It’s been dubbed the year of women for Illinois Democrats.
And despite a big presidential loss, three newly elected Democrats — Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth — are prompting buzz there could be even bigger things to come for them.
“She’s just a ball of energy,” Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, which represents 900,000 unionized workers, said of Mendoza. “She’s exciting, she’s energetic, and people and groups feed off of that.”
Mendoza beat incumbent Leslie Munger — Gov. Bruce Rauner’s appointed pick — 49 percent to 45 percent in a race that became the most expensive in the state and was widely viewed as a key battle in a proxy war between Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Mendoza, 44, was Chicago’s city clerk for two terms, the first woman to hold that office. Before that, she served 10 years n the Illinois House, first going to Springfield at 28.
She grew up in Little Village, the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her family moved to Woodridge, then Bolingbrook, but returned to Little Village in the 1990s.
Carrigan said it would be tough for Mendoza to run for governor in 2018 after holding statewide office for only two years, but, “I wouldn’t rule out higher office someday.”
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that people view her as a future governor,” said Ken Snyder, a political consultant who sees her strength as coming from three key things: her Chicago base, ability to get elected statewide and labor support.
“She comes from a working-class family herself,” Snyder said. “She has state legislative experience. She’ll obviously be able to work with others who govern. And, more than anything else right now, I think they’re looking for functionality. Once she sort of gets her legs underneath her, I don’t think there’s anything that can stop her.”
Foxx’s victory over incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez made her the first African-American to win the office in Cook County. Foxx’s compelling life story and her push for reform after the release of the Laquan McDonald police-shooting video helped win support for her.
Foxx was born to a teenage mother and grew up in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Cabrini-Green pubic housing development. During the campaign, she spoke openly of having been sexually molested as a child. She became a lawyer and chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle before successfully taking on Alvarez.
Preckwinkle said she hadn’t heard of Foxx before she first interviewed her for the job.
“I thought she was a really smart and talented person,” Preckwinkle said. “And that surely proved the case.”
She said Foxx decided on her own to run.
“I told her running against an incumbent, an established incumbent, another woman, is going to be difficult,” Preckwinkle said, “I said this is going to be an uphill battle.”
Preckwinkle said the electoral victories Tuesday by Foxx, Mendoza and Duckworth — three minority women — are proof of Illinois’ diversity.
“We elect an Asian senator, a Latina to be comptroller and an African-American woman to be state’s attorney,” Preckwinkle said. “It definitely makes us an anomaly in the present America, not the future.”
Democratic political consultants said Foxx is viewed as a potential future candidate for Preckwinkle’s current post, as well as for senator or governor.
Duckworth’s rise from congresswoman to senator makes her the first person of Thai heritage to win a seat in the U.S. Senate and the first Asian-American and only the second woman to represent Illinois there. Duckworth was born in Thailand to a Chinese mother and a father of British descent.
Her tale of survival in Iraq while serving with the Illinois National Guard is well-known. Duckworth, 48, entered politics after losing both legs and shattering her right arm when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004.
It was weeks after that when Sen. Dick Durbin met Duckworth, bringing her and her husband as guests to the State of the Union address.
“I remember thinking: This is the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” Durbin said. “That she weathered that potentially deadly storm and came here so full of life.”
Durbin said he called to check up on her during the campaign after negative TV ads began airing: “Without fail, she would be the coolest head in the world.”
Snyder, who has worked with all three women, said they share compelling stories.
“They’re all high-energy, incredibly personable, dynamic people,” Snyder said. “So it’s not a surprise that all of them are succeeding now. Cook County, in particular, has a really good track record, compared to most other big diverse counties, in electing women. It just goes to show that voters here are looking for leaders they can connect with, unlike many other counties and cities.”