After every election, the focus is on the winners, their thoughts about the campaign and goals for the office. But every election also has candidates who lose, despite fighting just as hard as those who won.
Some never run again. Some candidates give it up as a bad job. Others use defeat as a goad. Sol Roberts-Lieb lost his race for McLean County Board on Tuesday, but his interest in public office dates back years.
“At first, I wasn't even interested in running for local office because I didn't think that a normal person who wasn't connected could do anything,” Roberts-Lieb said. “And then when I went through the process of running in the end of 2016 and 2017, my eyes really got opened up.”
Roberts-Lieb ran for the first time last year for Unit 5 school board and lost.
“When it came to Election Day and I didn't win, I was upset at first. I thought, well, there goes that time, that money, time away from my family, time away from my studies, but then I really thought about it and said, you know what? That's what public service is,” Roberts-Lieb said. “It's going out, putting yourself out there, and really trying to do something unique and show your voice. And while I didn't win, I thought about it and thought, how can I help?”
That’s when Roberts-Lieb became involved with the Libertarian Party. He said after losing in the Unit 5 election, he worked with McLean County Clerk Kathy Michael to see what it would be like to run this year as part of an established Libertarian Party.
Connecting With Voters
There are candidates like Roberts-Lieb who did not have an interest in public service until midlife. And then there are people like Mike Kelleher who devote their whole lives to it.
Kelleher grew up in McLean County, ran for Congress and later for Illinois lieutenant governor before working within President Barack Obama’s administration.
He said going door to door as a congressional candidate of what was then the 15th District opened his eyes to the impact of government.
“People open up in a way which is very disarming,” Kelleher said. “They tell you their greatest hopes and their greatest fears and challenges, like a child on drugs or a spouse that has cancer, or the challenges they might have after losing a job. And you can't not be affected by those conversations, and I remember them to this day.”
Kelleher said he walked away from his congressional campaign in 2000 (against former Rep. Tim Johnson) with a different view of public service.
“Candidates are the vehicle in which people invest their hopes and dreams,” Kelleher said. “To achieve their dreams for the communities, their families, and for themselves.”
Running for Congress is a tiresome and tiring exercise of travel, fundraising, and speaking. Kelleher said interactions with people keep candidates pushing through Election Day.
“When you're going through this, you're reminded that public institutions are meant to serve the people who choose the leaders,” Kelleher said. “And that we should never forget the important mission and obligations that come along with the service when you're selected, when you have the honor to be selected.”
He said he hoped to run again, but when the Democrats redistricted the map in 2001, he fell out of the 15th by a block.
“I had to make a choice,” Kelleher said. “Would I run in a district that I didn't live in, or run in a district I've never ran in before? And I ultimately decided to run for lieutenant governor and unfortunately I lost in the primary to Pat Quinn.”
That race was the primary of 2002. Kelleher headed the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development at ISU at the time. The Chicago Tribune called him “the (Democratic) candidate with the most sensible and realistic ideas for the office.”
Kelleher lost by more than a little to Quinn, who went on to win the general election alongside Rod Blagojevich.
Kelleher said that loss changed the trajectory of his career.
“Public service is a calling. It's always been a calling for me,” Kelleher said. “And I've found great satisfaction and frustration in that work, and I learned something important: that you have to serve something bigger than yourself and your own ambition, and when you do that, there's real satisfaction and real meaning in your work, and I draw upon that every day.”
Kelleher went on to work with the National Democratic Institute helping redevelop the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. He worked hard to make then-Sen. Barack Obama president and followed him to the White House as the director of correspondence.
After a few years, Kelleher moved around in the Obama administration to work as an adviser to the U.S. executive director at the World Bank in 2010, and has worked with the World Bank in various roles ever since.
“I find great satisfaction in knowing I'm serving a purpose bigger than myself, and you see occasionally you're awarded by seeing people that actually are the beneficiaries of your work,” Kelleher said.
That vision of public service is common to most candidates. It’s not unusual to see multiple attempts over a period of time.
Take Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner. Renner won a second term as mayor last year, but in 2004 he ran for the U.S. House in Illinois' old 11th Congressional District.
“It's a very long process,” Renner said. “If I had to do it over again, other than picking a different year, because it wasn't a good year for the political party I was running on, is to probably start earlier.”
Renner ran against incumbent Republican Jerry Weller, and came nowhere close to winning.
Five years later, and while serving on the McLean County Board, Renner announced his first run for Bloomington mayor.
“I guess my one consolation prize is that I won McLean County and Bloomington and Normal when I ran for Congress. I won in where I was best known,” Renner said. “But for mayor, it was a concern about what was going on in my own community, whereas when I ran for Congress it was concern about what was going on in the country at large.”
Renner said knowing he had Bloomington support during his congressional race made it easier when he decided to run for mayor in 2009. But he lost by fewer than 15 votes.
“I think the first one was the closest election in the city's history, and I was running against an incumbent,” Renner said. “And it was also a three-way race. It's more difficult, generally speaking, to beat an incumbent when it's a three-way race or multiple candidates.”
Four years later, Renner said it was time to try again.
“I knew what I wanted to do and what I felt was necessary, and that I felt we'd made some progress, actually, in open government, but I thought we made baby steps where we should have been running a marathon,” Renner said.
He said having specific ideas and goals propelled him to run in 2013 in spite of the earlier loss.
“I wouldn't have run for mayor if I didn't think I could make a difference, and I knew precisely why,” Renner said.
He imagined revitalization projects in Downtown Bloomington and a better plan for economic development.
“Every time I ran, I said my vision of City Hall is one that is surrounded by windows,” Renner said. “So that no matter who you are you can look in and see what you're paying for. And that you know that whoever's inside knows your best interest.”
Renner said Obama told him what has become Renner’s own advice for those who lose their race.
“It's an election. People lose elections all the time. Barack Obama lost his first congressional election in 2000. He actually lost pretty badly in 2000,” Renner said. “And actually, when I called Barack after I lost, because he was one of my supporters in '04, that's one thing he reminded me. And that is, just because you lose an election doesn't necessarily mean that you don't keep fighting for your ideals and keep moving forward and making progress.”
Renner used that fire to propel himself into two successful mayoral campaigns.
But not every candidate jumps back in. Sol Roberts-Lieb said recovering from an election loss is different for everyone.
“I think it's a process that just takes some time, and I think the hardest thing is, in our society a lot, we don't take that time to grieve for things like this. 'Oh, you lost an election. Move on.' But it's really not that. It's 'Yep, I lost. Why did I lose? And what can I do better the next time if I decide to do that?' So that's kind of my advice,” Roberts-Lieb said. “Take the loss, understand it, get OK with it.”
He said those who lost their race do not have to run for another elected office, but they should find a means to stay involved in their passion.
“Is there an organization in the community that has your ideals? Get involved in that organization. Maybe it's something simple as Boys and Girls Club doing some mentoring for the youth, maybe it's going out to a school and working with some of the clubs out there. Maybe it's Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, any of those type of things,” Roberts-Lieb said. “And if that's not where your interest is, maybe there's a committee on the city council or town council or county level that needs people.”
Roberts-Lieb said all healing takes time, and it will be different for all candidates.
As part of that healing, Kelleher said to think about why you’re in public service in the first place.
“And why they're seeking to be an elected official, and that calling and that work will continue whether or not you get elected. It will always be there. And you can find great meaning and satisfaction in that work in the future,” Kelleher said.
Kelleher said the work candidates do on the trail does not stop on Election Day. He said it motivates the candidates who lost to push for more change in the future.
Fifteen candidates in McLean County lost their races Nov. 6. Many of which were running for elected office for the first time.
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