Candidates for Congress square off
On the issues, with Betsy Dirksen Londrigan and Rodney Davis, incumbent
She’s 47, he’s 48. Both grew up in central Illinois, married hometown sweethearts, and they each have two sons and one daughter. Serious family health issues have shaped both of their outlooks on health care, and life experiences have firmed their convictions regarding gun violence, education and economic opportunity.
Meet Betsy Dirksen Londrigan and incumbent Rodney Davis, the candidates for Illinois’ 13th District congressional seat in the Nov. 6 election.
Republican Davis of Taylorville is in his third term as 13th District congressman in a 14-county district covering both urban and rural areas of central and southwestern Illinois. Dirksen Londrigan, a Democrat from Springfield, is seeking elected office for the first time. Each agreed to be profiled for this story without referring to the other, a refreshing departure from modern political discourse and a chance to see why they feel the way they do about the district and nation.
Meet the candidates
Rodney Davis was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and has lived in Taylorville since age seven when his parents moved to central Illinois to open a McDonald’s franchise. Davis started working in the restaurant at age 14 and attended Taylorville schools.
“My family had Republican leanings and were big Ronald Reagan fans,” Davis said. “The first political event I can remember was watching the returns when I was six years old of the Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter election. I remember walking to school the next day and I was talking with my friend and I was disappointed because my family was for Ford, but his family was excited that Carter won.”
Davis majored in political science at Millikin University in Decatur and was introduced to John Shimkus during the latter’s unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1992. Shimkus later won the seat and Davis joined his staff in 1996 and worked for Shimkus the next 16 years, including after congressional district lines were redrawn in 2002 that put Shimkus in another district. Davis won his boss’s old seat in 2012 for the first of his three terms as 13th District Congressman.
Davis married his high school sweetheart, Shannon, who is in nursing administration at Memorial Medical Center in Taylorville. They have a daughter, Toryn, 21, who is in college, and twin sons Griffin and Clark, both 17, who attend Taylorville High School.
Dirksen Londrigan is a Springfield native who attended DuBois Elementary, Grant Middle School, Springfield High School and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She taught middle school for two years in Baltimore, Maryland, before moving back to Springfield in 1995 and marrying husband Tom, a local attorney.
Dirksen Londrigan was hired to build an alumni program from the ground up after Sangamon State University transitioned into the University of Illinois Springfield. She was self-employed as a writer, editor and graphic artist for several years so she could work from home while her children were young. Dirksen Londrigan joined the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation staff in 2009 and worked there until announcing her candidacy for Congress in 2017.
Dirksen Londrigan worked part-time for U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, a political mentor, during his 2008 and 2014 election cycles.
“Senator Durbin works so hard. He is honest and forthright. People may not always agree with where he lands, but they’re going to know where he stands,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “As a candidate, he advised me to make sure that I am always true to myself, and that I am listening.”
“If you want to talk about bipartisanship, my two political mentors who I’ve really devoted a significant piece of myself to have been Abraham Lincoln and Senator Dick Durbin,” Dirksen Londrigan said.
Dirksen Londrigan and her husband have two sons, Jack and William, and a daughter, Kathryn, also known as “Cookie.”
Dirksen Londrigan’s children went on a hike in 2009 that ended up shaping the way she will always view the issue of health care. A tick transmitted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever to her then 12-year-old son, Jack, who became gravely ill and spent a total of 24 days at St. John’s Children’s Hospital in Springfield, 21 of which were in the pediatric intensive care unit.
“When you are in the hospital in that situation, you don’t have conversations about how much that ventilator that is breathing for your child costs. That’s not how people react, you just want the person that you love to be OK,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “You’re terrified in the hospital, then you get home and the bills start coming and you’re terrified all over again, because you are thinking, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do this?’”
Good health insurance ultimately saved her family from bankruptcy. Dirksen Londrigan said the Affordable Care Act, especially with coverage caps lifted, continues to save families across the country.
“First, we’ve got to protect what we have under the Affordable Care Act. We can’t go backwards to a time where people can’t get insurance because of a preexisting condition, or they can’t afford it,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “We cannot lose that Patient Bill of Rights. Let’s fix what’s broken and figure out the next step.”
Dirksen Londrigan backs expanding Medicare geographically to many rural areas that can’t support enough health care provider competition under the Affordable Care Act. The entire issue of health care is the primary reason she entered the race.
“Health care cuts across party lines in a profound way. Preexisting conditions don’t pick political parties,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “The cost of your drugs isn’t based on how you vote. It hurts everybody.”
Davis agrees that “health care is not politics, it’s personal.”
Shannon Davis was 26 years old when she was diagnosed with colon cancer after being misdiagnosed for many months.
“We switched primary care physicians because my wife’s doctor told her it was all in her head,” Davis said. “The second primary care physician she had was a Canadian-trained doctor who was practicing in Illinois. He told her, ‘In Canada, we would not have gotten to you until stage four because you didn’t check the right boxes.’”
But the Davises had good health insurance, so doctors were able to locate and remove the tumor quickly, start a chemotherapy regimen, and Shannon has been cancer-free for 19 years.
“My wife is a living example of why I don’t think a single-payer system is best for Americans who need the ability to go get treatment like my wife did as soon as possible,” Davis said.
“What I hear most is that the Affordable Care Act is unaffordable,” Davis said. “Small businesses that operate in small town America just can’t afford the coverage that’s being offered right now.”
Davis said that 44 percent of all individuals served by Medicaid expansion, which is a 95 percent federal reimbursement program, are able-bodied adults between the ages of 19 and 34. The answer, he said, is getting those people their health care coverage through an employer.
“We have more jobs available than we have people who are listed on the unemployment rolls,” Davis said. “Why aren’t we doing what we can to get people who are on government programs into training programs and out into the workforce so they can have access to better, even more affordable coverage? That’s the key.”
Davis has recent, firsthand experience with gun violence. He and other members of Congress had gathered on June 14, 2017, for a baseball game when an Illinois man opened fire, severely wounding several people before being mortally wounded by law enforcement officers.
“I saw (Congressman) Steve Scalise on the ground, not moving, I saw my friend Matt Mika bleeding out about 10 feet in front of me and being helpless to do something,” Davis said. “And I wanted to know why I couldn’t have my gun to be able to fire back.
“I certainly don’t believe that another law that would have restricted the right for law-abiding citizens to legally purchase firearms would have saved us from the terror that we experienced that day, and in fact that experience solidified my viewpoint,” Davis said. “The last thing I was going to yell at the guy who was firing at me was, ‘Can you show me your FOID card, did you get that gun legally?’ I wanted to know where mine was because the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun in a situation like we went through is for good guys to be able to fire back.”
Dirksen Londrigan comes from a family and community of legal firearms owners.
“People want universal background checks. They want guns kept out of the hands of violent offenders, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “Everybody is searching for answers, they want their children and grandchildren safe.”
“We must make sure that everybody is at the table to discuss the issue and there’s not an us-versus-them mentality, because it fundamentally isn’t, this is everybody’s concern,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “If we are going to find solutions, you can’t make assumptions about what other people believe, you have to get them in the room and ask them. I think you’ll find there is more in common than there is that divides us.”
But Dirksen Londrigan said protecting schoolchildren by arming teachers isn’t the answer.
“Nobody wants that,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “As a former teacher myself, I could not imagine having students in my classroom and knowing that there was a weapon in there. It would be untenable.”
Former teacher Dirksen Londrigan said any attempt to revise or improve the educational system needs to first seek input from those in the classroom.
“Work with teachers. Listen to teachers. Teachers are the ones who are on the ground and are the ones who are with students on a regular basis,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “We have to make sure teachers have the resources to recognize and properly guide students who have experienced trauma. We have to make sure that students are fed – you can’t go to school and learn if you’re hungry.”
Dirksen Londrigan said performance tests are important but they can’t be the only thing that everyone is working toward, and those making the rules shouldn’t keep changing the tests and the criteria. She also said paying for a college education is one of the biggest challenges right now in the nation’s education system.
“Student loan debt is not just students, it’s parents and grandparents who are cosigning those loans, and it becomes crippling,” said Dirksen Londrigan, whose college-age children are now experiencing the cost of higher education. “We need to make sure that students know there are so many different paths to a good-paying job, like apprenticeships or vocational programs or community colleges in addition to four-year colleges.”
Dirksen Londrigan supports federal government expansion of existing income-share agreements between students and colleges. These agreements have students paying back a certain portion of their post-graduation employment income to the school, so it is in both parties’ best interests to make sure that students succeed in school and graduate job-ready.
Davis points to the No Child Left Behind reforms as a huge bipartisan success, and that local school district control is the best way to ensure the best possible education for students.
“The federal investment in education is only about five to ten percent on any given year, but about 95 percent of the rules and regulations that school districts have to follow come from the federal government,” Davis said. “You can’t get much more local than your school board bargaining with their local union to determine how much they are going to pay their teachers, what their benefits are going to be, and how they are going to operate. We actually amended a bill to ensure that local control went down to the collective bargaining level.”
Davis said the new federal tax code that he supported is helping to fuel small business growth that is evident in the downtowns of the 13th Congressional District.
“The tax code should not determine whether an idea is turned into reality in central Illinois,” Davis said. “We estimate the average taxpayer is going to save more than $2,000 per year in what they owe the federal government. That’s money they can use to invest in their families, businesses and communities. More money in families’ pockets is not a bad thing.”
Dirksen Londrigan said the new tax code comes at a heavy price.
“We are going to pay for the new tax code by cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, these things are going to be used to balance the budget,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “We can’t do that to people. People have been paying in to Social Security and Medicare their whole working lives and then to face cuts, I don’t know how they are expected to make up for that.”
Former union teacher Dirksen Londrigan has strong feelings about the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding fair share union membership.
“The Janus decision is a direct attack on our public-sector unions,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “We need to make sure that we are organized, that we are standing together with our union brothers and sisters, because everything that we enjoy in our work life is because unions have fought for it. They keep trying to hack away at these protections that people have fought for.”
Davis doesn’t think the Janus decision will have much of an impact.
“There’s a lot of cheering on one side and a lot of gnashing of teeth on the other, but I really think most of our union members in central Illinois are happy with their local leadership,” Davis said. “You’re not going to see a mass exodus. They want to remain a member of that local leadership and that local bargaining unit and I just don’t think it’s going to amount to much.”
Working with Trump
Davis is unapologetic about working with President Donald Trump on issues that pertain to the 13th Congressional District.
“There are a lot of people right here in central Illinois that are the reason that President Trump won my district,” Davis said. “They have a lot of faith in the vote they cast for him and the people he is surrounding himself with.”
Davis has worked with the Trump administration on infrastructure needs and supports the president’s strategy on tariffs – at least for now.
“I hear about the tariffs from the groups that represent many of our producers and I’m hearing about it from individual farmers,” Davis said. “My message to the administration is, we want to see results. Many of my farmers are clearly behind the administration, but we need to see results.”
Dirksen Londrigan doesn’t agree with Trump on many issues, but there is one area where she thinks they could find common ground.
“Infrastructure is a huge issue that I could work with President Trump on,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “Our district is this microcosm of the United States because we have urban and rural areas, so our infrastructure needs are diverse. We need roads and bridges of course, but it’s also our electrical grids, pipelines, our waterways where farmers move their products, and rural broadband.”
“Those projects also represent good-paying jobs that can’t be shipped overseas. They have to take place here with good union labor, and that money feeds right back into local economies,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “It pumps everybody up.”
“All issues are women’s issues,” said Dirksen Londrigan, a pro-choice supporter. “Economic and social issues, the right to control our own bodies. When people are making decisions on tax reform, SNAP funding, overtime versus comp time, those are all women’s issues, and women have been under assault.”
“I’ve got three kids, two boys and a girl. I want to make sure that my daughter has the same rights as her brothers,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “Equal pay for equal work is not some type of overreach, it’s what we should have. It should be the norm. It should be expected.”
Davis, who is pro-life, said the #metoo movement is a positive, long-overdue development and being a husband and father helped him to realize that more needed to be done to stem the sexual harassment tide.
“I helped lead the first overhaul of the Congressional Accountability Act in more than 20 years to reform sexual harassment rules governing Congress,” Davis said. “Whether it’s in government, the media or Hollywood, no one should have to worry about sexual harassment when they come to work. I believe Congress should lead by example.”
Expect to see Dirksen Londrigan out in public a lot between now and Election Day.
“I will stand in front of people as much as possible and listen to what they have to say,” Dirksen Londrigan said. “I love walking door-to-door. If I could win a congressional race by walking door-to-door I would do it, because there is something really special about standing on somebody’s doorstep and having a conversation. It is a moving job interview.”
Davis will also be visible at many public events, and said helping his constituents is his most effective job interview for a chance to remain in Congress.
“No one calls your office at the front end of a problem with bureaucracy,” Davis said. “It’s always when they’re exasperated and they’ve done everything right by working through the normal channels and they’re just at a dead end. And we get to advocate on their behalf.”
David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.