing that,” she said.
Another issue concerning Blair is a lack of funding for social and human services in the state.
“Most of the services reimbursement rates have not changed for many many years. They have not kept up with inflation and the cost of living,” she said. “These are jobs that people do because they love what they do — they know they are not gonna get rich, but they should at least make a living wage.”
Low wages make a difficult job even tougher, said Blair. Many people from those industries have left Illinois to create more stable lives for their families, she said.
“That says something about who we are and what we value when we don’t care enough about kids, folks with disabilities, and senior citizens to invest in those positions,” said Blair. “I think that’s morally unacceptable.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.