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Republican, Libertarian Vying For Rural Seat On McLean County Board

Gerald and Michael
Republican Gerald Thompson, left, and Libertarian Michael Suess are running for McLean County Board in District 1.

McLean County Board District 1 is one of the bigger districts geographically, home to around 16,000 people in towns such as Lexington, Hudson, Colfax, and Gridley.

Gerald Thompson of rural Colfax said his past leadership experience as a director with Illinois Farm Bureau and Country Financial prepared him for the job.

The Republican candidate said farmers like him are underrepresented on the 20-member County Board.

“One of the things I continue to hear as I travel around and talk to people—especially in the farther out areas—they feel like they’re underrepresented, and their voices are forgotten. So it’s trying to make that connection and to let people know they are important. That would be a goal, to fix that problem,” Thompson said.

Thompson will face Libertarian Michael Suess, an actuary at Country Financial who lives near Cooksville.

Suess said his main priorities are lower taxes and bringing more jobs to the county. He told GLT one of the big reasons he ran is his brother—Steve Suess, the chairman of the McLean County Libertarian Party—who wanted to field a Libertarian candidate in every County Board district. And Michael Suess said the Libertarian presidential candidate's strong local showing in 2016 made it easy for him to get on the ballot.

“It only required three signatures, versus significantly more previously,” Suess said.

During a phone interview from the cab of his combine, Thompson said he’d approach some of the bigger issues facing the county on a case-by-case basis. That includes the spread of renewable energy to McLean County farmland—long used for corn and soybeans. County Board members have decided on several solar farm applications in recent months, after years of controversial wind farm projects.

Thompson said he has wind turbines about a half-mile from his own property.

“Solar farms are a different situation. The footprint is much larger. You take one tower of a wind farm, it’s a pretty small footprint for the benefits you get,” Thompson said. “First of all, it’s the landowner’s (decision). You get into property rights. And if that’s what they want to do and it’s not hurting others—you gotta evaluate those things and be open-minded to what their wishes are.

“The (solar farms) that I know have been proposed were on land that’s more marginally productive. Typically that’s where they try to locate them because it’s not conducive to take prime farmland out of production,” he added. “You take them on a case-by-case situation.”

Suess said he'd want to see a robust public feedback process for any potentially controversial wind or solar projects.

“I would want the participation of the local voters of the area that would be potentially getting those farms. I would want their voters heard, rather than just being voted on at the county level,” Suess said.

Suess said another priority for him is to grow the local economy without giving away the farm—in the form of tax breaks. The county in recent years has given tax breaks to lure companies like Brandt and Rivian. In those cases, the tax breaks are tied with performance benchmarks like hiring.

GLT asked Suess: How do you do that while staying competitive with other communities across Illinois looking to land the next big employer?

“I’m not saying it would never be an option. I’m saying we need to be more selective as to when we give those (tax break) options,” Suess said.

Thompson said the tax breaks for Brandt were a good deal for the county's taxing bodies—hundreds of thousands of dollars lost over a decade but getting back hundreds of jobs.

“That’s the kind of situation you look (for),” Thompson said. “If you give a huge incentive and you get nothing in return, obviously that’s not a good deal. If I would look at it, it would be, we gotta get something in return, and the return needs to be greater than what we’re giving, or there’s no point in doing it, right?”

Suess and Thompson agreed that county roads near them are generally in pretty good shape, and neither was eager to support a new countywide motor fuel tax for roads and bridges, if the state were to allow it.

But they were split on whether the McLean County Board should move its meeting times from mornings to evenings, like many other public bodies do. Suess said morning meetings make it hard for community members to attend. Thompson said he doesn’t think it’ll make a difference in public engagement.

“Today with the advancement in technology with the internet and streaming, I find it hard to believe we’ll move the time and we’ll get people to go (to the meetings), when they can just sit at home on their computer and see the same thing. I’d be hard pressed to buy that argument,” Thompson said.

Thompson and Suess are seeking the District 1 seat now held by Don Cavallini, who's not seeking re-election. Thompson ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate against Cavallini four years ago over Cavallini's winter absences from meetings.

In March, Thompson beat his Republican primary opponent Jeremiah Houston with over 80 percent of the vote.

You can find all our election stories, plus a link to the GLT Voter Guide, at WGLT.org/Election.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.