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During stop in Normal, Speaker Chris Welch talks about changes to the SAFE-T Act and competing in the 91st House District

NORMAL — Bloomington-Normal’s new Illinois House district – the 91st – has become one of the most competitive and costliest in modern history. Democrat Sharon Chung and Republican Scott Preston and the people backing them have already spent more than a million dollars to win Nov. 8 – in a McLean County that some see turning purple after years of Republican dominance.

Another sign of the 91st’s importance came Friday, when Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch stumped for Chung and other Democrats at the McLean County Democrats’ Obama Legacy Dinner at Illinois State University.

WGLT sat down with Welch for an interview before that event. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of that interview.

Listen to this story here. 

WGLT: You are supporting Sharon Chung’s campaign for the 91st House District. Why do you think she’s the right person to represent the 91st?

Welch: Well, first and foremost, Sharon Chung is Democrat, and she won the primary. As the leader of our party in the House, I’m going to support the Democrat who won the primary, that’s for sure.

But Sharon Chung is the real deal. You know, if you meet her, she has the values that we believe in. She’s a mom, a mom of two daughters. With her husband, Jeremy, they’re a great example of what hard work and education – what people can achieve in this in this state and in this country. Both musicians, both union members. They believe in fair wages for all. You couldn’t ask for a better candidate. And I’m really proud that she’s a Democrat that’s going to represent this area in the Illinois House of Representatives.

If Sharon Chung were to win, she’d be the first Democrat to represent Bloomington-Normal in the Illinois House since 1982. What’s the significance of that?

That would be significant, not just for that reason, but also the fact that she’s of Asian descent. The Asian caucus in our chamber is growing in number. And I have said it ever since I’ve been speaker: Illinois is a very diverse state. Diversity is the strength of this state. And that any maps that we were going to draw (during redistricting) should make sure we’re able to demonstrate how diverse this state is.

And I didn’t know Sharon Chung from McLean County at that time. And here we are, almost a year later, she can be a shining example of that great diversity that our state has to offer. And another member of our caucus.

Sharon Chung’s race is one of the most expensive races we’ve seen here in Bloomington-Normal, certainly for a House race. Chung and her opponent (Republican Scott Preston) have spent over a million dollars already. What is your message to those who are uncomfortable with that amount of money being necessary to win an Illinois House race in this part of the state?

Campaigns are expensive all over the country. And that’s because of what the Republicans have done to our Supreme Court. They’ve allowed dark money into races. What you’re seeing from the Preston campaign is dark money from IE groups being spent against Sharon. So Sharon has had to build a campaign that would allow her to be aggressive and get her message out there as well.

And so let’s be clear where this all started: This all started with Republicans packing the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court decisions that have allowed dark money into our politics. And until we can correct that, you’re going to have to build campaigns to compete. We built campaigns to compete. (Chung) was able to get our message out there. She’s knocking on doors and doing the old-fashioned political work, as well. And her message is being received.

We have the fall veto session coming up here in mid-November. Are you anticipating a follow-up measure related to the SAFE-T Act?

Wd do have a public safety working group that’s been meeting on this continuously since the end of session. I do understand that they are having some very productive conversations. And if that group has a recommendation for us, we will be prepared to put it on the board and call it (for a vote). It’s likely that they will have a recommendation for us, because we’ve already had three trailer acts to the SAFE-T Act pass. And they’ve committed to continuing to do the work. And a fourth trailer bill would only be keeping with that commitment.

What are your priorities in a follow-up bill?

I don’t have any priorities. My priority is to listen to my caucus. And the caucus is doing the work. They’ve been meeting since the end of session. Our public safety working group is very diverse and geographically diverse, ethnically diverse, genderly diverse. And they’ve been doing the work, meeting with the advocates. They’re going to have a recommendation for me, as the leader of the caucus. I’ll put it before the entire caucus, we’ll vet it, and likely put it on the board, because it’s gone through our process. But it would be premature for me to get ahead of a group that’s been doing that kind of work, with talk about what my agenda would be. I haven’t met with any of these advocacy groups. They’ve been doing work, and the proper respect would be to allow them to continue to do that work.

Republicans are obviously coming at Democrats pretty hard on the SAFE-T Act. How much of that in your view is just what you expect on the eve of an election, versus failures by Democrats to communicate what you see as the positive aspects of the SAFE-T?

Unfortunately, Republicans have decided, as a nationwide strategy, to use fear and lies, particularly around crime, as a campaign strategy. Here in Illinois, on the micro level, they’re using the SAFE-T Act. The SAFE-T Act was passed Jan. 13, 2021, an hour before I became speaker. There’s been three trailer acts to the SAFE-T Act, and they know that work is going on towards a fourth.

To suddenly start the fear-mongering campaign 60 days before an election tells you exactly what it is. It’s an election tactic. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the rhetoric that you’re hearing disappears Nov. 9, no matter who wins or loses the election. It’s a campaign tactic. And that’s unfortunate, because good policy was passed and continues to be worked on. And what they’re continuing to do in these negative type of campaigns is, all the progress that we’re making in Illinois, the things that we continue to build up, they continue to tear down with these negative campaigns. And I think we have to bring civility, respect and compassion back to politics. And we have to do that in our campaigns as well.

You mentioned Nov. 9. What about on your side of Nov. 9? Will you still want to see a follow-up bill happen come Nov. 9, once the election is passed?

Well, we’ve done three trailer acts to the bill already. And we’ve continued to do the work long before the campaign season was upon us. And if the working group — which I suspect will have a fourth recommendation – (does so), we’ll put it on the board. It didn’t have anything to do with political season. Only one side has made the SAFE-T Act — a bill that helps people — political.

It’s unfortunate, though, that it’s a bill that helps, to them, black and brown people. This is clearly race-baiting, fearmongering, and lies to try to win a campaign. This is good policy.

We start every single day in session with the Pledge of Allegiance. And the Pledge of Allegiance ends with “and justice for all.” This is a bill that helps everyone, particularly those who are poor and don’t have access to cash. How someone can turn this into something other than what it is, it’s unbelievable. And so I believe that rhetoric on their side will stop, and we’re continuing to do the work.

Do you think Democrats could have done a better job over the past two years communicating all of the upside of this legislation that you just communicated to me … so that by the time an election season comes around, there’d be fewer kind of holes to pick at?

Well, Ryan, I wear a wristband every day. And my wristband is very simple. It says “Better.” You can always do something better. Always be better every day you wake up.

Here’s the reality. We’ve done three trailer bills to the bill already. And we’ve been working on a fourth since we left Springfield. The other side knows that. I don’t believe there’s anything we could have done that would have appeased the other side. It’s a campaign. They’ve chosen to run a campaign based on lies and fear mongering. That’s a national strategy that Republicans have used. Pick a city, any city. They’re talking about crime. And so I don’t think there’s anything that we could have done different, that would have changed the campaign tactics that they’ve decided to use.

What did you think of Republican candidate for governor Darren Bailey’s recent comments on education funding?

Well, I think the legislature has done a very good job with education funding, particularly the last few years. It started under the former administration when, in a bipartisan way, we came up with the evidence-based funding formula. And under this administration, we’ve continued to build on that and fund our schools better. That has been critical, and it has been successful. The Illinois State Board of Education and our school districts across the state will tell you the evidence-based funding formula, which was developed in a bipartisan way, has been a tremendous benefit to school districts across the state.

There cannot be a clearer example of why Darren Bailey is not ready or qualified to be governor of the state than what he said about education.

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