In certain circles, lifelong environmental advocate Jennifer Walling is known as a Republican whisperer. For a decade, the 39-year-old Darien native, a Democrat, has led the Illinois Environmental Council—an umbrella group representing more than 100 green and community organizations—despite coming from a "super, super politically conservative" family.
As a lobbyist in Springfield, her ability to tease out common ground has led to bonding over soil conservation with pro-Trump state representative and farmer Chris Miller and a shoutout from Republican former Gov. Bruce Rauner for her work on a bill mandating drinking water testing in day cares and schools.
"I just really believe in the ability of people to change and go down a scale of agreement," Walling said, "particularly when you’re kind to them, you listen to them, and you learn what things benefit them."
This year, Walling’s attitude as a lead negotiator helped win bipartisan approval of the state’s massive energy overhaul, putting Illinois on a path to go 100% carbon-free by 2050.
As a teen, Walling had her political awakening when she observed a bid-rigging scandal related to a DuPage County recycling contract, while she was a volunteer at a composting and recycling education organization called SCARCE in Glen Ellyn. She went on to receive three degrees in six years, including in law and environmental science, at the University of Illinois, and rallied classmates to create a student sustainability fee, which still exists today.
After she worked briefly as an attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, former state Sen. Heather Steans hired Walling, then 28, as her chief of staff. Despite "a lot of skepticism" at hiring Walling to run IEC so young, Steans said, she soon proved to be "adept beyond her age."
Walling has helped mend the fractures between environmental groups since 2011, building a coalition that was key to pushing through the energy bill, Steans continues. "She doesn’t have a lot of ego," she says, rare in Springfield.
Next up for Walling: making sure future governor’s offices live up to the promises within the bill. "The wrong people can take the best policy and tear it to shreds, or can take the worst policy and make it the best."
Photo by John R. Boehm
via Crain’s Chicago Business
November 9, 2021 at 06:55AM