WASHINGTON ― In a spate of local elections last week in Illinois, Democrats picked up seats in places they’ve never won before.
The city of Kankakee elected its first African-American, Democratic mayor. West Deerfield Township will be led entirely by Democrats for the first time. Elgin Township voted for “a complete changeover,” flipping to an all-Democratic board. Normal Township elected Democratic supervisors and trustees to run its board ― the first time in more than 100 years that a single Democrat has held a seat.
“We had a pretty good day,” said Dan Kovats, executive director of the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association. “We 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.”
These may seem like relatively small victories ― we’re talking about municipal races in towns with tens of thousands of people ― but they fit with a broader pattern that should have Republicans on edge ahead of the 2018 elections: Progressive grassroots activism, exploding with energy since President Donald Trump’s win in November, is fueling Democratic gains in GOP strongholds.
This week, a Democratic congressional candidate in Kansas nearly pulled off a shocking win in a heavily Republican district. In Georgia, 30-year-old Democratic newcomer Jon Ossoff is outpacing his GOP rivals in a race to replace former Rep. Tom Price. The seat has long been Republican and was once held by former Speaker Newt Gingrich. These races come after a Democratic state Senate candidate in Delaware, buoyed by anti-Trump activism, annihilated her GOP challenger in an election that’s traditionally been close.
“We 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.”
In the case of Illinois, a number of Democrats who just won got a boost from a program launched by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) called Build The Bench. It’s an all-day boot camp that offers nuts-and-bolts details for running a successful campaign. Bustos came up with the idea last year when she noticed a dearth of new Democratic candidates for Congress, and decided the best way to help build up her party’s ranks was at the local level.
She’s held two boot camps in her district so far ― The Huffington Post attended one of them in March ― and she’s already seeing tremendous payoff. Twelve Build The Bench alumni ran for local seats in this election cycle, and eight of them won. A ninth alum, Rita Ali, lost by one vote in her race for Peoria City Council.
“I am incredibly proud that the majority of our graduates who were on the ballot in April municipal elections won their races,” said Bustos. “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.”
Chemberly Cummings and Arlene Hosea are among the Build The Bench alumni who recently won races. They both made history by becoming the first black members of Normal Town Council and Normal Township Trustee, respectively. That is no small feat in a predominately white, Republican region of the state.
“There’s this concept in Bloomington-Normal that everybody is conservative,” said Cummings, a 34-year-old State Farm employee. “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, a 57-year-old former Illinois State University employee, came out of retirement to run for her seat. She hadn’t planned on going into politics, but was deeply affected by Trump’s divisive tone all last year.
“I am a descendent of slavery,” she said. “I 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.’”
As someone born and raised in the area, Hosea said she takes pride in being able to give back to her town’s next generation. She got choked up thinking about how far she and her family have come, recalling how her mom lived through Jim Crow in the South and once watched the Ku Klux Klan drag her uncle out of the house and “almost beat him to death” in front of her when she was a child.
“Even if it’s just my seat at the table, they get to see me at that table. I have a voice,” Hosea said, her voice cracking. “In this community, no one has done it. So, it’s time.”
Of course, not everyone can win their first campaign. Jodie Slothower, a Build The Bench attendee who HuffPost met in March, lost her race for Normal Township clerk. She is disappointed, of course, but she’s already onto her next project: fueling the progressive momentum to oust more Republicans, like Rep. Rodney Davis (Ill.). She started a grassroots mobilization group in November, Voices of Reason, and it’s up to 2,000 members.
“We have events planned all the way through August,” Slothower said. “We’re going to keep up the pressure on the congressman. 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.”