Last night, the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for the IL-13 congressional seat — Nikki Budzinski and David Palmer — squared off in the WILL studios at Campbell Hall. The primary debate was sponsored by Illinois Public Media, WAND, and The League of Women Voters of Champaign County. Tinishia Shade-Spain of Illinois Public Media, Doug Wolfe of WAND, and Hannah Meisel of NPR Illinois served as moderators.
Community members were invited to submit written and video questions to Illinois Public Media prior to the debate. Most questions were posited by the moderators, with two constituent video questions played for the candidates. As questions were addressed to specific candidates, they had 90 seconds to give their answer. The other candidate could offer a 30 second response, and then the first candidate could offer a 30 second rebuttal.
Not surprisingly, the debate opened with questions about guns, in regards to multiple mass shootings in the span of two weeks, and a rise in gun violence in Champaign-Urbana. Both candidates spoke about the need for universal background checks. Palmer, a gun owner, urged bipartisanship and coming together as Americans to protect kids. Later, in answering a follow-up question from an Illinois Public Media reporter, he indicated his support for banning assault weapons. Budzinski also supports red flag laws, empowering law enforcement to take guns from those who pose a threat. She wants to “stop paying lip service” when it comes to mental health.
When discussing gun violence at the community level, both candidates pointed to the need for economic opportunity, with Budzinski applauding how Champaign is directing America Rescue Plan funding to community violence solutions. Palmer emphasized the importance of equity in our communities.
The candidates were pretty well aligned on most broad issues — support for Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, that the Biden Administration can be doing more to alleviate the effects of inflation, a need for investment in electric vehicles, and the importance of voting rights. One of the more pronounced disagreements was on providing aid to Ukraine, with Palmer disagreeing with the large aid bill recently passed in Congress, saying that money should be spent at home.
I felt their differences were most distinctly on display in answering the final question — what is the biggest threat to our democracy — and in their closing statements.
Budzinski unequivocally stated that the erosion of the middle class is the biggest threat to our democracy, and continued with that theme in her closing statement. She wants to rebuild the middle class, beginning with fighting inflation. In her statement, as she did throughout the debate, she placed much of her policy focus on manufacturing; building more things in the U.S. and specifically Central Illinois.
Palmer went a completely different direction, specifically calling out the Republican Party for sowing seeds of election subversion in 2024. He placed great importance on voting rights and the need for systems to combat voter suppression, as well as fighting white supremacy in elections. In his closing statement, he spoke about understanding the moment we are in, and the need for hope, advocating for people who are struggling, and choosing to be an “active and engaged citizenry”
At the end of the debate, I had the opportunity to ask each candidate a couple of questions. As Smile Politely is a hyper-local magazine, I wanted to know how each candidate would give attention to Champaign-Urbana, and make time for its constituents, after years of a representative that has spent little to no time here.
Palmer: Not only am I the only person who lived in the district before it was drawn, this is my home. There’s not a chance I’m not going to pay attention to this area. I know a lot of competent and capable people here to staff my Champaign office with. I think that’s one of the key things that gets overlooked when people think about who’s going to be their congressperson…You remember Congressman Tim Johnson. Whether you agree with his politics or ideology, if you called him about something, about service, about helping you out, it was taken care of. We have to bring that back to this community.
Budzinski: I’m a graduate of the University of Illinois, my dad is a graduate, two of my grandparents were graduates…so I am very committed to Urbana-Champaign as a community and obviously the university and the importance of the university within the community. It would be an honor to get to represent my alma mater in Congress. Visiting places like the Research Park is incredibly exciting, my friend Laura Frerichs runs that, and to see how there’s real innovation taking place in Urbana-Champaign at the university is really exciting. I would want to make sure it was about not only the university, but Parkland Community College. I think some of the things you can do as a representative that’s really important is bring back federal dollars to both support the community college system, but also the University of Illinois. I also know that Urbana-Champaign has a very vibrant community outside of the university, lots of cultural things, obviously I look forward to being a regular fixture in the community, as I already have been since I announced in late August.
I also wanted to know why each candidate felt that this was their moment to run for Congress, and why they felt that was the most effective way for them to make the changes they want to see.
Palmer: It’s not only about going there and passing legislation…you get a microphone. You get to speak to communities about issues that you care about. When I looked at what was going on in the 13th, it was a bunch of milquetoast. People were just talking about stuff that was not controversial, that would not get them attacked in the media, they were not really saying anything. We’re at a moment now where I think we’re second in the nation in like-sized cities when it comes to murders. When I go to [East St. Louis] there is barely infrastructure. We’re at a critical moment. We need a change, we need someone who isn’t going to be a bureaucrat and work with someone else’s agenda. We need an independent thinker and someone who is going to come in and only advocate for the people of his district. We haven’t had that in such a long time, and I think the time is now. If we lose this district now, we’ll be fighting for it for the next ten years.
Budzinski: I’ve been honored to be in public service for most of my career in different capacities, but it was these last two years coming out of COVID, and what that recovery looked like. When I served in the Biden Administration, and I saw the critical funding the America Rescue Plan provided: support to healthcare workers, support to making sure we were getting people vaccinated, funding that helped us get kids back to schools. At that time I was looking back home and seeing Republican representatives reflexively voting against it, I thought that we could do better. At that time I said I was going to leave my job and come back home and do something I’ve never done before in my life, which was try to step forward and actually be a candidate and put myself forward for Congress. I think that now is a moment that we’re all doing things differently, this is certainly different for me, but I think we need to meet this moment and I think if we can as communities throughout the 13th district I really do believe we can come out of it stronger than how we went into it with COVID.