The 17th Congressional District race between U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Colona) and Democratic nominee Cheri Bustos of East Moline is a nationally-watched battle. This is not only because the race is close, but also due to a bevy of high-profile local issues: The proposed sale of Thomson prison, the planned outsourcing of jobs at a Freeport technology plant owned by Bain Capital, and a drought devastating Illinois farmers.
Perhaps giving credence to Tip O'Neill's axiom "all politics is local", Democrat Bustos and Tea Party-backed Schilling agree on the basics of what should be done on each of these issues. However, Bustos argues that there are key contrasts on each item, which reflect how the candidates would differ in serving the 17th District.
Take the Thomson Correctional Center, named after the rural village in which it sits. The prison has sat largely unused since it was constructed back in 2002. After a scotched plan to host Guantanamo Bay detainees at Thomson, Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), and the Obama administration have worked for over two years on a plan to have the federal government buy the prison from the state for $165 million.
For Illinois, a federal prison means hundreds of local jobs plus money from the sale. But U.S. Rep. Frank (R-Virginia), chair of the House committee that approves the Justice Department budget, has blocked the transaction. Wolf claims, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, that Obama still wants to use Thomson for Guantanamo detainees.
Wolf reiterated this stance Friday night, telling the Chicago Tribune that he "unequivocally" opposed the purchase, after Quinn and Durbin wrote letters to Wolf, requesting the powerful lawmaker end his opposition to the sale.
Schilling and Bustos each display urgency on completing the sale, but they differ in tactics.
Schilling has suggested Wolf visit Thomson. The congressman, whose campaign declined an interview request, also wants the sale price trimmed to $75 million, stating that figure is low enough so that the Obama administration need not ask Congress, and consequentially Wolf, to appropriate the money.
Bustos assails Schilling for engineering a "phantom controversy," by making the asking price an issue.
Indeed, Wolf has never said anything about price changing his opinion, and Christina Mulka, a spokeswoman for Durbin, says that her understanding is that Wolf must approve any sale, regardless of price.
Bustos says that Schilling ought to be doing more to pressure his GOP colleague. "I would do everything in my power to make sure that my Republican colleague would move on it," Bustos says. "I would camp outside this guy's office."
Bustos was previously an alderman in East Moline and has also worked as a health care executive. She also worked for 17 years as a journalist, working for the Quad City Times.
Schilling spent years operating a pizza restaurant in Moline, and prior to that actually worked as a shop steward for the United Paper Workers International Union. Schilling upset Democratic incumbent Phil Hare in 2010.
Bustos is one of 39 candidates in the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "Red to Blue" program for the most viable Democratic challengers. Schilling is part of the National Republican Congressional Committee's "true patriot" program to help 40 incumbents nationally.
The Bustos campaign raised more money than Schilling's between in April and June, but the incumbent has more cash on hand. The National Journal's Cook Political Report called the race a toss-up last month.
The majority Democratic state legislature arguably redrew the 17th to give Schilling this kind of run for his money. As PI has examined, the district traverses multiple communities, including distinctive rural areas and cities such as Rockford and Peoria.
The district also includes Freeport, home of the Bain Capital-owned Sensata Technologies, which makes sensors and controls used in cars and aircrafts. Of course, Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee for president, founded Bain.
So when Sensata announced it was outsourcing 170 jobs to China later this year, Freeport residents and political officials started a persistent campaign to have Romney personally intervene.
Neither Romney, nor Obama, have stepped in thus far, but Bustos and Schilling have vocalized their thoughts on the issue. Schilling and U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Leaf River) wrote to Sensata CEO Thomas Wroe asking him to undo the planned outsourcing.
Bustos pins the blame on Republican tax policies, including tax deals for corporations like Bain, as the real reason the company is outsourcing jobs.
"We need tax incentives for bringing jobs home and tax disincentives to prevent jobs from going overseas," Bustos says.
Bustos has made the creation of manufacturing jobs a central part of her campaign, a note that Obama has also struck in his recent campaign stops. "We want to ship goods, not jobs," Bustos says.
Another emerging 17th District issue is the devastating summer drought, an economic nightmare for farmers across the state. Bustos and Schilling want more aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the House to pass the farm bill. Bustos argues that Schilling needs to be doing more on agriculture matters.
"My opponent serves on the House Agricultural Committee while the farm bill is languishing in the House," Bustos says.
Bustos states that voter's top area of concern is "disgust with the inaction of Congress" on issues like the farm bill.
Challengers always lament Congressional inertia. But Bustos has a point: This current Congress has easily passed the fewest laws of any Congress since World War Two.