For the first time, the three Democrats vying for the new 11th Congressional District seat shared a stage Monday night, and they outlined their positions on job creation, the national debt, and lobbyists in Congress.
The forum was sponsored by the Naperville Township Democrats, and held at the Naperville Municipal Center.
The candidates—former Congressman Bill Foster, Orland Fire Protection District President Jim Hickey, and attorney and former Aurora Township Clerk Juan Thomas—are in the running to face Republican Rep. Judy Biggert in November. (Biggert is running unopposed in the primary.)
And they took the opportunity on Monday night to introduce themselves to the roughly 80 people in attendance, and talk about the differences between them.
Foster, who represented the old 14th District from 2008 to 2010, repeatedly referred to his experience in the House of Representatives, talking about the difficult vote he cast to bail out the banking industry in 2008, and the work he put in on the Wall Street reform bill that passed in 2009.
Hickey continuously returned to the theme of the common man, saying that Congress is full of “millionaires who are elitist and out of touch,” and that he would represent “the working people of Illinois.” And Thomas touted his lifetime of public service—at 25, he became the youngest member of the West Aurora School Board, kicking off his career as an elected official—and said he would not “play footsie” with the Republicans, and would not compromise.
The candidates were each given nine questions in advance, and provided written answers. On Monday night, each was asked two random questions from that list, and given the chance to elaborate in person, before taking further questions from the audience.
Hickey, when asked about the economy and job creation, pointed to the suggestions on his website, which include extending student loans to 50 years (thus lowering the monthly payments) and investing in biomass to reduce dependence on oil. In his written response, Thomas touted the American Jobs Act, still under debate in Congress. In his, Foster suggested tax credits for small businesses that are hiring, and allowing homeowners to refinance at low rates even if their homes have lost value.
Speaking about Congress’ all-time low approval rating, Foster contrasted his career as a physicist with his stint in the House. Scientists look for facts, he said, while politicians look for ways to spin issues and get re-elected. He also spoke out against the anti-tax pledges several Republicans (including Biggert) have signed, saying that takes away their ability to negotiate.
Asked about the national debt, Hickey turned to his own history with the Orland Fire District. He said he helped trim $2 million from the $30 million budget, without layoffs, and added that finding jobs for the unemployed and the underemployed would be the best way to reduce that deficit.
And speaking about the gap between the classes, Thomas said the country needs to adopt three core values: every American deserves access to a high-quality education, affordable health care, and the chance to achieve their own dreams.
“We have to ask, do we believe in these principles,” he said, “and if the answer is no, which one are you willing to give up?”
One attendee asked about the current trend of senators and representatives leaving office and joining lobbying firms for lucrative salaries. Hickey said reform is needed to prevent former congressmen from becoming lobbyists. Foster said he would be in favor of a lifetime ban on legislators becoming lobbyists, but cautioned that it is Constitutionally protected speech.
And Thomas said the current state of political campaigning is unjust, and leaves those without funding from companies and other sources out of the process. If this continues, he said, only “people who can self-fund or have a lot of rich friends” will be able to mount political campaigns.
The forum’s one heated moment came when Thomas accused Foster of “voting with Judy Biggert” to bail out Wall Street. Foster replied that the Troubled Asset Relief Program vote was painful, but necessary, and the subsequent Wall Street reform bill put regulations in place to supplement TARP.
“When that happened, the Democrats and the thoughtful people were the adults in the room, the ones who decided we will not let our economy die,” Foster said.
The newly-drawn 11th District has no incumbent—Biggert represents the old 13th District—and stretches from Montgomery in the west to Burr Ridge in the east, and from Naperville in the north down past Joliet in the south. There are three other debates—in Aurora, Naperville and Oswego—scheduled before early voting begins on Feb. 27.