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Chung and Preston to square off for 91st House District seat

Sharon Chung talks to friends
Emily Bollinger
Democrat Sharon Chung, left, with supporters Tuesday night in downtown Bloomington. Chung won the Democratic primary for the 91st House District.

Primary voters set up a Bloomington-Normal-centric contest in the fall general election for the newly drawn 91st Illinois House district.

There were primaries in both major parties, an indicator the 91st is one of the increasingly rare districts in Illinois that are balanced enough to avoid a predetermined partisan outcome. The district includes parts of four counties: McLean, Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford. It takes in parts of central Bloomington and Normal and stretches ribbonlike west toward Bartonville and East Peoria.

McLean County Board member Sharon Chung of Bloomington defeated Karla Bailey Smith, 63.4% to 36.6%, to win the Democratic Party nomination. On the Republican side, nine-year Normal Town Council member and small-business owner Scott Preston defeated retired insurance claims worker and farmer Jim Fisher of rural Hudson, 63%-37%.


Sharon Chung is a musician and educator. Bailey-Smith owns a painting business. Bailey-Smith ran for the Illinois House two years ago, losing to Republican Keith Sommer.

Karla Bailey-Smith
Emily Bollinger
Democrat Karla Bailey-Smith speaks to supporters Tuesday night in downtown Bloomington. She lost her primary matchup against Sharon Chung.

Chung said a number of factors contributed to her win, including a broad strategy of traditional direct mail, texts, phone banking, and knocking on more than 4,000 doors.

“All of that and the support I've gotten also from the House, and local organized labor, I can't really pinpoint one thing," she said.

Chung commended Bailey-Smith on the race she ran and the work she put in.

“She's a formidable opponent. It was a hard-fought race. We've worked on a lot of things together as Democrats. I knew it was going to be tough to run against somebody I know and respect very well. She made it a race,” said Chung.

Previous maps favored Republican lawmakers. The new 91st was drawn as a 53-54% Democratic party-leaning district, Chung said.

The new map includes parts of districts previously represented by Republicans Dan Brady and Keith Sommer, who chose to retire. On Tuesday, Brady won the GOP nomination for Illinois Secretary of State.

In spite of Bailey-Smith’s experience in a campaign for higher office, the state party backed Chung. In 2018, Chung had defeated an incumbent McLean County Board member by fewer than 100 votes. In a rare move for a primary race at the state house level, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin also endorsed Chung.

“She has the experience, knowledge, and work ethic to make meaningful improvements for working families in central Illinois,” said Durbin. “She has done an excellent job on the McLean County Board, and I believe she can take that experience to Springfield to join the new generation of leadership in the Illinois General Assembly.”

The state party also backed Chung with significant financial resources, paying for multiple direct mail pieces that landed in voter mailboxes over a period of months.

Chung has said that if elected she wants to focus on education.


Scott Preston positioned himself as a main-line business-oriented Republican.

Scott Preston speaking with supporters
Eric Stock
Scott Preston, right, speaks with supporters at a Republican primary watch party at Rob Dob's Restaurant in Bloomington on Tuesday.

“Bad policy out of Springfield has been crushing us and it's time for state government to focus on helping people and reducing the (tax) burden,” Preston said during the campaign.

Jim Fisher served as committeeman for the McLean County Republican Committee and on the Unit 5 school board, but staked out territory on the right and ran as an anti-establishment candidate.

“I’m not a politician,” said Fisher during the campaign. “That's not their career. It's not supposed to be. It's called public service.”

On Tuesday evening, Preston thanked supporters throughout the district.

“I am grateful to the voters of the 91st. We spent countless hours talking to voters, meeting them where they're at, and talking about issues, that are important to them, and why we all want to better Illinois, and make this state government work for families more than it is today,” said Preston.

The fall contest

The seat matters to both Democrats and Republicans and may draw interest and funding from outside the district, both because of the competitive map and the history of the territory.

Republicans have been relegated for years to super-minority status in the state legislature and would like to keep a seat that includes an area long represented by the GOP. Democrats could focus on it to offset potential Republican gains elsewhere in a year many analysts predict will strengthen the GOP in the state.

A significantly larger number of Republicans cast ballots in the district than did Democratic voters — more than 1,000. Part of that can be attributed to the lack of a Democratic contest for governor at the top of the ticket. Preston said, though, it’s more than that, that he is hearing real enthusiasm for the GOP that goes beyond the greater number of contested races.

Jim Fisher
Emily Bollinger
Republican candidate Jim Fisher, right, at a watch party Tuesday night in Bloomington-Normal.

“When you go to the to the gas pump, it's $5 plus a gallon. When you're going to the grocery store if they even have what you're looking for, prices are up considerably from what they were just months or a year ago. People and families feel that pain every day. And it's something that we want to be part of the solution on,” said Preston.

Chung said she thinks the vote gap will narrow in November.

“I think it will balance out. A lot of the Democrats here in Illinois are really happy with the work that Gov. Pritzker has been doing, said Chung.

Preston said he will approach the fall contest in the same way he has run for office before, in a district-wide effort that will capitalize on the base of his name recognition in Normal.

“All candidates for Normal council run at large, across the town. I look forward to continuing to earn every vote in Normal in this race, just like I have on council in the past,” said Preston.

If Chung were to win it would be the first time a Democrat represented Bloomington-Normal in the State House since 1982.

“It really speaks to a lot of the work done by the McLean County Democrats especially. We've had a huge surge, and people who are really energized about the party and energized about running," she said. "We're getting people elected up and down the ballot. That shows how much momentum we have. We Democrats do really well when we get out there and get our message out to the people. That's how I won in 2018. And I'm ready to do it again.”

A contributing factor to the four-decade absence of Bloomington-Normal House Democrats was a 1980 referendum approved by voters that amended the state constitution and did away with multi-member districts. The number of House members fell from 177 to 118, starting with the election of 1982. Political scientists said the prior arrangement helped the minority party in any given district secure representation. The shrinkage also ended the political career of the late Democratic Rep. Gerry (Gerald) Bradley, the last Democrat to win a house seat in the Twin Cities. Bradley lost to Republican Gordy Ropp in 1982. Following Ropp, state representatives for the bulk of the Twin Cities have been Bill Brady and Dan Brady.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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