In just over a month, on March 17th, Champaign County and the rest of the State of Illinois will have their primary election. Though the Presidential election is obviously important to focus on, it’s equally pressing to consider our options at the local level. If you’re not one that pays attention to politics in general, you probably have a tendency to overlook these races until there are a bunch of names on a ballot, some of which you might recognize from yard signs. I was once this person. We don’t want you to be that person, so we’ll spend the next couple of weeks highlighting a few of the races that you should be paying attention to. Smile Politely does not do endorsements, so it’s up to you to sort out who you feel should represent you in these county level offices.
Mary King is a Democrat running against incumbent Connie Dillard-Myers for County Board District 10.
Smile Politely: For readers who have no concept of what the county board is responsible for, can you give me a quick rundown, in your words? What do voters need to know?
Mary King: The county board is the arbiter of how the county’s money is spent and has oversight of all countywide offices, facilities, roads, and unincorporated areas. This includes approving the budgets proposed by the County Clerk, Circuit Clerk, Treasurer, Coroner, Auditor, the Sheriff’s police, etc. along with the maintenance of county buildings, such as the courthouse and the county jails, and rural infrastructure, like roads and drainage districts.
The TL;DR version: if you care about what projects, programs, and services are funded countywide, the county board is the body you should be paying close attention to.
SP: Why did you decide to run for county board?
King: If you had asked me a year ago if I had ever thought of running for an elected office, I would have said no! While I’ve spent the past 16 years volunteering to support Democrats and progressive causes at the local, state, and national level, including the fight to save the Champaign County Nursing Home, Daniel Biss’ gubernatorial primary campaign, and the primary and general election campaigns of Dr. Tanisha King-Taylor, the previous District 10 county board member, I hadn’t ever thought of myself as a candidate. That all changed when Dr. King-Taylor asked me to apply to fill her seat on the board because I shared her vision of community-focused, collaborative leadership. I was incredibly honored to receive the nod from the District 10 precinct committeepersons for the appointment. When the current board chair decided to ignore the judgement of both the elected PCs and the majority of his caucus, I felt it was necessary to run in this primary to give the voters of our district the final say.
SP: What do you feel are the top 2-3 issues facing the county board right now?
King: Without a doubt, the most pressing issue facing the county board is the crumbling downtown jail and the inadequate satellite facility. The facts are clear: At least half of all people being held by the county at any given time are awaiting trial, often while unable to make low-dollar amount bail. Even though they have not been convicted of any crime, the county is paying 110 dollars a day to hold them and incarceration is potentially costing these inmates their jobs, housing, and transportation. With the criminal justice reforms the State Legislature has passed and the governor has signed into law, along with bail bond reforms the State Supreme Court is poised to announce, it would be both fiscally and socially irresponsible for the county to advance a facilities plan which only addresses housing space.
This board has the opportunity to ask the voters for the safe facilities our corrections officers need along with much-needed space in the jail for recreation, continuing education, a library, and parent-child visitation. Still, any plan can not be focused only on construction, but also on potentially keeping our most vulnerable residents out of the system by actively seeking and developing community-based diversion programs which address issues like mental health, recidivism, and childhood poverty. I firmly believe that if the board does it’s due diligence not only fiscally, but also morally and socially, we will begin to address the needs of a more just and equitable future rather than just putting another Band-Aid on the mistakes of the past.
Another project coming before the board, and one that is very close to my heart, is a 150 megawatt photovoltaic solar farm on 1,609 acres of land in rural Champaign county. I grew up in rural Kankakee county and my parents, while both working full-time jobs off the farm, grew corn and soybeans with my paternal grandparents and are still farming that same land today. Our rural neighbors are suffering from the current president’s trade wars, competition from the burgeoning South American and Russian markets, and a general lack of opportunity. A solar project provides much-needed rural development, with both farmers and landowners profiting through harvesting energy. It’s also a way to provide good paying skilled jobs for local labor while moving the county away from being dependent on non-renewable resources. Approving this project should be a no-brainer for Democrats, but my opponent has voted with board Republicans to stall negotiations. There is now a real danger companies will bypass Champaign county when we should be a leader in producing renewable energy.
SP: The current primary races have been contentious, to say the least, and there’s a history of tension and infighting within the board. If you receive the nomination, and are elected to the board, what steps will you take to mitigate the current tensions while working to advance your vision?
King: Since I applied for the open District 10 seat in September, I have been attending the Committee of the Whole and the full board meetings along with the Democratic caucuses. It’s been a complete shock to see how often the critical caucus time is wasted. The board chair has refused to attend his own caucus for many months, leaving the body effectively leaderless. Other members have repeatedly hijacked caucus time to hash out personality issues with members or countywide office holders, rather than working on the business of the county. This behavior is not what any of us who dedicated so much time canvassing and phone and text banking for local Democrats in 2018 were working towards.
To effectively govern, we need board members who are committed to showing up to caucus on time, having read the agenda and their packets, and having already done their due diligence, such as directing questions on minutiae to the appropriate committee chairs or other countywide officers. If I am elected to the county board, I will exercise my best judgement about what best serves the county and District 10. I will listen carefully and with an open mind to my constituents, other members of the Democratic caucus, and the rest of the board. It’s going to take honest and forthright communication to create solid, accessible policies, so my fellow Democratic caucus members will never be in doubt as to where I stand and why.
Along with my commitment to attend caucus and meetings ready to work, the choice of a board chair affects how the entire board is organized to address every issue from that point forward. This not about who is best for the position in the abstract, but who can unite the caucus to advance its vision. Within the caucus, I will advocate vigorously for the caucus to support the person I consider to be the best choice but, once the caucus settles upon its nominee, I will respect the will of the caucus and support its choice before the full board.
SP: What makes you most qualified to be the Democratic nominee?
King: My day job is as a research archaeobotanist at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and my experience with social and scientific research means I am used to digging into dense questions which have complex answers. I am unafraid of doing the homework and learning new facts or skills before acting accordingly. Having worked in the cultural resource management side of archaeology my entire adult life, also I know the importance of making sure the public understands what, exactly, their money is paying for. This is why no archaeological report goes out without the input of multiple persons. From the technician in the field, to the lab archaeologists, to the lead author, everyone’s input is essential for a thorough reporting of the temporal and cultural importance of a site. Elected officials have to be willing to work in a similar manner, using collaborative decision-making to create solid, accessible policies then actively communicating those policies to the public in a clear and concise manner. I firmly believe local government is about building relationships, which is why I have been out every weekend knocking doors and engaging with my neighbors. It is why every one of my yard signs, aside from the ones at Brookens, are in front of a residence I or one of my volunteers have personally visited. It is why I am ready and willing to put personality conflicts aside to stand with the rest of the Democratic caucus when it comes time to vote because without a unified front, there is no way we can be effective. I am proud to be an active, progressive Democrat and I am dedicated to helping the county board transcend the national chaos to show what effective, people-centered governance looks like.