Champaign Businessman Hopes to Unseat Jakobsson in House Race
By Sean Powers
State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson (D-Urbana), 71, is up for re-election. Jakobsson has been in office for the last decade, but Champaign businessman Robert Meister, 29, hopes to unseat her.
Jakobsson was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in Nov. 2002 following a very negative and expensive campaign against Republican Tom Burns. She previously served as Champaign County recorder, director of the local YMCA, and the head of an organization for victims of domestic violence.
“I think because of the kind of work I’ve been involved with, whether it’s a job or volunteer work in…you know just working with people, talking to people, listening to people all the time, I think that has helped win this election,” Jakobsson said shortly after her 2002 election victory.
Although Naomi Jakobsson’s goals include improving education, strengthening social and human services, and cleaning up the environment, she said a decade in the Illinois House has changed her.
“I think it’s made me a much stronger person, probably a better advocate for what my constituents believe are important, and what I believe is important,” she sad.
When Jakobsson was first elected to the Illinois House, her opponent in this year’s race was a sophomore at Illinois State University. These days, Robert Mesiter owns Minneci's, an Italian restaurant in Champaign.
As a business owner, Mesiter said there is a perspective he can bring to politics that is missing. On display at the front of the restaurant is an old photo from 1955 showing a gas station, which would later become his restaurant. He said he hopes the restaurant still exists in another generation.
“Unfortunately, with the economy and a lot of new state regulations, it’s very difficult for small businesses to keep up,” he said.
Meister said after the 2008 recession, Illinois made it a lot tougher for small business owners by adding additional regulations on workers compensation and raising the minimum wage.
At $8.25, Illinois’ minimum wage is a dollar higher than the federal rate. Governor Pat Quinn said last month that he wants to increase it more, as recent census data shows a growing number of Illinois residents are living in poverty.
Jakobsson said before she can support raising the minimum wage, she wants to know exactly how it would impact the state’s economy.
“Probably, if it’s going to be considered, it needs to be considered on a graduated level,” Jakobsson said. “You know, implementing incriminates and steps.”
Meister said increasing the minimum wage will force small business owners to lay people off. He said Illinois should either follow the federal government’s minimum wage rate, or let local governments decide on a rate that best suits them.
“If Chicago legislatures pass a minimum wage based on the cost of living in Chicago, somebody that lives down in Carbondale, Illinois is never going to be able to provide their 15 and 16-year-old employees with $9.25 an hour to scoop ice cream,” Meister said. “It’s just not going to work. That business will close.”
Jakobsson said to help reduce Illinois’ deficit and place the state in a better position to meet its pension obligations, she introduced a House joint resolution to create a progressive income tax.
“If we were to have a progressive income tax, people of a lower income would pay actually a lower amount, and the very wealthy…yes….they would pay more, but a lot of my constituents, even those who would be affected by that, say that’s the right way to go,” she said.
Meanwhile, Meister said he would not support any tax hike, but would push for an audit of state government to get rid of agencies that he thinks aren’t needed, like the Illinois Liquor Control Commission.
“Every single city has its own liquor commissioner,” he said. “It’s usually the mayor, but right now every business that want to serve alcohol also has to worry about the state and the city and you’re literally paying twice for the same service. It makes no sense.”
Meister said when it comes down to it, business owners are not looking for additional tax breaks or a higher minimum wage, but evidence of Illinois’ financial stability. He claims if he lived anywhere else in the country, he would have three or four restaurants by now.
Meister said one of the reasons he is running is because of the pressure he feels to move his business from Illinois to another state.
“The state of Illinois can only put its foot in the pack of people who create revenue and create wealth so long before they’ll leave,” Meister said.
Jakobsson maintains businesses are coming to Illinois, despite efforts by other states, like Wisconsin and Indiana, to lure them away. She stands by Governor Quinn’s efforts to spur economic development.
One way Jakobsson would like to see the unemployment rate driven down is through more investments in career-readiness programs and higher education - whether that is four-year universities or community colleges.
She also worries there is a funding gap for education in Illinois. She said the state’s overreliance on property taxes in financing schools gives wealthier communities an unfair advantage.
"All youngsters throughout the state deserve the best education that they can have,” Jakobsson said. “We just saw the city of Chicago be on strike. Will all of that result in a better education for the youngsters? I hope it does.”
Meister said he would like to do away unfunded mandates affecting school districts.
Then there is the issue of not just funding education, but assessing it.
Both Jakobsson and Meister say there are problems with evaluating all students the same way, which is why they do not support teaching strictly to the test. Like Jakobsson, Meister said there should be more of an emphasis on career readiness.
“We need to push for higher education, but we need to make sure that students know that that doesn’t have to be a four-year college, that that doesn’t have to be a degree, that they don’t have to be a lawyer or a doctor, that if they just want to get further education at Parkland (College) to be a pipe fitter, that that’s a good life, too,” Meister said.
For his political life, Meister said six years in office is enough to “right some wrongs.”
Jakobsson, meanwhile, has not set a timeframe for when she will leave politics. She said after 10 years, she still loves the job and has more that she wants to accomplish.