In Illinois' redrawn 68th district, candidates try to engage changing constituency
The newly redrawn state representative 68th District covers the eastern portion of Rockford and all of Belvidere, areas with significant Latino population. The Republican candidate, a newcomer to politics, believes he understands the issues concerning voters.
Jonathan Ojeda said, when knocking on doors, folks tell him of their concern for the rising cost of food and other essentials. He said economic concerns and securing a better future for his daughter are the reasons that he’s running.
“Right now, the way it's looking at is taxes keep going up, and they're not going back down, and legislative officials aren't going to give those back,” Ojeda said.
“When it comes to where the money will be coming from going forward, I think it needs to come from elected officials. I mean, it blows my mind right now that we have state legislators making over six figures in the state that's suffering.”
Ojeda’s challenger is incumbent State Representative Dave Vella, a Rockford Democrat. The former defense lawyer said his legislative experience has not increased his wealth.
“I have probably taken a 50% pay cut to do this. It’s not my intention to make any money,” Vella said.
His legislator salary in 2021 was just above $70-thousand dollars, according to salary data from the Illinois State Comptroller’s Office.
Ojeda said the cost of living is way too high and wants the state to get rid of the gas tax.
“The fact that we have state legislators that are going ahead and passing these bills that are basically crippling the middle class, I don't understand how we can just be pushing legislation like this, that's basically affecting us,’ he said.
“My wife works an hour away. Right? So when she comes home, she has to make her stops. We can't afford for her to go back out and buy groceries. We have to make sure that we're on a very fixed income, we're very fixed budget.”
That gas tax increase passed with bipartisan support in 2019. Under the law the gas tax would be calculated by a percentage to adjust for inflation instead of a flat tax.
Also, Ojeda wants to get rid of the Safe-T Act. He said the law makes his family and the community less safe. The law signed in 2021 implemented major reform measures to policing to increase transparency and accountability. It also reformed what happens pre-trial such as eliminating cash bail, that goes into effect in January.
“We have to sit down and talk about what we can do to make it safe, not just have this blanket, no cash bail,” Ojeda said.
“And I think there's a lot of miscommunication on that, because I'm seeing nothing but opposition from sheriffs or first responders.”
The law has been a target of a lot of misinformation, but critics also say the bill containing hundreds of pages was rushed in the legislative process. Winnebago, Boone, Ogle and DeKalb counties state's attorneys are among those who have announced lawsuits challenging the law.
State Representative Vella said he sits on the public safety working group, reviewing the legislation and creating proposals for changes.
“In the grand scheme of things, what it was, it was trying to take money out of bail, Vella said. “As a criminal defense attorney, I saw murders post bond and get out the same day. And I saw retail theft, sit in jail for a week and lose a job and DCFS takes their family. So taking money out was the right thing to do. We just have to make sure that it's done in a safe way for the whole community.”
Some have voiced concerns about the costs associated with weekend judges and court staff. Vella said lawmakers aim to address that too, in the veto session scheduled after the elections.
“Cook County has more sources of funds and outside of Cook County, And that's part of the reason that I'm down there is to make sure that Rockford and Winnebago County and Boone County don't get forgotten,” Vella said.
“I think that there's money to be had. I think there's, you know, we've we've made a lot more money from marijuana revenues than we ever thought we were gonna. There's money there.”
Ojeda serves as a firefighter in the Illinois Airforce National Guard, which he fulfills every month. He said he was a full-time firefighter in Peoria and left his position to run for office.
The thirty-two-year-old went to high school in Schaumburg and moved to Belvidere in 2020 with his wife and young daughter.
Ojeda is a first generation American whose family hails from Puerto Rico and, from his mother’s side, Cuba. He said he feels at home in Belvidere and loves the Hispanic culture represented there. He doesn’t buy that most Latinos are affiliated with Democrats.
“My family for a longest time, they've always held conservative views,” he said.
“I know a lot of people when it comes to their faith and where they belong, it's definitely in the Republican Party, and I definitely hear from them.”
Vella’s background is Italian. He sits on the board of the Rockford Regional Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and said it’s helped him understand the challenges facing Latinos especially in Belvidere.
“Obviously, there's language issues,” Vella said.
“There's also issues of kind of culture. So, Belvedere is part of Boone County, and there's a farming community and there's the Latino community. And there's pushback here [and] there.”
The 68th district covers Belvidere, which is nearly 40 percent Latino, and an eastern portion of Rockford -- the Broadway area -- that is also heavily Hispanic.
Ojeda has raised thus far over $54,000, but that lags incumbent Vella’s $two million raised, making it one of the more expensive contests in the state. Vella won the seat by 239 votes when he ran against Republican John Cabello in 2020.