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County Board Chair Faces Primary Challenge From ‘Progressive Choice’

(L-R) Emily Rodriguez and Champaign County Board Chairman Giraldo Rosales answered questions Thursday evening at a candidates' forum in Champaign. Rodriguez is challenging Rosales, the incumbent, in the Democratic primary for a county board seat in District 8.

Democrat Giraldo Rosales became chairman of the Champaign County Board a year ago, with the support of Republicans and a few moderate Democrats, defeating his own party’s nominee. Now Rosales, who ran for re-election unopposed four years ago, is being challenged by progressive Democrat Emily Rodriguez in the March 17th primary.

Rosales and Rodriguez spoke Thursday night at a candidate’s forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Champaign County, the Champaign County NAACP and the News-Gazette.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”I’m a negotiator, a collaborator, and you need to have patience when you work with the board.”[/perfectpullquote]

The forum was held before a near-capacity audience in the Champaign City Council chambers. Rosales says the location brought back memories for him of his time as a city councilman and before that, a member of Champaign’s Human Relations Commission. But for the past twelve years, the Champaign Democrat has been a Champaign County Board member, working on every committee and serving as vice-chairman before becoming chairman in December 2018.

“I’m a negotiator, a collaborator, and you need to have patience when you work with the board,” said Rosales. “It’s 22 members, and we can never agree on anything.”

Meanwhile, Rodriguez said her focus on the county board would be on goals that run counter to the status quo.

“What I’m going to introduce to you tonight is what it would look like for the Champaign County Board to work as a safety net for this community,” said Rodriguez, who said her priorities include lowering what she said were higher-than-average poverty and homeless rates in the county, and shrinking the county jail population.

Rodriguez is challenging Rosales for his seat in District Eight on the Champaign County Board. The district covers part of central Champaign-Urbana from Prospect Avenue on the west to Lincoln Avenue on the east, including a portion of the University of Illinois campus. But while District Eight is urban and solidly Democratic, Rosales said it’s important to work with Republicans on the county board who represent rural areas.

“As a county board representative Democrat, I also represent those rural districts,” said Rosales. “And I’m their representative on the board.”

Rosales’s statement came in answer to a question asking if he and Rodriguez were willing to work with the opposing party to oppose impasses and represent all county residents.  The question seemed crafted to support Rosales, who appointed three Republicans to head up committees after they supported his bid for the county board chairmanship.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”We have a mandate to govern. I have a slate full of progressive policies that I want to push through the board.”[/perfectpullquote]

But Rodriguez, while contending she could work with conservatives, said her approach to issues centered on what was best for the most vulnerable in the community. To help the most vulnerable, she said she would not ignore the political power of Democrats’ 13-9 majority on the county board.

“I think it would reduce the county board to a slot machine, to say that we need to cut down the middle every single time,” said Rodriguez. “We have a mandate to govern. I have a slate full of progressive policies that I want to push through the board, and I intend to make good on those promises, if elected.”

The two candidates also gave differing answers to a question about whether they would caucus with Democrats, and accept the caucus’ choice for county board chairman. The second part of the question described what Rosales did not do, when he worked with Republicans to gain the chairmanship.

Both Rosales and Rodriquez avoided answering the question about supporting the caucus’ choice for the chairmanship. But Rodriquez said she valued meeting with fellow Democrats, while adding that she did not plan to be a “rubber stamp”.

“The thing that is most valuable about listening to people among your party is the arguments that you have, the disagreements, and how a better solution comes from that,” said Rodriguez.

Rosales, who once told an News-Gazette interviewer that he had left the non-partisan Champaign City Council because he wanted to work with Democrats on the county board, gave a more negative view of the caucus experience.

“When we get into these little enclaves, and it becomes very cutthroat, I have to voice my opinion,” said Rosales, who came to the U-S from Havana as a child, leaving behind what he called the “tribal” politics of Cuba’s Communist Party.

“And basically some of my caucus members don’t like what I voice, because they feel that I’m going against their grind,” said Rosales. “And I’m thinking, how about the individuality? I’m an independent Democrat. We just to happen to vote alike because we like the same things, we have the same values. So, nobody’s going to take that from me.”

Besides the two candidates for county board, Thursday night’s forum also featured Champaign County circuit judicial Democratic candidates Ruth Wyman, Ramona Sullivan, Troy Lozar and David Moore; and Democratic circuit clerk candidates Robert Burkhalter and Susan W. McGrath.

A second League of Women Voters forum on February 10 will feature 13th congressional district Democratic candidates Betsy Dirksen Londrigan and Stefanie Smith, and Democratic Champaign County Board candidates for districts six, nine and ten. The forum will be held at 7 PM at the Champaign City Building. Video from the forums will be posted on YouTube.

Picture of Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows

Jim Meadows has been covering local news for WILL Radio since 2000, with occasional periods as local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered and a stint hosting WILL's old Focus talk show. He was previously a reporter at public radio station WCBU in Peoria.

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