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Lake County Board District 9 candidates push for jobs

Mary Ross Cunningham Lake County Board District 9. | Special Sun-Times Media

Mary Ross Cunningham, Lake County Board District 9. | Special to Sun-Times Media

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District 9

Lake County Board District 9 encompasses portions of Waukegan and North Chicago. Boundaries are Glen Flora Avenue south to 14th Street, and portions west of Lewis Avenue.

Updated: December 25, 2012 1:15AM

Both candidates in the race in Lake County Board District 9 have spent a lot of time in Lake County Jail — incumbent Democrat Mary Ross Cunningham, who maintains an informal ministry of visiting inmates there, and challenger Joe Schmitt, a reformed drug dealer who spent many a day and night there with no visits.

Both candidates live in Waukegan and both are sympathetic to the family and economic problems that can lead to crime and incarceration. Both point to economic opportunity as the antidote.

“Jobs and housing, those are the calls that I get every day,” said Cunningham, 66, a former certified nurse assistant. “People need a job. They need somewhere to live. We’ve had a lot of foreclosures and people just letting their homes go because they’re under water. We hit this bad economic time. To me it was like a depression.”

Schmitt, 60, who was asked to run by the Lake County Republican Party, is a self-described former “career criminal” who served time in prison on Class X drug convictions. But he’s also a decorated former Marine who fought in Vietnam.

In 2004, after a final cocaine binge, he found help through a program of the Lake County Jail for highly motivated inmates. He has worked as a counselor for the Salvation Army and is founder and executive director of FIST — Former Inmates Striving Together — which offers re-entry services and resources to people with criminal convictions.

“The basis for my desire to run is job development and to help bring business and industry into the Waukegan area,” Schmitt said. “I’m more entrepreneurial than my opponent is. I’ve already established relationships at different levels of government, worked with the city of Waukegan on projects and helped FIST members start small businesses, We need a coalition of government agencies to help this district.”

Schmitt said he has already saved the county and Waukegan money related to the costs of recidivism.

“When ex-offenders find employment or create their own businesses it gives relief to the entire community,” Schmitt said.

A Hispanic supermajority district established in 2001, District 9 has seen Latino candidates, but all have fallen to Cunningham in either primary or general elections. She ran unopposed in 2008.

“They (Latinos) support me and I relate to them,” Cunningham said. “I came here from Alabama. I know what it’s like to come up here to work and get a home and educate your kids. There are many hard-working Latinos. They keep their properties up.”

Cunningham is vice chair of the County Board’s Judicial and Law Committee. She serves on Vista Health System’s Healthy Woman Advisory Council and the advisory board for the National Association of Black County Officers. While she is familiar with Schmitt’s work with FIST, she said she was unaware that he had served time in the Illinois Department of Corrections and she noted that his campaign literature does not mention his criminal record.

“You messed up the town and now you want to run for it?” Cunningham asked.

“I’m open and candid about my background,” Schmitt countered. “People can Google FIST, go to our Web site and read all about it. There’s 10 pages of information about me and my organization. Most people in the 9th District know who I am. All my campaigning and conversations have been very upbeat.”

Both candidates are concerned about keeping a balanced county budget. Cunningham cited an operating budget for 2013, so far, of $487.7 million. “Revenue is down and we’re making cuts,” Cunningham said. “Our department heads are watching their spending. They’re doing a great job.”

Schmitt wants to make sure services are not curtailed and he also wants construction of the long-debated Route 53 extension.

“That east/west corridor along Route 120 in the western part of the county is growing by leaps and bounds,” Schmitt said. “It takes longer for some drivers to just get to the expressway than it does to get to where their going off the expressway.”

Cunningham said she focuses on helping her most vulnerable constituents. “People are very pleased with the job I’m doing,” she said. “The most important thing is seniors and children — making sure they get fair treatment.”

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