Eric Thorsland: A not-so-ordinary politician

University physics research engineer Eric Thorsland doesn’t look like your average politician, and he’ll be one of the first to admit it. But for the sake of his campaign for the Illinois 15th Congressional District, he’s willing to make some changes.

“I will admit, for The DI, that my haircut is very new. There are certain things that seem to be characteristic of someone in politics and unfortunately, you need to fit that mold,” he said. “People expect when you walk in the room, that you have a shirt, and a tie, and a suit and are relatively clean-shaven. So to not disappoint, I’m willing to go along with that norm. And then we’ll see what happens after the election is over.”

His hair and goatee are well-trimmed and he’s casually dressed in a button-up, a black hoodie and a baseball cap. On his right arm there’s a tattoo that wraps around his wrist with three suns.

“That’s my three children — two boys and my girl. My wife has moons on her wrist, on this side we hold hands. So we have the sun and the moon when we’re together.”

Despite his casual demeanor, Thorsland is serious about politics. He considers himself a lifelong democrat, reinforced by an event in his childhood.

His father, an air traffic controller, went on strike because he wanted one day off per week. For this, he and others were fired by President Reagan. Thorsland said his father did not get his job until 17 years later, under the Clinton administration.

“That only solidified my belief that democrats think more about people than the other party does,” he said. “(The Republican Party) is more interested in power and prosperity  — I’m not against prosperity, but not at the expense of the people.”

He then watched in 2012 as Angela Michael, an anti-choice candidate, ran unopposed in the democratic primary.

“When that happens, she’s allowed access to the airwaves. They use that access to air ads … that were very graphic, anti-choice ads. She’s not a democrat, she’s never voted as a democrat,” he said. “So I felt as a good, lifelong democrat, that it was probably best to put a real democrat on the ballot in the primary.”

The issues that Thorsland cares about are issues that he believes matter to a rural district like the 15th; issues he says current Rep. John Shimkus (R-15) neglects. As a farm owner himself — he and his wife own a 38-acre organic farm that produces food for “hundreds of people every week,” — he takes food safety and security very seriously, as well as the coal mining industry and other environmental issues, and the economic wellbeing of farmers.

“A lot of investment in his campaign fund comes from the coal industry. He’s a big proponent of coal, but he’s a terrible proponent of miners,” Thorsland said. “The people who work in the mining industry have been beaten up fairly regularly, and he’s done nothing to help them.”

Scott Hays, a research scientist at the University’s Center for Prevention Research and Development, met Thorsland in 2008 when the two of them ran as Democrats for the Champaign County Board in district one. Hays said Thorsland’s background in agriculture and position as more of a “centrist Democrat” will help his campaign for the primarily Republican 15th district.

“He’s a working man, he’s a farmer, he supports gun rights — I think that makes him a unique kind of democrat, and a democrat that I think can really garner a lot of support (in the district),” Hays said. “He’s concerned for working class people and I think that’s a real strength on his part, that’s going to make him a good candidate for U.S. Congress.”

One of the larger roles Thorsland plays in the community is his position as chairman on the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals.

John Hall, director of Champaign County’s Department of Planning and Zoning, said Thorsland showed his leadership qualities even before he was appointed chair. This was shown during a wind farm zoning case when the actual chair had to recuse himself from the hearing because he had signed the contract.

“Before (Thorsland) was the chair, he was actually the interim chair, or the person that the other board members elected to act as the chair,” Hall said. “From the very beginning, Eric Thorsland has been someone that the other zoning board members felt confident in giving him that responsibility, and I think that our public hearing for that wind farm went very successfully.”

He was led into his position on the board, and eventually his run for political office, because of his concern for land use issues.

“We saw in 2008 what happens when we pay little attention to how fast we develop — we wind up with a lot of unsold homes … a collapse of the housing market (and) ‘developed land’ that is nothing more than abandoned farm-ground now,” he said. “Farmland is developed to be farmland. Oftentimes it’s looked at as undeveloped land, and failed development is worse than continuing to farm.”

For now, Thorsland’s primary goal is to get his name on the ballot. After that, he said he will set his sights on defeating current Rep. Shimkus.

“The strategy is to get noticed, to fight as hard as possible,” Thorsland said. “Should I prevail in the primary, (Shimkus) has to deal with me on issues.”

Shimkus has held office for almost 20 years in three different districts, and during this time, Thorsland said Shimkus has voted with his caucus more than 90 percent of the time.

“He’s part, of course, of the Republican majority in the house who have decided that it’s a fantastic idea to stop the government,” he said. “Illinois 15 is an economically-challenged area … It’s a big district and they need better than that, and I hope to give them better than that.”

Eleanor can be reached at [email protected]