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Cheri Bustos is wrapping up a decade in Congress, but she says her work isn't done yet

Tim Shelley

The 17th Congressional District will have a new shape come Jan. 3. It'll also have a new representative.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Moline) has represented a large swath of central, western, and northern Illinois for the past decade. She decided not to run for another term this cycle.

Democratic-leaning urban centers like Peoria, the Quad Cities, and Rockford anchor what's otherwise a largely rural, increasingly conservative district. Donald Trump won this district in 2016 and 2020. But so did Bustos.

"That's a person going into the voting booth and saying, 'Okay, I'm gonna vote for this Republican who has very, very different views from this Democrat, but then I'm gonna vote for her,'" she said. "So yeah, it makes this district unique."

The key to representing a district like this, Bustos said, is making sure you're listening to the people back home, and serving on the congressional committees where you can be of the most help addressing those issues.

That includes going to bat for agricultural interests, a major leg of the rural Illinois economy. Bustos is an advocate for the ethanol and biofuels industries.

She said while the manufacturing and usage of electric vehicles is increasing, liquid fuel will still be needed for a long time to come. She said making cleaner-burning ethanol a part of the equation makes sense environmentally and economically.

Bustos said she sometimes struggled to help her coastal colleagues understand the importance of ethanol to the Midwestern ag economy. She said the Trump administration caused hardships when it granted an excess of small refinery waivers, which exempt oil refineries from an ethanol blending requirement.

"I said it was literally like the Trump administration was giving away these small refinery waivers like candy on Halloween. It was almost indiscriminate that they were giving these out, and that harmed our family farmers, our corn growers here in our part of the country," she said.

She said things are improving under the Biden administration's policies. It's a space she wants to remain active in after her congressional tenure ends.

"I am here to help if I can be of help. I still know the players in this space. And I want to make sure that we keep moving forward on ethanol, because it's very important to Illinois, it's very important to our family farmers. And it's very important to our part of the country," she said.

Bustos also spearheaded a bipartisan effort to end forced arbitration in workplace incidents where sexual harassment or assault is alleged.

"The power dynamic is going to be in the in the hands of the employer who has the deeper pockets, who has the corporate lawyers or has the institutional backing, whatever that may look like, for the power dynamics to be in their favor," Bustos said. "And that is why, again, mostly women who have been sexually assaulted or harassed in the workplace, the outcome has (typically) not been in their favor."

Earlier this month, Congress passed legislation eliminating non-disclosure agreements in cases of workplace sexual misconduct. Bustos encouraged employees to take a look at their contracts for the non-enforceable clauses.

Bustos also touted wins in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That includes $829 million for locks and dams on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. She said the improvements will double the length of the barges that can pass through the locks, saving operators the time and labor of decoupling.

"It's very, very, very labor intensive to get those barges through through the locks because they're they're too long to fit through. So this will save time, it'll say wear and tear on the men and women who work on the barges," she said. "And it will get our commodities, our grain, etc., to the world market much faster, less expensively."

Democrat Eric Sorensen, a former TV meteorologist, will be the 17th District's new representative in Congress. Some of the more conservative areas of western Illinois are cut out of the new district and adds Macomb and Bloomington-Normal. Bustos said maintaining a strong constituent service operation will be vital for the incoming congressman.

"My advice to Eric is that the work is done here," she said. "When you're not out in Washington, come home. I worked nearly every weekend. And that includes not just Saturday, but most Sundays, and making sure that we never lost sight of what the job was all about, and listening to people using the two ears that I have and my one mouth, using those proportionately."

As for what's next for Bustos, she's not sure yet.

"I just want to be in a position where I'll make a difference, and we'll see what that looks like," she said.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.