This interview is second in a series with candidates for the House and Senate. The first, with Chuck Pennacchio, was conducted by Aaron Barlow with contributions from Todd Johnston on May 18th, 2005. We hope this series encourages candidates to address issues important to grassroots organizations.
National Atlas of the United States, August 8, 2005, http://nationalatlas.gov
Christine Cegelis first ran for Congress in 2004, against incumbent Henry Hyde in Illinois' 6th District. Since Rep. Hyde recently announced his retirement, the 2006 race will be for an open seat. Currently three Democratic candidates are competing in the Spring 2006 primary: Ms. Cegelis, Peter O'Malley and Lindy Scott. The Republican candidate, Peter Roskam, as yet faces no primary challenger.
On August 1st Ms. Cegelis spent about an hour on the phone with ePluribus Media. What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation.
ePMedia: Could you give us an idea of the makeup of your district and the issues that concern your neighbors?
CC: The 6th District is right outside the city of Chicago. We incorporate O'Hare airport, and our largest employer is United Airlines.
We are also very much a white-collar district. About two-thirds of my district incorporates DuPage County, the 22nd richest county in the United States; it's an upscale and very nervous district. A lot of us, myself included, are white-collar IT workers that have seen our jobs disappear, go overseas. Three articles over the weekend in the Daily Herald, our local newspaper, talked about the crisis in health care in DuPage County and the rise in poverty -- we have a 5.6 percent unemployment rate. So in a county used to being relatively affluent, you see story after story where serious economic problems are happening. If that is going on in DuPage County, it's happening elsewhere.
We also have a crisis in our education system. Some schools have had to cut back on the classes they offer because they don't have the funding. Again, we're talking about the 22nd richest county in the United States.
ePMedia: What impact has the No Child Left Behind Act had on the school systems in the Illinois 6th?
CC: Many of our school districts have actually pulled out of No Child Left Behind, and many others are considering doing so, because they don't get a lot of federal funding anyway. But there is a lot of resistance. People move to this district because of the great school system we have, but many of our schools are on either the "watch" or the "failing" list. It isn't because they are poor schools; it's because of the way the bill was written. The schools' students test poorly. One superintendent said to me that the NCLB was nothing more than a Trojan horse to try to privatize public education. There is a real feeling here that that is exactly its true purpose.
ePMedia: One of this administration's admitted agenda items is to bring free-market forces to many public services.
CC: Well, listen, a free market works well for some things, and it doesn't work well for others. I believe education is one that isn't well-served by a free market. A number of private schools do a very good job -- but let's face it, those are not for-profit schools, they are not free-market. They were established by, say, a religious community ... Catholic schools come to mind. I'm Catholic, and we subsidized our schools for many years, and they do provide a wonderful service. But it's important to remember that those schools do not make a profit, so they are not what I would consider free-market schools.
If we are aiming to turn education into a business, and only those who can afford to pay for it receive it, we are undermining the entire premise of the American dream. It's my hope to leave this country better off than I found it. For those of us who came from immigrant families who were not necessarily upper-middle class, the path to bettering ourselves was to get good public educations and create American dreams for ourselves.
ePMedia: You've been talking about privatizing education. We'd like to address the proposed privatization of another social program -- a debate that has been front and center recently -- Social Security.
CC: Social Security was developed to be an insurance program, not an investment program. We should not be privatizing it. An article in The New York Times recently described how United Airlines got into so much trouble with its pension, when its managers pulled out of conservative investments and got into high-risk investments where they could put less in with the potential of getting more out. That seems to be the promise we hear from Wall Street, but we all know that's not true. All of us who have invested in our 401(k)s in the last 20 years understand the hit we took in 2000.
Putting money that is essentially for an insurance program into high-risk Wall Street investments, thinking we're going to get more out, is a fallacy -- just as it was a fallacy when United Airlines moved its investments from bonds into high-risk stocks. That is why United has defaulted on its pensions. And when it defaulted on its pensions, the taxpayers ended up picking up the tab.
ePMedia: You mentioned that you are Catholic. We've read that you are pro-choice.
CC: I am pro-choice. I am also very Catholic. I don't believe that this is something that the government should be getting into. It's an issue that belongs within the religious and personal realm, and just not something the government should define.
ePMedia: We're old enough to remember JFK's run for president; his Catholicism was a big issue because it was feared he would take his orders from Rome and not from the American people. The reverse seems to be the issue now, in that many on the right prefer a more religious government as opposed to a more secular one.
CC: My religious and spiritual beliefs are part of what drove me to want to be in public service. Certainly a lot of people of religious faith are strongly coming out for social justice issues, but we also need to be respectful of the fact that there are people of other religious beliefs. The government should not push any particular religion. When life begins is defined differently in different religions -- and on this issue it's a personal matter of faith.
ePMedia: Were you a supporter of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq when he did?
CC: I was not, because the research I did led me to believe there were no weapons of mass destruction, so Iraq did not pose an immediate threat to the United States militarily. Diplomacy was the correct way to proceed with Iraq. I was not at all surprised that there were no WMD. I was very disappointed with many political leaders who went along with the assessment that there were WMD just because the president told them so. I was thinking, I'm out here, far away from Washington, and I know this isn't true.
ePMedia: That said, we are now in Iraq. What should our policy be now?
CC: That the Iraqi prime minister has requested we start withdrawing as fast as we can should give us a clue. What we need is to start working with the people of Iraq -- not dictating to them what we want them to do, but letting them tell us how we can best help them. This is the cradle of civilization; they are intelligent people who have a good handle on what they need. Telling them that they have to complete their constitution in two weeks -- I don't know that that makes sense, especially if they are going to leave many of the hard decisions on the table. I think we need to be supportive of their getting their constitutional process under control in their own time frame. We are telling them they are going to have their own government -- but it must be on our timetable?
We also need to start getting the international community involved to make sure we aren't the only ones putting Iraq back together, even though we were just about the only ones who decided to do this.
ePMedia: What about the troops there now?
CC: One of the disturbing things is that this far into it, we have still not provided our troops with the necessary equipment and armament. And we aren't taking care of them when they get home. A third of the returning troops are suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Under the circumstances, it's understandable, but we have to do more to take care of them. I find it appalling, especially as a mother of sons in their mid-20s. I would want the government to be sure they were taken care of if they came home in that condition.
I think the government has mishandled this war on so many levels: the reasons for going in, the way we went in, the equipment we have provided, and obviously what we are doing to take care of the troops when they return home. I'm afraid this is going to haunt this country for decades, and we really need to begin to set some things right as much as we can.
ePMedia: Your personal commitment to run for office has been a long-term decision. You were successful on some levels in your 2004 run against Henry Hyde, although you did come up short.
CC: I was successful in that I received over 44 percent of the vote. I decided to run in October 2003, with most of the "do I or do I not" coming in September.
A good portion of my decision had to do with being a mother of two kids in their 20s; as they and their friends were getting out of college, I realized how much the world had changed since I graduated. First of all, on a minimum-wage job, I was able to support myself, have a car, have an apartment, and pay my tuition at a state university.
And I graduated college with no debt. I was working a 40-hour week and taking classes full-time, so I'm not saying it was a bed of roses. But it was doable. That's not possible anymore.
An education is so important to getting ahead. We're in a global economy; jobs can be shipped overseas, where countries are educating their children as well or better than we are. You've probably read that Toyota has decided not to locate a new plant in Alabama, in part because of workers' education levels.
ePMedia: They decided to locate the new plant in Canada.
CC: Right. So here we are in this global economy, and we're not preparing the next generation to compete in a global economy.
This is a main reason I decided to run. I'm a single mom. I can't afford to leave my kids with a trust fund, but I should be able to leave them a country where -- if they work hard, go to school, and put the effort into it -- they can have a middle-class life.
ePMedia: What was your life like before you ran for office?
CC: I had been working in the IT world for almost 30 years. I started off as a programmer for the airlines -- I've got a lot of background in airlines.
When I decided to run, I was an account manager for a software firm and worked with large, multinational companies -- Boeing, Kraft, Caterpillar. That experience gave me first-hand experience with the shock of what globalization and outsourcing, especially in IT, were doing to our country. So many people in their 50s were losing their jobs and there was nothing they could do about it.
We've got to look at policies that keep jobs at home as well as grow new jobs. We haven't been doing anything in that respect.
ePMedia: What sorts of policies can we adopt to grow those jobs? How do we compete in a global economy when our labor costs are comparatively high?
CC: One of the reasons our labor costs are so high is that health care is coupled with employment here; it's not in other countries. That's something we absolutely need to take a look at.
We are in a health-care crisis. We've got 45 to 48 million people without health insurance. Many people are relying upon the emergency room for primary care. We spend more money on health care than anyone else in the world, yet we are about 16th in overall quality of care.
People argue that we have the best health care in the world. Yes, if you can afford it. But if you can't, that's just not the case. I feel that health care is a human right, not a privilege, and it shouldn't be only for the wealthy.
ePMedia: Do you think we're headed toward a single-payer program?
CC: We absolutely have to go that way. We can't compete in a global market without doing that. This is the second reason Toyota is locating its new plant in Canada -- lower health care costs.
We are not investing in small businesses. This administration has given lip service to small business, while at the same time cutting the Small Business Association (SBA) budgets, which limits people's ability to borrow for start-ups. A number of small businessmen in this district are trying to start up high-tech, high-science businesses; and they cannot get government funding. One I found particularly frustrating ... a small businessman I spoke with who is doing stem cell research to combat Parkinson's disease. You think, well, the administration is against this. But this is bone-marrow stem cells, not even controversial, and he's still having trouble. The amount of great research that could be done if we could just fund it....
This is a great place to talk about a free market aided by government assistance. This is not the kind of research that could be done well in a large government lab. We should be able to assist it with government funding. Partnerships like this are so critical to growing good-paying jobs that make sense.
The other obvious place we should be looking at for good-paying jobs is alternative energy research. The Union of Concerned Scientists say that Illinois could produce nine times its need for electricity in wind power alone if we could develop it. Think of the jobs that would be created, and the industries that would want to locate here if they had lower-cost, nonpolluting, wind-generated electricity -- especially with the rising cost of oil.
ePMedia: This administration has strong ties with the oil business, so ideas like this would be a hard sell.
CC: There should be some realism about where we are headed. Saudi Arabians have already said that in 10 years they are not going to be able to meet our oil needs. Ten years is not very far away. We need to start planning for that now.
The White House keeps telling us that there's no global warming, and yet I see reports of melting ice in the Arctic. We can no longer afford to ignore the reality. I've seen diaries on Daily Kos referring to The New York Times' claiming the administration is living in a faith-based "reality," while we're actually living in a reality-based reality. You can't always live your life in the world as you would like it to be; we've got to plan for what is real.
ePMedia: Switching gears a bit ... our readership is on-line. How do you intend to integrate the Internet into your campaign?
CC: One of the interesting things about trying to campaign is getting your message out. It can be very expensive, especially in the Chicago market. You get a 30-second blurb on TV or radio, or even a direct-mail piece that tries to give people a kind-of clue about you.
What I like about the Internet -- I've started to do some blogging, and I'll do more of it as I go along -- is that it gives people within my district as well as outside the district an opportunity to get to know me and get to know what I'm thinking. I want people to support me based not on a 30-second blurb but on some real issues and on who I am as a person. To know that if you send me to Congress, I'll be there to represent you.
It also gives me the opportunity for feedback. That's been missing for a long time with our candidates and legislators. They are not listening. That's why they didn't understand there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They were listening to Washington, not to the people in their districts. People in my district who have relatives in Iraq were telling me, "You know, there are no WMD. We know there are no WMD."
ePMedia: Much of this country isn't listening. The country is very divided, and people are taking sides based upon ideology and putting party over country. What measures might you take in Washington to tone down some of the partisanship so that people will once again listen to each other?
CC: First of all, we need to look at what we want. Republican or Democrat, I think we can all agree we want good educations for our children; we want safe, secure jobs; we want our seniors to have the security of Social Security and Medicare. We want health care that is accessible and affordable. We may disagree on how we get there, but through dialogue and respect for each other's opinion we can come up with the best possible solutions.
I think it's really important to identify our goals first. I'm a systems engineer, and the first thing we do when we start a project is to work backward and say, "This is what we want." Then we hammer out how to get there. We've got to start our dialog with "This is what we want."
ePMedia: So ... first identifying common goals and then mapping out a mutually agreed-upon path?
CC: That's the only way it's going to work, because I do believe in my heart that every one of us wants the same things for our country.
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