DECATUR — Support for the Illinois speaker of the House became the focus of a series of debates between candidates for the state legislature Wednesday night at the Decatur Club.
The Democratic candidate for the 101st Illinois House District, Jen McMillin of Decatur, pledged she would not vote for the longtime speaker of the House, Chicago Democrat Michael Madigan, to retain his leadership seat.
"It's something that I truly believe in," McMillin said after the "Face to Face with the Candidates" forum, sponsored by the Herald & Review, Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce and the Decatur branch of the NAACP. "As someone who is new to politics, who keeps hearing from (voters in) the district that they don't want Speaker Madigan leading the House anymore, I have to vote with my district."
Like many Illinois Republicans running across the state for seats in the General Assembly, McMillin's opponent, Dan Caulkins, has made term limits for state legislators a pillar of his campaign and has criticized Madigan's decades-long tenure as the speaker of the House.
"In Illinois, things are so corrupt that the politicians are able to draw their maps to choose their voters, and there's just no end to the shenanigans that get played," said Caulkins, who also said he would serve no more than six years in the House. "I'm very much for term limits; I've signed two petitions to get it on the ballot (as a referendum), and the Democrats have found a way to keep us from having a vote."
The debate between McMillin and Caulkins was the last of three Wednesday at the Decatur Club. Voters heard from State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, and her Republican opponent for the 96th House District seat, Springfield Alderman Herman Senor, and Republican candidate for the 48th Senate District Seth McMillan. His opponent, incumbent state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, was not able to make the debate.
Madigan, who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party, is considered by many in the state, including Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, to be the most powerful person in state politics. Once a relative unknown figure outside Chicago and political circles, Madigan in recent years has become deeply unpopular with Illinois voters after suffering years of political attacks that sought to make his name synonymous with corruption.
"We've got one man that's controlling the flow of legislation in the House, and basically the Senate," Mark Scranton, a local business owner, said after the debate. "I don't think one person should have all that power."
Caulkins pointed out Scherer's record of voting for Madigan into the speaker position to undercut McMillin's position against the leader of her own party. "We've heard this before from people running for office," he said. "Two words: Sue Scherer, she promised not to do that either."
Scherer, in her debate segment, did not say directly whether she would vote again for Madigan as speaker, but said she has always cast her votes in the General Assembly based on the majority opinion of the district. "He didn't like my vote on pro-life, he didn't like vote on gay marriage, he didn't like my vote protecting state workers, he didn't like my vote protecting state pensions, and I could go on and on," she said.
The former school teacher, who was first elected to the seat in 2012, said she has no problem asking the speaker his thoughts on issues and what she could do as a legislator to secure funding and projects for the district. "Nobody has a problem with that, but they have a problem that yes, I did vote for speaker, because you know how many choices I had? One ... nobody else ran but him."
The forum also featured questions about climate change, growing the region's agriculture sector and how to shore up the state's finances.
Before the debates between state legislative candidates, potential voters got to pose questions to candidates for county office in a "speed-dating" format. Office seekers from both parties for county sheriff, county treasurer and county clerk spoke to six different groups of voters.
“It was a nice way to learn about the candidates," said Dianne Lutt, a retiree from Decatur. "What you didn't know you could learn from them (directly)."
The event was the first of three election forums being sponsored by the Herald & Review in conjunction with the local branch of the NAACP.
A debate between U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, and Democratic challenger Betsy Dirksen Londrigan of Springfield is planned for Monday, Oct. 22, at Millikin University. The 6 p.m. event at University Commons is co-sponsored by Millikin, WSOY 1340-AM and WAND-TV.
At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, a debate between candidates running for Macon County sheriff — Democrat Tony Brown and Republican Jim Root — is scheduled at the Decatur Public Library, 130 N. Franklin St.