SPRINGFIELD — Ryan Spain was sworn in Wednesday afternoon to the state House, replacing longtime Rep. David Leitch, who retired.
Earlier in the week, the Peoria Republican sat down with the Journal Star just off the House floor to discuss his priorities for the new term. Here's an edited transcript:
Q: Given everything that's happened in the last couple years in state government, why do you want this job?
A: I think it's fair to look at the climate in Springfield and the difficulties facing our state, and a lot of people have said to me, 'why would you want that job?' And I think, to me, there are many challenges facing the state. But we need people to step up and be involved in solving them. We have a lot of opportunities — I hope — to change the direction of the state of Illinois. Even though the job will be frustrating, even though there are tremendous challenges in Springfield, I still look forward to the work — both the work down here voting and hopefully creating a better climate for our state, but also the work back home in the district helping constituents solve problems that they're facing and helping to get things done in the communities that I will represent.
Q: You've experienced some of that constituent service already with two terms on the City Council. But you're stepping into a much larger area and, frankly, into an office that has become renowned throughout the state for its constituent service. How do you expand into a larger territory and take advantage of the legacy that's been built up over the years?
A: That's truly the legacy of Rep. Leitch. He leaves big shoes to fill in a number of ways, and constituent service is one of the largest footprints that he leaves behind. I'm really lucky that his chief of staff will become my chief of staff in Linda Daley, and continuing his emphasis on constituent service is one of the highest priorities I have for the office. It's really important, and because he has excelled at it and it's something our community has come to expect. That will be a big focus for our office, and it will probably be one of the sources of great fulfillment for me personally in the office because getting things done to help people may be a great offset to the frustrations we experience down here in Springfield.
As far as how to do that, I've been focused on getting out to some of the parts of the district that are new to me, where I'm new to them, and connect with local leaders on some of the issues that they are facing and making sure they understand that we have a very strong commitment to continuing the highest levels of constituent service.
Q: What are some of the things that you've learned about the district so far? What have you found that surprised you?
A: What's really surprised me is how many issues are the same. I come from a background of Peoria City Council. Whether it's a community as big as Peoria or a smaller town in the district, so many of our communities, collectively, are facing the same challenges: How do we generate jobs in our community? How do we invest in infrastructure? Could we get a couple new businesses into our downtown? It was really the past year of getting to know these communities has been an incredible opportunity for me. If you're willing to show up and be a good partner to these communities, you can help them accomplish the things that are important to them.
I've spent a lot of time on the City Council working on Downtown and the Warehouse District. I don't represent Downtown Peoria anymore, but I now represent a dozen different downtowns that are trying to do, in many ways, a lot of the same things, saying, 'We'd love to get downtown a new restaurant or a coffee shop or a grocery store.' I feel like I've had good training spending almost 10 years on the City Council about how local government works, how the state of Illinois affects decisions that are made at the local level, and hopefully how to be a good advocate for those communities.
Q: And you're looking at a facilitator role, right? Legislatively you don't wave your wand and create a new IGA in Lacon or somewhere.
A: Absolutely. And again, it's a great source of personal fulfillment that you can help a community accomplish whatever their priorities are.
Q: As far as those parochial priorities you're hearing, whether it's the port in Henry or the legislative agenda from Peoria, what are you hearing?
A: Henry's a very big example of a large project that has tremendous regional impact. Funding for schools in different communities. Some infrastructure issues in Chillicothe, for example. We've talked for a long time about the viaducts on (Illinois Route) 29 and some of the changes that need to be made there. It can be a dangerous location.
Peoria's big infrastructure projects like the extension of Pioneer Parkway is one that comes to mind. All of our roads throughout the district and throughout the state are in need of tremendous investment.
In Peoria I was very involved in helping create the historic tax credit. That's one we need to have extended on a longer-term basis than just one year. We were lucky to get one year, but most of our big projects won't be finished in a one-year time frame, so that's one issue.
I think that there are a number of different items. I'm learning a lot more about them as I go. Every week I meet with community leaders and constituents. A lot of our bill ideas will come from constituents that have been frustrated with an issue that may require a legislative solution.
Q: You bring some background to the table as far as local government service, work in the health care industry. What other issues, more broadly than local topics, do you see yourself advocating for?
A: The biggest issue right now in Illinois is our economic climate, how it affects everything we do, from not having a budget to leading the nation in job loss and population loss. In the biggest-picture sense of doing this job, that is an incredibly high priority. We have to make the adjustments necessary to return economic growth to this state. I'm under no illusion that we can wave a magic wand and do it quickly, but we've been heading in the wrong direction for quite a while now.
I think health care will be an important topic, especially with the new administration in Washington and a lot more autonomy and flexibility being delivered to states to make decisions about their health care spending.
I worked in economic development for many years, and thinking about the business climate in the state of Illinois, there are a lot of things we need to be doing, either changes to our business climate or making sure we're taking advantages of the tools to bring businesses into the state and grow jobs. Unfortunately we don't have as many tools as other states, and we need to pay attention to that. Some of the tools that recently expired need to be priorities for restarting.
Q: You enter into this job coming in with the minority caucus. How do you reach across the aisle and pull in enough support to get a majority on any of these things?
A: I have enjoyed working in a bipartisan manner on the City Council, or with my now-colleagues in the state Legislature. Peoria is so fortunate. We're a great example, and a very unusual example, of a community that is represented in in a very bipartisan way with members in each of the four caucuses. It creates a great platform for getting things done. You have a built-in partner to work with, reach across the aisle and understand the perspective of what the other party might be thinking.
I think it's important to be sensitive to that and understand where there might be some of the challenges to getting things done, and being able to work collaboratively to make changes. I feel well prepared to do that. It's something I believe in personally and have experience with on the City Council. Everyone knows who's an R and who's a D on the City Council, and we tried to work together. I was happy to have gotten things done that require a lot of bipartisan support.
Q: Let's talk about some of the orientation that you've gotten coming into this job. What do they teach you to do?
A: Everything from how to be effective and intelligent about understanding the state budget and working in a strong capacity to pass legislation to where the bathroom is in the Capitol.
Q: Some of that you already know from your time working here.
A: But it's funny, there are a lot of hidden ones. A lot of the previous members talked about their experiences and going three or four months before learning there was a restroom at the back of the chamber!
Every single member spent a great deal of time talking about how important it is that you carry yourself here with the highest integrity and that you keep your word with people. Doesn't mean you can't disagree with them, doesn't mean that some things may change along the way. But if you make a promise to them, you better keep it. And if something changes you better let them know about it. I think that's another similar thing to what I learned on the City Council, and it really is important to carry yourself with that amount of trust and integrity that is becoming of this position in the Capitol.
Q: There's a tendency for most people to introduce many bills at once, but what do you have in mind for your first bill that you're going to introduce?
A: I don't know what one should be the one, but I have a list of bills that are important to me. But I don't know which one should be the first, but as you know, they all sort of get introduced at once.
Q: Are you ready for the traditional "hazing" when whatever the first bill is of yours that makes it through committee and onto the floor?
A: I remember an experience as a new member on the City Council bringing something forward. I moved to approve and not a soul seconded that motion, so it just died. It was a good learning experience as a new council member, and I look forward to that same rite of passage as a legislator — and hopefully I'll be a little wiser in my approach this time around!
Q: Most of the Peoria legislators tend to drive down each day and not stay overnight during session weeks.
A: I intend to do the same thing. I have a 3-year-old daughter. Any time I can get home in time to read bedtime stories, I intend to do it.
Q: You're also leaving your old job doing government relations work with OSF HealthCare and into another position there. What will it be?
A: At OSF, I won't be full time there. I'm taking a position to lead economic development in all of our communities. We have 11 hospitals. Our footprint is pretty well focused on the state of Illinois. In a state that's losing population very quickly, that has not seen a job recovery from the Great Recession, we need to have a greater focus on returning economic prosperity at the community level. Our communities need it, and I think there's some responsibility to help assist that work in the places we serve. In a way, it's a return to some previous work I did back in the old Heartland Partnership days with being involved in economic development and being able to measure impact for investment or job creation in many different communities.
Q: And that includes the East Bluff where OSF is?
A: Absolutely. There are huge opportunities in older neighborhoods in Peoria and in all of our communities to be investing. I think when you have a large employment center that is adjacent to a neighborhood environment, there are some really great things you can do to make investments that are helpful to the neighborhood, to create opportunities for your employees to live nearby and walk to work. Obviously that's very desirable for OSF or any large employer. So there are some really great synergies available.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard