Continuing a trend that began last spring with the Normal Township election, a number of first-time candidates who are women are running for local office.
The upcoming McLean County Board election is also notable for the number of Democrats challenging incumbents in a county long dominated by elected Republicans.
Sharon Chung and Elizabeth Johnston are among the first-time Democratic candidates opposing Republican incumbents. Chung, a musician and music instructor, is a candidate in District 7 in Bloomington. Johnston, a licensed clinical social worker who works with the severely mentally ill, is running in District 5, which includes central and eastern Normal.
Another Democrat, longtime activist Shayna Watchinski, is challenging Democratic incumbent Paul Segobiano and Libertarian Steve Seuss for Bloomington's District 8 seat.
Chung would be the first Asian-American elected to local office.
Speaking on GLT's Sound Ideas, Chung said many women are entering politics for the first time in reaction to the election of Donald Trump.
“I probably would not be here if Hillary Clinton had been elected last November. I became a lot more aware of how elected officials come into power and can effect policies at every level, federal, state and local,” Chung said.
She added that her decision to run “is not an anti-Trump thing."
"My candidacy is about wanting to come up with concrete ideas and find out how we can help our citizens here," Chung added. Chung is running against incumbent Republican Ryan Scritchlow and Libertarian Bennett Morris.
Johnston said she had a moment of illumination walking into the voting booth during the last local election.
“When I looked at the local elections I was really surprised there were so many uncontested seats here in Bloomington-Normal,” she said.
“That is not something I was used to. My husband and I have lived in a couple of states and I have never seen so many unopposed (candidates). Me stepping up was about giving more choices to the community,” Johnston said.
Johnston and her husband also lived in Hong Kong. Johnston said she was inspired by the political activism she saw among dissidents there who opposed the Chinese government.
“Beijing started cracking down and people stepped up and demanded open elections. They faced the might of the Chinese government and fountains of pepper spray, but they stood their ground. It was very inspiring to me,” Johnston said.
Having additional choices among candidates is important in a county like McLean, long dominated by the Republican Party, Johnston said.
“It holds our elected officials accountable. It brings in new ideas and ultimately it helps us represent the population better.” Johnston is running against Republican incumbent David Selzer.
Chung said the county board also would benefit from greater diversity. There are currently only three women on the 20-member board and no African-Americans.
“Growing up, I did not see very many Asians in elected office,” said Chung, the daughter of Korean immigrants. “My parents had this idea, you put your head down, work hard and don’t make waves.”
Chung said she wanted to provide a role model for her daughters, ages 5 and 2.
“To show them what is possible, that you can have Asian elected officials in office, and that would show how our community is made up as a whole,” Chung said.
Both said the county nursing home will be an important issue for the next elected board.
“I want to make sure we do not forget and neglect a certain segment of our population who rely on that nursing home,” Chung said. The board has discussed selling the facility.
As mothers, Chung and Johnston also said they are concerned about continued support for public schools.
The two candidates said the board's current meeting schedule dissuades many younger, working people, like them, from seeking election.
Board meetings currently take place at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays. “Not really a great time for people who have 9-to-5 jobs," Chung said.
Live streaming of the meetings has been a step forward, Chung aid.
However, “A lot of the work is done in committee meetings. Those aren’t currently streamed and those are also during the day. If you want to see one certain committee, it meets at 8:30 in morning. Another is at 3:30. It’s a jumbled system, it’s not at a regular time,” Chung said.
Both candidates give Democrats a good chance, not only in the county board election, but other statewide offices as well.
“As I knocked on doors, I found so many people who thought they were alone, so many who didn’t necessarily align with Republican Party and felt they didn’t have options, so this has been very exciting,” Johnston said.
Results from the last few elections show Democrats are “more evenly matched with Republicans than anyone would have thought. We have been gaining strength,” Johnston added.
Both believe it will be a banner year for women candidates.
“It has been a lot of soul-searching for women to step up and say, hey wait, we are only 20 percent of the representative body, but 50 percent of the population,” Johnston said.
Chung said women comprised a large segment of the participants who attended a sold-out “Ready to Run” event earlier this year.
Women, she said, comprised 25 of the 30 people who showed up for a “Build the Bench” workshop sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos from Illinois.
“I think definitely it can be the year of the woman. People’s voices do matter,” Chung said. “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Chung and Johnston:
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