FREEPORT – What’s the number-one issue on the minds of voters in the 17th Congressional District and across the country?
Jobs. The voters have spoken, and politicians are listening.
With just 3 weeks to go until Election Day, Democrat Cheri Bustos sought to use what has become a national flashpoint – a Freeport auto parts factory’s impending move to China – to help propel her to office in Washington, D.C.
On a breezy Tuesday morning, the former East Moline alderwoman and Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin spoke to a crowd at a temporary campsite in Freeport, a town new to the redrawn 17th, which now includes all of Whiteside County, too.
For 35 days, Sensata Technologies workers have been camping out across from the plant to protest the loss of 170 jobs before the end of the year.
Sensata is owned by Bain Capital, formerly run by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It develops and makes sensors and controls for auto companies.
Bustos, who is facing incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, said she has visited Freeport many times and “built relationships with the Sensata workers.”
“I want the people of Freeport to know that this election is going to get down to a clear set of priorities, and that is making sure that we’re working on behalf of working men and women and families, while my opponent continues to look out for millionaires,” she said.
“I hope that we’ve gotten that message out to folks.”
On the stage from which she addressed the crowd sat a row of bright orange pumpkins. The first two were carved with a message. One read: “47 percent,” referring to the now infamous comments made by Romney to campaign donors when he said a certain percentage of the country would not vote for him, and the second read: “Sensata.”
The campsite was ringed with anti-Romney signs, and those in support of Sensata workers.
Tom Gaulrapp, who has worked at the Sensata plant for 33 years, is spokesman for “Bainport,” as the camp is known.
“What we’re looking for, we’re looking to raise the issue of outsourcing so that everybody stops and thinks about their own job and realizes that if their job does not require face-to-face contact with a customer, that this can and will happen to them as well,” Gaulrapp told the crowd.
“The idea of moving jobs out of the country, moving them to another country, purely for greed, is absolutely wrong on every level.”
In response to the event, Schilling spokesman Jon Schweppe said the candidate sent a letter to Thomas Wroe, CEO of Sensata Technologies “asking him to change his mind.”
“We have some of the greatest workers in Illinois,” Schweppe said. “We’ve also offered multiple times to meet with Sensata employees.
“So far, ‘Bainport’ people, [seem] more interested in political grandstanding.”
Schweppe pointed to Schilling’s record of involvement with manufacturing and his membership on the manufacturing caucus. He has worked to strengthen that sector of the economy and bring manufacturing jobs back to Illinois, Schweppe said.
Schilling and Bustos are set to debate tonight in Rockford.
Meanwhile, Freeport will continue to get attention. MSNBC personality Ed Shultz will be broadcasting “The Ed Show” from “Bainport” at 7 p.m. Friday. The Rev. Al Sharpton, another MSNBC talk show host, will be there at 4 p.m. Saturday.
U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, and former Speaker Dennis Hastert are co-hosting a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday at Tennant Truck Lines in Colona.
Sauk Valley Media will provide coverage of the event in Friday's paper, and a closer look at the goings-on in the pivitol 17th District race, which is drawing intense national scrutiny, in SV Weekend and at saukvalley.com.