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Pandemic leads IWU alum into politics, and later the lieutenant governor’s office

FILE - In this April 7, 2020 file photo, voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash File)
Morry Gash
AP file
Voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee in 2020.

Sara Rodriguez had no plans to go into politics after she graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.

Then the COVID pandemic hit.

“I was disappointed and angry at the nonresponse of the Republican-led legislature here in Wisconsin,” Rodriguez recalled in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “They didn’t meet for eight months.”

Illinois Wesleyan University alum Sara Rodriguez is the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin.
Illinois Wesleyan University alum Sara Rodriguez is the lieutenant governor of Wisconsin.

Rodriguez, a Democrat from Waukesha (20 miles west of Milwaukee), won a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 2020, flipping a Republican seat. Last November, Rodriguez was elected lieutenant governor as Democrat Tony Evers won reelection as governor.

It’s an unlikely outcome for a neuroscience major and psychology minor.

Rodriguez said she decided to attend Illinois Wesleyan in 1993 due to its small size, scholarships, and the beauty of the campus.

“I really loved my time there and what I loved about my time there was the professors,” Rodriguez said. “They really encouraged you to figure out what you wanted to do, to really look at what you’ re good at, but what do you really enjoy, and to pursue different classes.”

Rodriguez said the smaller campus setting helped her develop her public speaking and writing skills, which would benefit her years later when he pursued public office.

After college, Rodriguez also spent time serving in the Peace Corps in Samoa.

Wisconsin politics

The state of Wisconsin drew national attention during the early stages of the pandemic. Voters stood outside for hours to vote for the state’s primary election during the early stages of the pandemic in April 2020. Democrats wanted the election to be delayed due to health concerns.

Rodriguez said that was a turning point for her to get involved. Wisconsin has also been a key battleground state. Joe Biden took Wisconsin for the Democrats in his win over Donald Trump in the presidential election.

Despite being frustrated with the state’s policies and feeling that the state’s leaders were putting politics before the needs of the community, Rodriguez stayed loyal to Wisconsin.

“I love Wisconsin. I wanted to make this state better. I wanted to have a voice in improving people’s lives, and that’s why I decided to stay. I wanted to fight for better policies for Wisconsinites, I wanted to fight for a better environment for my kids, that’s what I wanted to do, that’s why I chose to stay and run for office.”

As a registered nurse and public health professional, Rodriguez believed her background in science and healthcare would help her with providing evidence-based answers for the public.

“There was a lot of misinformation coming out in the legislature, particularly around masks, and other types of transmission, and how dangerous this virus was," Rodriguez said. "Those were the kind of things that were heavy on my mind when I ran for office.”

Rodriguez owns a healthcare consulting business, though she said she’s not taking clients due to her work as lieutenant governor.

Rodriguez advocates for affordable, quality healthcare for all, a fully-funded public education system, workforce and talent development, reproductive freedom, environment and economy sustainability, and more.

IWU alumni in politics

Rodriguez has become the first Illinois Wesleyan University graduate to become a lieutenant governor or governor in decades, according to university records.

Three IWU graduates have become governors; Joseph Fifer of Illinois (1889-1893), Clarence Baldridge of Idaho (1927-1931 after a term as lieutenant governor), and Lester Hunt of Wyoming (1943 to 1949). State Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, who is now retired from politics, won the Republican nomination for Illinois governor in 2010, but lost to incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn.

The only other previous lieutenant governor to hail from IWU was Robert Moore of Nebraska (1895-1897).

Megan Spoerlein was a reporting intern at WGLT.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.