OAK LAWN, Ill. ― Somewhere between day-drinking together at the local VFW and my personal tour of the 9/11 memorial around the corner, Sandra Bury’s pride in her community became palpable.
“It’s a true neighborhood,” Bury, the Democratic mayor of this Chicago suburb, beamed as she sipped her iced white wine at the veterans’ watering hole, greeting every person who came in. “It’s a small town with the amenities of a big city. We have a Level 1 trauma center. It’s great if you have a problem. For example, I’ve got a disabled brother, and he swallowed part of his dental partial. It had to be surgically removed. It was really nice having that just a mile away.”
“So,” she said, “we have more pluses than minuses.”
About 57,000 people live in this mostly Catholic, blue-collar community. The economy is “very much at the mercy” of the railroad, as Bury put it, which runs right through town and carries people to and from Chicago. When the trains used to run at all hours, blaring their horns, it was a huge problem for residents. Bury and other local leaders held a big meeting with Metra transit officials, demanding that something change. In the end, it was their congressman, Democrat Dan Lipinski, who got them a quiet zone.
“He’s a highly responsive elected official in this community,” Bury said. “He’s always at the schools, always supporting first responders, active with seniors, always doing town halls. I feel he represents the core values of this community.”
But just 14 miles away in Western Springs, a more affluent part of Lipinski’s district, if you bring up his name to people milling about in the parking lot of Mariano’s, a local grocery store, some aren’t as pleased with him. Especially if issues like abortion or LGBTQ rights come up ― both of which are fueling controversy about him in Washington, D.C., since Lipinski is one of very few in his party opposed to both.
“It’s more than just about a candidate being pro-life,” said Nina, a 46-year-old physician and mom, piling bags of food into her van. “It’s about the right to choose and women having the independence of what they do and don’t want to do. It’s men or politicians deciding what we should do. It’s part of that larger issue that I take issue with.”
Asked if Lipinski’s record on abortion was enough to make her vote for someone else in the Democratic primary, Nina said, “If there was a viable candidate that also met that threshold for believing in the principles that I support, then yeah. Absolutely.”
“I openly love gay people and transvestites,” added Patty Wade, 63, as she plopped bags of cheese bratwurst into her trunk for a barbecue at her daughter’s house.
If there’s a Democrat who supports LGBTQ rights, Wade said, “I will be voting for them.”
There’s something funky going on in Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District. Lipinski has been comfortably reelected to this seat for 14 years, and before that, his dad represented the district for 22 years. Both are conservative Democrats. But in recent years, as his party ― and, arguably, this district ― has shifted to the left on cultural issues, Lipinski has not.
At a time when Republicans are laser-focused on scaling back abortion rights and Democrats are preparing to make it a major issue in the 2020 elections, Lipinski is the co-chair of the Pro-Life Caucus. He was one of six Democrats who voted in 2013 for a nationwide 20-week abortion ban. He was the only Democrat who co-sponsored the First Amendment Defense Act in 2015, a bill that would have let businesses discriminate against LGBTQ people in the name of religious freedom. As recently as 2018, Lipinski said he was personally opposed to same-sex marriage but recognized that it was the status quo.
“There’s no doubt that Lipinski is more conservative than his district,” said one Democratic elected official who represents parts of Lipinski’s district and who requested anonymity to speak freely. “Obviously, that disconnect is especially true among Democratic primary voters.”
Lipinski nearly lost his primary in 2018 when Marie Newman came within 1.8 percentage points of him. Newman, who supports abortion rights and LGBTQ rights, is running again in 2020 and already has national progressive groups backing her campaign. EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and MoveOn have endorsed her. So have 2020 presidential candidates including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirstin Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) also endorsed her.
Why are presidential contenders and national organizations so focused on an Illinois House race? In part, it’s because progressives are furious at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is charged with expanding Democratic seats in the House, over its policy of cutting ties with vendors that work with challengers to Democratic incumbents. The policy has already crippled Newman’s campaign, and progressives, angry at DCCC for standing by Lipinski, are rallying to help her.
Intraparty tensions over Lipinski’s anti-abortion views have gotten so sensitive that DCCC chairwoman Cheri Bustos, a fellow Illinois Democrat, abruptly pulled out of a fundraiser for him last month. (A source with knowledge of the situation, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said Bustos had agreed to attend the event months ago in a personal capacity, not as DCCC chair, and before Newman had announced her candidacy.)
The calculation among progressives in Washington, and by Newman, is that Lipinski has fallen out of step with his district and it’s time for more socially liberal representation.
But what do people in the district think?
HuffPost spent a few days driving all over Lipinski’s district, asking nearly two dozen Democratic and independent voters on the streets and at shopping centers if their views on abortion and LGBTQ rights are generally in line with Lipinski or with someone like Newman, and if those issues are deciding factors in how they vote.
At least anecdotally, the answer is it’s complicated.
For starters, despite including a portion of Chicago, the district is overall pretty moderate. At times it felt like it was drawn precisely to lump together white, working-class Catholic towns that resemble Oak Lawn with nearby affluent and more left-leaning areas falling just outside of the district boundary. That detail alone might explain why Lipinski’s opposition to abortion rights didn’t seem as outrageous to some Democrats here as it does to people in Washington.
“His stance on abortion is not as much as an electoral drag as Beltway pundits and progressive activists think it is,” said the local Democratic elected official. “He could get away with being a ‘pro-life progressive’ and hold the district for years to come.”
The problem for Lipinski, speculated this politician, is all his other conservative views on LGBTQ issues, immigration and the Affordable Care Act. He was the only Illinois Democrat in Congress who voted against President Barack Obama’s signature health care law in 2010.
“That litany of conservative stances is what really has him in jeopardy,” said this official. “There’s a cumulative effect, and I doubt he can overcome it.”
But that’s assuming that people know his record ― or who he is at all. As HuffPost drove from town to town, some people said they had never heard of Lipinski. Nobody had heard of Newman (the primary isn’t until March, so that doesn’t matter much yet). Some conceded they don’t vote.
Estelle, 73, grew up in Bridgeport and said she votes regularly. But she had no idea about Lipinski’s record on abortion and LGBTQ rights until HuffPost rattled off some of his votes.
“Oh, jeez. That’s how much I know about politics,” she said, standing outside of her granddaughter’s house weeding the front yard. “I’m not into discrimination for any reason .... I’m all about every woman should be able to choose what goes on with her body.”
Some people said they cared more about economic development than any cultural issue.
“Abortion is a nationwide thing, and he needs to concentrate on our district,” said Joanne, 60, of Lockport. “We need our politicians to care about us because we’re in trouble. Economically.”
“I’m not going to lie. If it comes down to it, if I don’t agree with someone on abortion rights, it’s not a deal breaker if they’re addressing more important issues that affect us on a day-to-day basis,” said Carly Connors, 37, of Lemont. “But we’re also outside of the reproductive part of life.”
Carly and her husband, Dan, 38, were wrangling two small children out of a van and toward a Target as they talked. Both agreed that what mattered most to them about their elected officials was that they bring more business to the area.
“It’s selfish,” said Dan. “But it’s about, ‘How does it benefit us?’ Honestly, abortion and health care ...”
“Those are obviously important,” interjected Carly.
“Yeah, they are,” said Dan. “But in the larger scheme...”
“It doesn’t affect our day-to-day,” Carly finished.
“I will absolutely vote for Lipinski,” added Dan. “I don’t know who this other girl is. The Lipinski name is one I’ve always supported, so I’m good with that.”
It’s men or politicians deciding what we should do. It’s part of that larger issue that I take issue with.
But in wealthier areas, and among young voters, abortion rights and LGBTQ rights were a much bigger priority. Even in old factory towns like Lockport, where, like in Oak Lawn, train tracks run through the heart of town and Lipinski’s seat on the House Transportation Committee matters to locals, young voters said these were deciding factors for them.
“Lockport is torn,” said Kat Bielski, 23, who manages a comic book store in town. “I’ve noticed a lot of the older generations are more towards, like, ‘This stuff is wrong.’ But I know at the high school, they have the Gay-Straight Alliance. The people I know, they’re a lot more progressive.”
Down the street at Briosa Boutique, a women’s clothing store, Rachel Bell, 24, and Christina, in her late 40s or early 50s, disagreed on Lipinski’s positions being a dealbreaker.
“You can’t take a hard line on one simple thing that they do,” said Christina, an independent who has supported Lipinski in the past. “You have to look at the whole picture.”
“I feel very passionately about these issues, the abortion laws and also gay rights,” said Bell, a Democrat. “I know people my age would probably vote more with [someone like Newman]. Because that’s important for people.”
Notably, despite her past votes for Lipinski, Christina said she doesn’t agree with him on abortion or LGBTQ rights and may ultimately vote for Newman in 2020. She’s worried about what’s happening around the country with restrictions on abortion rights.
“In the South, we have nothing,” she said. “It’s going to be taken over.”
If Lipinski were to quietly adopt the positions of his party, it doesn’t look like it would hurt him.
“I voted for marriage equality and I voted for other LGBTQ bills, and I’m still in,” said Democratic state Sen. Pat McGuire, who represents parts of Lipinski’s district. “This year, two pro-choice bills were introduce in the General Assembly. They generated more emails, letters and phone calls about people’s positions than ever before in my seven years in the state Senate.”
He speculated that Lipinski keeps getting reelected for two reasons: name recognition and just showing his face, whether it’s by issuing press releases on local issues or going to all the town halls, parades and celebrations.
“What’s proven in the Illinois General Assembly is you can take positions that some might view as beyond one’s district so long as one is visible in one’s district,” McGuire said with a laugh.
Still, he added, it’s hard to argue that Lipinski is safe in his seat.
“He didn’t win by much last time,” McGuire said. “What states have done in the last month regarding reproductive rights is alarming, and probably alarming to some constituents that he and I share.”
It’s alarming to Heidi Swanson, 38, of Lemont. She’s already inclined to vote for Newman, even as she suspects her husband will vote Republican for financial reasons, “like people wanting to keep their money.” Abortion rights are a deciding factor for her, she said, sounding ready to vote for any Democrat over Lipinski.
“No one ever runs against him,” she said.
Lipinski’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if Newman is more aligned with her party, she’s got some real challenges. There are two other primary candidates, Rush Darwish and Abe Matthew. People don’t know who she is. And some of the people who do know who she is aren’t big fans. Bury, the Oak Lawn mayor, was miffed that Newman never reached out to her in the 2018 campaign.
“Marie Newman was viewed as someone in this community funded by outside groups pushing an outside agenda. She had someone writing postcards from California to my 98-year-old grandfather. This is the perception on the street,” said Bury. “Is she going to represent some national movement or is she going to care about the people whose vote she’s asking for? She’s not asked me. Not once. I’d love to chat with her.”
The Democratic elected official who insisted on anonymity is not impressed with Newman, either. This politician echoed Bury’s criticisms about Newman being an outsider in a district that is still somewhat parochial and said that could really put people off.
“She has brought in advisers and campaign workers who really don’t know the district,” said this official. “She also had the benefit of Lipinski taking her for granted in ’18. That won’t happen this time. He will go hard negative and do it early.”
Newman will also be up against unions that have gone to bat for Lipinski and his father for decades, namely old trades like plumbers, electricians and laborers, which are less progressive than, say, teacher unions.
Newman campaign spokesman Ben Hardin pushed back on the idea that she is an outsider to the community, saying Newman was born here and went on to raise her own family here. She’s already held 76 meet-and-greets in this election cycle, he said, and is backed by more than 30 in-district advocacy groups.
“A majority of folks in IL-3 support ‘Medicare for All’ and trust women, while Dan Lipinski voted against the ACA because he felt that women should not have access to necessary reproductive care,” said Hardin. “Our campaign has received national attention because it is clear that our current representative stands at odds with this district on the issues that matter most.”
Maybe none of these details matter. Democrats eager to get out and vote for a presidential candidate might just pull the lever for Newman simply because she’s a woman or for Lipinski simply because his name sounds familiar.
But the fact that the wave of anti-abortion laws around the country is already on the minds of Democratic voters in this district, in a presidential campaign season when abortion is on track to dominate headlines through 2020, it could be the issue that sinks Lipinski. Especially since this time around, Newman benefits from sharing the ballot with presidential candidates driving piles of progressives out to vote.
For Bury, it will never make sense that Lipinski could ― or should ― lose his seat because of his abortion views.
“I just don’t understand how one issue is going to define a candidate,” she said. “This is Congress. This is the world today. Look at what the hell is going on in the world today. This is the one issue?”