Suburban women 'fired up' about new wave of female candidates

Ann Gillespie of Arlington Heights knows she's “one of the many.”

She's a Democrat running for elected office for the first time at age 58, and she's part of a movement among suburban women that seems poised to put more of them than ever on crowded ballots in the 2018 elections.

“I've never served in public office before,” said Gillespie, running for state Senate in the 27th District. “I've worked in health care my entire career.”

But she says she's like many new female candidates who are pursuing seats on county boards, the state legislature and Congress, largely spurred by the election of President Donald Trump, the Women's Marches that followed, the current political climate, or some combination of the three.

Candidates, grass-roots organizers and political experts say the trend is taking hold nationwide as more women feel a sense of urgency to address issues important to them and to increase their representation in government. The new candidates riding that wave are among those filing nominating petitions this week in advance of the March 20 primary, a precursor to the general election next Nov. 6.

“For me, and for a lot of women, the last straw was last November and the Donald Trump presidency,” said Becky Anderson, a 59-year-old Naperville City Council member and one of five Democratic female candidates who want to challenge Republican Peter Roskam for Congress in the 6th District. “But I think there's so much more. There are women who have already been engaged in their communities. But this was a call to action.”

  City council member Becky Anderson, 59, of Naperville, is running for U.S. Congress in the 6th District, Peter Roskam's district, as part of a movement of Democratic women spurred to action by the election of President Donald Trump and the Women's Marches. Mark Black/

Even if they're not running, many women have heeded the call by organizing or joining groups after the Women's March. From Lindenhurst to Naperville, there are action groups, “huddle groups,” partisan organizations within congressional districts, groups introducing voters to candidates, groups for protesters to unite behind causes, moms groups, and progressive groups whose names all start with “Indivisible,” such as Indivisible Elgin.

“This sounds really weird,” said Beverly George, 71, of Naperville, and a leader of a group born out of the Women's March called ACE-Naperville, which stands for Act, Connect, Engage. “But it was almost like you couldn't not be active because that would be like throwing in the towel.”

Fueling the movement is a desire to be part of the change women want to see in their government. For many, the driving forces involve health care, equal pay, affordable child care, strong public schools and a secure social safety net.

Kelly Mazeski, a 58-year-old Barrington Hills plan commission member and Democratic candidate for Congress in the 6th District, says health care is her top priority.

“I'm excited that women are so fired up right now and really are fighting for representation in Congress and fighting for women's issues,” she said.

Many of the new female candidates say their support network involves other women running for office.

“We all have these different reasons that brought us together and we're championing for each other's rights,” said Anne Stava-Murray, 31, of Naperville, who is running as a Democrat for state representative in the 81st District and leads an activist group called Naperville Women's March Action. “We all get the benefits of us figuring the process out together.”

  Naperville Democrat Anne Stava-Murray, 31, is a new candidate for the 81st House District and the leader of a grass-roots group called Naperville Women's March Action. She says groups like hers, formed after the Women's Marches early this year, are helping new candidates learn what's needed to compete in local, state and federal elections. Mark Black/

Running their way

Running for elected office can follow a pattern.

Get involved with the local partisan organization. Run for something nearby, like village board or school board. Build up some contacts, some name recognition. Meet some donors, some door-knocking volunteers. Then run for something statewide.

The beginning of this year's largely left-leaning women's movement is proving candidates don't have to follow the same tried-and-true methods.

Younger women, women of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, immigrant and refugee women, gay and transgender women all have been elected recently as mayors or state legislators across the country, says Janna Deitz, professor of political science and director of public leadership and outreach at Western Illinois University, where she teaches the Ready to Run Illinois nonpartisan women's candidate training program.

“As more women get elected, it definitely sends a message that it can be done,” Deitz said. “This broadens the definition of who can be a successful candidate.”

Ready to Run this summer instructed 90 women in the basics of elections. In 2015, the last time the program was offered, only 22 signed up.

Among upstart women trained by the national nonpartisan program VoteRunLead are 135 who attended sessions this summer in Chicago, such as Lauren Underwood, a 31-year-old Naperville nurse running for Congress in the 14th District, and Joyce Mason, a 48-year-old Gurnee school board member running for state House in the 61st District.

VoteRunLead teaches women to “run as you are” and “run from the heart,” founder and Executive Director Erin Vilardi said.

“It debunks the myth that you have to be some sort of political mold to run for office,” she said. “That changes women's mindsets. We are telling them the skills they have are exactly the skills our democracy needs.”

VoteRunLead makes sure to have Republicans involved in every panel, but the movement of new candidates these days - in the suburbs and nationally - is largely on the other side of the aisle.

“It's really critical,” Vilardi said, “to bring in our Republican sisters to this wave of women running.”

Choices are progress

Republicans say they're noticing the groundswell of new Democratic women lining up for offices - in some cases, their own.

“There's certainly a lot more people paying attention to the political process than there was five years ago,” said 41st District state Rep. Grant Wehrli of Naperville, a 49-year-old Republican facing a challenge from 45-year-old Naperville Democrat and first-time candidate Valerie Montgomery. “I welcome anyone who's willing to step up.”

The debates spurred by more Democrats in typically red areas such as DuPage and Lake counties will be beneficial for constituents, says 81st District state Rep. David Olsen, 29, a Downers Grove Republican, who is facing a challenge from new candidate Anne Stava-Murray.

“It's important for the voters to have a choice,” Olsen said. “People are more willing to take a more critical look at the policy choices that are confronting them, and I'm excited about that.”

  State Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton is challenging Gov. Bruce Rauner in the spring Republican primary. Daniel White/

Some of those policy choices are motivating more Republican women to get involved, too. Jeanne Ives, a 53-year-old Wheaton Republican who serves as state representative in the 42nd District, is challenging Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in the primary, at least in part because of disagreements on issues including abortion coverage, corporate subsidies and school funding. That challenge comes even as the crowded Democratic gubernatorial field doesn't feature a single woman.

Other Republican women, meanwhile, are emerging as candidates to address topics including sexual harassment and taxes.

These include Katy Dolan Baumer, 61, of Streamwood, who is running against Democratic state Rep. Fred Crespo in the 44th District, and Jillian Rose Bernas, 35, of Schaumburg, who is running against Democratic state Rep. Michelle Mussman in the 56th District. Both are making their second bid for the state House out of frustration with those already in Springfield.

“I believe my community is worth more than what it's getting now from the people who are representing it,” Dolan Baumer said. “They had their opportunity to get us back on track. They had it and they failed.”

The goal for women seeking a say in politics should be progress, says Rebecca Sive, author of “Every Day is Election Day: A Woman's Guide to Winning Any Office, from the PTA to the White House.”

“Parity is a goal,” Sieve said. “But the shorter-term and, I think, more achievable goal at the moment is to discuss how do we get enough women at the table that we cannot be ignored?”

Illinois ranks sixth in the nation for proportion of women in its state legislature at 35 percent, with 62 women among 177 total senators and representatives, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But gender equity fares worse among Illinois' federal politicians, with four women among 20 senators and representatives, for a 20 percent female delegation.

Using the networks of hometown support women have been building since January, new candidates such as Arlington Heights' Gillespie say they hope to grow the female ranks among lawmakers and address issues that matter.

“It's wonderful to see so many women feeling the strength and the empowerment,” she said. “The number of women's groups is really making a difference this time.”

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