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Is OK Good Enough for an Incumbent in the Face of the Climate Crisis?


If you don’t live in or near Illinois’s 11th Congressional District, you probably don’t know who Bill Foster is. Even if you do, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the six-term Democratic congressman from America’s warehouse heartland, who won the seat of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert in 2008.

The last two decades have been about as kind to the district as federal prosecutors were to Hastert, who was sentenced in 2016 to 15 months in prison for attempting to cover up his sexual abuse of local school children.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the region, when it embarked on a development plan in the 2000s that turned large chunks of formerly rural towns like tiny Elwood into sanctuaries for warehouses. That put Will County, Illinois, at the epicenter of the transformation of the American economy and turned it into the site of the largest inland port in the world, home to some 300 corporate warehouses, including those run by companies such as Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Ikea. Thanks to its location at the intersection of several major highways, 63 percent of all goods shipped in the country pass through Will County. All that was facilitated by an extraordinarily generous set of tax breaks in the early 2000s. The developer that kicked off the building spree, CenterPoint, came to Will County in 2002 on the condition that it would receive two decades of tax abatements.

The development has come with unforeseen costs to the community and hasn’t delivered on its promise of better jobs. Opposition to a Green New Deal largely focuses on the alleged cost of the project, both to taxpayers and to the economy. But Foster’s district is a case in point of the cost of the status quo — to the climate, to taxpayers, and to the economy. As a recent New Republic feature by Alexander Sammon details, the economic boon local politicos promised turned out to be a bust. “Temp agencies flourished, but no restaurants, hotels, or grocery stores ever came, save for the recent addition of a dollar store,” Sammon writes. “Tens of thousands of semis rumbled through Will County every day, wreaking havoc on the infrastructure. And as the town of Elwood scrambled to pave its potholes, its inability to collect taxes from the facilities plunged it into more than $30 million in debt.” Residents were outraged. “No Trucks” signs starting cropping up around the country, and locals crowded into town board meetings to put the brakes on new development. As Sammon notes, 800 people showed up to one such gathering — about a third of the population. The plan went through anyway, by a vote of 3 to 1.

Can the left generate sufficient energy around a challenge to a moderate Democrat, who is broadly inoffensive but unwilling to push for the kind of economic transformation needed to minimize the climate crisis?

The warehouses are also a major source of carbon emissions. And in addition to the massive pollution created by new big-box shippers, Rachel Ventura, who serves on the Will County Board, told The Intercept that new developments have razed land where native prairie grasses had been sequestering carbon, “tearing up more of our farmland and sucking up more of our water.” “By 2050, we will not have enough water to produce for the people who live here currently,” she said. The county also contains two oil refineries, owned by Citgo and Exxon Mobil, and is a hub for pipelines passing through the center of the country.

Ventura — who used to work as a naturalist for Georgia State Parks — was inspired by the national conversation around the Green New Deal to make lemonade out of Will County’s lemons. She’s currently pushing a massive project to create natural gas from trash compression at a nearby landfill, capturing greenhouse gases for reuse that would otherwise be leaked into the atmosphere. On a local level, Ventura said, this is just one aspect of what a Green New Deal could look like.

In backing a Green New Deal and likeminded initiatives at the county levels, Ventura hopes to build a shared and sustainable form of economic development. “When we’re investing money into communities and into jobs, that money gets recycled back into our economy. It’s the exact opposite of trickle-down,” Ventura said. “As we’re all receiving better jobs, that goes back into business and that generates more tax dollars, which creates more money for infrastructure.” Among Ventura’s concerns about the explosive growth of the area’s shipping industry is that many warehouse workers are hired under short-term contracts that leave them vulnerable to mistreatment and injuries on top of low wages.

Foster is no ally in the fight. A trained physicist who founded a manufacturing company, he’s a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition and ran unopposed in the most recent midterms. Ventura is making sure he has opposition this time. And the climate is her driving motivation. “It wasn’t until he came out and said he wouldn’t support a Green New Deal that I decided to run,” she told The Intercept. She’ll now challenge Foster for his seat in the primary next March. Foster voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the cap-and-trade climate bill known as Waxman-Markey, when it hit the floor in 2009. Foster has been unenthusiastic about the Green New Deal, reportedly telling constituents in June that “what we really have to worry about is China and India.” Not long afterward, Ventura launched her campaign, focused on a Green New Deal and Medicare for All, another policy Foster hasn’t backed.

When we spoke, Ventura was on her way to join a picket line at the College of DuPage, where the 304-member faculty association — engaged in an ongoing contract dispute — was protesting the administration’s move to hire scabs. Earlier that day, she finished debating a measure she’d brought to the county board to commit to 100 percent renewable energy. (It was ultimately pushed down to 50 percent.)

The 11th contains pieces of five counties and the cities of Joliet and Naperville, each a little over an hour’s drive from Chicago. It voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election by a margin of 67.5 percent. It sits right next door to another more famously contested district, where Marie Newman will once again challenge Blue Dog Dan Lipinski to represent the state’s 3rd Congressional District in Washington — a bid she narrowly lost in 2018. The 3rd includes larger swaths of suburban Chicago, as well as pieces of the city. Lipinski is one of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats in Congress, who has voted with President Donald Trump nearly 40 percent of the time.

Ventura’s difficulty in the contest will be Foster’s anonymity. Where Lipinski is notorious for bucking the party and stands publicly opposed to core Democratic positions — he is not just anti-abortion, but hostile to gay rights, immigration, and opposed a $15 an hour minimum wage — Foster is more likely to vote the party line. Ventura’s challenge to Foster raises an important question for Democratic voters nationally and in the region: Can the left generate sufficient energy around a challenge to a moderate Democrat like Foster, who is broadly inoffensive but unwilling to push for the kind of economic transformation needed to minimize the climate crisis? Or must the incumbent, in order to generate enthusiasm for a challenge, be as genuinely awful as a Lipinski?

After working as an actuary for health insurance companies in the early 2000s, Ventura soured on the American medical system. After switching careers and escaping an abusive marriage, Ventura decided to move, with her twin daughters, back to Joliet, where she was born and raised. Arriving home, she was “shocked at the state of my hometown,” which had become a “dumping ground for a lot of America’s trash and pollution.” Now the business manager and occasional writer for a board game company, she decided to run first for local office in Joliet. After losing that bid, she mounted a campaign for the county board in 2018.

Going up against Foster won’t be Ventura’s first time bucking the party establishment. The Will County Democratic Party Central Committee, she says, encouraged her not to run for her board seat and that — as Ventura told it — they “had selected their candidate already.” Without party backing, her campaign “raised very little money” but knocked on some 10,000 doors. She was the top vote-getter in the race, and one of three newly elected board members to flip her seat and, with those, place the board in Democratic control. “What was clear from that race,” she said, “is that people are sick and tired of politicians who are bought and paid for, and that’s exactly what this congressional race is going to be about.”

Bill Thoman, chair of the Will County Democrats, said in an email that the party did not endorse any candidates in the District 9 primary, where no incumbent was running, but provided support to her campaign in the general election. “In the County Board races we always encourage the candidates for a County Board district to work together and this cycle was no different,” he wrote. “Candidates are individual people and sometimes take advice and recommendations inconsistently even from their own party.”

Sherry Williams, a retired member of the AFSCME union, ran against Ventura in that race. She didn’t make it on and also didn’t seek out support from the local Democratic Party “because if they do support you, then they try to own you.”

They’re never supportive, Williams said, of “anybody that’s not in their inner circle. The Will County [Democrats] have set ways that they do things. … It’s the same people running and if you don’t play the game, they leave you on the outside,” she told me. “They just seem like they want the status quo.”

On the Foster race, Thoman wrote that “Rachel has many good ideas and thoughts. It is how those ideas and thoughts are shaped and expressed that affect the amount of support a candidate or elected official receives from their colleagues and other candidates and elected officials,” calling it “noteworthy” that eight of the 14 Democrats on the board have already endorsed Foster.

Ventura has picked up a handful of endorsements, including from Blue America, a local Our Revolution, and Progressives of Kane County.

Another distinction between Foster and Ventura is on Medicare for All. Ventura joined a series of meetings and rallies organized by Our Revolution, an activist group started by veterans of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, to push Foster on the issue. She and a handful of others met with Foster, and he asked a series of questions, which the group promised to research and come back to him. After he balked later at a follow-up, a representative for Foster informed them, as Ventura recounted, that “he could only meet once per year per constituent per issue.” Foster had voted for the Affordable Care Act but followed other moderates in their skepticism of single-payer.

Ventura will still be affected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “blacklist” policy, which bars consultants who work with primary challengers from getting business from the Democratic Party. The policy — enacted in March — is intended to protect all incumbents, including former primary challengers now running for re-election like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Referring to the blacklist, Ventura joked that “the good news is that I had never intended to go to any Democratic Party consultants.”

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