West Frankfort, Ill., Local 702 business agent Jason Woolard, right, campaigns door-to-door while trying to earn a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. Woolard likely will face a first-term Republican incumbent in November’s general election.

West Frankfort, Ill., Local 702 Business Manager Steve Hughart learned recently that a 96-year-old widow of a retired IBEW member was having trouble accessing her late husband’s benefits. Business agent Jason Woolard didn’t just help her secure those benefits; he went to her home and spent several hours helping get her finances in order.

Jason Woolard, West Frankfort, Ill., Local 702 business agent and candidate for the Illinois House.

That’s a big reason why he’ll make an excellent member of the Illinois House of Representatives, his boss said. Woolard is the only announced Democratic candidate for the 117th District seat in the far southern part of the state and likely will face a first-term Republican in November.

“Jason has a handle not just on what is important to the IBEW, but to all working men and women,” Hughart said. “There is not another person on earth better equipped to do this job.”

Woolard is a journeyman lineman who was born and raised in southern Illinois. He served eight years on the Carterville, Ill., school board and was a steward before joining Local 702’s staff. In addition to serving as a business agent, he is president of the Southern Illinois Central Labor Council. His father, Larry Woolard, was a member of the Illinois Legislature for 14 years and worked for the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, so politics is in his blood.

“I talked to my family, and my two daughters said, ‘I can’t believe it took you this long to do this,’” said Woolard, who turned 46 on Jan. 2.

He was convinced to run when he saw how little current representative Dave Severin supported the interests of working families. Instead, Severin has sided with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a multimillionaire who has urged Illinois to become a right-to-work state and has made attacks on unions a focal point of his tenure.

 “It just became more and more common to hear someone say, ‘Why don’t you get involved?,’” Woolard said. “We have a lot of politicians in Springfield, [the state capital], that don’t understand the needs of working families.

“I always said that if I felt like there was a need, I would run. After the last election, I know the right time has come.”

Woolard said he was especially disappointed when Severin sided with Rauner on a proposal that would have privatized nursing services within Illinois’ correctional system. The move would have led to the layoff of 124 union-represented nurses, many based in southern Illinois. Layoff notices were given, but later rescinded.

Woolard said Severin voted against a funding proposal that provided an estimated $5 million in increased funding to schools in the 117th District, saying it was a bailout for Chicago. (It was passed by the Legislature and signed into law.) Illinois’ ongoing budget problems are well documented, but Woolard said he opposes attempts that force working families and small businesses to pay more than their fair share to fix them.

“The people in southern Illinois can’t afford to pay any more taxes,” he said. “I am going to fight tooth and nail every day of my life to make sure we have elected officials who are working to create a fair tax system that does not put an additional burden on middle-class families.”

The 117th District is in far southern Illinois, more than 300 miles from Chicago. President Donald Trump got at least 67 percent of the vote in the three counties that make up the district during the 2016 election. That likely helped Severin get 53 percent of the vote and beat an incumbent Democrat.

Trump won’t be on the ballot this year. Political action groups largely financed by Rauner and his allies are expected to contribute heavily to him, but Woolard likes his chances if the focus stays on bread and butter issues. He spent six weeks going door-to-door in the district before announcing his candidacy in October. He also has valuable name recognition.

“It’s not going to be an easy hill to climb, but we’re going to get over it,” he said.

Hughart likes his chances. He said he’s noticed that Democratic organizations in the district losing members in recent years are drawing large crowds when Woolard shows up to speak.

“When Jason was on the school board, they had a new high school built with a project labor agreement and everything was union,” Hughart said. “He understands why it’s important to protect PLAs and protect worker’s compensation. He understands the importance of education and he’ll fight for all working men and women.”