CAIRO — Southern Illinois was represented Tuesday night during President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address as U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth was flanked by Cairo Junior/Senior High School principal Lisa Childs Thomas during the event.
As her only guest, Duckworth said in a news release Tuesday that Thomas is a symbol of the struggle many in rural communities face.
"Lisa is a tireless advocate for Cairo, and she represents countless other Americans working to improve their communities with limited resources and support,” she said.
Trump’s address was held Tuesday before a joint session of Congress.
In the release, Duckworth said Trump promised on the campaign trail to help just these types of communities. However, she said there hasn’t been much movement.
“Donald Trump promised hardworking Americans exactly like Lisa that he would invest in and help rebuild communities exactly like hers. More than one year into office, we’ve seen little investment from his Administration,” Duckworth said.
During a media call Tuesday, Duckworth said she hoped to hear about infrastructure from the president. She said healing bad roads will be a key way to get Illinois, particularly rural Illinois, back on track.
Duckworth and Sen. Dick Durbin took a step toward this goal Tuesday when they announced in a news release a grant that would provide a $203,400 federal grant to support local community health centers in Southern Illinois. The funding came from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Health Resources & Services Administration.
She added that the decision last year by Trump-appointee, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, to shutter and ultimately tear down the Elmwood and McBride housing developments in Cairo show the opposite of this type of promised support.
“I hope Trump finally remembers one of his many broken promises tonight and actually does something to help families like Lisa’s.” Duckworth said in a news release.
Thomas, who grew up in the McBride public housing complex, has been principal at Cairo Junior/Senior High School since 2016, the year HUD took the Alexander County Housing Authority into receivership after conditions in the county’s public housing were found to be unsafe and uninhabitable.
According to the release, Thomas became principal of her old high school in an effort to help give back to her community. In the release, she echoed Duckworth’s sentiments that she hopes Trump will fulfill his promise to help rural America.
“Mr. Trump made a promise to improve the lives of ordinary Americans like me, my family and my students in rural communities like mine, but when he won he went back on his word. Maybe he’ll have a change of heart tonight,” Thomas says.
Duckworth said she was thrilled to have Thomas join her Tuesday. Duckworth said she first met Thomas during a meeting with local officials about the HUD decision to close two of its complexes in Cairo. She said Thomas is making the kind of effort needed to help her city.
“I think she’s making the kinds of investments in a very personal way to the community that we need to be making as a government, as leaders in the state to take care of all our communities,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth and Durbin have pressured Washington to address the dire situation in Cairo. She appeared with Carson in August during the secretary’s visit to tour the housing developments, as well to deliver an address to residents. Last year, Duckworth and Durbin also urged the White House to create a cabinet-level task force to look into the housing, health and economic crises in Cairo.
During the media call, Duckworth said she has finally gotten word back from the White House on the task force — it’s a not happening. But, this isn’t stopping either Illinois senator from pushing the issue. Duckworth announced Tuesday that she and Durbin would be bringing to the Senate the Creating American Investment, Redevelopment, and Opportunity — CAIRO — Act.
The act will aim to rebuild and promote investment in new affordable housing, rebuilding and expanding infrastructure in Cairo and Alexander County, as well as spurring public and private investment targeting economic growth in the area.
“The hardworking people of Cairo deserve better than broken promises, which is why we’re moving forward with a plan to create a comprehensive interagency task force that is focused on finding solutions to the problems the Federal government helped create in Southern Illinois.” Duckworth said in a news release Tuesday.
According to the bill, the task force would provide a report to Congress covering its action and progress toward any goals including number of housing vacancies in Cairo. It will also report how much public housing is provided in Cairo.
“The only way we can move Cairo and Alexander County forward is through a coordinated effort between federal, state and local officials focused on finding every possible way to help,” Duckworth said.
Jerry Brown, HUD spokesman, said 111 of 185 families have relocated from the Elmwood and McBride housing complexes in Cairo — with 18 more families having signed leases but have yet to move.