Illinois’ under-the-radar political power broker

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She canceled the appearance on May 22 after a social media-fueled backlash among pro-choice progressives, but the controversy—along with the gig—have elevated her profile nevertheless. As the person overseeing and spending her party’s nationwide congressional warchest, Bustos is now arguably the most powerful woman in Illinois Democratic politics—with the possible exception of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Her tactics, the Lipinski imbroglio aside, are now also the focus of attention among party operatives and a liberal electorate eager to wrest the levers of power from President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. Bustos has drawn flack, for instance, for favoring incumbents and going so far as to formalize a policy that bars committee consultants and vendors from working for primary challengers. 
 
“That policy is restrictive and antitrust,” says California Rep. Ro Khanna, vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s offensive to voters who believe in competition. It’s wrong, politically.” 
  
Bustos, for her part, says every primary contest saps resources from the larger goal. “If an incumbent is spending money defending his seat, that wastes resources he could otherwise be using to help colleagues hang on to tough districts or help pick up new ones,” she says in an interview.  
 
Notwithstanding her unsatisfying first government job, Bustos has a substantial political pedigree. Her father, the late Gene Callahan, was a political journalist who worked for then-Lt. Gov. Paul Simon and was chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon.  
 
The dinner table at the family’s Springfield home was crowded with friends and sources “who were one and the same,” Bustos says. One frequent guest was future Sen. Dick Durbin, who was legal counsel for Simon after law school. 
 
“Dad was a beer drinker so, for me, the price of admission was going to the fridge,” she recalls. “I would pop the top, take a swig behind the refrigerator door and deliver the Budweiser.” 
 
After the boredom of her post-college legislative internship, Bustos set her sights on journalism and ended up at the Quad-City Times. While covering the police beat, she met her husband Gerry Bustos, then a rookie police officer and now sheriff of Rock Island County. 
 
After 17 years at the paper, she pivoted to a communications position at a regional health system. That led her to serve on local boards and commissions and subsequently, an invitation to run for alderman in East Moline. “I thought, ‘Yeah, I could do that. And I could do it better than a lot of the people I’d covered,’” she says. “I knocked on every door. Not just once but twice.”  
 
That varied professional background and journalistic inquisitiveness informs her work as a representative, constituents say. She’s known in the district for her “Cheri on Shift” visits to factories, farms or restaurants, where she’ll don a hard hat and take a stab at the work. In 85 visits, she’s driven a forklift, worked as a barista and processed Mississippi River carp. 
“She wants to know how she can help,” said East Moline businesswoman and neighbor Deb Toppert. 
 
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 led to another initiative–full day boot camps called Build the Bench, to train Illinois progressives how to run for office. Sessions cover how to ask people for money, write a stump speech and how to use social media and digital marketing. That paved the way for her high-profile job recruiting on the national stage. 
 
“She’s skilled at finding the best candidate for the district, understanding that different districts require different kinds of candidates,” said longtime political strategist Rick Jasculca, who worked for Bustos’ dad Callahan in political campaigns for Simon in the 1960s and frequently stayed in the Callahan home in Springfield. 
  
Bustos is focused on 44 competitive districts where Democrats won by 5 or fewer percentage points and 31 Democratic seats in districts that Trump carried in 2016, including her own 17th. “These are districts I know how to win,” she said. “If we can’t navigate that, we can’t hang on to our majority.” 

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via Crain’s Chicago Business

June 12, 2019 at 08:43PM

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