As a 25-year old running for an Illinois House seat, he wasn’t supposed to have a chance. Fresh out of the Army, he was facing two top Democratic incumbents backed by the state party. All he had on his resume was a few years as editor of a diminutive weekly newspaper, one ...
As a 25-year old running for an Illinois House seat, he wasn’t supposed to have a chance. Fresh out of the Army, he was facing two top Democratic incumbents backed by the state party. All he had on his resume was a few years as editor of a diminutive weekly newspaper, one with a muckraking reputation and a small circulation.
Yet the long odds didn’t intimidate him. With the help of his brother, he corralled a horde of campaign volunteers. He got assurances from local committeemen that if he canvassed their entire precincts, they would endorse him. He even turned down cash from the corrupt statewide organization -- much of which was distributed courtesy of big-time gamblers -- in favor of small contributions of less than $100. Then he walked every square inch of that district, talking to voters and listening to their concerns. In the end, it paid off; he outdistanced both candidates by almost 10,000 votes, becoming one of the youngest elected state legislators in Illinois history. And so began the political career of late U.S. Senator Paul Simon, one of Illinois’ most beloved and accomplished legislators.
Over 50 years later, a new generation of young progressives is eager to follow in Simon’s footsteps. Frustrated by the destructive and divisive politics of the Bush-led GOP and tired of missed opportunities in Springfield, young people are increasingly running for state and local office. With a lot of work and a little luck, their vision for an invigorated Democratic Party focused on transparency and equity could be realized sooner rather than later.
Doing The Math
No current candidate embodies the Simon tradition more than Daniel Biss, a 30-year old University of Chicago mathematics professor running for State Representative in Illinois’ 17th District. An arithmetic enthusiast born into a family of classical musicians, Biss’ entry into politics coincided with the ascension of George W. Bush. “I just came to feel that with my country moving in a direction that really upset me,” he says, “it just wasn’t good enough to solve math problems anymore.”
As a result, he dove headfirst into local grassroots efforts, organizing groups of volunteers to travel up to Wisconsin to canvass for John Kerry, going door-to-door for local congressional candidates in 2006, and co-chairing the Illinois Committee of 100, a progressive organization aimed at electing Democrats in Illinois. After spending countless hours stumping for others, he eventually decided to enter the fray himself.
Biss’ academic background informs his policy interests, and education stands at the top of the list. “I see education policy as an incredibly fundamental aspect of how we structure our society,” he says. “And I see our performance in Illinois as indicative of our unwillingness to treat it with the kind of seriousness it deserves.” Biss is intent on pushing comprehensive environmental policy too, including clean car standards and sustainable energy investments.
Elizabeth Coulson, the 17th District’s socially liberal Republican incumbent, is no reactionary. But Biss contends that she’s out of step with the values of her constituents. The district, which straddles numerous North Shore suburbs, swung for both Gore and Kerry and elected progressive stalwart Jan Schakowsky to Congress. “This is a part of the state that has a proud history of supporting really strong progressive leaders,” he says. “I think nobody, including [Coulson] herself, would suggest that she’s any kind of leader on progressive issues. That’s exactly what the district wants.”
It will take a lot to unseat Coulson, whose war chest includes campaign contributions from Big Pharma, Big Oil, and cable TV interests. But if any state candidate can match her in dollars, it might be Biss, whose campaign has harnessed the power of the Internet with gusto, raising an astonishing $77,835 as of May 14 on the online fundraising clearinghouse Act Blue. His canvassing experience could be invaluable as well. “I’m knocking on doors seven days a week,” he says. “People’s level of interest in state government races is not so high, so … engaging them in conversation is far more valuable than any other means of communication.”
Starting A Dialogue
Unlike Biss, Rachel Shattuck was drawn to politics early in her academic career. As an undergraduate at American University in Washington, DC, she was active in a number of electoral campaigns, from canvassing for Kerry in West Virginia to phoning MoveOn members through their innovative "Call for Change" get-out-the-vote program in 2006. As a volunteer for the National Peace Corps Association, she also trained people from across the country to meet with their representatives in Congress and advocate for additional Peace Corps funding.
A lifelong resident of West Dundee, Shattuck -- now 23 -- is turning her sights on Illinois’ 49th district, a suburban Chicago enclave represented in the Illinois House by veteran Republican Timothy Schmitz. In his nine year legislative career, Schmitz hasn’t deviated much from the party line, registering a rating of 26 percent from the Illinois AFL-CIO in 2007, 33 percent from the Illinois Environmental Council in 2005, and 0 percent from the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council in 2003. Worse yet, Shattuck contends that he’s not responsive to his constituents. “When I talk to voters, a lot of them don’t even know who my opponent is,” she says. “I think that if people don’t know anything about [their representative] or what they are doing, then that’s just unacceptable.”
Shattuck hopes to change that dynamic by canvassing the entire district and opening up the lines of communication with its residents. Voters she’s spoken with are frustrated with the cost of health care coverage and the disproportionate manner in which the state’s schools are funded, issues Shattuck thinks she’s more equipped to address than Schmitz. “I think we need more representatives in Springfield who are accountable to their voters,” she says, “and who really want to do something about the problems that are affecting people all around the state.”
Building Bridges In Peoria
Further downstate in Illinois’ 92nd District, 26-year old Jehan Gordon is hitting on similar themes. Implanted with a sense of service from her parents -- her father is a former Mississippi sharecropper and her mother is the 43-year leader of Peoria’s Tri-County Urban League -- Gordon learned the value of contributing to the community early in her adult life. While attending Bradley University, she worked with the school's Small Business Development Center and later as an AmeriCorps VISTA worker promoting increased access to community colleges.
From there, she stumbled upon Yes We Can, an intense leadership training course for young politicos hosted by Sen. Barack Obama. Knowing little about the program, she applied on a whim and was one of 20 accepted from nearly 20,000 applicants. The three-week session in 2006 was transformative. “It was like being hazed,” she says, “but it was an incredible experience.”
Unlike the majority of her fellow trainees, Gordon had no interest in latching on to a Senate or Congressional campaign. “For me, politics is very personal,” she says. “I felt like I’m going to learn from the best and then bring it back to the best. And to me, that’s Peoria.” That rootedness, along with her upbringing in both predominantly white schools and African-American churches, gives Gordon a unique ability to bond with voters in the diverse district. “My whole life has been this back and forth of how to connect with people and find commonalities, even though we may come from different backgrounds,” she says. “And when you look at those commonalities, you find out that at a basic level, we all want pretty much the same things.”
If elected, Gordon says she will focus on increasing access to both quality health care and educational opportunities. In February, she eked out a hard-fought primary. Now, she is hoping to carry that momentum into November, when she will vie for the House seat vacated by congressional contender Aaron Shock.
No Office Too Small, No District Too Red
The statehouse bids by these three, young Illinois progressives mirror the broader enthusiasm exhibited by their peers. According to an April Pew Research Center study, 58 percent of voters under age 30 identified or leaned toward the Democratic Party while only 33 percent tilted toward the GOP. Due to a seemingly endless war policy and a tanking economy, the Democrats' lead in party identification among young voters more than doubled between 2004 and 2008.
But national trends alone can’t account for the uptick in twenty-something Illinois office-seekers. Their candidacies have also been prompted by the failures of state Democratic leaders, whose time in office may be remembered more for corruption and in-fighting than policy achievements. “We’ve replaced the policy-making process with this incredibly petty stuff,” says Biss. “And we’ve lost a governing mandate and lost a rhetorical opportunity to lay out what is so great about the Democratic Party’s agenda.”
The national party's emphasis on grassroots participation has also resonated with Illinois reform candidates. Best embodied by Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s so-called "50-State Strategy," progressives have been encouraged to get active in the unglamorous world of local government, even in Republican strongholds. Michael Hoerner is a prime example. The 25-year old Springfield resident is no newcomer to politics, having served as Tim Bagwell’s deputy campaign manager in his failed 2004 congressional race and having represented John Edwards as Illinois’ only elected delegate at the Democratic National Convention. But instead of focusing on federal races, Hoerner decided to run for Sangamon County Board this cycle, a 29-member legislative body that includes only four Democrats. “There’s a huge disparity in what I think is true representative democracy,” he says. “We’ve got one party who controls everything.”
The battle over the possible construction of a third Wal-Mart Supercenter in Springfield is an example of a project that Hoerner contends Republicans haven’t devoted enough attention to. “The area in my district where they want to put it,” he says, “there’s inadequate infrastructure, there’s lack of drainage and roads, and there’s some environmental concerns that aren’t being addressed.” With a seat on the board, he hopes to add some needed perspective to the county’s political discourse.
A self-described “political geek” from Aurora, 22-year old Tony Michelassi also has his eyes on a county board seat. After receiving his Associates Degree in Political Science from the College of DuPage in December, Michelassi decided that government service was the career that best suited him. “Politics gets a bad rap in our society as being something that people go into if they can’t make it in the private sector, and that’s not true,” he says. “Politics can and should be treated as a profession.”
If elected to the DuPage board, Michelassi hopes to ease the county’s growing pains. He says that the board is struggling to balance its budget and the steps members have proposed to alleviate excessive outlays -- cutting funding for the public safety department or charging fees for storm water drainage service – aren’t appropriate responses. In November, he’ll face one Republican incumbent and one Republican challenger for two of the board’s 18 seats.
To be sure, none of these candidates face an easy road this election year. According to a May report from the National Institute for Money in State Politics, fundraising advantages and higher name-recognition contributed to a 92 percent reelection rate for state legislative incumbents in 2006. But a strong grassroots campaign can turn any district on its head, and these young progressives have momentum and energy on their side.
Top image used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user geodesic. Other images courtesy of the Biss, Shattuck, and Gordon campaigns.