Next 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.
Democract Emily Rodriguez is running against incumbent and County Board Chair Giraldo Rosales for County Board District 8.
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?
Emily Rodriguez: The county board serves on the frontlines of government. The decisions they make impact the everyday lives of residents. When communities are hurting, it’s the County Board’s job to help. If the county board does their job well, residents get the basics: affordable housing, public safety, vibrant neighborhoods, accessible elections, and fair courts. The county budget is the most important tool we have to meet those commitments.
SP: Why did you decide to run for the county board?
Rodriguez: My partner died of an overdose in 2018. Joe was very open with others about his experiences with addiction. He believed sharing his story could save lives. My running for the county board is an extension of that. One of our last great conversations was about my running for the county board. He very much wanted me to run, but I wasn’t so sure.
After Joe died, I pushed the opioid epidemic to the front of C-U’s political conversation. I’m an administrator of the political activist group C-U Indivisible. In August 2018, we published research that revealed Representative Rodney Davis had accepted $98K in donations since 2011 from the very pharmaceutical corporations Champaign County had sued for their role in engineering the opioid epidemic. Our work was covered by the State Journal Register, the Herald Review, and WILL Public Media.
Ultimately, it was an email exchange with Giraldo Rosales that cemented my decision to run for the county board. I asked where the opioid epidemic fit into his agenda for the county board; Rosales replied that the loss of life was troubling, but he had no power to do anything about it. You can read that email exchange here. Rosales did not seem to understand that he occupies one of three seats on the Board of the C-U Public Health District (per state statute, 70 ILCS 905/11). He has every resource needed to lead a meaningful conversation on the harms of the epidemic.
When I read that Rosales had no plan, I knew I had to run for his seat. I felt obligated. An estimated 22,000 people in Champaign County struggle with substance misuse disorder. I know I can do better for them and their loved ones.
SP: What do you feel are the top 2-3 issues facing the county board right now?
Rodriguez: The racial disparities in our jail population, homelessness, hunger, the lack of mental health services, and violence are all crucial issues, but the root of most of these problems is poverty. I’m running for Champaign County Board because 25% of our neighbors are trapped below the poverty level. That’s much higher than any comparable county in Illinois, and it means Champaign County needs to make a change.
I’m fighting for five solutions that break the generational cycle of poverty and reduce its harms. In doing so, we will stabilize our budget, expand our tax base, and become less reliant on the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers for revenue.
My plan for Champaign County has five parts:
First, I’ll work with others on the board to open a public conversation about emergency and recovery housing. We can begin that conversation on day one. Ultimately, I seek to increase affordable housing options in Champaign County and deepen the board’s relationship with the Housing Authority.
I also want to shrink our incarceration system. Before 2022, I’d seek to demolish the defunct downtown jail and commit to dramatically reduce the number of beds in the satellite jail. This makes sense for many reasons. For example, the State Legislature is expected to end cash bail soon. Between 70-90% of our jail population is awaiting trial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime, they are waiting to make bail. With this change, we can expect the needs of the jail to decrease significantly with fewer people. It’s a no-brainer.
Third, I am committed to building a meaningful partnership between the County Board and our local building and construction trade unions. It’s one reason I’ve been endorsed by the East Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. Before 2022, I would work to mandate community labor agreements on county-backed projects. These pre-hire agreements have been found to improve safety on worksites, lower costs, and open the trades to women and people of color. Community labor agreements are just one way we can ensure more workers in Champaign County get a livable wage.
Next, I will expand access to mental health services and treatment for substance use disorder. An estimated 22,000 Champaign County residents deal with substance use disorder, and the current wait time for recovery treatment is 6 months – 1 year. We need to expand access to treatment and encourage community solutions like recovery housing. Also, the harms of homelessness and drug use often overlap in ways the county should consider when they make policy decisions. We have a great need for 24-hour emergency and temporary housing options that can accommodate women and families, and the County Board needs to partner with local groups and organizations like Cunningham Township to make those resources available to residents.
Finally, progress doesn’t have to mean higher taxes. In the long run, we need to restructure our budget to better reflect our values. Approving home rule would give the county the flexibility needed to reallocate the revenue we already have. Until then, Champaign County should take advantage of federal grants that would likely become available under a new presidential administration and with new representation in congress. For example, the Second Chance Act has received bipartisan support, but funding for the programs has dropped dramatically in recent years. This is just one program that could fund the anti-poverty measures we so desperately need.
You can read more about my plan to break the cycle of poverty at emilyrodriguez.org.
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?
This question gets at the heart of this primary race, and I’m so glad SP raised it here.
I often hear that partisan rancor has immobilized the county board, but history shows that’s not entirely true. The root of the tension is the erratic leadership of the local Democratic Party.
Democrats have held a majority on the Champaign County Board since 2002. In that time, four county board members have secured their position as chair with Republican support. In exchange, these chairs gave Republicans preferred positions on key committees. While these chairs have defended their actions, the move effectively turns the tables on voters, who have given Democrats a strong mandate to govern. My opponent is the fourth chair to do this.
We’ve paid a high price for those backroom deals. Once fractured by the chair, the board lacks any semblance of a political agenda. The result is chaos. In just one year, a handful of Democrats joined the Republican minority in voting to sell the nursing home, to grant the County Executive an exorbitant salary of $117, 269 (before the position had even been assigned a job description), and to consolidate campus early voting centers to save a mere $10,000. Each of these policy failures has hurt our most vulnerable neighbors. Each has whittled away the influence of the board. Each was decided because a handful of old-guard Democrats formed a pact with the Republican minority.
The bar for the County Board in District 8 is set so low that I have tripped over it while canvassing. Voters are frustrated by the lack of progress and incompetence (see the Treasurer’s office). On the surface, it appears that the bickering is embedded into the culture of the board. If you take a closer look, it’s clear the source of the tension is that old-guard Democrats have squandered away their chance to offer a compelling agenda for Champaign County’s future. Without a change, important debates on the board will continue to feel like quicksand. The board will flail and bicker, but ultimately we all sink.
The primary race feels contentious because it is about the future of Champaign County. Against the advice of his party, Rosales has appointed three old-guard Democrats to fill three seats previously occupied by progressive county board members. Voters can end the bickering by reclaiming those seats.
On March 17th, voters will decide what it means to be a Democrat in Champaign County. The progressive candidates running for Champaign County Board share a vision. We want to serve as a safety net for the homeless and the hungry among us. We’re fighting for a compelling agenda that will raise expectations of the county board. Our responses in candidate forums and questionnaires demonstrate that we know what we want to do with the budget. We don’t bicker or flail, the debates we will hold in caucus will enrich the decision-making process (and we’ll actually show up).
Every vote cast for a progressive candidate is a vote to revitalize the Democratic Party of Champaign County from the bottom-up. With a new party chair, progressive candidates will continue to run at every level of government. That’s how we’ll end the bickering and return power to the hands of Champaign County residents.
I spoke about the consequences of a fractured board at the candidate’s forum on January 30 sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Champaign County, the Champaign County NAACP and the News-Gazette. Read the Illinois Newsroom’s summary here.
SP: What makes you most qualified to be the Democratic nominee?
Rodriguez: My record shows I have a knack for collaborating with others to enact bold solutions. For the past five years, I’ve held leadership roles as an organizer and public servant, and have also served as an educator and researcher.
Administrator, CU Indivisible
I’ve served as a leader in CU Indivisible for the past four years. With nearly 2,000 members, we’re one of the largest activist groups in Champaign County. Our thriving activist community is one of the best things about Champaign County. We work to oppose the Trump agenda and expand opportunities for meaningful democratic participation. The most important feature of our work is that we serve as a microphone for other activist groups — that’s something I intend to bring into my work on the County Board. Read more about CUI’s work here.
Chair, Champaign Citizen Police Review Subcommittee
The CPRS is the result of 10 years of hard work in our community in resposne to the murder of Kiwane Carrington. We are tasked with building confidence in the accountability of the Champaign Police Department through unbiased review of the investigation of citizen complaints. We are also responsible for policy recommendations and public outreach to improve community-police relations. The subcommittee consists of five members that are appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the Champaign City Council.
I was nominated and confirmed as the first chair of the Champaign CPRS in October 2017 and was reappointed in July 2019. In that time, I’ve made the police complaint process more fair, meaningful, and accessible. I’m proud of the fact our first annual recommendations were largely accepted by Champaign Police Administration, and that they were drafted with input by the City of Champaign and activists (read more here).
As chair, I’ve demonstrated I can do the nuanced, slow, and often unseen work of institutional change. I’ve also gained experience leading a public body and engaging in meaningful dialogue between constituents and stakeholders. Read more about the CPRS’s purpose and work here.
Educator and doctoral student at UIUC
Like many in my district, I’m a doctoral student. I’ve taught UIUC students for five years, and I’m building a life in Champaign. I study political rhetoric in local settings, and I’ve often used the research skills that come with my work to hold elected officials like Rep. Rodney Davis accountable (read examples here and here). I also teach public speaking and writing at UIUC. The best part of my job is giving students a space to define their commitments and grow confident in using their voice in public. I have their faces and experiences in mind when I make decisions.
In short, I’m the progressive candidate for County Board District 8.
I’m qualified because my experiences are representative of my district. I have packed a long record of community service into my past five years in C-U, and I plan to continue that work as your representative on the county board. Representative Carol Ammons’s work on the board is an example of the leadership I’d seek to contribute.
Photo provided by Emily Rodriguez.