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Two Bloomington women are vying for Democratic nomination in 91st House District

Karla Bailey-Smith, left, and Sharon Chung are running for the Democratic nomination for 91st House District, which includes parts of Bloomington-Normal.
Karla Bailey-Smith, left, and Sharon Chung are running for the Democratic nomination for 91st House District, which includes parts of Bloomington-Normal.

Two women are vying to become the first Democrat to represent Bloomington-Normal in the Illinois legislature in recent history.

Karla Bailey-Smith and Sharon Chung, both of Bloomington, are running in the June 28 primary for the 91st House District, which includes much of Bloomington-Normal and stretches west to include East Peoria and Bartonville. It’s an open seat spawned by the 2020 redistricting.

Chung is currently in her first term on the McLean County Board, and one of the first Asian-Americans elected to local office in Bloomington-Normal. She appears to have more support among the Democratic establishment, including new House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch. The speaker’s campaign fund (Democrats for the Illinois House) did a $19,000 mailing for Chung’s campaign this month. Her other endorsements include unions such as the AFL-CIO, the LiUNA! Midwest Region, Great Plains Laborers’ District Council, and Laborers’ Local 362.

In a joint interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas, Chung praised Gov. JB Pritzker and Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s work to improve the state’s finances, including recent credit rating upgrades.

“With the leadership we have, with the new leadership we have in Speaker Welch and this new generation of state representatives and state senators, we’re excited to take these sorts of things head-on and try to make it as transparent as possible,” Chung said. “The speaker’s office is supporting my campaign and I’ve been really humbled and honored by that. I think he sees me as being part of this new generation of leadership that … can help people see how this impacts them and their everyday lives.”

Chung is a musician and educator. She points to her daughters (now 9 and 7) as the spark for her political involvement a few years ago, when she began to ask herself existential questions.

“It was sort of a wake-up call,” Chung said.

Bailey-Smith is a small-business owner whose career includes working as a union scenic artist in the New York area. She has been politically active for nearly 30 years and has been a familiar face in local progressive causes and demonstrations in recent years. She ran unsuccessfully against Republican state Rep. Keith Sommer, R-Morton, in 2020.

Bailey-Smith traces her political awakening back to 1993’s national march for gay, lesbian and bisexual rights. She has been endorsed by Equality Illinois and the Illinois National Organization for Women (IL NOW).

“I just realized how my very existence is political,” said Bailey-Smith, who identified as lesbian at that time.

Chung and Bailey-Smith both tout their support for abortion rights and their credentials on the issue. Chung notes she was endorsed by Planned Parenthood Illinois and Personal PAC. Bailey-Smith notes that, like Chung, she lobbied for passage in 2017 for HB 40, which provides state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions. It also removed language in Illinois law that stated a desire to criminalize abortion if Roe v. Wade case is overturned, as it now appears to be headed.

“If elected, we’ll need to keep an eye on our abortion providers and make sure they are protected from protestors, from people who might seek to block others from coming into the state. That’s one avenue of protection that lawmakers could extend,” Bailey-Smith said.

In their WGLT interview, Bailey-Smith offered a more forceful defense than Chung of the criminal justice reform law passed by Illinois Democrats in 2021. The broad-ranging measure abolishes cash bail beginning in January 2023, reforms police training, certification and use-of-force standards, expands detainee rights, and requires body cameras at all police departments by 2025.

Chung said we’ll have to “wait and see” how the law will affect our communities – either the “consequences or benefits.”

Bailey-Smith more forcefully pushed back on Republicans who’ve criticized the law for making communities less safe. She said she personally spent years lobbying for an end to cash bail and knows that, for example, victims of domestic violence were consulted on its language.

“It is absolutely a dog whistle to claim that ending cash bail will release dangerous criminals onto the street. That is absolutely incorrect. The bill was written with vulnerable people in mind and as part of the conversation of developing the language,” Bailey-Smith said.

Early voting is now underway ahead of the June 28 Democratic primary. The winner of Chung and Bailey-Smith’s matchup will face the winner of the GOP primary between Scott Preston of Normal and Jim Fisher of Hudson.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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