Congresswoman Cheri Bustos is nearing an end to her tenure in office and is looking forward to future opportunities.
Bustos, 61, is finishing her fifth and final term representing the 17th Congressional District and recently spoke to Sauk Valley Media on past accomplishments and what’s next in her career.
She has focused on supporting families, jobs, the economy, farmers and manufacturing, to name a few.
The No. 1 priority has been “doing right” by the constituents, she said.
“To me, that’s what being a member of Congress is all about,” she said. “I never lost sight of what this job is all about.”
Bustos served as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee.
She said the Democratic party has delivered in major ways, such as bringing back community project funding — including $1.5 million that went to the Morrison Institute of Technology for its automation annex — and receiving acclaim for constituency service.
Bustos, with family ties to farming, drew much support from the rural Republican areas in the district from her work in agriculture and the Farm Bill. She was on the Agriculture Committee for 10 years, including heading the subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management.
“Throughout my time in leadership, as one of the only members of House Democratic leadership from the Midwest, I have always worked to make sure the Heartland was heard at the highest levels of Congress,” she said. “That has led to major accomplishments, such as bringing all stakeholders to the table to pass a strong United States Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) for labor, agriculture and our manufacturers, and has helped make sure our region of the country is a central part of our nation’s steps forward.”
She had 120 “Cheri-on-Shift” visits throughout the district and learned how to drive a forklift, spot weld on cars and process carp from the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.
Her district spans 14 counties — including Whiteside and Carroll counties — and around 150 towns, about 80% of which have populations of 5,000 or fewer people.
“How you understand a district like this and towns in a district like this is you show up,” she said.
A former journalist and healthcare executive, Bustos said it’s also important to be a watchdog of government.
She cited an example being the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act, a bipartisan bill that “saves significant taxpayer dollars by cutting down on government waste in the form of overpayments, improperly documented payments or payments made to ineligible recipients.”
She also fought for funding to improve the locks and dams on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois waterways, helping farmers to transport crops to market.
“After voting in favor of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021, I worked with a group of bipartisan lawmakers, including Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, to secure $829 million of that new funding for our locks and dams – the biggest investment in this system since they were first built during the Great Depression in the 1930s and 1940s.”
In Carroll County, Bustos worked to open the federal Thomson Prison and helped secure funding for the Shimer Square development project in Mount Carroll.
“Alongside Senators Durbin and Duckworth, I was an ardent advocate for the opening and activation of the federal prison in Thomson,” she said. “At our request, the Thomson Prison was granted direct hire authority, recruitment and retention bonuses and increased locality pay to address staffing issues.”
One project left on the table that she wished would have gotten done is the Amtrak route from the Quad Cities to Chicago, which is still being worked out.
The last few years have been hard for so many families and students because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.
“It was challenging for everybody,” she said.
There’s also been the increased polarization between the parties.
She emphasized the importance of being nimble enough to figure out a way to work together, no matter which party holds the majority or who’s in the White House.
“You can’t make them the enemy,” she said.
Bustos said she never planned to be a career politician, and she wants to “make room for the next generation.”
She’s still piecing together what her next career will be but plans to be part of the Council for Responsible Social Media, a newly formed group to look at the negative mental, civic, and public health impacts of social media and the technological harms to kids, communities, and national security such as the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Bustos said she plans to stay in Illinois with her family. She and her husband Gerry, who’s retiring as sheriff of Rock Island County, have three sons and three grandchildren.
Democrat Eric Sorensen, a former TV weather forecaster in Rockford and the Quad Cities, won a tight race Nov. 8 against Republican Esther Joy King for Bustos’ seat in a redrawn district, receiving 51.8% of the vote.
Bustos said Sorensen will bring a unique voice to Congress, and he plans to focus on science and the environment, among other issues.