A wave of color sweeps into local offices

  • Top, left to right, Tim McGowan, Yasmeen Bankole, Curtis Bradley, Tayyaba Syed, Steve Wang, Erin Chan Ding. Bottom, left to right, Dan Choi, Syed Hussaini, Sol Cabechuela, Paul Leong, Shweta Baid, Ian Holzhauer. These are just some of the minority candidates who ran successfully for municipal and school board offices in the April 6 election.

    Top, left to right, Tim McGowan, Yasmeen Bankole, Curtis Bradley, Tayyaba Syed, Steve Wang, Erin Chan Ding. Bottom, left to right, Dan Choi, Syed Hussaini, Sol Cabechuela, Paul Leong, Shweta Baid, Ian Holzhauer. These are just some of the minority candidates who ran successfully for municipal and school board offices in the April 6 election.

 
 
Updated 4/27/2021 10:55 AM

A wave of minority candidates from diverse racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds swept over the suburbs during the spring elections, as dozens of contenders stepped up to seek positions on municipal, school, township, library and park boards.

They did not always win, but minorities were a growing presence in suburban campaigns, and in some cases, they made history as the first people of color elected to the positions they sought.

 

Their campaigns were fueled, in part, by a national racial reckoning, stemming from how the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately is affecting communities of color, inequities in vaccine access and concerns with pandemic learning, racism and bullying in schools, and other issues. These broad national concerns filtered into local communities, where growing diverse populations sensed increasing opportunities to assume a direct role in leadership.

"I honestly think people are becoming more aware of what's going on in local government and they want to be able to have a say in the decisions that are made that impact their community," said Maria Sinkule, president of the Addison Library Board and an unsuccessful candidate for Addison mayor.

Addison, whose population is 40% Latino, is among the communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. That's partly why more Latinos are stepping up to run for local office, Sinkule said.

In Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, newcomers Curtis Bradley and Tim McGowan won their races and will be the only African Americans on the school board. Both said they were motivated by racism they experienced firsthand living in the suburbs and being products of District 211 schools.

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"There is an equity issue," said Bradley, 48, of Hoffman Estates, a bank manager who received the most votes of any candidate. "Right now, (many people) don't think racism is prevalent in our area, and it is. Unless someone is in our shoes, they don't see it."

McGowan, 33, of Palatine, said last summer's Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality played a huge part in his decision to run.

"I have a 14-year-old that started high school this year. I didn't want my kids to have to deal with the same things that I dealt with," McGowan said.

Of 801 candidates who ran for local boards on April 6 and completed Daily Herald questionnaires, about 83%, or 668, were white; nearly 6%, or 50, identified as Hispanic; roughly 5%, or 38, were Asian; 3%, or 25, were Black; and 21 chose not to respond.

The elections produced some notable firsts, with Asian, Black, and Hispanic candidates elected to boards where previously no person of color or a minority race had been represented.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Such outcomes signal a sea change that has been a long time coming for communities of color seeking representation on local boards and councils, observers say.

"We feel that it is our time to not only sit at the table, but be heard," said Michael Childress, president of the DuPage County NAACP, which helped educate voters about minorities running for office across four counties through candidate forums.

Childress said many Black candidates ran in response to voter suppression efforts in some states following historic voter turnout for the November presidential election.

Among those making history in the suburbs were Ian Holzhauer and Paul Leong, a Naperville Unit District 203 school board member. As the first Asian Americans elected to the Naperville City Council, they join Councilman Benny White, an African American who is the only other person of color serving on the council.

"It was an incredibly diverse field," Holzhauer said of the 11 candidates who ran for four council seats in the city. "It really enriched the discussion during (the) campaign. We didn't see some of the harsh rhetoric that some of the other races saw."

The 38-year-old of German-Japanese descent will be the youngest council member.

Elsewhere, Erin Chan Ding and Steve Wang became the first Asian Americans elected to the Barrington Area Unit District 220 school board. Donna Johnson is the second female and first Black mayor of Libertyville. Shweta Baid is the first South Asian elected to the Aurora City Council, which has several Black and Latino members who were reelected. And Dan Choi is the first Asian American on the Geneva District 304 board.

"It's really exciting," said Sol Cabachuela, the first Latina to be elected to the Mundelein village board. "It's a long time coming. Right now, there is such a momentum all across the country (for minority candidates)."

Cabachuela, 35, a graduate of Mundelein High School, is the village clerk and a parent liaison for Latino families at Mundelein High. Latinos make up 45% of the school's student population and nearly 32% of village residents.

"The biggest (issue) is communication," Cabachuela said. "Hardly anything is translated for (Spanish-speaking) residents to know what's going on."

Latino candidates still face significant challenges running for office due to lack of funding support or political backing from organizations, their socioeconomic status and how the community is perceived by the majority of voters.

"It was a struggle for me," said Addison's Sinkule, 37. She said she was called names and had doors slammed in her face while campaigning in affluent neighborhoods. "It made me feel like I am not wanted here."

More than two dozen candidates backed by the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition were victorious on April 6. Among them was newcomer Tayyaba Syed, Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41's first Muslim school board member.

Syed was the top vote-getter in a field of eight candidates. She ran, in part, after her son experienced bullying in school and to help improve inclusivity.

"We do have 34% minorities in this district. People just want to be seen and heard, and somebody needs to step up," said Syed, 40, a writer from Glendale Heights. "When people see past the color of my skin and my scarf, we have a lot more in common than we think."

Former President Donald Trump's election in 2016 was an inflection point for Muslim political activism in the U.S. It sparked a rise in the number of candidates seeking election to local boards and that trend is expected to continue, said Assad Ghani, a member of the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition.

Illinois has the highest concentration of Muslims of any state -- 2,800 Muslims per 100,000 population, according to the Pew Research Center.

"The community needs to look at this as a long-term commitment," Ghani said. "The coalition is really trying to gain political clout for the Illinois Muslim community."

Among coalition-backed candidates elected were newcomers Yasmeen Bankole and Syed Hussaini in the Hanover Park Village Board race. Bankole ran as an independent while Hussaini, who serves on the village's development and zoning commission, ran as part of Mayor Rod Craig's slate. Hussaini replaces Trustee Sharmin Shahjahan, the only South Asian on the old board, who lost.

Hussaini, 44, said U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Schaumburg Democrat representing the 8th District, shattered the "glass ceiling" for Indian Americans in politics. Krishnamoorthi was reelected in November to the seat he's held since 2017.

"Indians are really getting the hang of it," Hussaini said. "In two years, in municipal elections, we're going to see more participation."

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