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.
Jennifer Straub is a Democrat running against Cynthia Fears for County Board District 9.
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?
Jennifer Straub: County Board is a government body that is easy for even really well-informed residents of Champaign County to overlook most of the time, but it affects the day-to-day life of Champaign County residents in many ways.
Managing the budget of the entire county, the board is responsible for maintaining facilities like the county jail, courthouse, and about two dozen buildings owned by the county as well as county roads and bridges.
The County Board is the governing body of all the unincorporated areas of Champaign County.
The Champaign County Board oversees other county offices, like the clerk and sheriff, and programs like those run by the Regional Planning Commission which include Head Start, Workforce Development, and more.
There are 11 county board districts, and each district gets two seats on the board. I’m running for the seat in District 9 recently vacated by Pranjal Vachaspati.
SP: Why did you decide to run for county board?
Straub: I’ve been involved in local politics for several years now; registering voters and supporting local, state, and national Democratic campaigns by canvassing, making calls, and writing postcards. I’ve also been working locally on the issues of gun violence prevention, homelessness, poverty, and food insecurity. When Pranjal Vachaspati vacated his seat due to a career opportunity, several community leaders for whom I have great respect (including Pranjal) reached out encouraging me to run.
Champaign County is the home my family has chosen, and where I am raising my children. I’m proud of our county and I want someone representing District 9 who shows up with their homework done. I want to continue to build on our strengths and address the areas where we can do better to serve the people who are struggling most.
SP: What do you feel are the top 2-3 issues facing the county board right now?
Straub: First, let me say that if I’m elected the top issues I face will be the issues brought to me by my constituents. People know me — they see me around town, they know how to contact me — and I want to address their questions and concerns.
The downtown jail, by all reports, is in serious disrepair and needs to be closed. I have an appointment to tour it later this month to see the situation for myself. There’s a series of proposals to expand and improve the satellite jail that, in total, would cost $47 million dollars.
This is money Champaign County doesn’t have, and any of these proposals would require a ballot referendum. Although we can all agree safe working conditions for correctional officers is a priority, and that maintenance on our buildings has been deferred too long; we should also be looking toward a future where less of our residents are utilizing this facility.
Cash bail is a problem for the lowest-income members of our community, who can’t afford even low-dollar bail amounts. In my day job working with people in our community who are homeless or facing eviction, I see people who couldn’t afford to bond out of jail, have been subsequently fired from their job, and now are unable to make their rent. I don’t think this practice makes our community better or more safe.
Currently there’s a major push at the state level to end cash bail. There is also fantastic work happening in places, like McLean County, that successfully implement pretrial services. Here in Champaign County, there’s a proposal called One Door, which would essentially provide an option for law enforcement to divert those citizens whose major concerns are mental health issues to real mental health services rather than jail. All of these options implemented locally would create a more equitable criminal justice system in our county, reduce the need for more bed space in our jail, and save the taxpayers money.
An issue facing the County Board that has my full attention is the opportunity to develop a solar farm in rural Champaign County. More and more, we see the federal government ignoring the climate crisis, ignoring a lack of well-paying jobs, and allowing farmers to struggle financially. If we want strong communities, we are going to need to look for local solutions. Even at this very local level, we have a huge opportunity to combat the climate crisis and tap into renewable energy. The skilled labor this kind of project will require will create local jobs, and harvesting energy will create a much-needed revenue source for local farmers and landowners. The Champaign County Board should be vigorously pursuing this opportunity and others like it.
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?
Straub: Since deciding to run for County Board, I’ve made a practice of attending each full County Board meeting, the Committee of the Whole meetings, and the Democratic caucuses before each (with the exception of the week my whole family had influenza, a decision for which I’m sure everyone who was in attendance is grateful). I’ve learned a great deal.
I’ve appreciated watching the important work that happens within the Democratic caucus, when Democrats on the board discuss the agenda items in the upcoming meetings, share their expertise, and attempt to build consensus. However, this opportunity becomes much less valuable when members of the caucus don’t attend, arrive late, or show up unprepared. The current Board Chair, who is running as a Democrat, has not attended a Democratic caucus for several months. I find this extremely detrimental to advancing a unified Democratic vision for our county, and will work to see this change.
As a former teacher, I tell my own children it’s important to show up on time with your homework done. As a member of the County Board, I will do just that. On the County Board, I’ll take my responsibility to the people of District 9 very seriously and do everything possible to earn the trust they’ve placed in me. If I am elected it will be because the people of DIstrict 9 elected a Democrat, and I will faithfully attend caucus prepared and ready to work. I will also work to appoint a chair who is able to unify the party for the greater good of advancing our Democratic vision.
SP: What makes you most qualified to be the Democratic nominee?
Straub: I have a Bachelor of Science in English Education and a Master of Science in School Counseling. The entirety of my professional and volunteer careers have been about serving others.
I’ve worked as an advocate in a shelter for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their children. I have volunteered hundreds of hours on a support line for survivors of interpersonal violence. I’ve taught and counseled middle and high school students who were dealing with homelessness, domestic and community violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and other issues that were compounded by poverty.
Since moving here in 2014, I’ve embraced this community as my family’s home and have worked extremely hard to be a positive force within it.
I was excited to take on a leadership role on the board of my children’s elementary school PTA, where we worked on issues of equity, inclusion and visibility.
I served on the lead team of Champaign-Urbana Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, where I helped the population of our group grow from under 100 to over over 600 members, with many of our meetings outgrowing our meeting space as community members came together to discuss the growing problem of gun violence in our community and our nation.
I enjoyed building relationships with other community organizations, elected officials, candidates, and concerned citizens who are working to address the roots of gun violence. I also enjoyed recruiting and organizing volunteers from Moms Demand Action who knocked on thousands of doors, made hundreds of calls, and wrote hundreds of postcards registering voters and promoting candidates in our community.
I currently work in homeless and low income services. Many of the folks I serve are applying for or receiving social security disability. All of the people I serve are either homeless or housing insecure. In my work I see people entering our community after jail or incarceration without employment or housing. I see people struggling to meet their mental and physical healthcare needs. I see a lack of year-round homeless shelter for men and women, and a family emergency shelter that has a waiting time of 5-150 days. I see people trying to pay market rate rent on a Social Security Income of $781 per month, and young mothers trying to do the same on minimum wage. In short, I see the glaring holes in our community safety nets.
I’m running for County Board because I believe that all of these issues can and must be addressed locally. Some may say the County Board’s job is only to set and approve the budget. I say we find a community’s values and priorities in the way the money within it is spent.