Newcomers from Bloomington, Normal face in 91st Illinois House District – The Pantagraph

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Sharon Chung



CLAY JACKSON, THE PANTAGRAPH


A newly drawn district is giving two newcomers a chance for a statehouse seat this November.

But in Bloomington-Normal, they’re no strangers to the community.

Democrat Sharon Chung and Republican Scott Preston each secured commanding leads in their respective primary races. To win the new 91st District of the Illinois House, however, they’ve had to reach outside their home base.

Chung, a professional musician who teaches and performs the violin and viola, has been a McLean County Board member since her election in 2018, representing District 7 in Bloomington.

Preston, president of his real estate company Preston Property Group, is in his third term on the Normal Town Council, having been first elected in 2013.

They are vying for the newly drawn 91st District, which now includes parts of McLean, Woodford, Tazewell and Peoria counties, stretching from Bloomington-Normal to Bartonville just south of Peoria.

Calling it one of the most competitive district races in the state, Preston said the map boundaries show gerrymandering in the 2020 remapping process.

“This 91st District is the only way that the majority in Springfield could draw a map to try and to be competitive in. It was absolutely a politically-motivated drawing of the map,” he said.

The district extends along Interstate 74 and includes farmland and rural communities as well as the more “suburban-type” areas of the Twin Cities and East Peoria.

Both candidates said leaving their home communities to talk to potential future constituents to the west has been a great opportunity to make connections and gather feedback.

“I’ve been very intentional about building relationships over there, being present over there, and making sure that they know that I will work just as hard to be their representative, as I will people in Bloomington-Normal,” Preston said.

Chung noted during her time knocking on thousands of doors across the district, she has been met with difficult conversations.

“My hope is that people will see that, you know, if I’m working this hard, that’s how hard I work for our community if I am elected. And I’m not afraid to take tough questions; I’m not afraid to talk to people who have differing viewpoints from me,” she said. “… It’s been very encouraging, the response that we’ve gotten from them, that they do really believe in the message that we have, the things that we care about, and also maybe just ready to have a representative who’s a woman and maybe a person of color. Those are things that people, I think, are excited about.”

Chung is one of at least 22 Asian American candidates running for office in Illinois this cycle. If elected, she said she would be the first Asian member of the General Assembly elected outside the Chicagoland area.

“I’m really, really excited for this. It means a lot to me,” Chung said, though she noted she has not aimed to make that part of her platform.



Sharon Chung performs during an outdoor concert in a Normal neighborhood in May 2020. 



LEWIS MARIEN, THE PANTAGRAPH


“Just knowing that I know, I’ll stand up for other marginalized communities, me being from one myself, or just knowing that I’m going to stand up for women and working middle class people. It’s just who I am,” she said.

State economy

Preston said his conversations across the 91st have shown many people have similar concerns: “It’s the economy, it’s inflation, it’s taxes are too high, it’s corruption in Springfield and it’s safety. We want safe communities; we want taxes that are reduced; and we want to fight against the economic state of the state.”

As a small business owner, Preston said among his focuses, he wants to work toward “better economic policy to help foster an environment that promotes economic growth. We want more companies to come here and to grow here. We want jobs.”

He described Bloomington-Normal as an “in spite of” community.

“We’re fortunate that our local economy is very vibrant,” Preston said, noting the impact of Rivian Automotive in Normal. “The local community here is incredibly vibrant, and our local economy is strong in spite of the fact that we are in the state of Illinois. And time and again, one of the things that impacts us the most and holds us back is the fact that we’re in the state of Illinois, and state government for too long has had policies that are too burdensome, too expensive. And you’re seeing jobs and companies and, as a result, individuals leaving the state to go for more opportunities elsewhere.”

Chung highlighted the importance of investing in “high-paying, well-trained jobs, such as in the trades” to support the economy and providing relief for the working middle class.

She commended the existing state efforts to suspend the grocery and gas taxes, as well as property tax relief, while Illinoisans face high inflation.

“It’s honestly more of a nationwide issue, but trying to see what we can do here at home to help people out in a more immediate scale,” Chung said.

SAFE-T Act

The criminal justice reform law that eliminates Illinois’ cash bail system, mandates all police officers wear body cameras by 2025 and makes significant reforms to law enforcement use-of-force standards has been pulled into focus this election cycle. 

House Bill 3653 has taken a few names since it was signed into law in early 2021, most recently the SAFE-T Act as an acronym for the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act.

The law has drawn criticism from conservatives, county prosecutors and law enforcement groups across the state. Preston is among those supporting its full repeal.



Scott Preston, Republican candidate for the 91st Illinois House District, speaks during an Oct. 3 news conference at which he criticized opponent Sharon Chung’s support for a graduated income tax. 



CLAY JACKSON, THE PANTAGRAPH


“I think it’s clear that you even see the majority in Springfield admit that the SAFE-T Act is quite flawed, when they are all saying it needs to get changed as well and it was their legislation,” he said. “Their admission that it’s bad policy is as clear as anybody’s.”

Preston said he believes the SAFE-T Act would make communities less safe.

“We need to honor, we need to support, we need to make sure we provide the resources necessary to be effective for our first responders. Anything less is doing everybody an injustice,” he said.

Chung, a member of the McLean County Board Justice Committee, said having seen the negative effects of the cash bail system on people who could not afford to be released — “especially people of color, women, working people” — she believes the reform is necessary. 

“And like with any sort of bill, I think, it does take maybe some tweaking, maybe some more conversations,” she said, adding that several law enforcement and victims advocacy groups took part in shaping the legislation before its passage.

Chung noted the law includes measures to fund and support law enforcement agencies across the state.

“Some of the things that I have been more interested in is to really make sure that (police) get the mental health help that they need,” she said. “I think that being a law enforcement officer is a very, very difficult job, and to make sure that they do get proper, adequate health care so that they can do their job and not suffer from burnout, that they are paid well for what they’re doing, putting their lives on the line. Those are things that I’m really interested in as well.”

Getting activated

Preston, who was born and raised in Bloomington-Normal, emphasized his long-term commitment to the community. He joined the town council at age 25 and been involved with organizations like United Way of McLean County and Illinois State University Alumni Association.

“There are some serious issues that require people who are focused on actually solving problems and helping people, not on the partisan politics of the day. That’s been my focus in Normal. That’s been my focus as a small business owner, and that will be my focus in the statehouse,” he said. 

He said he hopes to bring a “no nonsense, no hyperbole” mindset to Springfield and cut through the “hyper-partisan” conditions to work to make Illinoisans’ lives better. People are tired, frustrated and confused by the contentious political environment, he said. 

“At the end of the day, what service does that accomplish for the people who you’re asking to put their trust in you as the representative? What does it accomplish?” he said. … “I think being authentic and being real with people and talking about what’s actually going on, what the actual focus is, and not just more of the same Chicago-style bombastic politics is what people want. And frankly, what they deserve.”

Chung, who was part of a wave of Democrats who moved from advocacy to governance after former President Donald Trump’s election, said she’s been encouraged to see that momentum continue.

She said her strength lies in her ability to talk to anyone and “really advocate passionately about something I really feel strongly about.”

Chung said she supports abortion rights, having stood for women’s rights since her teen years, and said her two daughters are her driving force, at the forefront of everything she does.

“For me, being a working mom, and a working class, middle class mother, I think it’s just to be a sort of inspiration for them, showing that I can do this, and be able to talk about the things that I feel passionate about, the things that I know that government should do,” she said. “Having them be able to see that has been really inspiring, honestly, for me, too. They’re really just at the center of everything.”


Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.

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October 29, 2022 at 01:19PM

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