Commentary

Looking to the midterms: A conversation with Rep. Cheri Bustos

September 18, 2022 8:00 am

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, meets with voters at the Illinois State Fair in August 2022. (Photo courtesy of Bustos’ office)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Few people I know have been more plugged in to what voters are thinking in the Midwest, particularly along the Mississippi River, than U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos.

She works tirelessly to meet people – and to listen.

A Democrat from Moline, Bustos has served 10 years in Congress, representing Illinois’ 17th congressional district. Over the years, she moved up her party’s leadership ladder in the U.S. House. She was a key contributor to the Democrats’ message in the 2018 congressional midterms when the party won seats – and in the 2020 cycle, she was the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm in the House.

Her party lost seats two years ago, but it still retained a small majority. Now, Democrats face strong headwinds going into the 2022 midterms.

Bustos isn’t on the ballot this year. She announced last year she would retire from Congress. Still, she’s sprinting to the finish line – and is keenly interested in her party’s prospects in the midterms, particularly in a couple districts in Illinois.

On Monday, Bustos spent some time talking with me about what she thinks about her party’s prospects this November, what it needs to do, what issues it needs to emphasize – as well as where it still has work to do.

She told me she thinks the Supreme Court’s decision has changed “the vibe” out there, and it presents the Democrats with an opportunity. (Already, there is a television ad highlighting the issue in Illinois’ 17th District congressional race.)

Meanwhile, Bustos says, inflation remains a top concern among voters, and that the Biden administration is “hyper-focused” on it; that her party still needs to work on the issue of crime and policing; and the president’s decision to forgive up to $10,000 in student loan debt (up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients) is playing well.

She also is critical of “MAGA Republicans” who she says are offering no help in Congress dealing with the country’s problems.

Q&A with Rep. Cheri Bustos

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our 20-minute discussion. I think it’s worth your while. Bustos offers the view of a common-sense Democrat from the Midwest on where things stand just two months before the 2022 midterm elections.

TIBBETTS: I’ve known you a long time and I know how competitive you are. Any regrets about not being on the playing field, at least insofar as being a candidate is concerned?

BUSTOS: No. Zero regrets. Look, I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I think we were having the strongest congressional session of my career. So, we’re ending on a high note. We were the number one Democrat in bringing home community project funding in the entire House; brought back $55 million through that brand new program. We got major legislation signed into law, the Ending Forced Arbitration Act. …  As Democrats, we’re doing the Inflation Reduction Act and going to the White House tomorrow (Tuesday) for that.

The infrastructure act – was at the White House for that. We just got voted the best constituent services office in all of the House or Senate for any Democrat office. So, I feel like we are ending on a high note. And as far as this district getting 10 points better. Yeah, that would have been nice to have had for the last 10 years. It would have made life a little bit easier. But look, I hope that people will see that we’ve left the district in a better place than when we came in and we’re leaving it in good shape for a Democrat to be successful. So, no, zero regrets.

Bustos sees a ‘notable vibe change’

TIBBETTS: Early on, the pundits were projecting a Republican wave. That talk has moderated somewhat. Still, the projection is that Republicans will take control of the House. I’m curious. You’ve been in your district. What’s your assessment of where things stand at the moment.

BUSTOS: Well, I think there’s been a noticeable vibe change since the Roe versus Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. I think that while the January 6th committee – I don’t think any of us know exactly what’s going to end up coming out of that. I think history will tell – but I think that has caused reasonable people to sit up and take notice about the fragility of our democracy, and just what a terrible day that was in our history and the role that folks on the other side of the aisle played in that. You couple that with the fact that gas prices are going down now, inflation is getting in a better place. I guess gas prices have dropped about 25% just since June.

So, I think there’s a noticeable change in the vibe out there that’s not a doom and gloom feeling among strong Democrats. And even just from rank-and-file people who don’t follow politics very much, things are feeling better. You never know what’s going to happen between now and Nov. 8, but right now it feels a heck of a lot better than it did just a few months ago.

 

TIBBETTS: I want to get to the Supreme Court decision in just a moment. But let me ask you. Polls seem to indicate inflation is the top concern among voters. Do you get that sense from your travels in your district?

Inflation is ‘top of mind’ for voters

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos is a Democrat from Moline, Ill.

BUSTOS: Yeah. I would say the first thing out of people’s mouths over the previous several months was just how expensive gas prices are, how much it costs to go to the grocery store. You hear people talking about buying a dozen eggs or a slab of bacon and when they were checking out, they couldn’t believe how expensive everything is. I think there’s still some of that. People who hope to be able to buy a house, and now with interest rates going up, people are still talking about that. So, yeah, I think it’s still top of mind. But I’ll tell you, people don’t like having their choices taken away from them. And, you know, rather than use the “A” word, because I don’t think people like to talk about women’s reproductive rights or health care choices – it seems like a blunt term in a lot of people’s minds. But people don’t like their choices taken away. And I think that’s how some people are looking at that. But, yeah, I would say just taking a look at all that together, those are the kinds of things I’m hearing from people.

TIBBETTS:  I want to get to the choice issue in just a moment. Do you think your party is doing enough to convince people they’re plugged into inflation concerns and that they’re taking steps to ease this problem?

BUSTOS: Yeah. We just passed a bill that is the Inflation Reduction Act. The president has signed that into law. I’m going to the White House tomorrow (Tuesday) to celebrate that. The Biden administration is hyper-focused on it. And, forgiving the student loan debt, the $10,000 of student loan debt, I think that’s meaningful.

I know there are some people who are critical of it, but the people I’ve talked with think it’s pretty darned good. I’ve heard very little complaints about that, about the student loan debt.

Student loan debt forgiveness is ‘not a one-punch act’

TIBBETTS: In Iowa, some of the candidates seem to me to be straddling that issue. Some of the Democratic candidates talked about how it didn’t do enough to curb the problem of rising tuition costs. Is that an indication that this isn’t the political winner some think it is, or not?

BUSTOS: Well, let’s be political realists about it. We are getting zero help from the team across the aisle on this. …

They had their president in the White House for four years, they were in the majority during that time. And what did they do to help relieve student loan debt? What did they do to work with higher education to help bring down those costs?

 

Look, I don’t think this just a one-punch act. I think it’s, you know, throwing a right and throwing a left to knock this down. And we’ve just thrown one punch to relieve the student loan debt. Now we’ve got to throw another one to figure out how we’re going to bring down the cost of higher education. It is way too high. The costs have gone up – it’s astronomical. Ed, you know I’ve got three sons. They all went to college at different levels. One went to community college, one went to a private school, one went to a public school. Student loan debt was a reality for all three of our sons. In fact, one of my sons is still paying it off and he is at an income level where he and his wife both benefitted. They’re 30-, going on 35-years-old, and they still have decent student loan debt, and they were helped by this decision.

So, look, I’m very, very tired of people on the other side of the aisle who are throwing out arrows and acting like we didn’t do enough, or President Biden didn’t do enough. He’s doing something. And we know there’s more to be done. But, for God’s sake, it would be nice to have a little help. And they’re not offering that help.”

TIBBETTS: I want to ask you about the Dobbs decision at the Supreme Court. Obviously, the polls are showing it’s motivating voters. Do you think that midterm turnout will substantively change in terms of composition and in terms of volume. Will it be a truly different midterm election turnout than we typically see in the first cycle after a presidential election? What’s your assessment?

BUSTOS: I think it take a lot of work to see substantive change, even after such a terrible decision that is impacting tens of millions of people’s lives. When you’ve got a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, specifically, who’s saying we’re not going to stop here. It’s not out of the question we will take a look at gay marriage, or marriage equality; it’s not out of the question that we’ll take a look at birth control. I mean, those are fighting words.

If you want to take a look at Kansas, it obviously made a difference in Kansas. If you want to look at upstate New York, we were not expected to win that special election. And we won it. So, I think those are a couple good indicators that if we do the hard work and get people registered, and then have the strongest get-out-the-vote effort that we can possibly have, like an all-out effort, then yeah, I think we can make a difference based on just a terrible Supreme Court ruling that is impacting, again, millions of people’s lives.”

TIBBETTS: To what extent will that change elections up and down the Mississippi River. Illinois side of the river, Iowa side of the river. Those are the places where Democrats face tough challenges?

BUSTOS: Yeah, I think having a strong voter registration process, having a great get-out-the-vote effort is going to be critical. The Democrats are on the right side of this. And whether it’s women or young people or whatever voters who are out there, if they feel strongly about having the right to choose – and that’s the way I look at it – however you feel about various reproductive rights, it literally is a right to choose that has been yanked away from, specifically, women. I think it’s a motivating factor, but you’ve got to have an effort behind registering and getting people out to vote.

It is up to Democrats, frankly, to make sure that we are informing voters on what’s at stake.

 

If we are successful at that, I think we win. If it’s not an all-out effort, and I do mean every player on the field getting involved with it; if we just have somebody sit it out, and I just mean as far as being the Democratic team, then we’re not going to be successful. The history is not on our side if we don’t get all-in on informing the voters about what’s at stake here. If we do that well, I think we could do well in November. We could at least hold our own in November.

Democrats hurt by ‘defunding police’ rhetoric

TIBBETTS: A year ago, you told me the defund-the-police label was used pretty effectively against Democrats. Do you think the party has been able to repair its brand on that issue and other issues that are important to rural and Midwest voters?

BUSTOS: Well, if you ask my husband (Rock Island County Sheriff Gerry Bustos), he’d tell you absolutely no. Look, I don’t think we handled that issue well at all. And on a very personal level, I don’t like how too many in our party labeled good police officers. They got lumped in with the bad guys. You know, there are bad police officers just like there’s bad everything. But being married to somebody who’s been in law enforcement for 40 years and doesn’t have one blemish on his record, that was very hurtful to see how police officers were labeled.

If you want an interesting story, Ed, call the police chiefs around the area, call the sheriffs around the area, and ask them when they have days where they take applications, where they used to get hundreds, now they’re down to handfuls. And by the time they get through their physicals and get through the written part of it and their interviews, sometimes they’re down to just a couple. And again, this is where they used to have hundreds.

So, you’ve got people who don’t want to go into that profession anymore, because they’ve been so vilified and the respect isn’t there. It’s a dangerous profession and they feel like their hands are tied on being effective at their jobs. So, no, I think that we have a lot of work to do and a lot of communication to do with community leaders and those in law enforcement and those in mental health provider jobs, where we should all be sitting down together to figure out how law enforcement and public safety and community safety is going to look going forward. We have not gotten this right from a policy perspective.

TIBBETTS: How much will this weigh on your party in November. Because, I know in Illinois, in certain campaigns, they’re still talking about this and trying to make it an issue. How much will this weigh on your party?

BUSTOS: We’ll see how that plays out. But, again, I don’t really see where the team across the aisle has come up with solutions, either. The solution isn’t to lock ‘em up and throw away the key. The solution is to get law enforcement in the same room as mental health providers, in the same room as community action agencies. That’s the answer, is to sit down and have a dialogue and get the policy in the right place.

The law that takes effect in Illinois on Jan. 1 (she is referring to parts of the Safe-T Act in Illinois), if you want to see a very interesting op-ed, look at what the sheriff of DuPage County wrote just over the last couple days about what this new law could mean to communities. We’ll see how that plays out, but I don’t think it’s in our favor.

More optimism for Democrats’ chances

TIBBETTS: On balance, are you optimistic?

BUSTOS: I would say I feel a heck of a lot better today than I did three months ago. And I feel that if we invest in a great communications strategy, a great voter registration strategy and the strongest get-out-the-vote strategy that we’ve ever had, I think that’s how we are going to be successful.

We’ve had some unbelievable wins in Congress over the last 60 days. Great, great wins, and things we should not just be talking about, but bragging about. And we’ve got to make sure people understand it was Democrats who got this done, and in some cases with zero help – zero help – from the MAGA Republicans.

 

My dad used to always to say, do a good job and take credit for it. And I think we’ve done a good job and now we have to make sure we’re taking credit for it and spread the word.

TIBBETTS: Where will you be on election night?

BUSTOS: You know what, I don’t know yet. I am fully invested in helping Eric Sorensen hang on to this seat. I am also fully invested in helping Nikki Budzinski pick up the seat out of my hometown of Springfield, Illinois. I don’t know. I’ll hopefully be at a victory party for Eric Sorensen.

TIBBETTS: We’re mostly a publication that deals with Iowa, and I know you’re familiar with these Mississippi River districts in Iowa. What’s your assessment of your party’s chances?

BUSTOS: They’re really tough races. But look, Mariannette Miller-Meeks on paper, or I guess by court standards, won by, what, seven votes, was it? Is that what it ended up being?

TIBBETTS: Something like that.

BUSTOS: In reality, I don’t even know if she … you know, I mean that vote count was so close. She barely won last cycle, so she ought to be gettable. Ashley Hinson didn’t win by more than, what, more than a couple, was it two points?

TIBBETTS: It was close.

BUSTOS: Yeah, you could look that up. So, they’re both in their first terms. They both barely won. But these districts are not trending more toward Democrats, so it takes getting all that right I just went over with you – great messaging, great strategy all the way around and making sure that we’re taking credit for what we’ve accomplished.

About this column

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and the authors’ blogs to support their work.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

MORE FROM AUTHOR