Recently I had the opportunity to observe citizen engagement with members of Congress – the kind not typically seen on television. My husband, Randy Witter, and I were in Washington, D.C., for the University of Illinois System advocacy day. Teams representing all three University of Illinois campuses met with members of the Illinois congressional delegation. Students explained firsthand how federal Pell grants enabled them to pursue higher education.
Along with more than 100 Illinoisans, we also attended the April 20 monthly constituent meeting in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill hosted by Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. Durbin has co-hosted these monthly events – now called the Illinois Constituent Coffee – with then-Senators Carol Moseley Braun, Peter Fitzgerald, Barack Obama, Roland Burris, Mark Kirk and now Senator Tammy Duckworth. Senator Paul Simon, Durbin's mentor, launched the Illinois Hospitality Breakfast series in 1985. Durbin has continued the tradition throughout his tenure in the U.S. Senate. Sens. Durbin and Duckworth recently restarted hosting these coffees following the COVID-19 shutdown. I remember taking our two children to one of those events in 2001 with Sens. Durbin and Fitzgerald.
The April forum demonstrated there are a myriad of issues impacting people in Illinois that don't make headlines, and there are countless organizations traveling to Washington to advocate for their interests. The issues raised to Durbin and Duckworth included: providing access to healthy food, regulating flavored cigarettes targeted at youth, funding schools adjacent to large federal facilities that don't pay property taxes, ensuring women veterans have access to health care they need, treating veterans by ophthalmologists vs. optometrists for some procedures, providing work opportunities for Afghan immigrant professionals and supporting patient access to osteopathic medicine.
Durbin and Duckworth shared their extensive knowledge, positions and insights on the issues. On one issue Durbin did not have a position. He promised to investigate this further to better understand the constituent's concern. Durbin's office says these events are an important way for him to hear directly from the people he represents, in addition to hearing from people when he travels home to Illinois on weekends.
On May 4, Congresswoman Nikki Budzinski hosted her first town hall meeting in Springfield at the Union Baptist Church, moderated by UIS Chancellor Janet Gooch. A diverse audience of more than 50 people came to listen and share their concerns. Budzinski discussed the issues she has been working on during her first 100-plus days representing Illinois' 13th Congressional District. She serves on the House Agriculture Committee and House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Advocating for biofuels and veterans' access to behavioral and mental health resources are among her priorities. She has introduced bipartisan legislation creating tax credits for workforce development and pre-apprenticeship programs, incentivizing health care specialists to work in rural areas, supporting biofuels and making the Springfield Race Riot site a National Monument within the National Park Service.
Budzinski was asked about working across the aisle with Illinois Republican members of Congress. While acknowledging disagreements on various policy issues, she cited examples of finding common ground. She is cosponsoring the Race Riot site legislation with Congressman Darin LaHood. She and Congresswoman Mary Miller were in communication following the disastrous vehicle pileup on I-55 to discuss how they might help victims and their families. "Bipartisanship is an intention, not just a talking point," said Budzinski.
The weather in Washington several weeks ago was glorious, with a brilliant blue sky and colorful azaleas blooming. Our group had the obligatory photo taken on the steps of the Capitol. The view of the Capitol dome is stunning. When I came home, I found a picture taken in a similar spot in 1966 when my family had our picture taken with our congressman at the time, Paul Findley.
This was my first visit to Washington since the tragic events of Jan. 6, 2021. Standing in front of the U.S. Capitol, I struggled to understand how American citizens could do that. Having worked in state government for 35 years, I've seen both scoundrels and dedicated public servants. I think the latter are far more prevalent than the former. I believe strongly in the institution of government and am encouraged when I witness democracy in action as it should be.
Budzinski was asked what has surprised her most. She acknowledged there is a lot of trouble in D.C. However, she says there are a lot of good people, and she is trying to seek them out to make a difference.
I believe it is important to get to know your elected officials at all levels of government, advocate for the issues we care about, do so respectfully, be a part of the solution and not the problem, listen and vote. Visit the offices of your elected officials locally or in D.C. or attend a constituent coffee with Illinois' senators. While in Washington, learn more about our history and democracy by visiting the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Library of Congress and the many outstanding Smithsonian Institution museums.
Karen Ackerman Witter was a natural resources policy adviser to Governor Jim Thompson, director of the Illinois Department of Energy and Natural Resources and associate director of the Illinois State Museum during her 35 years in state government. She participated in numerous Museum Advocacy Days on Capitol Hill.