יום שישי, 12 במאי 2017

The Secret Weapon Democrats Don’t Know How to Use


Cheri Bustos of Illinois has lessons about how to win in Trump territory. Are Democratic leaders listening?

By Michael Kruse

No Democrat in the House of Representatives did what Cheri Bustos did last November. She wasn’t the sole member of her party to win in a congressional district Donald Trump also took—there were 11 others—but she was the only one to post a 20-point landslide, and she did it in agricultural, industrial, blue-collar northwestern Illinois. In the kind of place where Hillary Clinton lost big last fall and where Democrats have been losing in droves for the last decade, Bustos has done just the opposite. A former newspaper reporter, the wife of a county sheriff and the mother of three grown sons, the 55-year-old third-term representative has won by wider margins every time she’s run. And this past election, she notched victories not only in the urban pockets she represents—Rock Island and Moline of the Quad Cities, plus pieces of Rockford and Peoria—but in all her rural counties, too. If Democrats are going to wrest control of the House from Republicans, argue many party strategists, it’s going to happen in large part by doing more of whatever it is Bustos is doing three hours west of Chicago in her nearly 7,000-square-mile district of small towns and soybean fields.

“We ought to be studying Cheri Bustos,” Democratic consultant Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, told me recently.

So twice in the first four months of this year, I traveled to her district to watch her work. In January, on a frigid Saturday the week before Trump’s inauguration, I accompanied her in a silver, staffer-driven Ford Taurus, as she donned a yellow hard hat and installed an air filter in a locomotive in Galesburg (the latest in a regular series of appearances she calls “Cheri on Shift”), stationed herself in a grocery store produce section to introduce herself to customers at a Hy-Vee in Canton (“Supermarket Saturdays”) and swung by a pub in Peoria to talk with a group of activist women. And last month, on a rainy Wednesday, I joined her again, when she put on a pair of safety goggles for a tour of an aerospace factory in Rockford and met with the mayor of Rock Falls, population 9,266.

The Bustos blueprint, she told me in January as the Taurus dodged raccoon road kill outside a speck of a village called Maquon, is rooted in unslick, face-to-face politicking. She shows up. She shakes hands. She asks questions—a lot of questions. “Don’t talk down to people—you listen,” she stressed. When she does talk, she talks as much as she can about jobs and wages and the economy and as little as she can about guns and abortion and other socially divisive issues—which, for her, are “no-win conversations,” she explained. And at a time when members of both parties are being tugged toward their respective ideological poles, the more center-left Bustos has picked her spots to buck such partisanship. She’s a pro-choice Catholic and an advocate for limited gun control, but she has supported the Keystone pipeline and called for improvements to Barack Obama’s “imperfect” Affordable Care Act. It’s worked. She’s the only Democratic member of the Illinois’ congressional delegation from outside Chicagoland.

Rick Jasculca, a Chicago-based Democratic political consultant who worked in the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, told me he considers Bustos “the future of the party.”

“She offers something the party needs, in a region of the country where it needs it desperately,” said Robin Johnson, a political science professor at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and one of Bustos’ closest confidants. “If you’re going to get back to a majority in the House, you’re going to have to win some rural areas—and all this comes through the Midwest.”

Left: Cheri spotwelding on a pickup truck at Dave’s Auto Body in Galesburg, Illinois. Right: Cheri on a forklift at KMI Packaging and Exporting in Pekin, Illinois. Cheri previously earned her certification as a forklift driver.

Democratic leaders seem to acknowledge this—that Bustos could help them build back a geographically broader electoral appeal. In the aftermath of the party’s crushing defeats of 2016, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi chose Bustos to be a co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, after which she was elected by her peers. Her assignment is to teach other members of her caucus essentially how to talk to people like the shoppers she encounters by the bananas at the Hy-Vee. In some ways this was a confirmation of an existing though less formal role. Bustos, the single Midwesterner in House Democratic Leadership, already was a co-chair of the “Red to Blue” initiative of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and now she’s ramping up her role in the organization’s rural and heartland outreach efforts. Her national television and radio appearances have spiked. She’s been dubbed one of the party’s rising stars.

It remains to be seen, though, whether her party’s most powerful shot-callers ultimately will actually implement key tactics of hers in time for the 2018 midterms. Democratic Congressman Ron Kind, who’s won for 20 years in western Wisconsin in a district Trump won, too, talked in an interview of “a growing openness and willingness in the caucus” to incorporate some of what has worked for Bustos and others like her—Kind ran unopposed last year—but he worries, he told me, about his party succumbing to “the temptation to lurch to the left in response to Trump.” Congressman Rick Nolan of Minnesota, another of the dozen Trump-district Democrats, lamented his colleagues’ general lack of interest in tapping into the expertise of the few who have won in Upper Midwest. “I could count, easily, on one hand,” Nolan told me, “the number of candidates for public office from the Democratic Party who’ve come up to me and said, you know, ‘How did you do that?’” One of them, he added, was Bustos. “Democrats,” said Denny Heck, the congressman from Washington who has worked with Bustos on “Red to Blue,” “would very considerably benefit if they listened to her.” Bustos recently met with new Democratic National Committee boss Tom Perez, which her office saw as “a starting point” in what she and her staff hope will be an ongoing discussion.

This is a moment, of course, of existential angst for Democrats. They’re unified mainly by their antipathy toward Trump. Beyond that, they’re grappling with the much more complicated calculus of whether to focus on stoking the Trump-hating base or re-embrace a more moderate approach and earn back the votes of traditional Democrats they’ve leached practically everywhere but cities and the coasts. Ben Ray Lujan, the New Mexico congressman who heads the DCCC, is clear about where he stands on this. “I can assure you,” he said when we talked last week, “that the direction I’m giving is that we need to go back and re-establish trust and earn trust with people all over the country, including rural and blue-collar Americans.” But what has made Bustos in particular so successful in her rural, blue-collar district is also what at times has caused friction and consternation in Washington. Not everybody she works with thinks she’s a part of the solution for their party’s woes.

“You better have thick skin after you’re elected, because you’re going to have members of your caucus who are upset with you that you’re not voting straight party line,” she told me not long ago in her office on Capitol Hill, sitting in front of a John F. Kennedy poster while drinking coffee from an Abraham Lincoln mug.

Memorabilia lines Bustos’ congressional office in the Longworth House Office Building

“I’ve had fellow members who are very upset with me,” she continued. “I’ve had somebody say, ‘Are you even a Democrat?’”

She wouldn’t tell me who that was. She just said she told the person she’s been a Democrat her whole life. “But maybe,” she said, “I’m a little bit of a different kind of Democrat.”

I asked if she feels like she’s being listened to—if she thinks her model will be embraced and implemented elsewhere. Bustos, who’s dispositionally cheerful, highly competitive and eager to share, did not respond with an unqualified yes.

“There’s people who think we’ve got to just work on the base—right?—and get people fired up, and that’s going to get us to 218. I don’t,” she said. “I don’t think that’s going to get us to 218. I think what’s going to get us to 218 is to understand these tough districts where we have not done well.”

She cited as evidence last month’s special election in Kansas. The Democrat won Wichita but lost everywhere else. “That candidate bombed in all those rural areas,” Bustos said bluntly. “If he just didn’t bomb in those rural areas, we could’ve won that.”


If you reverse-engineered a Democrat capable of winning in Illinois’ 17th congressional district at this anti-elitist, politically volatile time, you couldn’t do a whole lot better than Bustos.

She’s the granddaughter of a hog farmer who was a state legislator, a Democrat from a small, out-of-the-way and predominantly Republican county in eastern Illinois. She’s the daughter of the late Gene Callahan, a onetime political reporter for the Springfield Register—the afternoon newspaper at the time in the state capital—who left journalism to become a top aide to legendary Illinois Democratic lawmakers Paul Simon and Alan Dixon. Simon and Dixon, and a young Dick Durbin, too, were regulars at her house, talking politics around the kitchen table of her childhood.

Before she graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in political science and from the University of Illinois at Springfield with a master’s in journalism, she went to Illinois College, where she played volleyball and basketball and was picked as the MVP for both as well as the school’s top female-student athlete. Her high school basketball coach told me Bustos was a ferocious rebounder thanks to a willingness to scrap and a knack for knowing where the ball was going to be.

Bustos plays catch with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to warm up for softball practice on May 4.
She moved in 1985 to the Quad Cities to be a night-shift police reporter for the Quad-City Times. Her starting salary was $16,500 a year. She drove a white Plymouth Horizon hatchback and had a Goodwill couch and a dog named Kibble. Early on, the former Cheri Callahan met a young deputy sheriff named Gerry Bustos, a Quad Cities local, at a bar called the Lil’ Cowbell. They married quickly, raised their three sons in East Moline and carved out Friday nights for family dinners at Frank’s Pizza in nearby Silvis, where the walls are white cinder blocks and the only salad on the menu is a plate of iceberg lettuce.

After 17 years at the newspaper—she also covered city hall and was an editor and an investigative reporter who zeroed in on abuses allowed by the state Department of Children and Family Services—Bustos spent a decade working in corporate communications and public relations for a pair of major regional health care companies. Health care is “very, very complicated,” she learned, but her time at Trinity and Unity Point Health was a tutorial in the sprawling, complicated sector of the economy that would come to be the core of the nation’s bitter political fight.

“She works her butt off,” said Bill Leaver, her boss and mentor at both companies.

“Until 9, 10 o’clock at night nearly every single day, and I mean that,” said Gerry Bustos, who exercises at the Two Rivers YMCA every morning at 4:30—along with his wife when Congress isn’t in session.

And in the winter of 2006 and 2007, for the first time in her life, Bustos ran for office—a bid to be an alderwoman in East Moline. The ground was so frozen during the campaign her husband used a drill to make holes for signs, while she wore long underwear and a thick brown down coat and knocked on every door twice—regardless of party affiliation. “Because why would a Republican not vote for me?” she said.


Illinois’ 17th district over the last generation has leaned Democratic, buoyed by organized labor—but the linchpin manufacturing industries are stressed, dealing with reinvention or outright elimination. The local nexus of this painful, systemic change is Galesburg, where 5,000 steady, relatively well-paying jobs vanished when a Maytag factory moved to Mexico. That was in 2002. The town still hasn’t recovered. Johnson, the Monmouth professor who is Bustos’ friend and adviser, sees it as “ground zero in this battle over globalization.” And the Democrats in Galesburg and around the area as a whole are not liberal in the least, he explained—“not latte Democrats” but “beer-and-shot Democrats,” with pickup trucks with shotgun racks. A significant swath of voters in the district prize their independence and pragmatism and make their political picks based on the person rather than the party, said Chad Broughton, the author of Boom, Bust, Exodus, a book about Maytag, Galesburg and the region. “They want to hear from Democrats, but they generally feel like they’ve been abandoned by Democrats”—on trade deals, on bread-and-butter economic considerations and in a perceived shift to the left in the overall culture. And in the 17th District in 2010, a year in which more than two dozen centrist Democrats got voted out of Congress, Bobby Schilling, a pizza shop owner, rode the national tide and edged out the incumbent Democrat Phil Hare.

But the political reorientation didn’t stick in northwestern Illinois—on account of Bustos. In 2012, she beat Schilling—because of redistricting that added parts of more Democrat-friendly Rockford and Peoria, because Obama was on the ballot and made for a more favorable national turnout, and because she was assiduous in talking about jobs, agriculture and infrastructure while steering clear of the flashpoint social issues. In her victory speech at the Rock Island Holiday Inn, she told supporters she intended to reach across the aisle in Washington. “People just want to succeed,” she said, “and government can help.”

In 2014, she beat Schilling again—and her margin went up, from seven points to 11. Then, last November, with Trump triumphing due to his pledges to bring back lost jobs, and with Bustos endorsing Clinton, she nonetheless tightened her grip on the district, trouncing GOP challenger Patrick Harlan. A fifth of the people in her district who voted for Trump also voted for her.

“She was getting white male voters when they were abandoning our party in rural America,” said Doug House, the Rock Island County Democratic Party chair and the president of the Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association. “They were for Trump—and they were for her. She was connecting with them.”

“The key in these districts,” said Kind, the congressman from Wisconsin, “is you have to be able to connect with your constituents on a basic-value level, so they understand that you get them.”

Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia who consistently has won as a Democrat in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, told me Bustos has been able to win because of a certain “likeability factor” and an intangible authenticity. “Cheri’s real,” Manchin said.

Bustos talks with Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn) following an Agricultural Committee hearing on May 3.

Bustos sits on the House Committee on Agriculture and the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. She toggles deftly between unions and chambers of commerce. She’s been endorsed by the Illinois Farm Bureau, and the Illinois Sierra Club—“not easy to do,” she said. She organizes an annual economic summit at Augustana College in Rock Island, and she spent last August trekking around her district on what her office titled a “21st Century Heartland Tour.” Last fall, she was noncommittal about how she would have voted on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, but she called it a “tough one for me,” given the state of industry in her district. “We have been hit very, very hard in this part of the state of Illinois, and in the state of Illinois,” she told the Quad-City Times in 2015, “because of what I would call bad trade deals.”

Less than a month after her 2016 win, Bustos discussed this in an interview on NPR.

“We have been the party of working-class men and women for the entire history of our party,” Bustos said. “My dad raised us to say if it weren’t for organized labor and the Democratic Party, there wouldn’t be a middle class. I believe that. But we’ve got to go where people are. And we’ve got to listen.”


“Watch the pinch points,” one of the workers told her at the locomotive repair factory in Galesburg in January, as Bustos gamely (but not quite successfully) attempted to insert the large air filter while wearing the yellow hard hat and an orange safety vest that paired awkwardly with her gold hoop earrings.

“What am I doing wrong?” Bustos asked.

An employee gave the filter a final necessary nudge and told Bustos she had done well for her “first time.” The bright white gloves she had been given were black with soot and grime.

“Cheri on Shift” feels a little like a gimmick. In the most simplistic, play-the-game, political sense, it’s a photo op. At this one, I wasn’t the only reporter. There also was a local public radio correspondent. But what was different about this “Cheri on Shift” photo op was the patter of her questions. It was constant. She quizzed the supervisors leading the tour and the employees we encountered. What do you do here? How long have you been with the company? Do you like it? Can you support your family? Can you go on vacation? Who works here? Who do you like hiring? You guys like hiring farm kids? How long does it take to train for one of these jobs? Anything else on your minds?

“Being present matters”—that’s how DCCC’s Lujan put it when we talked. “Cheri gets that,” he said.

Bustos doing a beekeeping shift at Beacon Woods Farm in Peoria, Illinois.
It’s more than presence, from what I observed. Bustos in essence “reports” the story of her district so she can better tell it back in Washington. In the Taurus, I asked her how she talks about the thorniest subjects for her, and for any Democrat in a district like the 17th of Illinois. How, I wanted to know, does she talk about the issues that her party sometimes thinks are most important—but that her constituents see differently?

I started with guns.

“I say, ‘My husband carries a gun on his hip—he’s the sheriff of Rock Island County. All my sons own guns. I own a gun. But we’ve got to be reasonable about this,’” she said to me. “I say, ‘All I want to do is make sure people who are deranged or on a terrorist watch list don’t have guns.’ That’s how I talk about it.”

And abortion?

“I don’t try to change their mind,” she said. “I’m Catholic, so I understand their views. I’m pro-choice, but”—here she shifted the subject with me, the way she says she does with others—“that’s not what most people are talking about. Most people are talking about jobs.”

She talks, in other words, about these kinds of things by not talking about them much, because the people she represents, she says, aren’t talking about them much, either, or don’t want to.

“On these sensitive topics,” she said—Black Lives Matter, transgender bathroom laws and so on—“I don’t dwell on them.”

Bustos has said to me several times that she considers members of Congress “independent practitioners,” free in their districts to do what they think is best for themselves and their constituents. But the flexibility intrinsic in this approach butts up before long against the heightened rigidity of the expectations of the party nationally. Witness the recent occurrence of Perez, the DNC chair, endorsing a pro-life mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska, only to backtrack after blowback from pro-choice advocates. Bustos, though she had been tapped to help the party in spots like northwestern Illinois, was not the pick to respond to Trump after his joint session speech at the end of February.

Robin Johnson from Monmouth watched former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear handle the Democratic Party’s response—delivered from a Lexington diner, closed, darkened and quiet but filled with citizens set up at tables as stock-still props. The content of what Beshear said hit the appropriate populist notes on health care and jobs, but it elicited mixed reviews. Johnson, for one, was baffled not only by the odd dose of stagecraft but the selection of the person to deliver the message—an old name, not a new face.

“Why not Cheri Bustos?” Johnson told me. During Beshear’s remarks, he said, he sent Bustos a text message. “I said, ‘Jeez,’ you should be the one giving this response.’”


Being a centrist doesn’t mean being an enemy collaborator. In Washington in late April, in her Capitol Hill office, Bustos smiled, drank from her Abe Lincoln mug and verbally thrashed President Trump.

This was three months after I had watched Bustos at the pub in Peoria say in an interview with a local TV reporter that she would “give him the benefit of the doubt.”

A week before our meeting in Washington, though, I sat in the front row of a panel at the Institute of Politics in Chicago and listened to Bustos say people in her district who had “tried” Trump—that’s how she phrased it—at this point were expressing “a lot of concern.” She didn’t stutter when she pronounced his first 100 days “a disaster.”

And the day before, in a news conference, she said the passage of the Trump-pushed health care legislation would be like “ripping out the beating heart of rural America.”

Now, sitting across from me in her office, Bustos practically was taunting Trump.

“Man,” she said, “if I were president of the United States in my first 100 days, I’d want to have a lot of wins—and, you know, I wouldn’t want to have wins that I have to lie about.” She scoffed at his multiple claims of unprecedented accomplishment in his administration’s first few months. “It’s like, ‘Did you ever study history?’”

But the calamity of his presidency to this point, Bustos thinks, presents an opportunity for Democrats, confident and poised to make up ground, to get to 218 in 2018—but particularly, she believes, if they focus on winning districts like hers.

Could Bustos teach Democrats how to win again? Responding to that question of mine, she said she didn’t want to sound “stuck up,” but what she has done, she pointed out, has worked.

What she has done challenges the purity-test fealty that has defined this era of historic and increasing polarization in Congress. Paying attention to the messages she’s getting on the ground as much as to the talking points from above, she might say, shouldn’t make her a traitor in the eyes of her party. To keep faith with both her constituents and the Democrats’ broader national aims is often less a question of the precise stance she is taking and more a question of how she puts it. In short, her blueprint for success is simply the freedom to make a call in the field.

“Mine is just one way of doing things,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s the only way or it’s absolutely the right way. I’m not presumptuous enough or arrogant enough to think that I have all the answers or that mine is the way to go. I’m not saying that at all.”

And yet …

“I’m just saying,” she said, “that in a district that Donald Trump won”—and here is the closest the classically Midwest-nice native of Illinois came to a boast—“I won by 20 points.”

The competitive college team MVP in Congress, one of the star players and power hitters in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game, wants to help her side.

“That is what I want to share,” she said. “This is what’s worked for us, and maybe it will work for you, and here’s how you can execute.”

She looked at me—really, though, she was looking at, and speaking to, the whole Democratic Party.

“Here’s our blueprint,” Bustos said. “You can have it.”

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