Cynthia Cunningham is running for State Representative in the 104th District. This is her second time running for the job, against the same opponent, Mike Marron. The 104th is a diverse district in terms of political affiliation, income, race, and covers portions of Vermillion and Champaign Counties, encompassing Danville and portions of Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy, as well as rural sections of those counties.
Cunningham grew up in the Chicago area, but settled in East Central Illinois after attending the University of Illinois, and now lives on a small farm in rural Vermillion County.
Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little about your background? What brought you into the political arena?
Cynthia Cunningham: Well I’ve always been interested, but I’ve been and still continue to work for home and community based services for seniors, and I have my own business that helps other people start their businesses that care for seniors in the community. Through the course of that work. I have been an advocate for the rights for seniors to remain in their homes instead of being institutionalized for 25-30 years.
When Bruce Rauner became governor, he held funding for the programs that help seniors stay in their own homes hostage to his demands for his agenda. So the providers that I work with were left with no funding for quite a long period of time. I took it upon myself, with a few other people, and we sued the governor. We pursued relief through federal courts and through the enforcement of consent decrees. We advocated for four years, and I got very little sleep because if I wasn’t working, I was thinking about what more we could do to try and keep seniors in the community. It was my life — it is my life’s work — and here was this man trying to tear it apart because he was rich and he could. That was just wrong. It was really, incredibly wrong.
In the course of that battle I felt like I could do more, and so that brought me to this. I’ve been advocating for a long time, so I already knew some state legislators, and I’ve learned more about the ways that we can improve things in Illinois.
SP: What made you decide to run for this seat again, after a loss in 2018?
Cunningham: Because it’s worth it. During the two years I spent running for office I knocked on a lot of doors, and sometimes I had to step across holes on the porch to get to those doors. Sometimes I would see that they had patched their windows with socks and t-shirts and their roof was covered with a tarp. Some people invited me into homes that had no insulation, and you can see there was no insulation because there was no plaster or drywall.
That’s how people in our community live. I had no idea of the depth of the poverty that we live next door to, and I don’t see anything being done to alleviate it. There’s a lot of misery, but there’s not a lot of action being taken to alleviate that misery. We have one of the 10 poorest legislative districts in the state, and that’s just a shame. The people that I met, they’re not bad people. They’re good people. But it’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t even have a bootstrap. So I ran again because those people are definitely worth it.
SP: District 104 is an interesting district; it seems like residents of Danville, rural Vermillion County, and Champaign/Savoy/Urbana would have a wide variance of issues they are concerned about and values they adhere to. How do you even begin to connect with voters?
Cunningham: There are many different people in the district, and I really like people. The hard part about COVID is not being able to meet those people. But when I ran last time, I found there are some things that we have in common in all parts of the district, one of them was being concerned about property taxes and the way that we fund our schools through our property taxes.
If you’re wealthy in this district, and you have a big house, you pay very, very high property taxes, and your schools are good. But if you are not, you pay little property tax. The majority of our funding, like 75% funding of our schools, comes from our property taxes. And so in these low income areas, the schools have shoestring budgets. So we share that concern over school funding and the lopsided reliance upon property tax. We’ve got a number of retirees in this district and funding schools through property tax disproportionately taxes senior citizens who no longer have a kid in school, and they live on a fixed income. So the whole taxation school disparity thing cuts across the entire district whether you are very wealthy or very, very poor or in the middle.
People in the district have compassion for their neighbors as well. When I talked to wealthier people about what’s going on in the rest of the district, they’re shocked.
SP: It’s a strange time to be campaigning. What’s it been like not being able to do the usual face to face activities and events?
Cunningham: We are dropping literature at people’s doors. We are calling people in their homes, that’s hard, though, because most people don’t take phone calls anymore, but we phone bank. There are a few more events that are going on now, particularly in Vermillion County. Not so much in Champaign County. If it looks like it’s safe and we can be socially distant, I am going to some events. We’re looking to get mail out…those types of things.
SP: Your opponent has not responded to requests to be a part of the League of Women Voters forum, which is really one of the only opportunities for both candidates to answer questions live. What’s up with that?
Cunningham: He’s the incumbent, and because I lost last time I don’t think he sees me as somebody who can win this time. He’s not a terribly good speaker, so he really doesn’t have anything to gain by showing up. He has a lot to lose.
SP: You’ve already talked about being passionate about the rights of seniors. What other issues are important to you.
Cunningham: Oh, there’s so many. Taxation is a big issue. The last round of taxes that my opponent voted for were very unfair to the people of the 104th District. There are a lot of rural people, a lot of small business owners. We own trailers out here in the country to move our hay around and move equipment around. The taxes on those trailers went up $100. I would not vote for a tax that was going to hurt my own district the way that this one has.
I’m a very strong union supporter. I do believe unions have the answer to a lot of the disparity problems that we have. They have a lot of training programs that can could be accessible to people to help them get out of poverty, to learn a skill. I would very much like to stand up for labor unions.
School funding is just incredibly unfair. I would definitely want to continue working on making school funding more fair so that it isn’t dependent upon your zip code, whether or not you get a good education, and I don’t mean that as a knock against teachers.
We have a big problem coming down the pike that isn’t getting much attention right now. The number of seniors, because of the baby boomers are aging, is growing exponentially, and the current ways that we care for seniors in the community are going to get very, very expensive. So we have got to talk about what we’re gonna do to continue to keep seniors in the community. Given the current economic downturn it’s going to have to be done more efficiently because we just can’t raise taxes. The communities can’t sustain it.