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Q&A: Peoria Mayor Rita Ali discusses abortion rights, updates passenger rail plans

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she hopes to make an announcement soon on the feasibility study for bringing back passenger rail service.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Mayor Rita Ali says she hopes to make an announcement soon on the feasibility study for bringing back passenger rail service.

Mayor Rita Ali hopes to see Peoria make progress in several areas over the next year.

During her State of the City address last month, Ali identified crime reduction, community development, business growth, and a need for more housing among the major keys to growing Peoria's population.

As she also continues her push to bring passenger rail service back to the city, Ali is concerned about the potential repercussions of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn its Roe versus Wade precedent.

In her latest monthly conversation with reporter Joe Deacon, Mayor Ali addresses various topics including her reaction to the Dobbs ruling. This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

We discussed this before when the draft opinion was initially leaked, but what are your thoughts on the U.S. Supreme Court officially overturning Roe vs. Wade?

Mayor Rita Ali: It's a sharp attack on women's reproductive rights. You know, I was a teenager when Roe v. Wade was passed, and I've always been an advocate for women's rights, civil rights, human rights and this is a right that's being taken away from women to make a choice. So I have those personal thoughts.

As a government official, as a mayor, Roe v. Wade is still the law in Illinois. So, Illinois is really a safe haven for women's reproductive rights and I think will continue to be for a long, long time. Again, I have to balance my personal views with my leadership role as a government official. But my personal opinion is that it was very regressive, very regressive for what I hope to be a forward-moving, forward-thinking country. Fortunately, Illinois is more progressive and will continue to protect women's reproductive rights.

With the decision then making abortion rights a state issue, several of the neighboring states seem to be heading toward possible restrictions or bans. How might this ruling affect Illinois or specifically Peoria?

Ali: Well, according to the current governor, Governor (JB) Pritzker, Illinois won't be impacted and Illinois continues to be that safe haven.

Do you think, though, that then we could see people coming in from these other states that are seeking abortion?

Ali: I don't see a big rush to relocate to Illinois based upon this change, but I do believe it will cause people to come to Illinois for services, for health services. Peoria is part of the state of Illinois, so we will conduct ourselves in pretty much the same way that we have.

But what I do see forthcoming is a lot of protesting. I think the protesting will continue for a very long time. I witnessed that as a young woman, that protesting occurred for so long, and now it’s back again. Of course, there will be protesting on both sides, but for the most part most of the protests will be women and men who are seeking for those rights to be restored.

You know, if someone were to say, “you can no longer bear arms, have guns,” oh, my God. There would be protesting (and) there would be so much demand for our rights to bear arms, and I put this kind of in a similar category.

It seems like the way the court is interpreting is that the right to bear arms is specifically spelled out in the Bill of Rights, whereas the right to an abortion is not explicitly in the Constitution anywhere and that's how they're interpreting it. But do you still see an inconsistency there?

Ali: I do. Personally, I do. I think a right for a woman to choose when she will give birth to a child is a right that has been taken away.

It's also been suggested that this really may open the door to challenges of federal protections for, say, gay marriage or access to contraception or potentially even interracial marriage. Are you concerned that this could lead to those?

Ali: I'm concerned based upon some of the statements from Supreme Court Justice (Clarence Thomas) that this is the beginning and that it could lead to rights taken for fertility, birth control, marriage restrictions. So yes, I'm concerned that this is the first step to other rights being taken away.

What is the latest update on the push to bring passenger rail service back to Peoria? It seems like we're supposed to be getting results from the (feasibility) study by now?

Ali: The study is actually complete. The draft is written up of the report, but the report has not been released by IDOT (Illinois Department of Transportation) and their consultant yet. They are making some tweaks based upon input from IDOT (and) based upon input from the city and our community work group, and they expect that it will be released any day now. I know I've been saying that for a while; I just don't have control over the release. But I do expect that it will be very soon, within the next couple of weeks. At that point, we will have a news conference here as well as with some other cities that are along that passenger rail line. So “I'm very optimistic” is about all I can say.

That was going to be my next question: How optimistic are you about what may come out in the report, and what would then be the next steps?

Ali: I'm optimistic because I have seen the draft report; I’m very encouraged. So, the next step is to pursue becoming part of the Federal Railroad Administration identification corridor program. That puts us in line for funding, for the next steps in getting in line for the big infrastructure funding to support our project.

When might a determination be made on some of the sites that were considered for a (train) station in Peoria?

Ali: Well, very soon as well. As a matter of fact, we're looking at a joint press conference. They're going to reveal their report as well, and identify the recommended location for a Peoria site.

How soon might that be?

Ali: I would say within the next couple of weeks.

I recently spoke with First District councilmember Denise Jackson, and she said she thinks the city needs to do more to encourage economic development and business growth. Would you agree with her assessment, and if so, what would you like to see done?

Ali: Absolutely, and we're working on things. We're working on more economic development with our partners, the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, the (Peoria Area) Chamber of Commerce. We are entertaining more what we call RFIs – requests for interest – in certain projects. There's really a lot going on.

We're making sure that our infrastructure is strong to support and draw more businesses. We have a lot of new entrepreneurs here; the Chamber just last year did ribbon cuttings for over 110 businesses. We are starting to see more startups (and) we are seeing more biotech companies come to Peoria, so economic development is happening. We want to draw, as well, more small businesses and midsized businesses as well. But believe me, work is being done in this area.

You recently gave your State of the City address. What do you see as the biggest future goals and where the city is headed in the next few years?

Ali: Well, you know, the city weathered through the (COVID-19) pandemic financially. It wasn't easy, but we're digging ourselves out. We're not where we want to be, but things are improving. Over the next few years, we have $60 million dedicated this year to infrastructure improvements – so that's our roads, our sidewalks, smart street lighting. So we're improving our infrastructure.

We see more businesses – Biotech (Biotechnology Research and Development Center), Veloxity Labs, Pringle Robotics, VirtuSense – that are coming. We know that our medical community is our largest employer, and we're training people to have the skills to fill these jobs that have been unmet. So I'm just very optimistic about Peoria’s future. More good things to come.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.