More than two decades of public service in Chicago’s northwest suburbs gave Donald DeWitte a lens through which to view issues and their effect on a community.
Whether they are large or small, originating at the state level or in townships, DeWitte said he believes in the “old adage that all government is local government.”
Eight years as mayor and 12 as an alderman in his native St. Charles reinforced that concept, which is one he grew up with – his father, Alphonse, was a St. Charles alderman for 26 years, and his mother, Dorothy, was a reporter published in the Aurora Beacon News and Elgin Courier.
“It really taught me the pleasure and the self-satisfaction of being able to locally serve your neighbors, just to try to make their lives a little bit better,” he said. “That’s really the emphasis I hope to take to Springfield – to share that local exposure, to emphasize the local needs that I think sometimes get overlooked in the bigger picture of state structure.”
DeWitte, a Republican, took the oath of office Jan. 9 to become the 33rd District’s state senator. He replaces former Sen. Karen McConnaughay, also a Republican, who did not seek re-election.
DeWitte first was sworn in for the seat Sept. 5 when he replaced McConnaughay after her resignation from the post.
One of his priorities in the 101st General Assembly is to tackle Illinois’ income tax. DeWitte said he will fight to keep the rate from climbing any higher. He also wants to push for infrastructure project funding, an issue to which he can lend his five years of experience on the Regional Transportation Authority Board in Chicago.
DeWitte recently was appointed as the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Transportation Committee.
“Don is a great guy, and I think someone that’s going to work very hard both for the people in his district and for the people in the state,” said Rep. Dan Ugaste, R-Geneva. “We share many of the same interests as far as improving Illinois, making it a place where people and businesses want to locate again.”
Despite the Democratic Party having a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly and big issues likely to be debated, DeWitte said he is encouraged by a “spirit of bipartisanship” he already sees.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capitol News Illinois: What should the General Assembly’s top priority be this session?
DeWitte: The elephant in the state Capitol, if you will – that may be a poor analogy – is what some would suggest is the $200 billion pension liability that currently exists, along with a pile of unpaid bills that, based on who you listen to, probably varies between $7 [billion] and $10 billion.
We have got to put the shovel down and stop digging the debt hole any deeper than it already is.
There’s a lot of talk about new revenues coming off the potential legalization of cannabis. There’s talk about new revenues from additional casinos in Chicago and adding slot machines to racetracks.
I really hope that there’s enough of an open mind on both sides of the aisle that any new revenue be allocated specifically to debt reduction in this state.
The deeper that hole goes, all it does is remove resources from our ability to fund additional programs – increases in education, increases in mental health services, all of those social programs that everyone cries for additional funding for. It’s never going to happen as long as that $200 billion debt is hanging over everyone’s head.
CNI: You said on your campaign website you were “fighting for balanced budgets.” Do you have any sense how that fight will go this session, with Democrats holding a supermajority in both chambers and the executive mansion?
DeWitte: The budget is currently almost $1 billion out of balance. Until [Gov. J.B. Pritzker] comes out with how he plans to implement revenue increases to offset not only the existing deficit, but also additional deficits that will add to that number, I think it’s fair to say Republicans are going to be very cautious to see how he intends to accomplish everything he wants to do.
He cannot do it on the backs of middle-class workers in the state of Illinois – I can assure you the Republican Party will fight that tooth and nail. But I’m willing to give the new governor an open mind.
I want to hear his ideas. I want to hear what his thoughts are. I hope Democrats will want to hear the thoughts of the Republicans in the minority, as well.
I think, generally speaking, what I’ve seen since being sworn in in September, and re-sworn in again after this election, is some open-mindedness on the part of our Democratic colleagues across the aisle. I think there may be a few more Democrats who are equally as skeptical in wanting to see how this governor intends to lay out his fiscal policies, and how he intends to pay for all of those initiatives that he continues to roll out on a daily basis.
CNI: Do you get overwhelmed when you think about everything the General Assembly will have to tackle during your term?
DeWitte: I’m not really overwhelmed as much as I’m trepidatious about whether residents of the state really have an understanding of just how severe and significant the fiscal health of this state really is.
I hope people understand how difficult the decisions that are going to have to be made to try to get this state back on track are going to be. It’s great to feed programs. It’s great to feed services.
There are issues that we just have to take care of, like infrastructure. But this Legislature – in both houses, on both sides of the aisle – has some very hard, very difficult choices to make in order to put this state back on some form of stable fiscal management.
It’s a great challenge that will test, I think, every elected official in this state, from mayors and local communities right up to Gov. Pritzker and his party.
We’re not going to agree on everything – that’s just how politics works. But I think everyone that I have spoken to and that is in the Senate realizes the challenges that lie ahead for this state, and I believe everyone is ready to put their nose to the grindstone and start working hard to turn this state around.
CNI: Why is infrastructure one of those issues you say Illinois needs to solve?
DeWitte: We cannot let our roads and bridges and railroads just continue to disintegrate because it’s the quickest way to run business out of the state.
The increase in the gas tax seems to be getting most of the energy with regard to a capital bill at this point, and I will be willing to look at some form of an increase in motor fuel taxes, but that is only one piece of what will need to be a multiple-armed revenue stream in order to fund the significant numbers that a legitimate capital bill is going to require in the state.
The good part about that is that motor fuel taxes are lockboxed. In other words, those dollars can only be used for transportation-related issues.
CNI: What are you most looking forward to in these next four years?
DeWitte: I really believe, with Gov. Pritzker coming in, that this state and its residents really have an opportunity to turn a new page in state government and start working together, like government is supposed to work – to come up with bipartisan solutions to the significant problems that the state faces.
We have one of the richest states in the nation. We have so many things going for us – we just don’t have the ability to take advantage of it because our state government is so strapped financially.
We’ve got to turn that around for the future. You know, I have grown children. I want my kids to make their future here in Illinois. And I have talked about that with all the people I met during the campaign – they all have the same concerns. We’ve got to come together. We have to make very hard decisions.
I’m excited about the new spirit of cooperation and bipartisanship that seems to be coming out of Springfield these days, and I’m going to do my [best] to pull my share to try to take advantage of that to make good decisions for the state of Illinois [and] for our residents.