Candidates sound off on voting, diversity and social issues at Bloomington forum
Voting access, diversity, equity and inclusion, and social issues dominated much of the discussion during a candidates’ forum for county and state offices Tuesday evening in Bloomington.
The 90-minute forum hosted by the Bloomington-Normal NAACP at Mount Pisgah Baptist Church, included Republican McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael, her Democratic challenger Laura McBurney, county treasurer Rebecca McNeil and Illinois state Sen. Dave Koehler.
Four other candidates who were invited to appear either canceled, declined to appear or did not respond to the request, according to organizers.
Michael is seeking a fourth term as county clerk. McBurney is a political newcomer.
The McLean County Clerk’s office oversees all elections in the county outside of Bloomington. It also handles the county’s vital records, property tax extensions, document recording and business services.
Michael said she would like to see some type of identification aside from a signature when people cast ballots.
“I actually believe we should have more ID. I don’t know how to do it yet, working on that,” said Michael, recalling an incident where a voter in Normal who had suffered a stroke was unable to vote because their signature no longer matched.
McBurney said she would like to expand early voting in Normal by starting before Oct. 17.
“I would also like to make it so that we have weekend and evening hours for early voting in that area,” said McBurney. “There currently are not any.”
Early voting is underway at the Government Center and Eastland Mall in Bloomington in advance of the Nov. 8 election.
McBurney also said the county should offer Spanish-language ballots. “Not being able to vote on a ballot that is in your home language as an American citizen is not something we shouldn’t have here,” she said.
Michael said the county doesn’t meet the population threshold that would require that, but suggested the office could explore it.
“We wouldn’t be against that. Remember it all costs money, but if it’s money versus the right to vote, I’ll go with the right to vote and we’ll find the money somehow,” she said.
Koehler, a Democrat from Peoria, is seeking to retain the district seat that includes much of the Peoria area and Bloomington-Normal.
Koehler noted he is a gun owner and described his views on gun access as moderate, saying it’s polarizing issue on both sides.
His Republican opponent, Desi Anderson of Carlock, canceled her scheduled appearance at the forum.
Koehler noted that he wrote the FOID modernization bill that Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law last year. It expands background checks and expedites applications for those who submit to fingerprinting.
“What we have to do is make sure that the wrong people do not have access to weapons,” Koehler said.
McNeil and Michael both said they are concerned for their safety in their offices at the Government Center downtown.
“Down in the Government Center, lack of security is one thing we have,” said McNeil, a Republican, who is seeking a sixth term as county treasurer.
The treasurer's office handles tax and fee collections and distributions in the county for about 200 taxing bodies, manages the county’s investments and payroll and pays the county’s bills.
Libertarian treasurer candidate Charles Sila declined to attend.
McNeil noted there are no metal detectors in the Government Center that houses a mix of county and City of Bloomington offices.
Michael said she would like county offices to allow staff to carry firearms.
“What do I do if someone comes in with a gun, do I throw my pencil at them? You tell me what we do, I don’t have the answer, but I think I should have the right to carry a gun in my office,” said Michael, adding the office has to call 911 about three times each month.
DEI, Black Lives Matter
Each candidate was asked if they believe about Black Lives Matter, and separately what steps they've taken to foster diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their offices.
Koehler said he “absolutely” supports Black Lives Matter and noted the movement’s rise following the deaths of people of color at the hands of police, notably George Floyd.
He added he has supported social equity components in cannabis production, renewable energy and infrastructure.
McNeil responded: “I am not going to just say that Black lives matter. All lives matter. Even the unborn.” McNeil later reiterated her pro-life stance and said she was “stunned” the moderator asked what each candidate has done for women and abortion access following the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe. vs. Wade.
McBurney said she supports the Black Lives Matter cause and linked the issue to voter suppression.
“I want for all voters when they go to the polls to feel safe. I don’t want our local voters to go to the polls and be intimidated by police in uniform,” she said.
Michael said she agrees with McNeil on the Black Lives Matter question, adding she "stands proudly behind our police and law enforcement.”
The two candidates for the U.S. House 17th District that will include much of Bloomington-Normal, Republican Esther Joy King and Democrat Eric Sorensen, also were invited to the forum. Organizers said King did not reply to their request to appear and that Sorensen canceled his scheduled appearance. A spokesperson for the Sorensen campaign told WGLT on Wednesday Sorensen had never confirmed for the event and had a scheduling conflict.
The forum was sponsored by WGLT, the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Conexiones Latinas de McLean County, the League of Women Voters of McLean County, LIFE Center for Independent Living, McLean County Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Prairie Pride Coalition.