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In a little more than a week, Democrats in Illinois’ 17th Congressional District will pick a person to go up against incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill.

The race for the party’s nomination has, for the most part, been an exercise in grassroots organizing and politicking, with little money spent on advertising.

Yet, after March 20, the 17th District is expected to be a high priority for Democrats — and Republicans, too.

A newly configured district and a larger electorate make Democrats think they can wrest this seat back to their column, but Republicans are eager to hold on to a seat they won for the first time in 28 years.

The betting is it will be expensive and hard-fought.

Schilling is unopposed in the Republican primary, and what initially was a six-person Democratic field has been narrowed to three people who have focused their messages on bread-and-butter economic and budget issues and who can best represent the party in the fall.

Greg Aguilar

The son of union workers, Greg Aguilar, 31, is making his first run for public office. He says he is a man of the people who can best represent the modest-income people who populate the 14-county district that stretches along the Mississippi River from the Wisconsin border through the Quad-Cities and swings toward Peoria.

He talks of his parents suffering from the area’s economic fallout in the 1980s and losing their home.

“I hope (people) see I am truly a hard-working, grassroots, middle-class candidate,” he says.

Aguilar says he thinks more investment in infrastructure and renewable energy are ways to boost the district’s economy.

Expanding highways and repairing bridges, he says, are a necessity. He also says he would eliminate tax loopholes he thinks are incentives to companies to take jobs overseas.

Like the other Democrats, he says the country’s growing debt is a problem.

Aguilar, however, says he would resist cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the latter two significant components of the country’s long-term fiscal challenges, according to budget analysts. He says he backs the defense cuts Congress already has approved, which entail $487 billion in reductions over 10 years, and that he would go further.

“I think it’s a good start, but we’re going to need to do more,” he says.

He also says the nearly two-year-old health care reform law was necessary, but he opposes the requirement that people buy health insurance.

He also says he would take a more humanitarian approach to U.S. trade policy.

“We should not support countries that support violating others’ human rights,” he says.

Aguilar says he got into the race when he was dissatisfied with the other candidates.

Mostly, he is critical of rival Cheri Bustos, a former Quad-City Times journalist who for the past 10 years has worked as a hospital executive. Aguilar points to her political connections — her father, Gene Callahan, a former top aide to Sens. Alan Dixon and Paul Simon — and her job as an executive at Iowa Health System.

“The majority of Americans, the 99 percent, the majority do not have political connections, the majority do not have six-figure jobs,” he says.

Aguilar, who is the director of multicultural services at Augustana College, says congressmen should be “a megaphone” for their constituents.

“I am just like everybody else, and that’s what I want,” he says. “I want representation that is like the people.”

He shrugs off the fact he had raised $17,000 through the end of last year, a pittance compared with the nearly $678,000 that Bustos raised — and also far less than the $879,318 that Schilling had raised through February. After the primary, he says, “the money will come.”

Cheri Bustos

For most of her professional life, Bustos was a reporter and editor at the Quad-City Times, working as a beat reporter, investigative journalist and editor.

But until she left her job last year to run full time for Congress, she was vice president of marketing and communications at Iowa Health System. She also was an East Moline alderwoman until last fall, when she resigned to focus on her congressional candidacy.

Bustos has not only led the field in fundraising, but she’s won endorsements from a wide range of labor unions and political figures, including former Quad-City area mayors, Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and Sen. Dick Durbin.

EMILY’s List, a pro-abortion rights and Democratic women’s group, also is backing her.

During the campaign, Bustos has talked about being a working mother who grew up in a middle-class household and says she understands the concerns of people struggling with health care and childcare bills. Her husband, a law enforcement officer, worked the overnight shift while Bustos worked a second shift at the newspaper. She also lost a brother to cancer and has told how his insurance company wouldn’t cover experimental treatments.

“I know we can do better than that,” she says.

Bustos says she would work to foster job growth by taxing overseas corporate profits and using them for an infrastructure bank, work to leverage manufacturing capabilities that exist in the district and hold an annual economic development summit.

She says getting the budget deficit under control is a key issue, but she resists making cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

“My priority would not be to impact people who rely on Medicare, Social Security as a safety net for their health and retirement,” she says.

Bustos says the country has the capability of spending less on defense but doesn’t say whether she would have voted for the $487 billion cut over 10 years that Congress approved last year. She adds that protecting the Rock Island Arsenal is a key priority.

Budget deficits should be tackled in a balanced way, she says, meaning revenue increases and budget cuts. She says she favors ending the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires.

Bustos declines to discuss her rivals, but she rebuts criticism that her family connections won her Durbin’s endorsement, a move that prompted her chief rival, state Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, to drop out. She says Durbin wouldn’t support her if he didn’t see her as the best candidate.

“Every candidate in this race wanted that endorsement,” she says.

She adds the Democratic primary winner will need the message and resources to win in the fall.

“I’m in this for the duration, and I think we’re well prepared for that,” she says.

Bustos also rejected the idea that her income as a hospital executive puts her out of touch. In 2010, she received overall compensation at Iowa Health System of $306,295, which included $228,396 in base salary and bonuses and another $37,936 in deferred compensation, according to tax documents. The rest was in nontaxable benefits and other compensation, which the campaign says stemmed from business expenses, training and publications.

Bustos notes, however, that during her 17 years as a journalist, she made between $16,500 and $40,000 per year, juggling child care while she and her husband worked odd shifts. And she notes that they’ve lived in the same house for 21 years.

“There was one point in our lives, we had to sell a beater car to pay our bills,” she said. “I’ve worked very, very hard in my career. I’ve had some success because of that hard work. I’ve never forgotten where I came from. I never will.”

George Gaulrapp

George Gaulrapp, the mayor of Freeport, is making his second bid for a congressional seat. Two years ago, he lost to Don Manzullo by a 65-31 margin in Illinois’ 16th Congressional District, an area that tilts Republican.

He proposes boosting job creation by making it easier for businesses to get Small Business Administration loans and using unallocated bank bailout money for loans to start-up businesses. He also urges more investment in infrastructure. And he points to his own experience as a small-town mayor when making the case for his congressional candidacy, saying he’s had experience listening to people from all walks and coming up with solutions.

He also says he supports boosting the amount for tax credits companies get for new hires and preserving the tax credit for wind energy. At a news conference last week, he said that, if elected, he wouldn’t seek a second term if the district’s unemployment rate didn’t shrink.

Gaulrapp calls himself a different kind of Democrat. He is against abortion rights, except in the case of rape and incest, a change from his position two years ago. He says he came to the position after talking with his priest and daughter.

He also opposes cuts to the defense budget and echoes many Republicans by saying the health care reform act is sowing uncertainty and stifling hiring. He says he supports the law’s passage but thinks it needs some change. He, like Aguilar, opposes the law’s requirement that people buy health insurance, the key point of dispute the Supreme Court will face when the case is heard later this month.

Gaulrapp also voted in Republican primaries from 1998 to 2006 but says he did so to support a Republican friend running for state’s attorney. He voted in Democratic primaries in 2008 and 2010, according to a county official.

Gaulrapp, however, says he’s not a conservative, just a practical leader. He says he was an alternate delegate for President Barack Obama during the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

“I believed in his message, and I still do,” he says, and argues he would stack up well against Schilling in the fall because of his record as a mayor, where he says the city maintains a good bond rating and is improving its infrastructure.

Gaulrapp says he would tackle the deficit with a balanced approach. He says he would support revoking the Bush-era tax cuts for families making more than $250,000. But he also says that entitlement programs have to undergo scrutiny, too.

“There would be freezes once again in Social Security benefits,” he says, adding that while defense spending, Social Security and Medicare are his highest priorities, they must be part of the solution. “There has to be reform in Medicare and Medicaid. It’s so large.”

Gaulrapp, like Aguilar, had raised only $17,000 by the end of last year. But he, too, says he thinks he would have the resources to compete in the fall. He said he thinks he could rely on Durbin to help him raise money in the fall.

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