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Blair Confronts Rep. Sommer On 20-Year Tenure

Democratic candidate for the Illinois 88th House District Jill Blair said her opponent’s unwillingness to hear constituents’ concerns was part of her decision to run for his seat.

Blair faced off against Republican incumbent Keith Sommer during a GLT candidate forum at Illinois State University’s Alumni Center Wednesday night.

Responding to a question about how candidates would remain independent from the will of House Speaker Michael Madigan and put their district’s best interests first, Sommer said while he may vote more often along conservative lines, he’s open to hearing out others’ ideas.

“I do not follow what anyone else tells me to do,” he said. “I look at the issues, I hear positions, and I vote accordingly. I think of the people back home, the people I represent.”

"It's not a democracy if we don't have choices on the ballot and people can stay in their positions for decades without challenge."

Blair disagreed.

“As far as whether Rep.Sommer has been open to the input of his constituents, I’m looking at faces in the crowd here today that I know have expressed frustration with trying to ask Rep. Sommer to consider their positions and to consider their input, and they did not feel like they were heard,” she said. "That’s part of the reason why I've decided to step forward and run.”

Sommer said he didn’t think that was accurate.

“I’m open to all,” he said. “My door is open. I don’t believe I’ve had anyone in this audience come to my office and ask to speak to me.”

Sommer’s time in office has been relatively quiet compared to his counterparts in neighboring districts, GLT reported. He’s sponsored fewer bills, served on fewer committees and rarely held press conferences or issued media releases.

Keith at debate
Credit Cindy Le / WGLT
State Rep. Keith Sommer is a Morton Republican who's served in the General Assembly since 1999.

But Sommer said his role has expanded in recent years.

While much of his term has been spent representing residents who believe in a hands-off approach to government, Sommer said he’s glad that 2011 redistricting added parts of Bloomington to his district.

“Previously my districts have been small town, rural, people who believed in self sufficiency: ‘Government, get out of our way, let us live our lives and grow our businesses,” he said. “On the other hand there are others who need more services from state government, and I’ve seen that here in this part of the county, West Bloomington, and it’s opened my eyes to the needs of the people there. Certainly we need to provide basic services, but we can’t deny the needs that people have through no fault of their own.”

Sommer hopes to continue his nearly 20-year tenure representing the district, which also includes parts of rural McLean County, Washington and Morton. Blair is his first general election challenger since 2008.

Blair said she doesn’t think term limits can solve what she called the problem of long-term incumbency.

“What would have happened for example if my opponent had termed out in this district that has been safely Republican for a long time?” she said. “My guess is that he would have been able to handpick his successor or the Republican Party would have been able to handpick his successor.”

 Jill Blair speaks into mic
Credit Cindy Le / WGLT
Democrat Jill Blair of Bloomington is a first time candidate for elected office.

An independent commission to draw electoral district lines, campaign finance reform and easier ballot access for third-party candidates would provide a solution, she said.

Sommer said he also wants to see fairer districts, but wants to see legislative leaders capped at 10-year or lower term limits.

“If the popular vote is put to the people, I will abide by their wishes and I would support term limits," Sommer said.

Blair said that’s confusing coming from someone who’s served in Springfield for nearly two decades.

“You’ve had the opportunity to limit your terms yourself by choosing not to run,” she said. “It’s not a democracy if we don’t have choices on the ballot and people can stay in their positions for decades without challenge.”

The next GLT-League of Women Voters candidate forum will be Oct. 23, featuring candidates for McLean County Board in districts 2, 8, and 9. Find more details at WGLT.org/Forums.

The election is Nov. 6.

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.
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