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15th District race preview: After running unopposed in 2016, Shimkus faces challenger

Carbondale Southern Illinoisan

Wednesday, October 3, 2018  |  Article  |  GABRIEL NEELY-STREIT The Southern

Candidates--Federal (13)

CARBONDALE — In 2016, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, won his 11th term in the U.S. Congress to represent Illinois' 15th District, in an uncontested race. This November, he won’t have that luxury.

His challenger, Kevin Gaither, is an HIV/AIDS health care activist and former Americorps public school educator, who currently runs his own tutoring business for grade school and high school students.

Gaither, originally from Sullivan, and now living in Charleston, won the Democratic primary with 62.1 percent of the vote.

He previously served on an Indiana State Department of Health consumer advisory board, where he helped plan health care and supportive services for HIV patients.

When Mike Pence became Indiana’s governor, many of the HIV protections that Gaither fought for were eliminated.

“People I know died because they couldn’t get medication they needed,” Gaither said.

Now, Gaither hopes to bring a fresh perspective to Illinois’ 15th Congressional District.

In an interview with The Southern, the incumbent, Shimkus, touted several legislative accomplishments from his current term, including securing funds for improvements to water pipe infrastructure nationwide, the reauthorization of an Environmental Protection Agency program that grants money to clean up and redevelop contaminated sites, and a bill to plan for the disposal of nuclear waste from across the country, which passed the House of Representatives in May, and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Shimkus said he remains firmly in support of President Donald Trump, whom he called a “successful but chaotic” populist leader.

Trump’s achievements, Shimkus said, speak for themselves.

The new deal replacing NAFTA to regulate trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico will be a “win,” Shimkus said, for U.S. dairy farmers, and auto workers in the U.S. and Mexico.

Trump’s tax plan is another victory, Shimkus said. He said it simplifies the filing process for many Americans and lowers tax rates on middle-income Americans (though the richest taxpayers also received one of the biggest tax reductions).

And most importantly, under President Trump the economy is booming, Shimkus said.

Average wages are up 5 percent in the 15th District, about twice the national average, according to Shimkus.

“My message is, ‘If you want a job today, you can find one,’” he said.

The challenger, Gaither, is no fan of Trump, but said he doesn’t anticipate any issues working with the president, if elected.

Gaither is a Democrat who said he strongly supports the Second Amendment and favors a strengthened southern border, but prefers increased funding and support for border patrol agents to a wall.

Gaither believes Trump’s tax plan will help small businesses, but strongly criticized the tax breaks for the super-wealthy, and the permanent cuts awarded to corporations.

“I really disagree with massive tax cuts to the richest when we have such massive debt,” Gaither said. “Instead, we need to support American workers. They’re the ones spending money in the economy.”

Gaither opposes Trump’s health care plan, which he says would close rural hospitals and increase costs for seniors, veterans and the chronically ill. He believes the Affordable Care Act could’ve been much better, if political infighting hadn’t prevented important legislative fixes like prescription drug pricing and purchasing reform.

In his conversations with members of the 15th District, Gaither said many are “very upset about tariffs and trade policy,” as well as the demeanor of Congress and partisan politics.

Shimkus acknowledged that some farmers in his district are suffering in the U.S.-China tariff war, which has caused large drops in corn and soybean prices. But he said his constituents have expressed their willingness to struggle through low crop prices in hopes of a better trade deal.

“When you talk to America’s farmers, they’re still strongly behind President Trump, and they don’t want to disrupt the strength of his negotiating position,” Shimkus said.

Gaither said he commends Shimkus’ work on energy issues and his diplomacy to Lithuania, the northeastern European country to which the representative traces his family heritage.

But Gaither’s biggest criticism of the incumbent is that he has been largely absent from the campaign trail.

“I’ve done 10 town hall meetings already, and have 10 to 15 more scheduled across the district,” Gaither said.

Shimkus hasn’t done any this election cycle, and believes “meeting with constituents one-on-one or in small groups is a better and more productive way to discuss public policy,” according to comments he made to the Belleville News-Democrat.

Gaither disagrees.

“The town hall is the only way you can adequately and openly address people,” Gaither said. “How can you adequately represent them, if you don’t hear what’s going on in their communities?”

Shimkus said he’s not interested in any debates, town halls or other face-to-face meetings with Gaither before the election.

”I have no desire to spend time with my opponent, someone who’s unknown,” Shimkus said. “He has to be able to prove that he can engender support. It’s not for me to help him become known.”

“My job is to represent the people of the 15th District honestly, with passion and a good work ethic, and they will decide whether they want to rehire me or not,” Shimkus added. “I don’t think anyone in my district will make a claim that I’m not available and accessible.”

Shimkus has raised about $1.48 million for this year’s campaign, while Gaither’s fundraising totals just under $30,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.