How activism, health care concerns pushed Casten to Congress

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of Reid McCollum with the Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th.

Democratic Rep.-elect Sean Casten says he'll look for ways to keep the grass-roots momentum that propelled him to win the 6th District congressional seat going and address issues such as climate change and health care.

Casten was elected Tuesday after claiming 53 percent of the vote, according to unofficial totals. His victory over incumbent Peter Roskam, along with the election of Democrat Lauren Underwood in the nearby 14th District, means the entire suburban region will be the territory of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives come January.

Helping Casten advance past Roskam, a Wheaton Republican with a long history in elected office, was an array of progressive groups that hosted protests and forums, educated voters on issues and worked to ensure constituents understood Roskam's voting record.

"This was led by the grass-roots," Casten said. "I really hope they continue to be involved because it's an awesome thing to behold. The fact that so many people who were not previously politically involved got involved this cycle is democracy at its finest."

Even as he begins the process of learning to govern, Casten thanked one of his most supportive groups by name in his victory speech Tuesday in Warrenville and during a news conference Wednesday at his campaign headquarters in his hometown of Downers Grove.

He called out the Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th for efforts to hold Roskam's feet to the fire for his votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and for his record on issues of climate change and gun control. Citizen Action/Illinois often joined in its efforts on health care, which organizer Julie Sampson said is a "critical" issue.

"Constituents in that district felt very personally about that issue," Sampson said about preserving protections for people with pre-existing conditions in the Affordable Care Act. "It was something concrete to take action on."

Reid McCollum, one of the organizers of the Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th, said his group's work around health care and other topics started long before there even was a Casten campaign.

Members listened to voters, harnessed their anger after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and turned that anger into productive political action, McCollum said. He expects the work of educating voters, holding elected officials accountable and encouraging progressive voter turnout will continue even after Casten takes office.

"We have the opportunity now to make sure Sean and all of the other Democrats are fighting for the values that are important to our constituency," McCollum said. "I'm really eager to see Sean be a leader on climate change and health care so we can make positive changes in the country."

Casten said those two issues will be among his focuses - climate change because slowing its pace always has been the driving force of his career, and health care because he learned during the campaign how important it is to "protect, defend and expand."

For his shot at addressing these issues, Casten also thanked an influx of suburban women "who caused this change to come about."

"There is an unbelievable amount of energy from women in this district who are looking at what's going on and got engaged," Casten said.

He defeated five such women and one man in a Democratic primary this spring to advance to face Roskam, who placed a "gracious" call to Casten to concede but issued no public statements Wednesday. All the losing primary candidates pledged to stay involved.

Continued effort paid off for primary candidate Becky Anderson of Naperville, a bookseller and city council member who attended Casten's watch party to celebrate a strong Democratic presence at the polls.

"A lot of different activist groups were fired up to get the turnout," Anderson said, "and that's exactly what happened."

Political analysts and campaigns themselves predicted the election would be close, and indeed the candidates were never more than 10 percentage points apart as election authorities in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties tallied results.

Casten said his win means the district's values aren't aligned with those held by Trump, whom he pledges to challenge as part of a legislative branch that now can truly act as a check and balance.

"Getting at this sort of culture of corruption and grift in the White House and having some accountability" will be significant moving forward, Casten said. "Americans want to trust that their government is doing the right thing. And if they don't trust it, we need to make sure that we fix whatever's broken so that they do."

"It was great to see the excitement in the room knowing that we'd flipped the district," Anderson said, summing up her experience at Casten's party. "We now have someone who will care about the environment, health care and women's issues - all those things that we all fought for. We have somebody who's really going to represent the district."

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  Democrat Sean Casten thanks suburban women and grass-roots groups who propelled his 6th Congressional District campaign to victory on the issues of climate change, health care and gun control. See more at Bev Horne/
  Democrat Sean Casten answers questions Wednesday in Downers Grove about how he unseated Republican Rep. Peter Roskam to win in the 6th U.S. Congressional District. Bev Horne/
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