By CARL GREEN
Gillespie, IL – The retired coal miners of southern Illinois have seen seemingly endless changes in their lives – there are no young union miners in the state to help carry on their traditions, and their pensions and health benefits are constantly under attack.
So it’s meaningful to them to see a younger version of themselves running for the state Legislature – Mike Mathis, that is – and they are doing everything they can to help him get elected.
On Aug. 3, the retired miners hosted two events, first in Gillespie and later in Taylorville, to announce the United Mine Workers’ endorsement of Mathis, who was a coal miner for seven years and later became the Macoupin County circuit clerk.
Mathis, 66, is the Democratic nominee in the 95th House District, seeking to unseat young Avery Bourne, 23, an appointee of Governor Bruce Rauner, who has sought to defeat unions every day he has been in office. That makes the race an opportunity for opposition Democrats to increase their majority in the House and hand Rauner a grievous political setback.
MINERS SPEAK UP
In a gathering at the brand-new Illinois Coal Museum at Gillespie, Ed Lubrant, financial secretary of UMWA Local 1613, based in Hillsboro, rose to explain why the miners are backing Mathis.
“Mike is a fellow coal miner, and if we ever have any issues, we know he’ll be there for us,” Lubrant said. “We don’t know about the young lady, if she has any concern for coal miners. Mike does, so he’s got three votes from my house.”
Jim Bolton, financial secretary of UMWA Local 12, based in Gillespie, recalled a meeting of miners in March in Mt. Vernon, IL, where Mathis was among those speaking.
“He gave the best presentation of the group,” Bolton said. “After the meeting, people came and shook his hand and told him what a great speech he’d made.” The speech, he added, included Mathis’ support for actions to protect retirees’ pensions and health care, and his positions for collective bargaining rights and against right-to-work.
Tim Drea, secretary-treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO and a former mine worker himself, attended both rallies to speak for Mathis.
“Living in this district, everybody’s for coal,” Drea noted. “Who’s not for coal in central Illinois? But Mike Mathis is for the coal miner – and that’s the big difference.
“We know that Avery Bourne supports the governor’s turnaround agenda, which harms working families,” he added. “But with Mike Mathis, we get the whole deal. We get the guy who believes in coal, knows coal and supports the coal miner – and that’s why we proudly endorse Mike Mathis for state representative.”
Around Gillespie, two political yard signs are most prominent – those for Mathis, a lifelong resident of the town, and those for Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump, although Mathis said he is seeing some change in people’s feelings about Trump.
“When I go up to their doors now, they’re less effusive about him than they were,” he told the Labor Tribune.
But he thinks he can understand some of the appeal of candidates who aren’t career politicians this year.
“If you look around, you’ve got to believe that voters are frustrated by public officials being unable to get anything done,” he said. “I’m just so naïve – I don’t understand it either, I really don’t.
“Why are we not looking for solutions? I’ll be a different kind of representative, one that they’re not used to. I want to get things done, and I want to speed it up.”
He noted the Legislature’s recent adjournment despite having unresolved issues. “Quite honestly, I think they should have stayed in session until they got it done,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with getting paid extra for it either.”
Mathis has also worked as a job counselor, served in the Army in Vietnam, owned a business selling sporting goods and hardware and remains a member of the UMWA.
He said voters would like to see Democrats and Republicans be able to work together in the Legislature.
“It just seems like we want to stay Democrats on one side and Republican on the other – and we’re not going to get together,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the individuals. I know Republican representatives who feel the same way I do about getting things done. I think cooperating is what we have to do.”
The 95th District mostly has towns and counties north of the Metro East but also dips down into Madison County. It’s considered a swing district between Democrats and Republicans.
“I think it‘s probably 50-50, mainly a little more Democrat, although it’s really about getting the voters out,” Mathis said. “If you got all the voters out, it would be a good Democratic district.”
The Mathis campaign can be contacted at 217-851-3048 or Mathis95th@gmail.com.