SPRINGFIELD – Behind a window with a “Save the Byron Nuclear Plant” sign taped to the glass, Ricardo Montoya Picazo listened to a father of three wonder aloud if he would still be able to support his children in a few weeks.
“If I lose this, the only thing I know how to do, then that means I have to relocate my family to find another job where they’re needing nuclear power workers. But this is where I call home,” Picazo, chief of staff to state Rep. Dave Vella, D-Loves Park, remembers the man telling him.
The man on the phone was an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union worker at the Byron Nuclear Generating Station that was slated to close Sept. 13 if state legislators couldn’t approve sweeping energy legislation providing the necessary funding to keep it open.
Aside from shoring up nuclear power plants and renewable energy with subsidies, the energy regulation overhaul aims for Illinois to get 100 percent of its energy from carbon-free sources by 2050.
But the bill was contentious as labor unions, environmental groups and lawmakers butted heads. At many points, it seemed to teeter dangerously close to failure.
For Rockford and the surrounding areas, the Byron nuclear plant is a monument and a point of pride for the community. But Vella was fighting for more than a monument. Between 100 to 200 of his constituents would lose their jobs if the plant closed, and energy bills would increase too.
The battle ended when the landmark bill cleared the Illinois General Assembly Sept. 13 and was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker two days later.
Vella, 50, is no stranger to a fight, and his first ever run in 2020 for political office is proof.
The 68th District, which covers sections of northwest and east Rockford, Loves Park, Machesney Park and Cherry Valley, had been Republican-held since 1995. The incumbent, then Rep. John Cabello, had held the seat since 2012 and was running again.
The cards were not in Vella’s favor, and some weren’t shy about telling him that.
“There were a lot of people who said, you're gonna lose, but that's OK. We'll give it a try,” Vella said.
He said he started knocking doors in June 2020. Vella estimates he personally knocked on 10,000 doors, with another 20,000 knocked by staffers.
He thought if he could turn out the Midwest moderates, both Democrats and Republicans, he could win.
Picazo, who also serves as the Winnebago County Democrats minority representative, watched the race with interest.
“Nerve-racking,” Picazo said while describing election night. “It was the race that the state was looking at.”
Vella says he believed he had lost on election night when Cabello pulled ahead.
On Nov. 17, after a recount of a quarter of the district’s precincts at Cabello’s request, the results were posted.
Vella had won the unwinnable race by just 239 votes, 0.4 percent of the votes cast.
“He walked every single neighborhood in his district. It may be one time, but he walked it.” Picazo said. “He fought for it. He walked for it. And I think that’s how he got elected.”
For Vella, it was walking the streets he grew up in, where he built his career and raised his son and daughter.
It’s also where he met his wife, in a story that seems like something fresh off a Netflix series drawing board — he was a public defender, she was a prosecutor, meeting first at Northern Illinois University College of Law and later crossing paths in a Winnebago County courtroom.
And it’s where his grandfather, Edolo J. "Zeke" Giorgi, made a name for himself in the 1970s and ’80s as a state representative known for being able to move bills with bipartisan support.
“He was a very big local figure here who is known for getting people to work together and get stuff done,” Nathan Blevins, a member of Vella’s district staff, said. “[Vella]’s trying to follow in his grandfather's footsteps and follow that mission.”
Vella’s staff says he’s already followed his grandfather’s example.
“He's proven in his nine months in office so far that even if you won't agree on everything, you can get a meeting together. We'll listen. We'll talk it out. And if there's anything that we can do to help, we will do it. Our office will do it,” Blevins said.
The first time Blevins met Vella, he was a little intimidated.
“I was a bit shy, a little bit timid,” Blevins said.
But Vella seemed like a down to earth guy, and mentioned the district staff position was open. The next time Blevins saw Vella, they were sitting across a table from each other for a job interview.
Now he’s been with the representative’s office since July, and he’s gotten to know Vella.
Blevins says Vella is a genuine guy—the guy being interviewed on TV is the same guy in the car on the way to an event.
And that guy, outside of the office and Springfield, likes to read. Poetry, political history and sometimes science fiction are his favorites, Vella said.
He’s a fan of cooking, and he’s in the camp of people who took up baking bread during the pandemic. He enjoys cooking Italian or Mediterranean foods.
“It’s a way to kind of almost decompress from stuff,” he said.
And he said he’s getting really good at making Detroit style pizzas.
Vella isn’t a “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” type. But maybe a “Mr. Smith goes to Springfield.”
“I have no desire to go to Washington, D.C.” Vella said. “Springfield was my dream.”
And in Springfield, some of the smallest, seemingly inconsequential bills can be incredibly impactful.
Vella was just one of the many sponsors in the House of a bill lowering taxes on utility trailers, which are often used to transport off road vehicles, from $118 to $36. The bill was signed into law in August.
“A lot of people have snowmobiles, or ATVs, or motorcycles. When they get off work, that’s what they want to do to have fun,” Vella said of his constituents.
It’s efforts like this that make people believe someone in Springfield cares about them, Vella says.
“I got so many calls. It moved a lot of hearts, I think.” Vella said. “I got a call from a woman who just thanked me like four times and said, ‘You made our weekend.’ That’s important to me.”
Just as the shadow of the Byron plant’s smoke stacks still shades the 68th district, so too does the legacy of Vella’s grandfather on him.
“He wants to become his grandpa, an individual that wants to be actually a public servant, and doesn't care about becoming a career politician. He wants to be that individual that actually brings positive change in services to the people, give them what they need, help them if they have an issue, resolve that issue,” Picazo said.
“Dave is that person.”