Chung and Preston outline differences in criminal justice and taxes in 91st House debate
The two candidates locked in a high-profile race to represent much of Bloomington-Normal and areas west along Interstate 74 shared the stage Tuesday in their only debate before voters head to the polls in November.
Democrat Sharon Chung of Bloomington and Republican Scott Preston of Normal are competing in the Illinois House 91st District. It’s a district without an incumbent, following the drawing of new legislative maps. The race has attracted big spending from both parties as Democrats try to seize an area long held by Republicans, while the GOP hopes to cut in on Democrats’ super majorities in both the House and Senate.
Chung, a McLean County Board member, musician and teacher won the Democratic primary in June, defeating Karla Bailey-Smith. Preston, a Normal Town Council member and small business owner, defeated Jim Fisher of Hudson in the GOP primary.
In a debate at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center, the two gave few specifics on what they would do if elected, but they drew differences on several key issues.
Criminal justice reform
Both were asked how they would improve the SAFE-T Act, the sweeping criminal justice reform bill that among other things eliminates cash bail, starting in January.
Preston said he would look to repeal it. He said Normal Police saw a wave of retirements after the bill became law. “They were either leaving the state to stay in the industry or leaving the industry to stay in the state. That is the real, tangible, on-the-ground impacts of bad policy out of Springfield,” Preston said.
Chung said the law was "smart on crime" and added a lot of the reform bill's critics are fear mongering.
“They think that criminals are going to run free and then that you can’t hold anybody for any offenses here in Illinois anymore and that’s just not the case,” she said.
Preston outlined three areas he defined as core services the state of Illinois must fund: education, infrastructure and human services, but suggested there are lots of areas to cut.
“But there’s also opportunity to make some real cuts and to reduce some of the wasteful spending that’s coming out of Springfield,” he said, citing lawmaker pay raises as one example. He also said the state’s unfunded pension liability must be addressed and consider what the state has committed to retirees and employees and what would be legal.
Chung said existing pensions are untouchable.
“A pension though is a promise and that’s what I have said with a lot of the unions I have spoken with,” Chung said.
Chung also cited education and infrastructure as two top funding priorities. She credited the Pritzker administration and Democrat-controlled legislatures for improving the state’s fiscal health, passing balanced budgets, helping to reduce bill backlogs and improving the state’s credit ratings.
Chung claimed the Illinois economy is doing much better than Preston suggests.
“I’m sometimes a little baffled about my opponent saying that businesses in Illinois is doing all these things (to hurt business), yet we have growing, thriving businesses locally,” Chung said.
Preston said the economy is doing well despite too many taxes and too much regulation.
“We have a vibrant, diverse local economy in spite of the fact that we’re in the state of Illinois. State government has not been helping that cause near to the extent that it could,” Preston said.
Chung said she supported the fair tax amendment that voters rejected in 2020. It would have caused higher income earners to pay a larger share of their earnings in taxes. Chung said the current flax tax rate burdens working and middle-class families.
Preston said he opposed allowing the state to set a progressive tax rate and quoted Democrat State Treasurer Mike Frerichs in suggesting it could open the door for the state to begin taxing retirement savings. Frerichs later said he supported the fair tax plan.
Chung said the state should ensure it is protecting victims of domestic violence by making sure their abusers cannot get access to guns. She emphasized strong background checks, red flag laws and safe storage of guns are key to reducing gun violence.
“These sorts of things could be ways of just ensuring we have safer communities overall,” she said.
Preston said he supports the Second Amendment, and enforcing gun laws already on the books. He called for a comprehensive approach to reduce gun violence, which he said included giving children and young adults a good support system.
“Making sure we have a strong and vibrant economy that gives people the opportunity to work and to be productive and to grow in that sense of their life is another piece to it,” he said.
Chung said she is “100% pro-choice on abortion” and said she is frightened by steps other states have taken to restrict abortion, and is concerned about the threat of bounties for people who turn in those involved in an illegal abortion, and health tracking apps being used as evidence against anyone who may be planning an abortion.
“These laws are really preventing women from getting the health care that they need,” Chung said.
Preston suggested he supports choice, noting his wife went through three rounds of in vitro fertilization over the last two-plus years before giving birth to their first child.
“I fully respect that every person’s journey, every woman’s journey to starting a family is unique,” Preston said. “That’s something all of us should respect and I certainly do.”
Abortion remains legal in Illinois and the state has seen an influx of patients from other states following the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade.
The 91st District House debate will air on WGLT’s Sound Ideas and WCBU’s All Things Peoria at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The debate was co-sponsored by WGLT, WCBU, ISU's Center for Civic Engagement, ISU's Student Government Association, the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters of McLean County.
Early voting begins Thursday. The general election is Nov. 8.
Watch video of the debate below: