Rep. Bustos: The Path to the Majority Runs Through the Heartland
Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos is a rising star in Congress who has been able to connect with voters in the heartland. The Well News sat down with her to figure out just how she does it. Excerpts from the interview:
How do you feel about the candidates who are running throughout the Midwest in some of the tougher districts for Democrats?
CB: I have no doubt that the path to the majority runs through the heartland and we have some of the most incredible and energetic candidates running in tough districts. What’s most important to do when running against an incumbent is to understand both the challenges and the aspirations of the hardworking families you’re running to represent. The candidates we see running for Congress get that and they’re running focused campaigns that are about their communities and the folks who live there instead of playing the Washington game.
What messages do you think resonate with voters?
CB: People don’t want a message, they want to know what you’re going to do to improve their lives. The For the People agenda I helped develop is all about making very real and tangible differences in the lives of hardworking Americans. Too many are struggling with the high cost of prescription drug prices and health care coverage, we’re going to bring those down. We also are going to address the ongoing challenge of stagnant wages by investing in rebuilding America. But, if we’re going to get any of these things done, we need to start by cracking down on the corruption that we’ve seen running rampant in Washington for far too long.
What advice are you giving first time candidates?
CB: First and foremost, be yourself and don’t try to be something you aren’t. Also, don’t assume you have all the answers – you can learn a lot more by listening that talking, so ask a lot of questions. And finally, while we have some truly amazing candidates, it’s important for all of them to remember that this campaign isn’t about who they are, it’s about what they want to do for their community.
Do you think it is important that the Democratic Party have a big tent?
CB: It’s not just important, it’s essential. Democrats are united behind a set of core principles that essentially center around a commitment of strengthening everyday Americans. For example, while different Democrats might have different ideas for how to lower health care costs, we all agree that they’re too high and we need to address this ongoing challenge. Washington Republicans are literally in court right now suing to allow insurers to charge people with pre-existing conditions more and their new tax law is driving up premiums. There is so much more that unites us as Democrats than divides us and we need to stand together, perhaps now more than ever before.
If Democrats take back the majority in the House, what legislative priorities do you think should be at the forefront?
CB: I think it’s very important not to take our eye off the ball in these final months before the elections, but if we are successful, we are going to focus on addressing the kitchen table challenges all Americans face. That means lowering health care costs, raising wages and draining the swamp that Donald Trump literally put a hotel on.
How do you maintain strong support from your base while also appealing to independents and even Republicans?
CB: I’ve always found that if you really take the time to listen to people and to talk with them about your work, there’s always common ground. When I’m back in Illinois, on just about any given Saturday, you can find me walking up and down the aisles of one of the grocery stores across my 7,000 square mile Congressional district. At these “Supermarket Saturday” events, I find out what’s on people’s minds and ask them what they want me to fight for when I’m back in Washington. Some of the best ideas we’ve had came from conversations like these by allowing me to have conversations with everyone – Democrats, Republicans and independents.
What are some of the most unique things you’re seeing candidates doing this cycle?
CB: I’ve been out with a number of candidates running across the Midwest and I’ve had a great time seeing them trying out new and innovative approaches to campaigning. For example, Elissa Slotkin in Michigan didn’t kick off her field effort by sending volunteers to the doors to tell people who she was. Instead, they spent several weeks in the winter knocking on doors and asking people what they cared the most about. This has given her a really deep understanding her district from one town to the next.
In Minnesota, Dean Phillips is running a campaign based on listening too. Dean does this with a campaign branded milk truck, pontoon boat and even an ice house where he holds “coffee and conversations.” And he has spent a lot of time traveling the district where he’s asked folks to sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk about what they want to see from their member of Congress.
With the Trump Presidency, it seems that the Republican Party has gone through some significant ideological changes. What do you see as the future of the Democratic Party?
CB: When I was growing up, folks always knew that Democrats were the party of working families. We’ve never wavered from that as a core value in our party, but I think a lot of people have felt left behind over the years. It’s not an issue of message, it’s an issue of action and I think we need to do a better job demonstrating that we are fighting for the people each and every day.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse of what’s driving voters?
CB: In addition to the “Supermarket Saturdays” I mentioned earlier, we also do something that we call “Cheri on Shift.” Since becoming a member of Congress, we’ve held over 70 of these events where I put on a uniform and work side by side with hardworking men and women from across my district. I’ve done more than 70 of these including working as a car repairwoman, being a beekeeper and working as a deckhand on a barge. These allow me to hear directly from working men and women as well as business owners about the challenges they face.
Congresswoman Cheri Bustos is in her third term representing Illinois’ 17th Congressional District which includes Peoria, Rockford and the Quad Cities. She is the only Midwesterner in Democratic House Leadership where she serves as Co-Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. She also serves as the Chair of Heartland Engagement at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
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