I had the pleasure of meeting several Democratic women candidates from Lake County during the Illinois State Fair last summer. Senator Melinda Bush (D-Grayslake) was showing them around town and brought them to a reception I was attending. We chatted for a while before they went on their merry way.
“Merry” is actually an understatement. Those candidates were positively joyful. They seemed genuinely thrilled to be running for office. Only one had ever run for something before. The rest felt compelled to get involved after the 2016 election.
Senator Bush brought 10 women with her to Springfield and she said four of them went on to win their respective races. Well, maybe three, but Bush is optimistic that Mary Edley-Allen will wind up defeating appointed Representative Helene Miller Walsh (R-Mundelein). Edley-Allen is ahead by two votes as I write this, with more to count.
Joyce Mason, the only candidate who’d run for office before and who defeated Representative Sheri Jesiel by more than 1,000 votes, was also at the event, as were two county board candidates who appear to have won: Jessica Vealitzek and Julie Simpson. The county board flipped from Republican to Democratic control for the first time ever, and those two candidates were crucial to that effort. Two other women candidates who didn’t make the trip to Springfield both won countywide races: Robin O'Connor (clerk) and Holly Kim (treasurer).
Senator Bush helped found an organization called the Lake County Democratic Independent Women on October 30 of 2017. She said she sent out some e-mails and started a Facebook page.
Women came out of the woodwork after the 2016 election and Bush wanted to help them focus their enthusiasm on actually winning races and then holding on to those seats down the road.
The group has an office and a field director and members meet once a month. A “pink wave” garden party fundraiser pulled in $15,000 and Bush said people told her at the event that it felt like “coming to a wedding, everyone is so happy.”
When Bush first won her own Senate seat in 2012, her district and both of its attached House districts were held by Republicans. Now, with Representative Jesiel’s defeat, all three legislators are Democratic.
Things are definitely changing in Lake County, but they didn’t necessarily change on their own. The House Democrats did their part by pumping in tons of money and staff over the months, but Mason was also helped by that independent women’s group. The House Democrats got into the Miller Walsh race late, but Edley-Allen had taken the group’s training and had already been walking precincts for months. “These were areas where we weren't supposed to win,” Bush said.
Senator Bush said that while House Speaker Michael Madigan is likely pleased that he has two more Democratic seats, she cautioned that both women are independent Democrats. In other words, they’re not the usual ducklings who will quietly follow orders traditionally given to targeted members.
Bush said she doesn’t just want to help people win elections, “I want to help them be really good representatives.” She said her advice to all candidates is that they shouldn’t be thinking how their voting record in Springfield or on the county board would get them re-elected. Hard work back in the district will pay greater dividends. “The harder you work, the luckier you get,” she said. “I want to see people work really hard and do what they think is right.”
Bush should know. I jokingly chided her during her freshman year in office for having such a liberal voting record while representing an area not known for its liberalism. But she won her last election by nine percentage points and is encouraging others to do what she does: Vote your conscience and work your tail off back home. So even if you wind up losing, you can go out with no policy regrets.
That’s a refreshing attitude in the suburbs, where Democratic candidates are generally cautioned to steer a far more moderate, poll-tested course. But it’s not like the House Democrats need those two seats to retain their hold on Statehouse power. If nothing else, it could be an interesting experiment.
And Bush isn’t finished. She said 13 women have signed up for training in the upcoming municipal elections. “I'd like to see more of these in both parties,” she said of her organization.
I couldn't agree more.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.