Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) makes a point while political science lecturer Robin Johnson looks on during a meeting of classes taught by Johnson and his department colleague, Ira Smolensky, on April 29.
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Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) told her audience at Monmouth College on Monday that she had a great deal in common with them. She, too, was a student at a small liberal arts college in Illinois.
That information came as Bustos spoke to seniors in lecturer Robin Johnson’s “Politics and Government in the Midwest” class and students in “Environmental Politics,” a course taught by professor Ira Smolensky.
Bustos then described to the joint session her path to where she is today, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She won election to the 17th Congressional District post last November and told the students she has been on the job for 109 days.
That path, she said, was crooked at first. Her initial plan was to take the degree in political science that she started at Illinois College and completed at the University of Maryland and use it to work in government in some capacity. But while researching bills for state senators during an internship, she felt unfulfilled.
“A colleague of mine said, ‘You ask so many questions, you ought to be a reporter,’” said Bustos.
That light-bulb moment led to a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois-Springfield, and she was eventually hired by the Quad City Times.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is what I was made to do,’” she said. “I loved it, and I thought, ‘I could do this all my life.’ I had an opportunity to make a difference.”
As an admittedly “competitive person,” she loved being the first to break a story, many of which were about exposing wrongdoing and helping the underprivileged.
However, as a reporter, Bustos couldn’t actively support political candidates. That changed when she took a position leading the communications staff at a Quad Cities hospital.
“I could get involved,” she said. “I ran for city council, and Robin Johnson here ran my campaign.”
After winning a second term, Bustos was approached about a new office – the 17th District representative.
“Robin was one of the first people I called,” she said. “He met with me and my husband at our house, and one of the best questions he asked was ‘Will you do anything to win?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not going to be somebody I’m not.’”
Bustos stuck to her guns, despite the fact that the $14 million race between her and the incumbent, Bobby Schilling – the fourth-most expensive Congressional race in the nation – “got pretty brutal at times. But we didn’t get personal in the race. I’m proud of that.”
With the excitement of that race still very much in her memory, Bustos said campaign work is a great way for members of the younger generation to make a difference.
“This is a young person’s game,” she said. “If you have any desire to see what this is like up close, I encourage you to get involved. I spent about as much time with our 22-year-old finance person than just about anyone in the campaign. She had just graduated from college. We have a 25-year-old running our Peoria office and two people in their 20s in our Rock Island office. Our campaign manager was 29 when she started.”
While such employees are ultimately serving Bustos and helping her be the most effective legislator she can be, the real group in charge, she said, gesturing to the class, “is all of you. My constituents are my bosses. I don’t claim to have all the answers. What I’m interested in is removing roadblocks, finding common-sense answers and cutting out waste in government.”
Tying back into her liberal arts roots, Bustos answered a question posed by a student.
“I’m not insecure about my background at all. There are colleagues of mine who went to Harvard Law, or to Yale, or to Ivy League schools. I’d rank the work we are doing in my office right with the work being done in theirs.”