Covering the Land of Lincoln

Tom Kacich | Budzinski shatters one of C-U’s oldest glass ceilings | Columns

Twenty-seven men have represented Champaign-Urbana in Congress since Champaign County was incorporated nearly 190 years ago.

They’ve included farmers, attorneys, physicians, newspaper publishers, bankers, civil war officers, millionaire industrialists, a future mayor of Chicago, a future speaker of the US House and a future US senator.

But none was a woman.

On Jan. 3, 2023, that changes when Springfield Democrat Nikki Budzinski is sworn in as the representative for Illinois’ 13th Congressional District, a serpentine, seven-county district that extends from Champaign-Urbana on the northeast to St. Clair County on the southwest.

It was gerrymandered by the Democrat-dominated Illinois Legislature to provide fertile soil for a Democratic candidate. Budzinski worked it for a year and helped and emerged victorious in last Tuesday’s election.

It was inevitable that a woman would win the 13th District this time — the other candidate was Decatur Republican Regan Deering — but the victory was a long time coming locally. Illinois had its first female member of Congress — Chicago Republican Ruth McCormick — in 1928. Jessie Sumner, a resident of nearby Iroquois County and an outspoken critic of Franklin Roosevelt, was elected to Congress in 1938.

And numerous women — mostly Democrats — ran in the district that included Champaign-Urbana — but never won. There was Olive Remington Goldman of Urbana, who ran in 1946 and 1948, losing to Decatur Republican Rolla McMillen. There was state Sen. Penny Severns of Decatur, who ran unsuccessfully in 1980 against Lincoln Republican Ed Madigan. And Urbana’s Laurel Prussing, who tried to unseat Tom Ewing of Pontiac in 1996 and 1998.

More recently, there was Ann Callis of Edwardsville (2014) and Betsy Londrigan of Springfield (2018 and 2020), who lost to Taylorville Republican Rodney Davis in the old 13th District.

Davis also defeated Urbana attorney Erika Harold in a GOP primary in 2014.

This time, the latest unofficial returns give Budzinski more than 55 percent of the vote, boosted by what is currently a 40-percent-plus victory margin in Champaign County and another comfortable advantage in St. Clair County. She had smaller victory margins in Sangamon and Madison counties. Budzinski lost big in Piatt and Macoupin counties but finished close to Deering in Macon County, home of the Republican candidate.

The congresswoman-elect, who is a University of Illinois graduate, did especially well in areas near the UI campus. Of nine Champaign-Urbana precincts where the student vote dominates, Budzinski currently has 3,580 votes to 424 for Deering. Other Democratic candidates did almost as well.

Budzinski’s win also is a significant milestone for local Democrats, who have been stymied in their effort to elect a Democratic member of Congress, particularly in the last 10 years. She’ll be the first Democrat to represent the two cities since Rep. Terry Bruce of Olney retired in 1993.

Bruce represented Illinois’ 19th District, which no longer exists. Before that, a Democrat hadn’t been elected since the Depression years when Champaign’s Donald C. Dobbins won in 1932 and 1934, and Arthur newspaper editor and real-estate broker Hugh Rigney was victorious in 1936.

Of the 27 people who have represented Champaign-Urbana in Congress, only nine were Democrats: Bruce, Dobbins, Rigney and Decatur Mayor Charles Borchers (1912). plus 19th-century politicians Samuel T. Busey, an Urbana banker and Civil War veteran (elected 1890); John R. Eden, an attorney from Sullivan (1862); John Wentworth, a newspaper editor who later became mayor of Chicago (1843-51); Richard S. Molony, a physician from Bevidere (1850); and Zadoc Casey, who founded the Illinois city of Mount Vernon and later became speaker of the Illinois House (1834 and 1838-42).

Among the Republicans who have represented Champaign-Urbana in Congress were: Owen Lovejoy, a leading abolitionist and a friend of Abraham Lincoln (1856-62); Joseph Cannon of Danville, who later became speaker of the US House (1872-90); William McKinley, a Champaign millionaire who once owned the forerunner of Illinois Power Co. and the Illinois Terminal Railroad (1904-12 and 1914-20); William Springer, a Champaign attorney who served 11 terms (1950-72); and Madigan, who was elected to 10 terms in Congress but left early to become Secretary of Agriculture under President George HW Bush (1973-91).

drump effectThe election results may be incomplete, but there’s plenty of evidence to conclude that Illinois and Champaign County Republicans are still suffering the effects of Donald Trump as the GOP standard-bearer.

The pain of 2018’s historical losses in Champaign County — the first Democratic county clerk since 1942, the first Democratic sheriff since 1934, the first time a Democratic candidate for governor won here since 1936 — continued this year as Democrats won all countywide offices, apparently grabbed a 16-6 advantage on the county board and won a congressional seat for the first time in more than 30 years.

Female and young voters are keeping their distance from the GOP because of Trump, his Supreme Court appointments and his off-putting behavior.

Republican leaders, particularly in blue states like Illinois, would be wise to heed the words of retiring Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin about Trump: “He’s been harmful to Illinois and a good portion of the United States for Republicans. And I believe that he is really responsible for the underperforming on Tuesday.”

Trump has been a godsend to Democratic candidates in Illinois and Champaign County.

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