GRANITE CITY, Ill. — When it comes to the informal metrics that divide “red” and “blue” America, there’s perhaps no better barometer than the restaurant chains and grocery stores in a community.
It sounds silly. But the numbers bear it out.
According to data compiled by Tennessee political strategist Cole Perry, Republicans represent 70% of the 183 congressional districts with a Waffle House and 67% of the 270 districts with a Cracker Barrel. On the flip side, Democrats represent 63% of the 242 districts with a Whole Foods and 62% of the 245 districts with a Trader Joe’s.
But Illinois’ 13th Congressional District, which narrowly stretches from East St. Louis to Champaign, picking up Decatur and Springfield in between, is unique.
The district features two Waffle Houses and four Cracker Barrels — haunts disproportionately located in “red” America — but no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, grocery chains that have become mainstays in urbanized “blue” America. And yet its representative in Congress is a Democrat.
Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield, elected last November, is the first member of her party to represent portions of Central and Southern Illinois since 2014. Though she received help from Democratic map-drawers in Springfield in the once-a-decade redistricting process, she overperformed expectations.
So, doing what any inquisitive reporter would do, I met Budzinski, a former senior adviser to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and official in President Joe Biden’s administration, for breakfast last Friday at the Waffle House in Granite City.
As a native of the Chicago area, I was experiencing the Southern favorite for the first time. That was far from the case for Budzinski, who said the diner was a favorite stop during family road trips when she was growing up.
She knew exactly what she wanted: the All Star Special featuring eggs with whole wheat toast, extra crispy hash browns, bacon and a waffle.
I stuck with a waffle and some hash browns — covered, chunked and diced, for Waffle House aficionados keeping score.
“It’s accessible, it’s unpretentious, it’s about people that are just getting off a shift at work coming in, having a good meal (and) being able to go home,” Budzinski said of Waffle House. “I think you see a lot of America here. It feels very Midwestern and it’s good food.”
Over the food and some coffee, I asked her how Democrats can win in more of the blue collar, working class “Waffle House” districts like her own.
“I think that Democrats, as a whole, we need to start winning more in Waffle House and Cracker Barrel districts,” Budzinski told me. “I mean, I’m really honored to get to represent this district, which is very classically Midwestern. It’s a big district, but it is connected by a lot of common interests, common challenges and, I think, also opportunities.”
The district includes a mix of the increasingly cosmopolitan, urban base that has come to define the modern Democratic Party along with remnants of the coalition made up of unionized coal miners, steel plant workers and workers in other heavy industries that had previously made the region a Democratic stronghold but has recently trended towards Republicans.
However, Budzinski reversed the trend. In addition to posting strong margins in the Democratic bastions of Champaign and St. Clair counties, she won in Madison County, a blue collar portion of the district that voted for former President Donald Trump twice. And she ran ahead of President Joe Biden’s 2020 margins in rural Macoupin County.
“Democrats have to go places where sometimes it’s uncomfortable,” said Illinois Deputy Gov. Andy Manar, a former state senator and longtime friend of Budzinski’s. “And you have to listen and you have to talk to people face-to-face. And you have to tell your story. You have to listen to their story. And she did that very, very well in her campaign.”
Budzinski said her performance in the election, especially in communities that have been shifting away from the party, can be attributed to “showing up, listening and then following through.”
“I think in these types of districts, it’s critically important to show up and listen and help be a part of the solution — don’t be a part of the problem,” Budzinski said. “And I think sometimes Democrats, we don’t take the time to show up, we don’t take the time to listen.”
Budzinski did a lot of showing up and listening during a two-week congressional recess in February.
The day before our interview, Budzinski showed up at a layoff assistance workshop in Decatur for the nearly 400 Akorn Pharmaceuticals workers suddenly out of jobs when the company, one of the city’s largest private employers, went out of business with no notice.
And she promised follow-through in the form of helping state and local officials assist affected workers while promising federal action, if possible, to hold companies like Akorn accountable for shutting down with no warning.
Manar confirmed to me that Budzinski “called the governor’s office immediately” after news of the closure broke.
“That’s the type of response you get from a congressperson who has their ear to the ground, who puts partisanship second and who understands the challenges of the people that she represents,” Manar said.
Similarly, Budzinski, after our 45-minute breakfast interview, made the 10-minute drive to U.S. Steel’s hulking Granite City operation, which she toured before meeting with the local steelworker’s union.
Budzinski has long expressed concern about the company’s proposal to sell its blast furnaces to SunCoke, which could lead to the axing of up to 1,000 union jobs.
Budzinski does well in these settings and with these constituencies, something she attributes to her background. She grew up middle class —her grandfather was a union painter and her parents teachers — and was involved in the labor movement for 10 years with the International Association of Firefighters and later the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
“When I go into rooms to talk to union members, I identify myself first and foremost not as a Democrat or Republican, but as a trade unionist,” Budzinski said. “I’d also consider myself a populist because I care the most about the economic kitchen table issues.”
The kitchen table should be Democrats’ focus, Budzinski told me, adding that the party should avoid culture war debates Republicans “try to drive us into.”
“I don’t like to talk about them because I don’t think that’s what matters most to people in their everyday lives,” Budzinski said. “And I think we will start winning again in districts that are Cracker Barrel and Waffle House districts when we start really listening, showing up and fighting for the issues that matter most to people in their daily lives.”
For Budzinski, this means fighting for things that regular people will actually feel, such as bringing back the child tax credit, a signature achievement in the American Rescue Plan that gave most families $250 to $300 per child every month until lapsing at the end of 2021.
Another “home run for people in districts like mine” is capping the cost of insulin at $35 per month, she said. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed by Biden last year, capped it for seniors on Medicare. Drug company Eli Lilly also announced plans this week to cap it at that price for folks with private insurance.
But Budzinski would like to extend that to everyone.
“Those are the kinds of things that we are fighting for that I think distinguish us in what we offer working people and what the Republicans do,” Budzinski said. “We do not tell that story, I think, as effectively and we need to work on that.”
Her observation matches that of a group of strategists in a report released last month highlighting the party’s challenges and opportunities in small- and medium-sized “Factory Towns” in the Midwest that have been disproportionately impacted by deindustrialization.
The study, from the groups American Family Voices and 21st Century Democrats, found that the party plays well with voters in these areas when it offers a populist economic message. That message beat the culture war easily, while the Republican economic message, playing up concerns like inflation, posed the larger threat.
“Our brand is pretty damaged in these places,” the report found. “Voters are both cynical about what we are saying now, and unaware of all that Democrats have accomplished that will directly benefit them.”
Budzinski said some of this goes back to trust. Democrats lost it with many working class voters, she said, by supporting “bad trade agreements” such as NAFTA.
“For a long time, Democrats nationally have been talking about trade agreements and supporting trade agreements, quite frankly, that don’t support communities like Granite City, that have allowed jobs to leave,” she said.
In addition to her fair trade stance, Budzinski has leaned heavily into supporting the economic interests of the working class.
Her first bill, yet to be filed, will aim to provide tax incentives to small businesses that hire apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship workers. Workers in these well-paying, skilled trades often do not need a four-year college degree.
This is in contrast to her position against Biden’s plan to cancel up to $10,000 in student loan debt for borrowers who make up to $125,000 per year.
In this sense, there’s a pragmatism to Budzinski’s approach.
Another area this shows up in is her approach to energy. Though “100% committed to” the goal set out by state lawmakers to make the complete transition to clean energy by 2050, Budzinski said “it’s important that we talk about how it’s going to impact working people in communities.”
“And we need a state legislature in Springfield that isn’t just a Chicago perspective, that understands the downstate perspective — that we’re going to need to create more sources of energy and that’s an all-of-the-above approach in order for us to make the transition,” Budzinski said.
For example, Budzinski supported the construction of a natural gas plant in Pawnee and the use of carbon capture and sequestration technology, which she said could help the coal-fired power plants Prairie State Energy Campus and Springfield’s City Water, Light and Power “reduce their carbon emissions so they can meet the metrics and stay open.”
“We need to make sure that energy prices don’t get so out of hand that working people can’t afford to cool their homes in the summer and heat their homes in the winter,” she said. “That’s why I’m not a ‘Green New Deal’ Democrat.”
And though she credited state lawmakers with ensuring that prevailing wage is paid on all wind and solar projects that receive state incentives, she acknowledged that a job working in the fossil fuel industry is not “apples-to-apples with installing solar panels.”
“It’s very different,” she said. “The wages are very different. But I do think that for when renewables are going to be built, we did work to make sure that those were good union jobs and that they weren’t low-road, low-wage jobs as we are transitioning.”
Before ending the interview, I asked Budzinski if she thought Biden, now 80, should run for re-election in 2024 and, if not, whether Pritzker should run.
“I think there seems to be a consensus that he will,” she answered, referring to Biden. “I think he has gotten some huge, historic pieces of legislation that are going to transform and invest in communities. So, obviously if he runs, I will be supporting him. But he hasn’t announced yet.”
“I think J.B. is a great leader,” she told me, crediting the governor for the state’s turnaround following the budget impasse between former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative Democrats.
“So he has real accomplishments that I think are going to appeal to a lot of voters,” Budzinski said. “And I think he’s also a great person — like he’s just a very affable, easy-to-talk-to person. So I think he’d be very formidable if he decided to run.”
The two “ifs” in those answers are interesting, to say the least.
Budzinski joked that she had been “running myself ragged” the previous couple of weeks as she crisscrossed the district. But, if she was exhausted, she wasn’t showing it.
“I love the job,” Budzinski said. “I mean, I think the opportunity to visit and hear about people’s concerns and needs, to be in a position and try to help and make a difference, is honestly why I decided to run. And so that’s been fantastic.”
Contact Brenden Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13
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