Anger, action, election: How Democratic women in DuPage mirrored national trend and gained representation
For Democratic women, 2018 included all the ingredients of a groundbreaking year: the second annual Women's March, the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and harassment, the simmering anger at the rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
Female candidates running for office in record numbers across the country took these societal and political components and turned them into electoral victories in what some called the "Year of the Woman."
Indeed, 2018 became the year when the nation elected the most women to serve at once in state legislatures, giving women control of 28.6 percent of all state House and Senate seats across America.
Perhaps nowhere was the movement more apparent than in the traditionally conservative GOP stronghold of DuPage County, where Democratic women won seats in the midterm by defeating Republicans -- mostly men -- who not long ago would have been considered entrenched.
Democratic women won seven of 12 available seats on the county board, an 18-member panel that previously featured just one Democrat and four women. Democratic women also broke barriers by being elected county clerk and as a circuit court judge.
In addition, women won 11 of 14 state House and Senate seats representing parts of the county, with nine of them going to Democrats.
The results may serve to further mobilize the grass-roots groups spawned out of the Women's March that helped propel many of these women to victory.
"It was really nice to see we could effect change and get a more equal representation in government," said Karen Berner of ACE-Naperville, which stands for Act, Connect, Engage. "Whether you are a Democrat or a woman or both."
In 2017, women such as DuPage's Sadia Covert and Terra Costa Howard were focused on their careers, their families, their volunteer involvement -- and their budding political campaigns.
They were part of something then, but something uncertain -- a groundswell of Democratic women seeking positions at a moment marked by urgency to increase women's representation.
They are part of something now, but something more defined and potentially more powerful -- a group of newly elected Democratic women who have taken office at all levels.
"We accept challenges," said Covert, a 35-year-old Naperville attorney newly elected to the county board, "and we never allow anyone to tell us what we cannot do."
What female candidates did across the country is take the momentum of anger over President Donald Trump's election and turn it into action.
"I honestly think it's all about Trump," Berner said. "A misogynist president was elected and ... that was the last straw for women."
So how did they do it?
Locally, candidates say it was a combination of motivation, qualification, mobilization and voter turnout. Nationally, political experts say the same factors -- including continued angst at Trump's policies and conduct -- fueled the broader trend.
"Aside from candidates, we saw such an increase in women, particularly Democratic women, in engaging as voters and activists," said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "We saw so much energy and mobilization. Women activists have been essentially relentless in their support of Democratic candidates."
Time to care
After Trump's election in 2016, large numbers of liberal-leaning professional women with long track records of community involvement decided it was time to seek training, gather signatures and run for office.
"We understand the issues from another perspective," said Costa Howard, a 47-year-old Glen Ellyn attorney and new state representative in the 48th District, "and we bring that perspective to our communities."
Supporting the candidates were many others who organized into small, action-focused groups and volunteered for campaigns to knock on doors and make calls.
"I really do believe the grass-roots groups were key in this," Berner said. "A lot of these groups are born out of the Women's March, so they have a heavy 'promote women' bent to them, which is great. It's great to march, but then the next step is, 'What is next? What are you going to do?' You have to actually take action."
Many women who ran and won this cycle had nearly all the motivation they needed before Trump rose to the presidency. Mary FitzGerald Ozog of Glen Ellyn was one of them.
Already a board member in Glenbard High School District 87 and eying county government for the past six years, FitzGerald Ozog, 60, had a mentor in the county board's longtime sole Democrat, Elizabeth "Liz" Chaplin of Downers Grove, and name recognition from her 32 years raising four kids in the community.
"I've thought about running for this position for some time," FitzGerald Ozog said, "and this was the year to do it."
The track records of women who stepped up to run -- and their abilities to organize, form cohesive messages, collaborate and listen -- impressed longtime Democratic activists such as Dianne McGuire, a former College of DuPage board member and one of the founders of Indivisible Naperville.
"As President (Barack) Obama said in his farewell address, 'Grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.' This message resonated with women in a very powerful way," McGuire said. "We had highly qualified, committed, well-prepared, ambitious women who ran."
New Democratic county leaders come from a variety of backgrounds. There's a journalist, a photographer and saleswoman, an attorney, a nonprofit professional, a communications consultant.
"Every candidate was very well-qualified. Every candidate worked hard," Chaplin said. "It was like something I've never seen before."
With so many supporters already grouped into hometown organizations, candidates found easy access to volunteers. Nearly every member of Berner's ACE-Naperville volunteered with campaigns, as did most people involved with McGuire's Indivisible Naperville. The collaboration didn't stop there.
Costa Howard said she shared a campaign office with new 24th District state Sen. Suzy Glowiak, a Western Springs Democrat. Costa Howard also walked precincts and knocked on doors with the county board's FitzGerald Ozog and Chaplin. Chaplin, in turn, said she walked with Anne Stava Murray, a newly elected Naperville Democrat who represents the 81st state House District.
"We didn't really get in each other's way. We worked very well together," Chaplin said. "A lot of us had coordinated campaigns; we were running on the same issues."
Calling up other candidates to vent or seek advice was nothing, Costa Howard said, and the network the women formed was a key knowledge base for those new to politics.
"Women tend to bring people together," she said. "We women felt empowered in ways we haven't in the past."
On Nov. 6 in DuPage, 57.8 percent of 639,752 registered voters turned out to vote. In the last midterm election in November 2014, the county saw turnout of 49 percent from a smaller pool of 587,216 registered voters.
Nationwide, an estimated 47 percent to 49 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in November, giving the country the highest turnout since a 49 percent rate in 1966, according to the United States Election Project. The spike came after the 2014 midterms, when nationwide 36.7 percent of eligible voters participated, and after the 2010 midterms, when turnout stood at 41 percent.
"We had unbelievable voter turnout," Chaplin said. "People always say, 'When Democrats vote, Democrats win,' and it's true."
Nationwide, according to an analysis by Sinzdak and the Center for American Women and Politics, new candidates challenging incumbents also fared better than usual, which helped usher in the wave of women.
"That gives me some hope that the status quo has been a little bit more upended," Sinzdak said.
The percentage of women in state House and Senate seats had stalled in recent years around 24 percent after decades of growth. But Sinzdak said the success of first-timers this year has her thinking women could make more progress in 2020, especially with Trump's continued presence as a source of anger.
One DuPage Republican who won a state House seat despite the Trump factor -- 62-year-old Amy Grant of Wheaton in the 42nd state House District -- sees the president as a hurdle for her party locally, too.
"It was a hard cycle for a lot of Republicans because of that, when you have the top of your ticket being hated so badly," Grant said.
"Hate" is a strong word, but it has fueled strong actions by droves of Democratic women -- women who aren't just angry now, and aren't just marching or protesting or voting. They're elected.
"We can be a force to be reckoned with here," Chaplin said.