STERLING – U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin on Wednesday made public his endorsement of a congressional candidate that was anything but a secret.
He announced his backing of former East Moline Alderwoman Cheri Bustos in her campaign to represent the 17th Congressional District, which includes Whiteside County. She is among three candidates for the Democratic nomination in the March 20 primary election.
Durbin and Bustos flew around the district to promote the endorsement, including stops at airports in Peoria, the Quad Cities and Rockford.
“I’ve known her and her family since she was a young girl” in Springfield, Durbin said in a story in the Peoria Journal Star.
Bustos, a former newspaper reporter, now does public relations work in the health care industry.
Durbin was a friend of Bustos’ father, Gene Callahan, who worked for Illinois politicians such as former Sens. Paul Simon and Alan Dixon.
In a news release, Durbin said Bustos is the right fit for Congress in tough economic times.
“Cheri’s background as a tough investigative journalist, health care advocate and community leader provides a unique perspective on what it takes to save and create jobs,” Durbin said in the release. “As a working mother with three sons, Cheri is all to familiar with the issues that average Americans face every day.”
Because of redistricting, the 17th District is considered more Democratic than it once was. The district lost some rural areas in west-central Illinois and picked up areas to the north, including parts of Rockford.
The seat is currently held by Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, who is running for a second term. He defeated two-term incumbent Democrat Phil Hare in 2010.
In mid-December, state Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, revealed that he was pulling out of the race largely because Durbin asked him to step aside in favor of Bustos.
Another candidate, Freeport Mayor George Gaulrapp, told Sauk Valley Media last week that Durbin had met with him over lunch in early December in Springfield, asking him to withdraw from the race.
He said the senator told him that he planned to endorse Bustos. He said that Durbin mentioned his connection to the Callahan family and that Bustos had baby-sat the senator’s children.
But Gaulrapp said the senator left out a crucial reason to endorse a candidate – qualifications.
Gaulrapp said that because he believed he was more qualified than Bustos, he would stay in the race.
Koehler had been the leader in fundraising, with $187,072 in his coffers. With him out of the race, Bustos is atop with $164,116. The other candidates, Gaulrapp and Augustana College official Greg Aguilar, have far less, with $9,160 and $10,221, respectively.
Gaulrapp called Durbin a friend and one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation.
“He carries a lot of weight,” Gaulrapp said. “She [Bustos] would be a vote he could line up. Greg Aguilar and I would listen to the people in the district and vote accordingly.”
Gaulrapp said he has relationships with officials in Washington and Springfield, “but I don’t owe anyone anything, except to the voters in the 17th District.”
Aguilar said voters see the endorsement as business as usual for those “very connected” to the party.
“People aren’t surprised by it, but they aren’t happy about it, either,” he said. “People in the 17th District want real representation, not a handpicked candidate by the powers that be.”