Many veteran political activists know this: If you want to see real change, you must start locally.
In regional elections in Illinois, local voters decided to push back against the Republican takeover of Washington by unseating conservatives and electing Democrats for important township positions.
In Kankakee, for instance, voters elected Chasity Wells-Armstrong, their first African American mayor and a Democrat. In the West Deerfield Township, electors changed the city's entire leadership, putting all Democrats in key positions.
In the Normal Township, Democrats were also elected as supervisors and trustees — a first in more than 100 years.
Dan Kovats, the executive director of the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen's Association, said that Democrats this time around “won in areas we normally would win, but we also won in areas Republicans never expected us to be competitive in. They were caught flat-footed.”
While these victories may seem small in comparison to bigger and much more competitive races in the state and federal levels, many see a pattern that might begin to worry Republican lawmakers up for reelection in 2018.
During the 2016 presidential election, Illinois voters backed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton at a much higher rate than her Republican counterpart, now-President Donald Trump. Many local governments that had been entirely run by conservatives are starting to go blue, and that might be because of a handful of grassroots activists who got to work as soon as they realized they had been losing ground to conservatives in many areas.
In Illinois in particular, Democrats eyeing public office positions benefited from a program launched by Rep. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat representing Illinois in Washington, D.C., known as “Build The Bench.” The program offers all-day boot camps for people who want to know everything about running a successful political campaign.
The idea came to Bustos when she noticed that there were too few new Democratic candidates running for Congress. She said she believed she could help her party by building it's ranks locally.
So far, Bustos has held two boot camps in her district, and at least 12 “Build The Bench” alumni ran for local seats, with eight of them winning races.
“I am incredibly proud that the majority of our graduates who were on the ballot in April municipal elections won their races,” Bustos stated. “If we want to be successful in the heartland, we need to connect Democratic candidates for office at all levels with the best practices, skills and expertise needed to run winning campaigns.”
Among some of the candidates who ran successful campaigns locally thanks to Bustos are Chemberly Cummings and Arlene Hosea. They became the first black members of the Normal Town Council and Normal Township Trustee — that says a lot, as that region is predominantly white and most vote Republican.
“There’s this concept in Bloomington-Normal that everybody is conservative,” 34-year-old Cummings said. “But we are a group of people who are actually concerned about the issues in our community. I also think ... when you have the representative of a party who is negative, I think you’ll start to see some things change. Nobody wants to be associated with something negative. They want to be associated with the positive.”
Hosea, 57, a retired Illinois State University employee, left her retirement to run for office. While she had never planned to be involved in politics, she was instigated by Trump's alienating rhetoric.
As a “descendant of slavery,” Hosea said, she “saw and heard on the campaign trail so much awful rhetoric. My mom is still alive, she’s 90, and she faced racism through all of her childhood. I thought, ‘Arlene, you have to do more. You have to be the change that you want to see.’”
Recalling her mother's personal experience living through Jim Crow in the South and having watched the Ku Klux Klan nearly beat her uncle to death, Hosea added, “Even if it’s just my seat at the table, they get to see me at that table. I have a voice.”
Jodie Slothower, another “Build The Bench” attendee who was not as successful as Cummings and Hosea, said that while she's disappointed, she will not back down.
She started a grassroots mobilization group known as “Voices of Reason.” With 2,000 members, they “have events planned all the way through August,” Slothower said.
“We’re going to keep up the pressure on the congressman,” she said. “We’re figuring out how to take what we’ve learned here and bring it to other communities. We have a lot of work to do.”
Again, what these activists have proven is that you cannot go anywhere if all you can think of is winning the White House.
Real change is accomplished locally, where communities have greater access to their lawmakers and representatives, not in the “swamp” of Washington, where lawmakers are often beholden only to the money that put them there.