The politics of the 35th and 36th Illinois House District candidates differ, but they share at least one professional characteristic.
They're all newcomers to the political arena.
Before a crowd of almost 100 at the Green Hills Public Library in Palos Hills on Tuesday, Democrats Bill Cunningham and Kelly Burke and Republicans Barbara Bellar and Richard Grabowski participated in a timed forum. They gave opening and closing statements and responded to questions from the audience.
The event was organized by the League of Women Voters of the Palos-Orland Area and moderated by Barbara Pasquinelli, the league's co-president.
"It's a unique grouping because there are no incumbents," she said. "We're happy that good quality people have stepped up to the plate."
Although it was the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote, the night's questions surrounded economic and ethical, rather than social, issues.
All four candidates vowed to trim state government waste, boost the economy and uproot corruption using different manners and methods.
"This is obviously a very difficult issue," Burke said when asked about school funding reform, though if the moderator had shuffled the questions you may have gotten the same answer. "And if it weren't, it would be solved by now."
The Issue is the Issue
Cunningham, 43, and Bellar, 63, are vying for the 35th District seat, which opened up earlier this year when Rep. Kevin Joyce announced he was leaving office to take a private-sector job in Florida. The district encompasses most of Palos Township and parts of Orland Park and Lyons.
The two potential representatives have opposing views on the purpose of government. Cunningham thinks it ought to be a force to help people, whereas Bellar likes to remind listeners that America is a federal republic, designed to restrain the size and reach of government. She supports the option to allow the public to recall any politician at any time.
"It gives us an opportunity to dismantle a dictatorship," she said.
Bellar has no public-sector experience but touts a diverse career background. The former nun and Army Reserve Major has worked as a physician, attorney and adjunct professor at DePaul University School of Law and Benedictine University. A Burr Ridge native, Bellar said she would like to begin her job in office by subjecting the state's finances to a forensic audit and converting defined benefit pension plans to defined contribution plans like the ones seen in Utah.
"No, I'm not a political insider. No, I'm not politically connected. No, I have not held a significant state position," she said. "If that makes me an unknown — great. That's exactly what you should want."
Cunningham, on the other hand, has spent 20 years working for the Cook County Sheriff's Department, most recently as policy director under Sheriff Tom Dart. He says the experience qualifies him for the legislative work ahead without tying him to any one person or party. He hopes to initiate incentives to bring new business to Illinois, boost the area's transportation sector to create jobs and — echoing Bellar — implement certain term limits to "attack the existing structure."
Cunningham, a Beverly native, also supports stronger gun legislation, including closing the gun show loophole and mandating stricter background checks. Not surprisingly, Bellar has received the endorsement from the Illinois Rifle Association.
Meanwhile, Burke, 43, and Grabowski, 43, are fighting for the state's 36th Congressional District, which includes all of Evergreen Park and Hometown, and parts of Oak Lawn, Chicago Ridge and Hickory Hills — as well as parts of Chicago's 18th, 19th and 21st wards. The seat was left vacant after Rep. James Brosnahan resigned last year.
Burke, a 17-year native of Evergreen Park, has served on the Evergreen Park Library Board since 2003 and as its president since 2005. A once-practicing family and insurance lawyer, she now works for Saint Xavier University, where she helps obtain funding for campus improvements and programs.
"Saint Xavier is one of the largest employers in the 36th District, and working there gives me an insight into how anchor institutions can have a positive effect on our neighborhoods and can be the engine for economic growth," she said.
Since the recession, libraries have learned how to provide more services with fewer resources, she said, noting that her time at the helm of Evergreen Park Library's Board has been a valuable experience.
Hometown resident Grabowski, a material supervisor at a manufacturing company in the area, describes himself as an "ordinary citizen" who discovered his political aspirations after former Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested.
"I'm pro-life, pro-family, pro-business and pro-second amendment," he said in one of the few moments that social issues were addressed. "I respect the God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
He said he also supports term limits because political offices were "never supposed to be a full-time job," and he vowed to cut taxes, increase school choice and put his neighbors to work.
"I'm an ordinary citizen from Illinois," he said.
Your Word is: Cooperation
Few ideological eruptions could be heard amongst the crowd. Pasquinelli kept things cordial and cooperative, always with an eye on her assistants' stopwatches. Often, the candidates even complimented one another's ideas and expanded upon them.
So when Grabowski, in his closing argument, accused Burke of running a disingenuous campaign and harboring political connections in her corner, Pasquinelli stepped in.
"You started out really well, in the middle it got a little muddy, but you ended up well," she said. "Let's take the high road here."
After the forum ended, several audience members said they too disagreed with Grabowski's character attack.
"I know there's that trend going through these days, but I think the government needs less of that and more collaboration," said Barbara Marion, a Palos Hills resident. "I think a lot of people in this country are tired of that negative attitude."
Dan O'Neall, a former principal at Harte Elementary School in Hyde Park, said he dislikes it when politicians resort to partisan slogans and muddy the water with equivocal language.
"Nothing is in the intellect which isn't first in the senses," he said, nearly quoting an old philosophical phrase. "I'm an independent. And all I'm doing is listening. It's called listen now and decide later."
It was a sentiment that carried itself from mouth to mouth. Many attendees, including Tim Marszalik, a 22-year-old from Palos Hills, said they showed up because they weren't sure yet who had their vote, but walked away with a better idea.
Another Palos Hills native, Dorothy Reedy, said she still wasn't sure who she'd vote for and hoped to carry that partisan defiance into the polling station.
"I want the excitement of the day of voting," she said. "And it's going to be a blizzard."
Come rain, snow or shine, there's one thing that doesn't take a weatherman to predict. Both the 35th and 36th districts will have freshman legislators come next year.