Bristow ready to be more vocal in Statehouse
Godfrey Democrat won House seat in close race after being appointed in 2017
By GRANT MORGAN
Capitol News Illinois
One of the first lessons state Rep. Monica Bristow learned about her job was to keep answers short, and be careful about saying too much.
Bristow (D-Godfrey), appointed in December 2017 to serve the remaining term of retiring Rep. Dan Beiser, was presenting her first bill on halting pay raises for legislators.
“You get hazed a little bit by the other side when you’re a freshman and it’s your first bill,” Bristow said. One lawmaker asked her, “If we’re not getting raises now, when do you propose that we get them?”
When Bruce Rauner gets his act together, and when state revenues exceed expenses, she responded.
“Well, it came out that I was proposing an income tax raise so that we [lawmakers] can get a raise,” Bristow said with a laugh. “That’s how it showed up in the paper the next day, and that’s how it showed up in the race.”
The race Bristow refers to was the remarkably close November election she won over Republican Mike Babcock for Illinois’ 111th House District, an area covering much of Madison and Jersey counties just north of East St. Louis. She beat Babcock by fewer than 300 votes.
Bristow owes much of her experience to her early career at the Olin Corporation, and, later, 15 years spent at the Riverbend Growth Association, where she was president and head of the region’s economic development.
Though a Democrat, Bristow said her district is very conservative. Among other things, Bristow explained how she prevailed in that political environment, during an interview with Capitol News Illinois which has been edited for length and clarity.
Capitol News Illinois: You call yourself a ‘conservative Democrat.’ Can you explain what people might expect of you policy-wise?
Monica Bristow: Well, what’s kind of unusual is that I have an “A” rating from the NRA, so I’m very pro-gun like my constituents. I probably hear more about that than I hear from anybody else on any other issue. Secondly, I am pro-life, and that is probably the second most issue I hear from my constituents.
Priority-wise, mental health issues and the opioid crisis are very high on my list.
CNI: So you are more of a Democrat on economic matters?
MB: Yes. For example, I signed onto the progressive income tax resolution. Now, if that would adversely affect the middle class, I will vote against it. But I expect that it will create a decrease in taxes for the middle class.
CNI: As the former president of an economic growth association, what insights can you give about Illinois’ massive financial problems?
MB: The worst thing about it is our own perception of Illinois. The perception from residents is that it is worse than it is. I think the previous administration led that charge. Rather than trying to compete with other states, we just let them beat us up, and we took it. And if you compare us to other states side by side, I think you’ll see that we’re not as bad as the previous administration led us to believe. We do have a lot of businesses coming into the state, but we focus on the negative rather than the positive.
CNI: What are some of those comparisons we can make with other states?
I’ve sponsored legislation to help us take a look at it. We have not started the study yet, or assigned anybody to it.
CNI: Since you were appointed in December 2017, you’ve had legislative experience for just over a year. Are you comfortable yet?
MB: No. It’s a learning process, and it’s more than a full-time job. It pretty much takes three [two-year] terms before you get really comfortable knowing the lay of the land. I’ve sat back quite a bit in my first year, watching and learning rather than taking charge.
CNI: Do you plan on taking a stronger, more visible stance on legislation and issues this session?
Yeah. With a little more experience under my belt, I’ll be more assertive in legislation that I put forth and sponsor.
CNI: What issues do you have the most interest in sponsoring?
Mental health issues and mental health parity. For example, telehealth is going to be coming up. Say I’m having a mental health crisis - with telehealth, I can call a psychologist and get immediate help rather than calling at 9 a.m. and getting an appointment three weeks from now. The legislation hasn’t been introduced yet, but I’m working on it, and it’s something I’ll at least co-sponsor.
CNI: Why is mental health such a high priority for you?
MB: Primarily because it ties in with opioids and drug use, and that is a problem around [my area]. I think that people, rather than getting treated for mental health, go for the easy drugs and get addicted to them, and many times that can or will lead to death.
CNI: Speaking of drugs, what’s your stance on legalizing recreational marijuana?
MB: Right now, I’d probably vote against it, because that’s what I’m hearing from my constituents. I tell people, if you support it you need to let me know, but I’m still hearing more opposition than support.
CNI: What made it so difficult to really pull away in the election, and win by a comfortable margin?
I think it came down to the labels, Republican-Democrat. Being a conservative Democrat, I thought I could pull more Republicans out. But there was some controversy with NRA ratings.
I’m also pro-labor, pro-working class, and that was the main difference between my opponent and I.
CNI: To help solve Illinois’ financial problems, which do you favor more: raising revenue or cutting expenses?
MB: You’ve absolutely gotta do both. I know that there’s a lot of spending out there that’s wasteful, there are a lot of inefficiencies to be improved. But we need additional revenue and, yes, it’s probably going to be the progressive income tax.
CNI: As the progressive income tax would require a constitutional amendment, and that question can be raised only on the ballot in 2020, what do we do about the intervening years?
MB: I think it will probably be medical marijuana. But that’s also not going to be an immediate fix, because I don’t think this administration will rush through it. I think they’ll make sure the dollars are specifically assigned first, and I hope they’ll go to health and human services, law enforcement, and municipalities that have to deal with it. There’s no immediate fix for any of this.
CNI: What’s your stance on Tobacco 21?
MB: I’m on the American Cancer Society board, so I’m in favor. I voted for it twice last year, but even though it didn’t pass I think it will come up again. I hope it will do some good.