A Publication of WTVP

Throughout his life, Illinois State Senator David Koehler has served the public in an astonishingly diverse set of roles. A native of South Dakota, he became a Peorian in 1978 when he was recruited to be a community organizer for the Friendship House.

From 1982 to 1988, Koehler served two terms on the Peoria County Board. In 1985 he was hired as the first executive director of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council (PALM), a non-profit organization founded to foster cooperation between labor unions and management. From 1989 to 1997, he served on the Peoria City Council, and in 1997 he was appointed to chair the Neighborhood Development Commission for the City of Peoria.

In 2005, Koehler was elected vice chair of the Illinois Adequate Health Care Task Force. After serving as administrative assistant to State Senator George Shadid, he succeeded his mentor as Senator of the 46th District in 2006. Koehler is co-owner of the Peoria Bread Company, and he serves as a part-time minister for the Stark Congregational Church in rural Stark County. He and his wife, Nora Sullivan, have three daughters and one granddaughter.

Please tell about your background, schools attended, family life, etc.

I grew up in South Dakota. My dad was a minister with the Congregational church, which is now known as the United Church of Christ. I was born in Parkston, South Dakota, just south of Mitchell, which is home of the Corn Palace. We moved to Beresford, near Sioux Falls, a few years later and then to Chamberlain where I started grade school. In 1959, our family made a big move to Phoenix, Arizona, where my dad was involved in starting a new church. In 1962, we moved back to South Dakota, where I finished high school in Huron, South Dakota.

Huron at that time was the home of Humphrey Drug, owned by Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s brother, Paul. Their mother also lived in Huron. It was always a special event when the vice president came to visit her. The other notable thing about Huron was that the actress Cheryl Ladd came from there. She was two years younger, but her sister was in my class. Cherrie Stopplemore, as she was then known, was quite the talk of the town when she first appeared on the Johnny Carson show in the early 1970s.

After graduation, I attended Yankton College, a United Church of Christ school, in Yankton. I graduated with a B.A. in religion and a minor in art. My parents both went to Yankton College, my dad graduating from both the college and Yankton Seminary. Yankton College was noted mostly for music, other fine arts and sports. Lyle Alzado was in my class. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos out of college and tragically died of brain cancer after a successful football career due to steroid usage. He was also a Golden Gloves boxing champ from New York.

Today Yankton College is no more. In the early 1980s, a sharp decrease in the number of students forced the school into bankruptcy and the campus was sold to the federal government. Today it is known as Yankton Federal Prison Camp, a minimum security prison. I always am very carefully when I list the years I was at Yankton, due to this fact.

After graduating from college in 1971, I enrolled in seminary. I first attended Payne Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. Payne Seminary is an African Methodist Episcopal seminary and was part of a five-seminary consortium directed by a former Yankton College professor, Dr. Frederick Kirschenmann. He was my mentor and the reason I went to Payne Seminary. The program was called “Seminary without Walls” and was designed as a non-traditional educational program for ministry.

I had a growing interest in interning for the National Farm Worker Ministry, which worked to improve conditions for farm workers. It was this interest that led the ministry to assist Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). I actually graduated from another of the consortium seminaries, the United Theological Seminary, a United Methodist Church affiliate, in Dayton, Ohio, on June 14, 1974. I was ordained into the ministry of the United Church of Christ at my home church in Yankton on June 16, 1974.

I continued my work with the National Farm Worker Ministry and spent a short time in Arizona before moving to Cleveland to direct the UFW Office, where we worked with community, church and union support groups. It was in Cleveland that I met Nora Sullivan, my wife. She was a student at Cleveland State University and wanted to do an internship with the UFW for her social work degree. We fell in love and in 1976 were married by my father at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ on Cleveland’s near west side.

After Ohio, I was sent to New York City to direct the boycott office there. We lived in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, on 184th Street. The office was a five-story brownstone apartment where we also lived. Most of the staff, however, lived in a closed Catholic High School building in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Our daughter Kate was born at Roosevelt Hospital that spring.

With Kate, we were then transferred to California. We lived at the UFW headquarters, called La Paz, in Keene, California, with Cesar Chavez and the UFW staff. The headquarters was situated in the Tehachapi Mountains at the site of an old tuberculosis sanitarium. I was director of the California Farm Worker Ministry office, spending most of my time working with religious support groups in the L.A. and San Francisco areas.

It was August of 1978 that Nora, Kate and I left La Paz with the intention to head east to see my family in South Dakota and St. Louis and Nora’s family in Ohio. While visiting my brother in Sioux Falls I got a call from Rev. Bob Sandman, Association Minister for the United Church of Christ in Peoria. His wife Olgha was the person who actually recruited me in seminary to work for the National Farm Worker Ministry. Bob told us that a place called Friendship House in Peoria was looking for an ordained minister/community organizer and asked if I would be interested? I was. We came. We stayed.

You are an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ. Are you still an active pastor?

Yes. I have been the minister for Stark Congregational, United Church of Christ, now for 26 ½ years. Stark Church, as we call it, is a country church located halfway between Princeville and Wyoming on the Stark-Speer blacktop. It is a small congregation, which has become family for us. Our youngest daughter was not even one when we first went out to Stark.

I enjoy keeping my ministerial status active. Preaching on a regular basis is good discipline for me. In addition, I appreciate being able to immerse myself in matters of the spirit. It’s my way of renewal. I also helped establish New Church, United Church of Christ in our neighborhood. I don’t serve as pastor at New Church, but rather as a member. Since New Church meets on Sunday evening, it works out to be involved with both churches.

You were executive director of the Peoria Area Labor Management Council (PALM) for many years. What is PALM’s role in the community today? How has the state of labor/management relations in Peoria evolved over the years?

The role of PALM is the same today as it was 22 years ago—to foster better relationships between labor and management. That fact has not changed. What has changed is the climate. The animosity and suspicion that were present when PALM first began in 1985 is no longer there. There are still tough issues, but there is now an understanding that the destinies of labor and management are linked together. Cooperation is not just a nice thing to do, it’s essential. Today, PALM and TRICON (the local construction labor-management committee) have merged under the leadership of Ginger Johnson, creating an even stronger presence in central Illinois.

Who or what inspired your commitment to public service?

My father was an important influence. In his role as minister of a church, he had to be a politician to some extent, as well as preacher; and certainly in his role as conference minister for the Missouri Conference of the United Church of Christ, he had to work to bring people together, often in the face of conflict. I would watch him as he developed relationships with the people he served. He was very good. Politics, as far as I’m concerned, is 95 percent relationships and communication.

I remember sitting in my office at Friendship House during our first few years in Peoria, and no one would call me back when I tried to find answers for people in the neighborhood. Then one day I got to talk to Mayor Carver. I don’t even remember what the issue was, but I was pretty excited. Through that experience, I found out that you get things done when you talk to the right people.

I began to think, “What do you have to do to have people take you seriously?” Of course I was only 30 or so. Then in 1982, I got the idea to run for County Board as a Democrat from District 5. That was back when the County Board was 27 members, and three were elected from each district. I was elected, along with Tim Howard and the late Millie Arends. All of a sudden I was invited to things I never knew existed. People returned my calls. Not all of them, but at least more often than before. This was important only because it meant that I could actually make a difference in the lives of people who came to me to help them with their problems. To this day, I always make it a priority to return phone calls to people who take the time to call me.

You have a great deal of knowledge about our nation’s broken healthcare system. In a perfect world, how should we address this issue? In lieu of a national healthcare plan, what role should the states play? Can the State of Illinois afford to do what needs to be done?

Being “in lieu of a national healthcare plan” has been going on for a long time now. I hope the next President of the United States will lead the charge to change that. The last time healthcare reform was tried at the national level was during the Clinton years, and even with a Democratic Congress, it failed.

In the meantime, the states are left to take on the task of reforming the healthcare system on their own. The simple truth is that we cannot afford not to change the healthcare system. Any family or business knows that healthcare costs are the most unpredictable budget item you deal with each year. In Illinois, in one year, over $80 billion is spent on healthcare, both public and private dollars. That’s around $6,400 per person. Shouldn’t we spend that money in a more efficient way so that we can close the gap on the 1.4 million people who have no healthcare insurance? Because the truth is that we do pay for those uninsured people—we pay for them through cost shifting. Wouldn’t it be better to put in place a plan that encouraged early detection so that catastrophic health events are identified through prevention and wellness programs and not in the emergency room?

Another issue regarding healthcare is that many of the costs today are due to lifestyle choices. Heart disease, hypertension and diabetes are just a few of the chronic diseases plaguing our nation. Poor choices are creating a runaway train that will bankrupt us if we don’t stop current practices and change course through education and the provision of screening and healthcare access before issues become major health events.

What are your thoughts on the current direction of the City of Peoria? Are we on the right track? Are there issues which you think deserve greater attention?

When I was on the Peoria City Council from 1989 to 1997, the issues were crime and the fear of crime in neighborhoods, as well as the quality of our schools. Neighborhoods that experienced either a perception or a reality of crime and poor-quality schools were in decay. Today, those are the same concerns. What to do about it is still elusive.

Governments have tried many social programs to combat the decay of our inner cities. They have tried many economic incentives as well. In Chicago and other large cities, massive gentrification is an example of what seems to work. You move in those who are better off and move out the original inhabitants who tend to be poorer and have fewer resources. I don’t embrace that concept because it displaces neighborhood residents. That is not an acceptable strategy in my opinion. Nor is it likely to happen soon in Peoria. We are a different market.

But some gentrification might be good—without displacing neighborhood people. Here is an example: A few years ago, there was talk of condos being built at the foot of Spring Street, overlooking the river, which has recently been talked about again. This is the type of project I believe could work well for the neighborhood. It would create a new group of residents that could even help stimulate the neighborhood economy, without having to move anyone out.

Nora and I were hoping, when we bought our house nearly 30 years ago on the near north side, that we would see a resurgence of families moving into the neighborhood to restore some of the old gems. It has happened somewhat, but not enough to create an appreciating market to attract others.

We recently bought an old storefront and rehabbed it into our new business, the Peoria Bread Company. Many people thought we were nuts, and probably still do. No one will go to the near north side on Monroe Street to buy bread, we were told. But they were wrong. Our very first customer was from Metamora. We now have people from all over the area coming to buy bread. On a Saturday morning, in fact, if you stopped in, you might find people from the East Bluff and the West Bluff, Bartonville, East Peoria, Germantown Hills, Pekin, East Peoria and Dunlap—plus we have a faithful customer from Chicago who stops in to stock up every few weeks when she visits her parents in Peoria.

In order to re-establish our older neighborhoods, we need to not only promote homeownership and responsible landlords, but work to build a base of small, neighborhood-friendly businesses. The efforts the City of Peoria has made toward new urbanism in the past few years have been on the right track. But we now need the private investors to make it happen.

An example of the collaboration we see between the City and the State can be seen in the planning for a new streetscape on Washington Street. Hopefully, the Warehouse District can lead the way for meaningful reinvestment. I intend to do what I can to aid in that effort and others like it.

Please tell more about the Peoria Bread Company and its plans for the future.

Baking bread has always been something I enjoyed. After Nora and I got involved with the Coronary Health Improvement Project (CHIP), we wanted to make healthy breads for ourselves and our customers. Currently we use only certified organic flour that we get from a mill in North Dakota. It’s more expensive, but the organic market is taking hold.

We have been up and running for about two years now. We know firsthand how tough it is to start a business. We both work other jobs, but, in addition, we spend time in the bakery every day. We are fortunate to have a great staff as well. Our main baker has been with us since the start. I also get my hand in whenever I can—I especially like to bake the specialty breads like foccacia and panattone; Nora handles the business side of the bakery and helps with baking sweets when she can. But mainly, we rely on a pastry baker to make our cookies and “The World’s Best Brownies.” In addition, both Nora and I try to spend Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings in the shop, although that is sometimes tough to schedule. It is something we both really enjoy. We are also busy making plans for a big summer of farmers’ markets throughout the area.

During December, we tried something new at the shop. We invited local artisans and venders to display and sell their items at our storefront at 1400 N.E. Monroe. People seem to enjoy having a place where they can find locally produced pottery, jewelry and fair-trade items. We continue to offer free space to other artists to display their art, as a way to help them and to make it even more interesting for people coming to our shop.

Long-term plans include a vegetarian restaurant along with the bakery. In fact, we are incorporated as “Peoria Bread Company and Goodness Café.” But that may have to wait until I am less busy. Keeping up with the bakery is enough for our family right now.

How has your role as a small business owner impacted your role as a legislator?

Being a small business owner has created a whole new perspective and appreciation for other small business owners—unique people who have a passion to do what they do. As we know firsthand, it can’t be for the money.

Meeting a payroll, paying taxes and watching ingredient costs go up are all issues we know full well. Being in business is risky, but it is also satisfying. When I see bills being introduced in the legislature, I now look at the impact they will have on small business.

What are your top legislative priorities?

This year I filed 25 bills, most dealing with issues involving local government and healthcare. By the time this article is read, those bills will either have been passed or stopped. My first priority is always to promote local issues. Secondly, there are issues, like healthcare, that pertain to not only your constituents—but the whole state.

Having worked for a labor and management organization in the past, I know the impact of rising healthcare costs on business and society. Businesses can’t sustain these escalating costs if they are to make it. As a minister, resident of the near north side and past board member of the Heartland Clinic, I have seen families struggling with the devastating illness of a loved one and the hardships they have to endure when faced with exorbitant medical bills. That’s why I sponsored legislation to address healthcare and disease issues.

One area that I particularly enjoy is local government legislation. In my role as vice-chair of the Senate Local Government Committee, I have been able to use some of my experience on the Peoria County Board and the Peoria City Council in helping to pass legislation important to local government.

What has surprised you most since your election to the Illinois Senate?

There were no big surprises, but some little surprises, when I got to the Illinois Senate. First, it’s no surprise that Springfield is very political, but there is also a good camaraderie between Republicans and Democrats. I have always enjoyed working in a bipartisan way on many issues. What people may not realize is that 95 percent of the time, there is bipartisan cooperation on what is done, but, it’s the five percent that gets all the news, and those issues tend to be the bigger ones. My point is that a lot of cooperation takes place that never gets seen or even talked about.

I have concentrated my time on building relationships on both sides of the aisle, and in learning all that I can about the issues and bills before us. The staff members of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses are filled with extremely good people. They work hard and know their stuff. I am particularly fortunate to have a great team assisting me. Roseann Visintin is my legislative assistant at the Capitol. Kyle Dooley is the director of the district office in Pekin, and Tammy Hyatt staffs the office there. Peggy Meisinger is my liaison with several area public sector groups and organizations. Together we put constituent service as our top priority.

How do you balance your time between Springfield and Peoria? What is a typical work week like for you?

Typical is not the word to use to describe what I do on a weekly basis. It varies a lot. But when we are in session (which was most of the time last year), I leave early each day to drive to Springfield and I return home each night. The drive is a little more than an hour and I use it to clear my mind and refocus. When we are not in session, I attend a lot of meetings throughout the district. It’s great having the district office in Pekin, as well as being able to have meetings with people at Peoria Bread Company—sometimes while I wear an apron and am in between baking loaves of bread. One thing I have learned in all my years in politics; you need to always be available—so I do what is needed, whenever that might be.

People sometimes wonder why the 46th District office is in Pekin. There are several reasons. First, it has been in Pekin for many years—going back to the days of Senators Luft and Shadid. The Pekin office is also located in the middle of the district, which includes part of Peoria, East Peoria, Canton, Lewistown and, of course, Pekin. I like having the office in Pekin because it helps keep the focus that this district covers all three counties—not just Peoria.

To what degree is there a divide between Chicago and downstate legislators? Do you believe that downstate priorities receive sufficient attention from the legislature?

There is an obvious divide between Chicago and downstate, as there should be. These are two very different areas and cultures, but I am not one to continually bash Chicago for everything, only when they deserve it. There is a natural love-hate relationship between the two. The biggest problem is that sometimes Chicago forgets that there is “the rest of Illinois.” So we have to remind folks that we exist. We have to keep in mind that not everything related to Chicago is bad. When we passed the mass transit bill, for example, Chicago and the metro counties all had a sales tax increase to cover those costs. Downstate, we did not have a sales tax increase, but we did received $37 million of the new funds which they will generate. That was a compromise between Chicago and downstate in order to get enough votes to pass the bill. So it goes both ways.

The Downstate Senate Democrats, under the chairmanship of Senator John Sullivan, is a very important group representing downstate interests. We may not be able to have our way all the time, but we have 10 votes, which is enough to get everyone’s attention. Couple that with a bipartisan downstate block, and we have even more influence.

What are your thoughts on the 2008 race for the presidency?

I am for Barack Obama all the way. Senator Obama came to Peoria to campaign for me in October of 2006 and I will never forget that fact. Our whole family, including granddaughter Georgia, who says OBAMA 08, is excited about an Obama presidency. Our middle daughter, Maggie, is an Obama delegate to the national Democratic Convention in Denver this summer, so we are planning a trip to visit her there. It will be history in the making.

Do you believe that partisan affiliation has a positive or negative impact on the work of the legislature? Is gridlock a good thing?

The gridlock in Springfield over the past year and a half has not been so much partisan, but rather an inner-party power struggle. That being said, I think there is a place for partisanship. In a predominately two-party system, it becomes the check and balance you need in society. In fact, third-party candidates will often cite the coziness of the two parties as the reason for needing additional parties to create the balance the system requires.

When I speak of bipartisanship as a benefit to passing legislation, I don’t mean that all the controversy has been glossed over, but rather that all viewpoints have been taken into account so that a particular bill is fair in its approach. I would always want people to stick up for their principles. Gridlock is neither good nor bad, but it is sometimes necessary. If gridlock stops a bad bill from becoming law, then so be it. This is how the system works.

What issues are you passionate about? What would you like your legacy to be?

I am not really thinking a lot about legacy. That will take care of itself. What I am passionate about is doing something about healthcare. I have spent nearly twenty years trying to make some sense out of our healthcare system, only to become more and more frustrated. This is a giant industry that no one seems to fully understand. I would like to see the day when you could ask people on the streets of America how they regard the American healthcare system and a majority of the people would say, “It’s good. I have access to good healthcare, and it is within my means to pay for it.”

But that doesn’t even address the full extent of the problem, because at the same time, healthcare becomes more and more of a challenge. The American public is also becoming sicker and sicker. Chronic illness in America is driving most of our costs in healthcare. Chronic illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, asthma and mental illness are all currently epidemic in the U.S. Most physicians will tell you that these diseases are also due in large part to poor lifestyle choices made every day.

There is a big disconnect here. The more we need a healthcare system to work, the more we put pressure on the system to take care of us because we choose not to value our health well enough to take care of ourselves. Prevention is not something we put into practice enough. Proper diet and exercise is all most of us need to do. Yet many companies who promote health and wellness within their organizations estimate that only a small percentage of their workforce is statistically healthy.

Let’s put healthcare costs into perspective. The State of Illinois in FY08 has a $59 billion budget. We are also hoping to pass a $25 billion capital bill for roads, bridges and schools. This year in Illinois alone, we will spend, in both public and private dollars, more than $80 billion on healthcare. That’s how big this issue is. Nationally we are at 16 percent of GDP for healthcare spending, and the percentage goes up each year.

I will continue to work on strategies to address the problems in our healthcare system. I hope in my lifetime I can be successful.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I have enjoyed the opportunity to talk to you via this article. I feel very fortunate to be able to represent the people of the 46th District in the Illinois State Senate. It is a privilege that I take very seriously. Someone once made a comment about having political capital after winning an election. I don’t think any such thing exists. You have to earn your stripes every day. There is no free ride just because you did well in the last election. The real election is based on how you respond to your constituents each day. IBI