Casten hits trail discussing issues like health care, labor policy, climate change

Sean Casten says he starts each day on the campaign trail with the same goal: to engage with diverse groups of people and consider different viewpoints.

Just as importantly, he says, he wants to separate himself from his opponent, longtime Republican incumbent Peter Roskam of Wheaton, in their race for a U.S. House seat in the wide-ranging 6th Congressional District.

Casten, 46, a former businessman and clean energy entrepreneur from Downers Grove, emerged from a crowded Democratic field in the spring primary to face Roskam in the November general election. His supporters are pushing a narrative that Roskam, after 12 years in Congress, is out of touch with his constituents and unwilling to hear alternative views.

Roskam dismisses the criticism, saying he's met with more than 475 constituent groups this term and more than 20,000 people at schools, company headquarters, and roundtable discussions since taking congressional office.

Casten, meanwhile, armed with degrees in molecular biology and biochemistry, biochemical engineering, and engineering management, says he relishes the chance to meet with economists, labor experts, business executives, startup founders, constituent groups, progressive organizations and other "smart people" whose expertise he wouldn't otherwise be able to access.

"One of the most fun parts of this new adventure of mine," he says, "is that people who know things want to teach me, and that's kind of cool."

Casten says he wants to take what he absorbs from those in the know, add it to the business and engineering experience he's built, and forge plans he can push in Congress.

"There's never enough time in the day," he says, when it comes to meeting with experts on health care, foreign policy, climate change, gun control or social safety nets. "People have different opinions, but if you don't take the time to meet with them, how do you represent them?"

'A good answer'

Casten's day starts with a staff meeting, this time at his main campaign office in Downers Grove, where his employees, volunteers and interns gather inside a cream-colored house tucked between new condos and the historic Tivoli theater.

On his calendar are two hourlong meetings, a visit to a Downers Grove business, a radio interview with a progressive station and a fundraiser with gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker.

Six members of a group called West Indivisible Suburban Engage grab some time during one of those office hours, beginning at 11:30 a.m.

"Thanks for meeting with us," the group's leader, Sandra Alexander of Glen Ellyn, tells the candidate as they make introductions. "It's really refreshing."

The meeting is part of Casten's quest to address pharmaceutical pricing and physician incentives in potential changes to the nation's health care laws. These, he says, are some of the most challenging issues that aren't reaching the broader conversation.

"I've talked to a lot of folks up and down the health care value chain who all acknowledge the problem but don't necessarily have an idea to fix it that isn't colored by their own lens," he says. "But eventually, I'm going to find one who's got a good answer to it."

Turns out the West Indivisible members don't have the elusive solution, either, but Casten listens as they voice concerns that the Affordable Care Act will "unravel" and premiums for the self-employed will remain unbearably high.

Health care, Casten says he's learned through polling, remains one of the top issues among general-election voters in the 6th District, which runs from Naperville to Tower Lakes and includes parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties. These voters, he says, also care about jobs and taxes.

To all who read his campaign materials or listen to his answers in debates, Casten explains he supports a universal health care system with a taxpayer-funded option for those who can't afford it, and plans sold by the market for those who can.

To the West Indivisible members, he says he doesn't favor "Medicare for all" because that still means "government knows what's best." He gives assurances he won't vote on health care the way Roskam has, especially when the congressman voted in May 2017 to "responsibly repeal, replace Obamacare," as his office described it in a news release.

"I am hard pressed to think of anything that I agree with Roskam on," Casten says. "If I thought he was doing a good job as a representative, I wouldn't be here."

Time to listen

But he is here, and it's 12:30 p.m. Time to return a phone call, grab a sandwich and wait for a labor and employment expert to arrive.

Casten's oldest daughter, 13-year-old Gwen, stops by to help with some paperwork. She greets campaign staffers and visitors but doesn't make it back to see her father, the guy who is no longer running his own business but now is able to take her to march in the Gay Pride Parade in Chicago or to meet prominent female leaders such as 9th District U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

The daughter doesn't get a moment with the father this midday, because Dad just set aside time for someone else.

In walks Donna Amburgey, a real estate agent and attorney who has written a book and wants to join roughly 2,600 others who volunteer for Casten's campaign.

"I'll be brief," she says.

Then she launches into a description of her work with voter registration and immigrant legal rights as Casten sneaks big bites of sandwich.

He tells Amburgey about the Hispanic outreach his campaign is planning out of its West Chicago office - one of five locations where the organization has a physical presence across the district. He listens and accepts a copy of her book, "Tears, Fears and Arrowheads," placing it on the table.

But just as quickly as he found five minutes for a prospective volunteer, he transitions into his next meeting, this one with the labor expert, who arrives just after 1:20 p.m.

In on the lingo

Bob Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois. Once he makes it through a room of campaign workers that's growing increasingly crowded, he and Casten talk labor policy and the minimum wage.

Casten asks for advice about what Congress can do to create a workforce that can adjust to automation, inflation and economic pressures. He addresses Bruno from the perspective of a former employer, someone who remembers the challenges of finding qualified employees, keeping them motivated and allowing them to innovate toward clean energy solutions.

It's 1:55 p.m. when the talk turns to the minimum wage. Casten says he finds it "morally unconscionable" that Congress hasn't boosted it in nine years with a cost-of-living adjustment. He wants to raise the wage according to inflation and offer benefit for workers through the earned-income tax credit.

But he says he doesn't support instantly raising the federal minimum to the amount desired by the "Fight for $15" movement.

In fact, he says he has a "knee-jerk negative reaction" against it. He wants to help workers learn new skills in case their jobs are erased by automation, and Bruno fills him in on programs that help with retraining in other countries.

"Apprenticeship programs are powerful tools," Bruno says. "They're privately done. There's not a single tax dollar that gets used."

Soon one of Casten's campaign staffers, finance adviser and scheduler Mary Margaret Koch, is rushing Casten out of the room as he and Bruno keep talking, deep in the weeds of business, employment and economics. She gives a two-minute warning, then stands and gathers her things.

'Fix that problem'

A six-minute drive from Casten's campaign headquarters is one of those businesses that's easy to overlook, a place Casten says he's run right past without knowing what goes on inside.

It's called AutonomyWorks, and from executives, employees and CEO Dave Friedman (the father of a Casten campaign intern), he hears of its work employing people with mid-functioning autism to do the back-end technical duties of digital marketing, advertising and analytics.

Eight employees explain what they love about their work and the challenges to employment people with disabilities face. Each also poses a question.

"What inspired you to run for office?" asks Dan Hlady, who describes himself as "slow to assimilate but quick to replicate" and says he wants people to better understand the autism spectrum.

It's a good question for a man who left a successful career in business and engineering for the uncertainties of national partisan politics.

It's a good question for a man surrendering time he otherwise would be spending with his family, including Gwen, younger daughter Audrey, 10, and wife, Kara, along with his parents in nearby Hinsdale.

It's a good question for a guy with no political experience taking on a longtime incumbent.

Casten says he's inspired by the chance to do more about global warming, which he calls "the single biggest existential threat we face as a species" and something "we're doing almost nothing about."

He says he addressed global warming as an energy consultant, as president and CEO of a company that built fuel-efficient power plants, and as co-founder of a clean energy company, which since has been sold. In all of that work, he says regulatory red tape created the biggest roadblocks.

"You gradually realize along the way that the laws of thermodynamics are not a barrier, the laws of economics are not a barrier, but the laws of the United States are a barrier," he says. "I'm going to fix that problem."

But before he gets to fixing, Casten says he'll do more listening and more learning to separate himself from his opponent as the Nov. 6 showdown with Roskam approaches.

He walks out of AutonomyWorks and climbs into the car with Koch to head to Chicago. It's nearly 4 p.m. and there's still a couple more stops to make along the campaign trail.

Sean Casten, right, the Democratic candidate for the 6th U.S. Congressional District seat, talks about health care with members of a constituent group called West Indivisible Suburban Engage. DAN White photo
The wood-paneled conference room of his Downers Grove campaign headquarters is a main meeting space for Sean Casten. DAN White photo
Sean Casten checks his messages after meeting with members of a constituent group about health care concerns during a summer day on the campaign trail. DAN White photo
Graph paper and cellphone at hand, sandwich lunch to the side, Sean Casten recounts the daily activities of campaigning for the 6th District seat against incumbent Republican Peter Roskam of Wheaton. DAN White photo
Bob Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois, right, discusses the benefits of apprenticeship programs with Sean Casten. DAN White photo
Sean Casten tours the office of AutonomyWorks in Downers Grove, which employs people with mid-functioning autism to do the technical work of digital marketing, advertising and analytics. DAN White photo
Democrat Sean Casten talks to employees at AutonomyWorks in Downers Grove to explain why he's running for Congress. DAN White photo

6th District boundaries

The 6th U.S. Congressional District of Illinois takes the shape of a "C" and stretches from Naperville to Tower Lakes in parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry Counties. The district includes all or parts of the following communities: Algonquin, Barrington, Barrington Hills, Bartlett, Burr Ridge, Carol Stream, Cary, Clarendon Hills, Crystal Lake, Darien, Deer Park, Downers Grove, East Dundee, Elgin, Forest Lake, Fox River Grove, Glen Ellyn, Gilberts, Hawthorn Woods, Hinsdale, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Kildeer, Lake Barrington, Lake in the Hills, Lakewood, Lake Zurich, Lisle, Lombard, Long Grove, Naperville, North Barrington, Oak Brook, Oakbrook Terrace, Oakwood Hills, Palatine, Port Barrington, Rolling Meadows, South Barrington, Sleepy Hollow, South Elgin, St. Charles, Tower Lakes, Trout Valley, Warrenville, Wayne, West Chicago, West Dundee, Westmont, Wheaton, Willowbrook, and Winfield.

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