BLOOMINGTON — The Republican candidates vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson stressed shared conservative beliefs in a forum Thursday, but they sought to differentiate themselves with their resumes and personal styles.
About 160 people turned out at Eastland Suites Hotel and Conference Center, Bloomington, to hear from two congressional aides, a lawyer and the owner of a business that provides therapy services to schools. The four — Jerry Clarke, Rodney Davis, Erika Harold and Kathy Wassink— are seeking to fill Johnson’s spot as the GOP candidate for the 13th District seat in the Nov. 6 election.
Clarke, of Urbana, was unable to attend because he was called away for an Army Reserve obligation, but he sent a letter read by Bloomington businessman Ed Brady in which he stressed his love of service to family, God and country. Clarke has 27 years of experience as a pilot in the Army, including three tours in Iraq, and he said his experience taught him how to be a strong candidate.
“When the enemy fires at you, you have to be prepared to fire back,” he wrote. “I’m prepared to take this fight to the Democrats.”
Clarke, a former Johnson chief of staff who now has that post for U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Winfield, said people are suffering because of “incompetent Washington.” He, like his fellow candidates, called for reducing business regulations and taxes and repealing President Barack Obama’s health care reforms.
Davis, of Taylorville, an aide to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of Collinsville, said his experience has taught him the value of serving constituents and listening to what they have to say.
“I need your help to make the best decisions. I need your common sense advice,” he said.
Common sense, for example, means not spending more than you take in, he said.
He also promised to stand up to Republicans as well as Democrats when they are wrong, he said. “I want to be a leader you can be proud of.”
Davis also called for finding better ways to burn Illinois coal, promoting ethanol and building the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada.
Harold, originally from Champaign-Urbana, is an attorney in Chicago who graduated from Harvard Law School and was 2003 Miss America. She represents businesses and religious organizations and has served on the board of the prison ministry founded by Chuck Colson, whom she called a mentor.
She said she sees this election as a showdown between people who want greater government control versus those who believe “citizens can be trusted to manage their own affairs.”
“I have an unquenchable faith in freedom,” she said.
Citing her previous campaign work reaching out to women and minorities, she said it is important to stand on conservative principles while attracting others to the cause.
“It’s not sufficient to rally the base, we must expand the team,” she said, calling the 13th a “swing district.”
Wassink, of Shipman, is a licensed occupational therapist and co-owner of Therakids, which works with 500 students in 86 school districts to provide occupational and speech therapy. She said she is the only candidate in the district, Republican or Democrat, who has experience building a business from scratch — “despite overbearing taxes in Illinois.”
“I’m a mother, a wife, a business owner, a woman of faith and a political activist,” she said.
She said that when she was interviewed by the county party chairmen who will select Johnson’s replacement, she put on the table three things she always carries: a photo of her children, a small Bible and a copy of the Constitution.
“I am that everyday person, that common person. We need common sense,” she said, not a Chicago attorney or professional politician.
Johnson, a six-term congressman, won the nomination for the redrawn district in the March 20 primary, but later announced he would retire at the end of the current term. With the ballot slot now open, the party chairmen for the 14 counties in the district plan to meet Saturday in Springfield to select a candidate to face the Democratic candidate, Bloomington physician David Gill.
This will be the first election year for the redrawn district, which extends from Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana southwest to the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.