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In their own words: Meet the candidates running for Illinois' 72nd House district

On Nov. 8, either Gregg Johnson (D) or Tom Martens (R) will be elected to represent Illinois House District 72.

MOLINE, Ill. — We are wrapping up our election series with one final roundtable — bringing you conversations with the candidates of some of the area's biggest races, including the race for 72nd District District Rep.

Democrat Gregg Johnson is facing off against Republican Tom Martens.

These are not debates but, rather, a chance for each candidate to lay out what his policies are and why they want your vote.

News 8's Jon Diaz spoke to both candidates simultaneously.

Below, we have the complete, unedited interview. You can also view the full version of the interview on our YouTube page.

Please note, the video at the very top of this page is a shorter version of each candidate's answers and has been edited down for time. 

Jon Diaz: Gregg, tell me about yourself, just what you want voters to know. But also, if you can share a little bit about how that has influenced your decision to be here today. 

Gregg Johnson: My name is Gregg Johnson. I'm running here for the 72nd district, which is soon to be a vacant vacancy. I'm a lifelong resident of Rock Island County, lived here my whole life. I'm 58 years old. I ran for office in 2018. I'm not a political, longtime political candidate by any means. The economy that I grew up in the late 70s, early 80s, was really humming here. We had a manufacturing base. The Rock Island that I grew up in had nearly 60,000 people, and what I've seen over the last few decades is things have really changed here. We've seen a lot of loss. We really have had a hard time redefining ourselves. And I have kids and grandkids. I have an 11-year-old daughter at home. And at this point, I'm just really committed to just creating a better world for her and her friends. I have been a longtime canvasser. I've worked for a lot of candidates to try to make change here in this area and try to bring positive results. And the one regret I really get from parents is that opportunities have left the area, particularly on the education side, we failed to fund education for decades. And a lot of kids go to school out of state. They seek those opportunities elsewhere. And what happens is if they go to school out of state, they end up building their lives away from here. And I just really want to create opportunities for our kids here to allow them to build their lives here. I said earlier, I have an 11-year-old daughter, and when she leaves to go to school, I hope she stays right here. But if she does leave and build a life somewhere else I wanted to be because she made that decision not because we didn't work hard to create those opportunities right here in the Quad Cities, because I think our people are second-to-none. We have a very special work ethic here. And why not build your life right here in the Quad Cities? 

Jon Diaz: Tom, tell us about yourself. 

Tom Martens: My name is Tom Martens, 54 years old, and I have lived in Rock Island County all my life, too. And I do agree with Greg that things were much better back in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And we lost a lot of big manufacturing around here. And one thing we can do to bring it back is we got too many business regulations and our property taxes are driving those businesses and people out of Illinois. And that's one of the reasons why I'm running is to fix things like that. We also have election issues that happened in 2020 that I want to fix. And so I decided to run to make things better in Illinois because I know it can be; we just got to get the right environment to make that happen. 

Jon Diaz: Tom, I know you work a full-time job, but you obviously still have to engage with the voters in the 72nd district. Can you tell us what you're hearing? As far as the things they're concerned about, the things they would want the person that they're voting for to be focused on? How do you kind of bring in your own priorities? I want to get a sense of that. I want to get a sense of what are the specific things you would do if you're elected; day one, month one, to drive towards those things? 

Tom Martens: The people that I've been talking to did not like what happened in 2020 as far as the shutdowns because of the COVID situation that went on. They didn't think it was right that a governor had the unilateral authority to just say, you have to get a shot, you have to stay home, your businesses have to close, things like that. They want to have more freedom to make choices for themselves. That's one of the biggest things that I've heard is they want freedom. Also, they don't like the property taxes, and like I mentioned before, that they're going up every year, and we're not seeing the results of those property taxes. Our streets aren't really the greatest in district 72. And that's one of the things that property taxes are supposed to fix, but it all seems to be going to other things rather than what it is supposed to. Other things that people want. They want election integrity. They want to make sure that people that can vote are supposed to vote. They want to make sure that every vote is counted and make sure they're legal votes. And so that's really what I'm trying to do for District 72 and Illinois to make that happen.

Jon Diaz:  And how would you do that? Day one, month one? 

Tom Martens: First, we need to lower our property taxes. We can't compete with other states. And that's why businesses are leaving. We also have gas taxes that are twice as high as the national average. And we got to lower that too, because again, we just can't compete with other states. And so everyone drives to Iowa, if you're right here next to the river, of course, to get cheaper gas, well, that's no tax money for Illinois, then, right? And so we need to get voter ID installed. You need an ID to get registered to vote. I don't see what the big deal is about getting an ID to vote. So, we can make that happen. Paper ballots would be good. We did that for 100 years or so with paper ballots, and it worked just fine. And we had less fraud. And now we have all these computers that can manipulate the votes. It changes things. And those drop boxes are another bad thing too because they're not monitored. And anybody can throw any kind of mail and vote whether it was you or not. There's just so many things to fix and Illinois. And that's what I'm here to do.

Jon Diaz: Gregg, what are you hearing out there? And what would your priorities be? And again, how would you go about addressing those? 

Gregg Johnson: The things I'm hearing the door I alluded to earlier are making sure that we provide our kids with a solid education. For decades, we didn't fund education. We had evidence-based funding that came into play in 2017. We need to continue to make those investments. Also infrastructure--since Governor Rauner, his assault on organized labor and workers a few years ago, we've had six credit rating upgrades. The state has invested in infrastructure. We do need to continue to work on getting our roads and bridges fixed here. Because if you want to bring business in and you want people to invest in your community, you have to have the best roads and bridges. Those are the things we're hearing about opportunities. But the other thing we are hearing about is Democrats, in particular, are really tired of sort of candidates living in the past. This is 2022. The 2020 election: Donald Trump lost that 2020 election. Dozens and dozens of lawsuits have proven that, have upheld those decisions. And voters, I think, they're struggling right now to pay their bills and to live day by day. And when they hear candidates talking about how Donald Trump was cheated out of this election and continuing to throw out these conspiracy theories, I think it sows a lot of just discord. And I think it really amps up the temperature and really causes problems within any democracy when you're trying to delegitimize an election. I just really believe we have to move things forward and not continue to live in the past. And I think that's why the Quad City Times endorsed me; they made that reference that we need someone who's forward-looking; not someone who continues to look back to the 2020 election. 

Jon Diaz: I want to talk a little bit about kind of the systems of government that we have. You both have talked about the idea of either fair government or kind of leadership roles and political maps, election maps. You guys both make references to that. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and what that looks like? When I go to your website, talking about fair government, what does that mean? 

RELATED: Illinois redistricting: State lawmakers approve new legislative maps

Gregg Johnson: Fair government means a government number one, we do have a history here in Illinois of corruption on both sides of the aisle. I worked over 30 years in Illinois government, and I saw department heads go to prison. I saw governors go to prison, both Republican and Democrat. Fair government is someone who's in this to serve the people of their district, not to serve themselves. When people get elected, and they go to serve themselves, the people, their constituents are really getting the short side of the stick, and that to me isn't fair government. Taking that and holding, giving the authorities the power they need to address these issues. Because until we properly address corruption in Springfield, then we're gonna have people on both sides of the party that are going to continue to take advantage of it. And when that happens, we all lose. 

Jon Diaz: Tom, same question, because your website maybe I don't know if it uses the phrase fair government, but you do talk about the power that the leadership roles in the House and Senate have, as well as the political maps. Can you talk about what that means to you? 

Tom Martens: Gregg is right. There's been so much corruption in Illinois. And one of the biggest things we can do to fix that is that the Inspector General, release his findings without having a meeting the permission of the legislature to do that because that's why you don't ever see anything happening, because he can he or she can do all the work that they want to do but if the legislature says, no, you can't put it out, it dies. And so he can't give it to any law enforcement, he can't get it out to the news. If we could free him up to do that, things will change. That's one of the more fair and transparent things we could do to make Illinois better. We don't live in a democracy, though. We live in a representative Republic or a constitutional republic. And that's one thing that I hear all the time, and we vote democratically, yes, but we don't have a democratic form of government. So that's just one thing, I want to get out there to make sure everyone understands that. We know that the political maps in 2020 were gerrymandered. Unfortunately, it hindered a lot of Republicans; they had to run against ach other. And so we lost a lot of places to represent Illinois. They cut towns up and Governor Pritzker said he wasn't going to do it, and he did do it. And so we need to fix that. So that way, if that ever happens, again, we can fix it. And make sure that the maps are fair and by a third party, because shouldn't cut the city in half just to make your candidate get to have a better chance to win. 

Jon Diaz: Can you talk a little bit Tom about you know, this is there's no incumbent here for this particular seat? If you want to win, are you going to take things in a totally different direction? Or will you be building on what's already been built? I know, that's a little bit of an obvious question when we focus on political parties, but I would just want to get a sense of how the voters are going to experience potentially your representation if you were to win. 

Tom Martens: It probably wouldn't be quite a different direction, since no Republican has held this seat the entire time it's been in existence. So it wouldn't be a totally different direction. More conservative, get government out of your face, and leave people alone. That's the basic philosophy of conservative stuff, is small government. As long as you're not harming anybody else, or messing with anybody else, we'll leave you alone. And so I do want to listen to anybody who has concerns and try to make it happen if it benefits all of district 72 in Illinois, of course, but we need to, like I mentioned earlier, get government out of our hair, which is less taxes. They can get rid of the grocery tax just in time for the election but then bring it back after. Why can't we just get rid of grocery tax altogether? I've mentioned before: property taxes; that only hurts the poorest of us the most. They raised our state taxes back in 2010. It was supposed to fix the budget, fix the pension, it did nothing. We should probably go back to 3%. And it should be a flat tax like that, because that gives everyone's skin in the game because a lot of people don't want to raise taxes on themselves. And that's the way it should be. 

Jon Diaz: Gregg, same question. Will it be similar? Will it be very different? 

Gregg Johnson: A little of both. When Bruce Rauner was defeated and left office, we had about a $15 billion deficit. We had about a 12-month backlog of bills. And doing business in Illinois, it was difficult. It's hard to find business partners. It's hard to find vendors. Four years later, what we find is we're now at about less than a week backlog of bills. The deficit has shrunk dramatically. We've had six credit rating upgrades. So we're in a much better place than we were four years ago. We've done that by actually budgeting government smartly and investing in the things you're supposed to invest in. The investment in infrastructure with the capital bill that many Republicans supported, including Senator Neil Anderson here locally. You get $7 for each dollar when they attach a value to taxpayer dollars, the return on investment and infrastructure is $7 to every dollar because it is what brings business, and it's what brings people into your community. Also, going back to shortly after that, we got the evidence-based funding past where we started to invest in education after decades of neglect. We do have to drop property taxes. We can drop property taxes by sending someone to Springfield that's going to be in those rooms and bring a bigger piece of that pie back here to our school districts. Our school districts are way too reliant on property tax. Some districts are doing better than others. My plan, I want to go there, fight for our school districts back here in the 72nd. I'm running for state legislator. But I'm also more; if you'll notice on my signs says "Your Representative." I'm representing the 72nd district. My job is to go there and fight for the 72nd district and bring every single penny when I come back here to help our citizens here in this community. 

RELATED: SAFE-T Act faces multiple lawsuits from Illinois State's Attorneys

Jon Diaz: Can we switch gears and talk a little bit about the Safe-T Act? It's very controversial. It's a big piece of legislation that some of its already in effect, some of its going to be in effect. Can you help us understand where you stand on that is? And would you do anything to change that direction or keep it there? 

Gregg Johnson: There are changes that have to come to the Safe-T Act. I spent 32 years working in the Illinois Department of Corrections. I participated in this criminal justice system. I saw the good, and I saw the bad. I saw system; we do need some changes within the system. The Safe-T Act was set up to really do two things: to create pretrial fairness, and to keep our community, our communities and our police officers safe. And right now, I think the body cameras, I think that's a good element of it. I think the current cash bail system that we have is not fair because it certainly doesn't serve the need of keeping us safe. Because the reality is under our current system, you will post bail or bond with the act that you've committed whether it's a domestic or more, whether you've perpetrated violence, you can actually buy your freedom. If you're poor, obviously, you cannot. So there's an unfairness right in that, but you're not protecting the community. Under the Fairness Act, judges decide who gets released, who doesn't get released. And the important thing is that we make sure we provide law enforcement and our state's attorney's office with the resources to make sure that they can prove to a judge why this individual's dangerous, and why they shouldn't be back out there on the streets. But there's a lot of work to do on the Safe-T Act, a lot. I'm also someone who not only served 30 years in the DOC, but I'm also someone who's been on the side of negotiating tables for a long time. We have to get all of the stakeholders in there. We have to get the communities that are impacted by the highest rates of crime. We have to get our police officer unions, we have to get everybody at the table and try to come up with a solution to just what we're dealing with. Because we also have to also acknowledge the fact that we have a criminal justice system in which the minority population is well around 70%, but only makes up about 30% of the population outside of the department of corrections. So we need to look at this from all angles, but we'll get there. I really believe we can get there. 

Jon Diaz: Tom, do you see things the same way? 

Tom Martens: Not exactly. I do agree with the body cameras. That helps the police, and it helps the individuals who are committing crimes. We do need to get rid of it. I don't agree with Greg that just because you're poor, you should get out of jail free card. Bail is one of the first things that people should be thinking about if they commit a crime. And that's just one of the first deterrence, versus the sentence you get for committing the crime. There's a lot of things in this bill that encumbers the police to do way, way way more paperwork and make them not out on the street because they're doing things with paperwork than out there fighting crime. And this is just another attempt to deflate the law enforcement community and make it look like they're the bad guys and we have to protect the criminals. So we need to get rid of the Safe-T Act altogether. And we can definitely fund to get body cameras at the same time. 

RELATED: Pritzker highlights state's workforce at Rock Island Democrat picnic

Jon Diaz: Tom. What did I miss that I didn't ask about but that you want voters to know about? 

Tom Martens: Make sure you vote no on Amendment 1. They say it's for workers' rights, but they already hold us hostage with their rights every time to the contract negotiation. This would put any state labor worker, whenever there's a negotiation, it would be put in the Constitution as a right to negotiate. And it would also ban the right to work. It has property tax increases in it. And it also gives the union bosses even more power to make anything happen. And that's just some of the more major things that it does. So vote no on Amendment 1. 

Jon Diaz: Gregg, what do we miss? 

Gregg Johnson: I'm just going to call out the dishonesty of what he just said. If you, if every voter can read every page of the workers' rights amendment, not one line talks about a property tax increase. It's an Illinois Policy Institute talking point, the same one they use on the Fair Tax a couple years ago. It's just very dishonest. If people want to organize, they should have the right to organize and collectively bargain. Unions built a middle class. You look at where we're at right now, in this country, around 7% in the private sector, we have workers organized and we have a smaller middle class than we've ever had. And the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom continues to grow. So really, if you want to see the middle class continue to grow and thrive, you need to support those workers' rights amendment and not fall for all of the lies and the dishonest tactics being perpetrated by the other side of this really. Vote yes on Amendment 1.

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