Happy New Year, readers, and welcome to the newest version of Smile Politely. Our website isn’t the only thing that’s new — there’s a new General Assembly and legislative session. To kick off 2023, we’ve decided to take a look at the state of politics and legislation in Illinois. Which issues are we keeping an eye on? Read on to find out.
Governor JB Pritzker was sworn in for a second term on Monday, January 9th. His first act of governance was signing the Protect Illinois Communities Act into law, which immediately bans “the sale and distribution of assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and switches in Illinois.” The law requires owners of these assault weapons, like the AR-15, to register their weapons. The Protect Illinois Communities Act is the latest piece of legislation passed under Pritzker’s leadership to take on the problem with guns.“Ghost guns” have already been banned, and background checks expanded.
Predictably, the owners and sellers of these weapons are not happy. Some gun shop owners and the Federal Firearms Licensees of Illinois have been planning lawsuits and some have already been filed to challenge the law’s constitutionality. It is ridiculous that these suits are even entering courts. Never mind the fact that owners can still keep their weapons, though they are required to register them, and gun sellers can still sell to out-of-state customers and law enforcement. Never mind that more than half of mass shootings in the country involve high-capacity magazines. Remember the Highland Park shooting in July that killed seven people? That shooter used an AR-15.
Not to be out-outraged by second amendment activists, at least 30 sheriffs across Illinois issued statements making the claim that the new law is unconstitutional and have sworn that they will not only not enforce the law in their jurisdictions, but they further will not cooperate with any agencies or investigations involving violations regarding the registration of these weapons. We’re surrounded by these sheriffs here in Central Illinois. If law enforcement agencies put themselves above the law of the land and cherry-pick which laws align with their preferred political beliefs, it completely undermines the purpose and function of living in a democracy. Thankfully, Pritzker has threatened to fire sheriffs who refuse to cooperate with the new law, and many lawmakers have issued their own declarations denouncing the actions of these sheriffs.
Illinois is the only Midwestern state with legal and accessible abortion services. State lawmakers have moved to enshrine more protections, specifically protecting providers and out-of-state patients from out-of-state legal action. This is still moving through the General Assembly. In his inauguration speech, Pritzker took the idea further, calling for a state constitutional amendment protecting abortion access. That sort of change wouldn’t be on a ballot until 2024.
State senator Scott Bennett passed away unexpectedly in December, leaving a vacancy in senate district 52. Bennett was reelected for the two-year senate term in November, so a replacement needed to be named to begin the 2023 legislative session (his wife, Stacy, served the remaining week of the term.) After some awkward fussing among C-U politicians, City of Champaign Township Assessor Paul Faraci was selected. Faraci once served on the Champaign City Council.
Bennett was respected in the senate and beloved by those he served. Can Faraci meet those standards and expectations? We’ll just have to wait and see. He will certainly have an opportunity to build trust among his constituents in Champaign and Vermilion counties over the next two years, potentially creating a strong incumbency on which he could build a 2024 campaign.
In the meantime, though, is the 2023 municipal election. We are particularly interested in the races for mayor of Champaign, the three at-large City Council seats, and Champaign Unit 4 and Urbana District #116 school board members.
Incumbent mayor Deb Feinen will run for a third term against former mayor Don Gerard, who served from 2011 to 2015, and Azark David Cobbs. A lot has changed since Gerard was mayor, and some might argue not for the better. Champaign has been suffering from gun violence, a depleted police force, and a total gutting of arts and culture venues in Downtown. As a city, we continue to survive a pandemic that has at best delayed projects, and at worst wreaked havoc on budgets and economic opportunity. Is ousting the subdued and small-c conservative Feinen in favor of the guy who legalized backyard chickens in Champaign worth the risk of Gerard’s more dramatic approach to life and governance? We’re curious to see how this plays out.
Of course, the mayorship is not a dictatorship, and the mayor is only as powerful as their allies on the city council. All three of the at-large seats are on the ballot. Will Kyles and Matthew Gladney are seeking reelection. Also on the ballot are Kathy Shannon, whose Unit 4 board seat term expires this year, and former District 4 council member Greg Stock (he was defeated by Michael Foellmer in 2021). If Shannon were to win a seat, she would be the third woman on the seven-person council, joining Alicia Beck and Vanna Pianfetti.
Of the seven members of the Champaign Unit 4 Schools board, four seats are up: Amy Armstrong, Chris Kloeppel, Kathy Shannon, and Elizabeth Sotiropoulos. (Members serve four year terms.) This should be an interesting race to watch, given the circumstances of the last couple of years: difficult and extended negotiations with the teacher’s union, the reimagining of the schools of choice program, and general distrust and malaise among parents and voters. Amy Armstrong is the only member seeking reelection; Kathy Shannon is running for one of the at-large Champaign city council seats.
In Urbana District #116, the board also has seven members; four serve four-year terms, and three members serve two-year terms. Unlike Champaign, they are elected by sub-district. All seven members’ terms are up this year. Per the Champaign County Clerk’s website, it appears that all seats are uncontested, but it seems that at least one sub-district does not have any candidate running. In 2021-22, a new map was drawn to allow for redistricting. Though the concerns of Champaign’s schools are often the subject of media coverage, Urbana is not without its own. There have been ongoing concerns with safety at the high school, and there is a vocal contingent of parents concerned about the proposed changes to the dual language programs.
We’ll be keeping tabs on these issues and are curious to hear what you’re interested in. Send us an email and let us know. In the meantime, check your voting information and mark your calendar for the 2023 election on April 4th.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Trude Namara, and Mara Thacker.