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SPRINGFIELD — The major-party candidates for Illinois’ 18th Congressional District are pitching themselves to voters as independent-minded leaders who will work across the aisle to get things done in a U.S. House mired in partisan gridlock.

Republican U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood of Peoria and Democratic challenger Junius Rodriguez of Eureka faced off Monday night at a Springfield debate.

LaHood, a former state senator, is seeking his first full term in Congress after winning a special election last fall to replace former Republican U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, a Peoria Republican who resigned amid questions about his campaign finances.

Rodriguez, a history professor at Eureka College, was chosen to fill a vacancy on the ballot by county Democratic Party chairman in the 18th District, which stretches from Quincy to eastern McLean County and includes all or parts of Bloomington, Normal and Lincoln.

To bolster his bipartisan credentials, LaHood pointed to successful legislation he’s supported that deals with transportation, education and the nation’s opioid addiction crisis. But he also noted his opposition to bipartisan budget deals that Republican leaders supported because he believed they were unaffordable.

“I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done on bipartisan legislation,” LaHood said, adding, “When my party doesn’t stand for what I think is right … I voted against my own party.”

But Rodriguez argued that LaHood’s continued support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is evidence that the congressman is guilty of the “blind partisanship, blind allegiance” that are at the root of Washington’s problems.

“If you want the dysfunction of Washington to continue, if you want Congress to continue operating as it has, then I would say, ‘Support my opponent,’ ” said Rodriguez, who supports Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He said he’s an independent voice who will represent the interests of people, not party.

LaHood said that while he repudiates many of Trump’s comments about Muslims, women and others, he’s continued to support the Republican nominee because he doesn’t believe Clinton will fix the economy or appoint Supreme Court justices who will uphold the Second Amendment or overturn previous rulings on abortion rights.

The presidential race wasn’t the only issue on which the candidates differed.

When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, LaHood favors the “repeal and replace” strategy Republicans have pushed since the law was passed, although he would support keeping popular provisions that allow children to stay on their parents’ policies until they turn 26 and prohibit insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

Rodriguez favors working to improve the parts of the law that aren’t working well while keeping the parts that are, suggesting Congress might consider placing caps on premium increases.

On same-sex marriage, LaHood continues to support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman, a stance he attributes to his Catholic faith.

While Rodriguez said he respects people’s religious beliefs, legally recognizing same-sex marriages is a civil rights issue that should not be reversed.

There was also some common ground to be found.

Both candidates expressed support for raising the Social Security retirement age and means testing benefits.

They also offered somewhat similar stances on immigration, both opposing Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border while also calling for tougher border enforcement and streamlining the legal immigration process.

Monday night’s debate, hosted by The State Journal-Register and radio station WMAY-AM 970, was the only scheduled joint appearance for the candidates before the Nov. 8 election.

Follow Dan Petrella on Twitter: @petrellareports


Public Safety Reporter

Public safety reporter for The Pantagraph.

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