CLINTON —Several possible replacements in the 101st Illinois House District started to emerge Thursday after longtime state Rep. Bill Mitchell announced that he will not seek re-election in 2018.
The Forsyth Republican's announcement comes after nearly two decades representing Central Illinois and less than a month after what he said was the hardest vote of his career. Mitchell was one of 10 Republicans who joined Democrats in the General Assembly to override a veto from Gov. Bruce Rauner and implement the first state budget in over two years, which also includes a major tax increase.
Though he acknowledged that he has drawn the ire of some constituents, Mitchell said he had always planned to retire in January 2019 at the end of this term. He stood by his decision to vote for the tax increase, which raised the personal income tax rate from 3.75 percent to just under 5 percent, saying he felt it was his responsibility to make the politically tough choice while looking down the barrel of $15 billion in unpaid state debt and the possibility of having the state's credit downgraded to junk-bond status.
"I thought I had to do the responsible thing, and I certainly disappointed a lot of my friends, and I’m sorry about that," Mitchell said.
At least six people were identified by Macon County Republican Chairman Bruce Pillsbury as possible replacements for Mitchell, several of whom were on hand at Mitchell's news conference Thursday in Clinton.
“I'm interested in running for this seat because we need to put taxpayers, families and businesses first." said Joe Alexander, a Clinton resident who recently served as mid-state coordinator for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Dan Caulkins, a former Decatur city councilman, was also in attendance and confirmed his interest in running for the seat.
“It’s a real opportunity to get involved,” Caulkins said.
Other potential candidates named by Pillsbury include Piatt County Board Chairman Randy Keith, DeWitt County Republican Party Chairman Dustin Peterson, Cerro Gordo School Board President Todd Henricks and Decatur City Councilwoman Lisa Gregory.
Peterson said he was “exploring his options” when asked Thursday afternoon. Henricks said he has "serious interest" in running. but needed to discuss the matter further with his family.
Gregory and Keith both said they have not made any decision.
The number of potential candidates could rise in the coming weeks, Pillsbury said. Mitchell’s pending retirement opens up a seat in safe Republican district that contains parts of Champaign, DeWitt, Macon, McLean and Piatt counties.
Whomever earns the spot will do so without Mitchell's endorsement. He said Thursday that he had been contacted by some of those considering a run, and he considered them all friends.
"It would be much too difficult to get involved, and people don’t want to hear from me," said Mitchell, who told reporters that he announced his decision in August to give potential successors plenty of time to start circulating petitions to get on the ballot.
Thursday offered Mitchell a chance to reflect upon his nearly 20 years of service in Springfield among friends and supporters.
"I can’t repay the people of Central Illinois what they’ve done for me, because they’ve allowed me to serve in a democratically elected body. For a citizen, there’s no greater honor," said Mitchell, who has served since 1999.
Asked if his decision not to run again was motivated by a particular factor, such as the state's budget situation, Mitchell said he had made up his mind last year that this would be his last term.
"(During the last election), I went to town meetings and told folks that 20 years is plenty of time," he said. "Someone else needs to take the reins."
The $36 billion budget reduces spending by more than $2 billion. In addition to the personal income tax hike, it also raised the business rate from 5.25 percent to 7 percent.
The hike is expected to collect an additional $5 billion. The average Decatur resident will pay another $580 in taxes.
Critics have pointed out the tax increase won't put a dent in the debt or help with the state's long-term budget problems.
Across the state, the budget impasse had shut down road construction and caused public universities to face a loss of their academic accreditation. The United Way predicted that 36 percent of all human services agencies would end by 2018.
In Macon County, social service agencies felt the same squeeze. The impasse caused Baby TALK to lay off much of its staff and jeopardized the future of the city’s only domestic violence shelter. Construction of Richland Community College's Student Success Center was stalled for the second time since it began in 2014.
Mitchell acknowledged that his role in passing the budget and tax increase "let some people down."
"I regret I had to vote for it. I wasn’t just a closet liberal all those years," he said.
Mitchell said after the news conference that he has no intention of becoming a “lame duck” legislator, and he would continue to vote what he saw was in his district’s best interest.
That includes the most recent debate in Springfield over school funding, where lawmakers are trying to negotiate a deal after Rauner used his amendatory veto to change the funding formula for how school districts would receive state funds.
If no compromise can be reached, Democrats said they would attempt an override of Rauner’s veto. If it comes to that, Mitchell said he would vote against the override.
Thursday’s news conference also provided a chance for some constituents to express their gratitude to Mitchell for his service representing the district.
Among those was Marjorie Devore, a self-described Democrat, who told Mitchell that he was a “true gentleman” that spoke to his constituents.
“I truly appreciate your service and your friendship,” she said.
Even for those who might disagree with Mitchell’s stances, Pillsbury said no one could question the representative’s intent.
“Bill votes his conscience and for what he thinks is best for his district and for Illinois,” Pillsbury said.
Before this summer, Mitchell had been considered one of the more consistently conservative members in the Illinois House. He made national headlines in 2011 when he and then-Rep. Adam Brown proposed a bill that would separate Cook County from the rest of the state.
In a statement, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin praised Mitchell's commitment to downstate Illinois and his work to keep the Clinton nuclear power plant open last year.
"Bill Mitchell is my friend and someone whose opinion I’ve always respected," Durkin said. "I wish him all the best as he looks forward to a well-deserved retirement at the completion of his term."
With Thursday's announcement, Mitchell becomes the latest lawmaker to announce their departure from state politics in recent months. He is the seventh House Republican to announce they will not seek re-election, but stressed that his decision was his own and he could not speak for his colleagues' reasons for leaving the General Assembly.