By CARL GREEN
Caseyville, IL – The scene was familiar – the big meeting room at Steamfitters Local 439, where so many events have happened. But the excitement level was something that hadn’t been seen in a while.
Nikki Budzinski and her campaign for Congress brought together the Democratic Party and Labor coalition of the Metro-East in a big way at a fundraising event Feb. 28 that generated a real sense of enthusiasm heading into this year’s elections.
Nobody appreciated it more than the candidate – the one who has been an effective staff leader at some of the highest state and federal levels and now is ready to move over to the legislative side as a strong union supporter in the House of Representatives.
A TIME TO BUILD
Asked why she would leave behind her high-level jobs in the White House and the governor’s office, Budzinski told the Labor Tribune that she saw a great opportunity to build the community and economy in the wake of COVID-19’s disruptions.
“I think it’s a unique moment, right now, coming after the pandemic, and I really wanted to be a part of helping to represent working people in central and southern Illinois because I honestly felt, as I looked back at the district and who was representing it at the federal level (GOP Reps. Rodney Davis and Mike Bost), I do not believe they were fully representing working people, and that we could be doing a lot better.
“Even though I’ve had a lot of experience at the state and federal levels, I hope what that will make me is someone who is really an effective congressperson who can deliver real results for working people.”
Before a large crowd that was equal parts Labor leaders and public officials, Budzinski was introduced by state Rep. Jay Hoffman, (D-Swansea), who said she has been a strong Labor supporter in state and local issues for many years.
“Nikki started in the comptroller’s office, and I first met her then, and she became a good friend and then worked her way up through the Labor Movement,” Hoffman said.
“She worked for the Laborers and the UFCW, she ran the Hillary Clinton campaign for Labor nationally, and we were lucky enough for her to come back home and run the initial primary and then the general election, with outreach for all of downstate, for our current governor, J.B. Pritzker.
“But Nikki’s more than just that,” Hoffman added. “She really cares about working families. She cares about people who don’t have what they need to make it through every day. She cares about understanding and helping out Scott Air Force Base. Its not in her district, but it’s so important to making sure we have national defense jobs and economic development. She cares about us, and she’s going to care about us.”
In her speech, Budzinski said great opportunities await as the nation recovers from the pandemic, and she wants the region to get its share.
“We’re in a moment that comes about once every 100 years,” she said. “We have an opportunity as communities to come out of this stronger, to invest in people and make sure that no community is left behind in this recovery.”
Rodney Davis was not getting it done, she added. “I didn’t think he was meeting that mark and meeting that challenge, and I thought southern and central Illinois could do a hell of a lot better than that,” she said. “So I quit my job and I came home to launch this campaign.
“I can’t tell you how honored I am to be in this room and see so many people who I have met in different parts of my life, either in campaigns or when I had the opportunity to work in the governor’s office. That they would be supporting me means everything.”
She gave special thanks to the Labor people in attendance and noted that Hoffman had worked with her in the campaign to raise the Illinois minimum wage to $15.
“My whole campaign is about working people,” she said. “That increase meant so much for working people in this state, who hadn’t had a nickel of increase in nine years, and for working people in this area.”
‘YOU NEED A UNION’
Before taking public sector positions, Budzinski worked on staff for unions including the Laborers, UFCW and the Fire Fighters.
“I am probably the only congressional candidate you’re going to meet who has been on a kill floor. I know what that work looks like, if you work in a meat processing facility, which is really hard work. What you need in that environment is a union, someone who’s going to make sure you have safe working conditions, access to a pension to retire in dignity, a good wage and good benefits.
“As an elected official, you have an opportunity to amplify that and to fight for those people every day, and if I get to Congress, that’s what I will do.”
Before returning to Illinois, she served as chief of staff to President Joe Biden’s Office of Management and Budget during development of the American Rescue Plan, which has been helping to rebuild communities. It became a factor in her decision to run for Congress.
“I’m someone who has been very content to be behind the scenes,” she said. ”But there was something about this moment, and the pandemic, and working at the White House. I know a lot of people don’t know what the American Rescue Plan is, but I saw what it really did. When I talked to the mayor of Champaign, it’s what they were using to fight gun violence in their community. It’s what the state is using to help build out broadband in underserved communities that don’t have broadband now. It’s what has helped provide essential support to health care workers who have been on the front lines for the last two years, fighting this pandemic.
“That’s what the American Rescue Plan did, and at the office of Management and Budget, we were in charge of facilitating that and moving that out,” she added. “At that time, Rodney Davis, with all the other Republicans, voted against it.”
The Illinois AFLCIO has already endorsed her, before any other Congressional candidates, although she has a little-known primary opponent from Champaign. She believes the election will be decided by the votes from St. Clair and Madison counties.
“I’m really honored to have the Labor Movement 100 percent behind me. But it’s going to take that, and it’s going to take all of you,” she said.
“But we have been building. Senator Durbin and Senator Duckworth are on board. We’re continuing to build support throughout the district and raise the money we need to. I’m really excited to tell you that three weeks ago, we crossed our first $3 million raise mark.”
Earlier in the day she had toured America’s Central Port in Granite City to see how that location serves the American economy and could do more.
“I got to hang out with the Railroad Terminal Association, just to see the potential for the infrastructure bill that President Biden passed – a bipartisan deal that’s going to create jobs and opportunity throughout this region, and I will fight to make sure we get every dollar we deserve back into this area to reinvest in communities that for too long have been under-invested in. That’s my commitment to you. We’re running as hard as we can.”
THE BIG EVENT
After the speeches were done, Brudzinski reflected on the event.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “First, I think everybody’s excited to be together again, after the last two years have been so hard. It’s nice to see so many people.
“I’m thrilled with the diversity of the people who have shown up – a lot of union members, which I’m particularly excited about; legislators and former legislators are here, some local officials, and those from the African-American community. There’s a real nice cross-section that represents all the communities of the Metro-East.
“It bodes well for the upcoming elections,” she added.
“I think we’re in a great place. I think it’s about the strength and diversity of our coalition on the ground, and I think this event reflects that strength,” she said. “We’re raising the funds we need to get our message out. So between the grassroots coalition we’ve built, the fundraising and financial resources we’ve built, we’re exactly where we need to be.”
‘She’s the real deal’
A wide spectrum of the Labor Movement and the Democratic Party was represented at the fundraiser for Congressional candidate Nikki Budzinski at the Steamfitters Local 439 hall, and the enthusiasm for the cause became contagious.
Labor and political leaders offered these comments after her appearance:
• Scot Luchtefeld, president, Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council: “I always knew the job she did was above and beyond. Any time I needed to make a phone call, she was there. She will be there, not just for Labor but all of southern Illinois. She’s the candidate!”
• James Clayborne, former state senator and Senate majority leader: “I really like Nikki. I worked with Nikki a for long time. She understands the people’s needs. She supports Labor, she’s very intelligent, and what I like about her most, she is able to build relationships. That’s something that’s unique in this era of politics, when people aren’t looking to build relationships. I think that’s very important. She has an open mind, and I know she’ll do well.”
• Eric Jones, candidate for Congress in 2018: “I’m really excited that Nikki’s running, and that’s why I’m volunteering for her and why I think we can take back the 13th District. She’s the real deal.”
• Mark Von Nida, former Madison County Circuit Clerk and Democratic chairman: “Nikki Budzinsky’s been in the trenches She knows how to fight, she knows how to win, she knows how to prioritize and make things happen. She’s been part of some great things that have happened in this country and in this state, and she’s going to bring all that experience to Congress, and I think the possibilities are just unlimited with her as a congressperson.”
• Alton Mayor David Goins: “I’ve met Nikki, and I think she’s a wonderful individual and I think she’ll do a great job.”
• B. Dean Webb, president, Greater Madison County Federation of Labor: “I think she’s great. I mean, she’s worked for the Food and Commercial Workers, she’s worked for the Laborers, and I can’t think of a better candidate for the 13th District. I’m excited, and I actually live in the 13th. She’s going to be a champion for Labor, absolutely. We’re going to put 100 percent support behind her. She’s been endorsed by the Illinois AFL-CIO executive council. We’re going to go forward and we’re going to work our ass off for her.”
• Richard Goldenhersh, retired appellate judge from St. Clair County: “I think she’s good, and I think she’ll get it. She’s solid, she’s got the experience, her heart’s in the right place, she’s hard-working. She will do really, really well.”
• Bob Daiber, former regional school superintendent and candidate for governor: “I would just say that any time this region can get a very pro-Labor candidate, it’s the right choice, and this gal has got the experience to do this – not just from her political background, but from her work background, and working for Organized Labor, and therefore it needs to happen for the sake of working people.
“We need a Democrat as a congressperson. It’s what’s hurt so many candidates in this region – when you have three Republican congresspeople that have resources in one region to turn out the vote and put money into the campaigns. Just think if we had three Democratic congresspeople. It’s what you’re up against as a Democrat. So I’m all in with it.”
• Mark Thomas, business manager, Steamfitters Local 439: “As far as 439 and the union men in this local, we’re 100 percent behind Nikki. We think she’s the best person for the job. It will be good to have someone who’s pro-Labor in that position besides what we’ve had in the past.”