Bridget Gainer said if women want to change politics, then they’d better start bringing in the money.
The Democratic Cook County commissioner recently created a new political action committee, Cause the Effect Chicago PAC, to encourage women to do just that: raise and give out money on behalf of Democratic women candidates and causes.
In fact, Cause the Effect Chicago PAC is one of three new political action committees, or PACs, that were created in Illinois with a similar goal of influencing state elections on behalf of women on the left.
“If women are going to be taken seriously in politics, they need to not just build their street power and their voting power, they need to build their financial power,” Gainer said.
The timing of the PACs may seem related to the recent national attention to sexual harassment in politics and in workplaces. Or related to the fact that no women are running for the open Democratic primary for Illinois governor, and several women in leadership positions in the Illinois Capitol have chosen not to seek re-election, like State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie and former State Sen. Christine Radogno. Or because Illinois has never had a woman elected to the state’s highest office. Or perhaps because after the women’s march in January, many women sought ways to become more politically involved.
But for Democratic fundraiser Abby Erwin, the founder of her own campaign committee called Madam Governor PAC, it’s about addressing the sum of all those issues.
“For most women, this isn’t a moment. This is a lived daily experience for a lot of us,” Erwin said.
Gainer held her first fundraiser for Cause the Effect Chicago PAC on the anniversary of Donald Trump’s election night victory. Gainer said she intends to use the money she raises to help elect Illinois lawmakers and Cook County commissioners in 2018. In one night, she said she raised $9,000.
Gainer said women traditionally give money directly to nonprofits or advocacy organizations instead of to politicians who support those groups.
“That’s where I think we’ve seen a departure in the last year, where politics is competing with equal force to charitable endeavors in women’s minds because they know that you can be as charitable as you want, but if you cannot address the inequities that come from the federal government, then at the end of the day we’re still going to be behind the eight ball,” Gainer said.
But women should consider putting more emphasis on local politics, Gainer said. She wants to make sure Illinois continues to be an outlier in the Midwest compared to its more conservative neighbors, like Indiana and Wisconsin, when it comes to access to reproductive health care, union rights, and access to the ballot. Gainer, a second-term commissioner who has not ruled out a future run for Chicago mayor, said her local focus is intentional, as there are numerous organizations seeking to influence national policy.
Erwin, whose day job is working as a Democratic fundraiser, said she is also hoping to motivate women to think more locally when it comes to politics. With no women seeking the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor in the 2018 election, Erwin created Madam Governor PAC as a way to help some future female candidate for governor get her campaign off the ground. Erwin hasn’t yet raised any money for her new PAC.
“We really don’t know what four or six or eight years away from now is going to look like,” Erwin said. “I think as it stands right now, it’s very exciting and I think we need to prepare for it.”
Erwin said she doesn’t expect to support just any woman for Illinois governor one day. She will be supporting a Democratic candidate. State Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Republican from west suburban Wheaton, recently announced she is challenging Rauner in the GOP primary. Ives’ campaign was partially sparked by Rauner’s controversial decision to sign a bill that allows Medicaid to cover abortions in Illinois.
But both Erwin and Gainer said Ives’ policies do not align with their picture of the future of Illinois politics.
“That’s not to say we don’t have some great Republican women from time to time,” Erwin said. “But that’s just not where my passion is.”
Erwin doesn’t have a particular woman in mind who might run for Illinois governor, but said it’s telling that few women have run for the position in the past — Judy Baar Topinka and Dawn Clark Netsch are the only two women who have recently received a major party’s nomination in the race for Illinois governor. There are six women currently serving as governors in the United States.
Erwin’s looking at the long game, saying as she gradually raises money for her Madam Governor PAC, she also wants to help put an organization in place that’s ready for that hypothetical candidate when she decides to enter the race — whether it’s in 2022 or 2026.
Meanwhile, Liz Kersjes, who works in marketing and does not have a background in politics, used her She Votes PAC to organize a forum for the current Democratic candidates running for Illinois governor. She held it on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago last month, just as national and local coverage of pervasive sexual misconduct was swelling. The five men running for governor discussed topics that weren’t part of their normal stump speeches, like the treatment of women in prisons and the culture of sexual harassment in politics.
“If one of them becomes governor, then we’ll be ready to see what they actually do,” Kersjes said.
Now that the forum is over, though, Kersjes said she wants to expand the purpose of the PAC, using it to get out the Democratic vote in the March 20 primary and to advocate for legislation. One example: Kersjes wants to expand the legal definition of rape to include “stealthing,” a practice in which a man removes his condom during sex without telling the partner.
And while Kersjes, Erwin and Gainer said they didn’t create their PACs in response to the recent headlines about sexual harassment and abuse in politics, what they’re seeking to do — elect more women to positions of power — fits in with addressing that culture and changing it.
“Getting more women to run for office is important but I think, especially with the conversations in Illinois, having women in leadership is important, too,” Erwin said. “Because I think a lot of these conversations wouldn’t even be questions if women were in office.”
But, they said, the way to do that is to first make sure the money is there to support women who want to be directly part of the process.
“I know how hard it is when you’re brand new,” Gainer said. “If I can use the work that I’ve done and the credibility that I have to raise money that helps someone else get into the game, well that’s the best legacy I can imagine.”
Tony Arnold reports on state politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.