A summary of Rachel Ventura’s upset victory in Illinois’ 43rd State Senate race and lessons learned for other grassroots candidates taking on the political machine and deep-pocketed interests.
-by John Laesch
-edited by Lilith Ventura
A slate of eight progressive/populist candidates ran for office within the boundaries of the 43rd State Senate seat and five of those candidates won handily. The opposition spent nearly $1 Million compared to Team Ventura’s $81,000 (all 8 candidates combined).
As election results poured in on June 28th, I was standing outside of the observation window at the Will County Clerk’s office watching election workers insert the tabulation cards into the card readers. Early votes and mail-in ballots already showed Ventura with 57% of the vote, but I knew that her opponent had an army of firemen working Joliet precincts the day of the election, and I stayed in a nervous zone until 70% of the precincts had been counted. When there were only three precincts left to be counted, I packed my laptop bag and hurried over to the election night gathering at Vela’s basement lounge, a dive bar in downtown Joliet.
Ventura was already standing on a chair delivering her remarks to a crowd of volunteers, “tonight we lit a candle of hope,” her sharp, powerful voice pierced through repeated outbursts of applause.
“We didn’t beat Eric Mattson today, we beat a broken system!... We came together with love in our hearts, boots on the ground, and we fought, and that is what lighting this candle is about. Right now people across America are hurting from the shootings, through COVID, inflation, and constant political crap on TV that is just tearing our Democracy apart. But tonight, coming together, showing this can be done. We can overcome the money. We can overcome the broken system and we can win! The nastiness we saw in this race can come back and hit us in the fall. We have to all come together and grow our forces, and let the inspiration and empowerment for everybody who wants a different government needs to come out and join our little candle of hope and let it spread like wildfire.”
She spent the majority of the speech personally thanking those who had sacrificed their time and money to support her upset victory. Her final thank you was to me for running her campaign. I used my two minutes to highlight what we as a team had overcome.
“They gave him the advantage of incumbency in a 7-day appointment, the advantage of hundreds of thousands of dollars into his campaign coffers overnight, and the advantage of every endorsement from Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth down to local elected officials, and we still fucking won!” I proclaimed. Ventura raised $65,000 from more than 540 small-dollar, individual donors over the course of a year against the $800,000 that Eric Mattson raised in five short weeks. This graphic gives a look at his donations of over $1,000 that are required to be reported to the Illinois State Board of Elections (A-1s) within 48 hours after receipt. This graphic does not include the Independent Expenditures (IE’s) that were spent against Ventura or Mattson’s donations under $1,000.
Rachel Ventura announced her candidacy almost a year ago on a sweltering Saturday afternoon on June 12th, 2021, and the same people who were at her victory party were at her announcement. The incumbent, State Senator John Connor, had indicated that he was not re-running and was instead pursuing a judicial seat. For the third time in her career, Ventura had sought the support of local party leaders and let them know she was running for the state senate seat. Those who know Rachel, know that she wasn’t seeking permission to run, and was simply extending a professional courtesy. She knew that they would try to find someone to run against her, but was hoping that the name recognition she had built as a Will County Board Member and a former congressional candidate would deter any viable opposition.
Her Twitter account has a DSA rose, and her political tagline, “no strings attached,” defines her vehement opposition to the corporate takeover of our government. She has ruffled more than a few feathers as a Will County Board Member. Within her first year, Ventura had successfully navigated the passage of the Greenest Region Compact, fought off a water privatization scheme in Fairmont, and helped facilitate getting Fairmont’s water supply moved over to Joliet’s public water system. She pushed the board to buy 100% of their energy from renewable sources but had to settle for a 75% compromised agreement. During the pandemic, she pushed for a vaccine equity manager and fought to put outreach dollars into minority communities. She boldly pushed a restorative justice resolution to give the victims of the war on drugs 100% control over how Will County cannabis revenue would be spent.
Although Ventura comes from a union family and has stood on more than her share of picket lines, the local building trades have taken issue with her outspoken stance against a massive warehouse development project called NorthPoint. Will County is already home to the world’s largest inland port and the sprawling warehouses serve the Chicagoland area in the same way that Will County’s garbage dumps and energy plants support Chicago. Residents of Southern Joliet and rural Elwood are tired of sitting in truck-lined traffic jams and paying higher taxes for the never-ending road repairs affiliated with the warehouses. Ventura’s opposition to NorthPoint includes the environmental damage to the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie and the fact that CenterPoint and these warehouses only bring poverty-level jobs.
Last summer I sat down with one of the business agents from my Carpenters Union to talk about our union’s political stance against a clean energy bill in Springfield. Ventura’s race also came up. “It won’t be like the past races,” he said, shaking his head. “This time we are going to throw everything we have against her, and she will lose.” At this point, I wasn’t planning on working for Ventura, who has been a close political alley and twin soul, but the conversation with this union leader convinced me to jump into her race full-time.
They had already tried to stop Rachel when she ran for Will County Board in 2018. She was outspent 3:1 and won a swing seat handily by 11 percentage points. The 9th County Board District is a 50-50 split district, and the other elected official there, Annette Parker, is a Republican. When Parker was approached about challenging Ventura for the 43rd, she said, “No way, have you seen her numbers?” Parker and Ventura have a good working relationship on the Will County Board and have approached local problems jointly on behalf of their constituents. This was the problem that the local Democratic Party establishment had in finding someone to run against Rachel.
A number of names were floated, and eventually, someone paid for a poll in November of 2021. They name-tested State Rep. Larry Walsh, Electrician’s Business Agent, Mike Clemmons, and Attorney Jordan Killian against Ventura, and apparently, none of them stood a chance. Ventura had already sat down with the political directors from Governor JB Pritzker’s campaign and the Senate Dem's political staff. Both pledged to stay out of the primary election and wanted to wait and see who else entered the race. During her meeting with Don Harmon’s political team, known as the Senate Dems, Ventura highlighted her previous campaign numbers and the name recognition she built during her 2020 failed bid for U.S. Congress. Apparently, this wasn’t enough for the Senate Dems who were being fed lines like, “she’s too far left for the district” from the political establishment who favored a controllable person.
The search continued and even the embattled mayor of Joliet was considered. A former police officer, Mayor O’DeKirk has locked horns with Ventura more than once over issues like the corrupt NorthPoint deal or police brutality concerns within JPD. Finally, as the ballot access signature deadline approached, in late January the establishment settled on a Joliet fireman by the name of Eric Mattson.
LESSON 1 – THOSE WHO KNOCKED ON DOORS, WON.
We worked with a progressive/populist slate of Will County Board candidates whose districts’ overlapped the 43rd. In addition to dumping almost a million dollars against Ventura, the establishment spent thousands of dollars against the progressive county board members, and to combat that they had to walk doors and talk to voters directly.
The establishment spent$105,249 on county board campaigns and team Ventura spent approximately $15,000. Ventura-endorsed candidates were outspent 7:1 and won 4 out of 6 races. To support their candidates, the Will County Democrats used a PAC called the Will County Democratic Victory Fund. The Illinois Association of Realtors spent $45,000 on Will County Board races and $48,000 on Eric Mattson’s race for State Senate.
In County Board District 5, Sherry Williams spent $1,375 on yard signs and palm cards. Her opponents, Dionne Wright and Scott Pointon spent a combined $7,700 (Sherry was outspent at a ratio of 5:1) on election materials and mailers, but Williams still dominated with a 23-point spread. The difference is that Williams walked a targeted list.
In County Board District 6, Janet Diaz and Jazmin Martinez spent a combined $1,400 on literature and signs. Their opponents, Herb Brooks and Denise Winfrey raised a combined $33,462 (Jazmin and Janet were outspent at a ratio of 24:1) Diaz placed second and Martinez is the one who did not make it. In fairness, neither Jazmin nor Janet had enough time to campaign as they both work multiple jobs and have family commitments. But given that they were up against the former Speaker of the Will County Board and a pastor who served more than a decade on the board, it is impressive that Diaz won.
In County Board District 9, Destinee Ortiz raised $1,766 to spend on yard signs and literature. Her opponents, Kevin Hedemark and Margaret Tyson spent a combined $42,196 (Destinee was outspent 24:1). Hedemark in particular had support from the Mayor of Romeoville and had decades of name recognition as a local radio announcer. There was a lot of drama because the establishment wanted Ortiz to sign a waiver to allow Kevin to continue getting air time. Ortiz refused to sign the waiver and give Kevin the advantage. She ended up being the top vote-getter and will be on the ballot with Margaret Tyson in the general election.
In County Board District 11, Jackie Traynere and Saud Gazanfer spent a combined total of $12,000 while their opponents, El Costa and Daryl Parks spent a combined total of $21,892 (They were outspent 2:1). This race ended a bit differently with El and Jackie winning the majority of votes and advancing to the general election. It is a Democratic district, and Jackie was easily the top vote-getter. As I write this piece I want to acknowledge that I call this, “Team Ventura” but the truth is Jackie Traynere has been around progressive politics longer than Rachel and I have. Jackie was a 2016 Sanders delegate at the Dem convention and narrowly lost a high-profile, nationalized race for Bolingbrook Mayor. Costa and Gazanfer have also run before, and it was a narrow loss for Saud Gazanfer who worked overtime to help the team turn out new voters to the polls.
The final person to put their name on the ballot was me. I ran for State Central Committeeman in the 14th to give Ventura “union backing,” because the building trades were already saying, “she’s anti-union.” They turned the screws on every union to donate to Mattson, even the teachers’ union wasted $59,000 on his race and made up some drama attack during the endorsement session about the petition challenge. It didn’t matter. Most union leaders are out of sync with their membership politically and their top-down decision-making process leads many members to make their own political decisions. I lost my SCC race but convinced lots of union members to support Ventura on doors and through a mailer that opposed NorthPoint.
LESSON 2 – MAKE THEM SPEND MONEY
Progressive, populist, anti-establishment, grassroots candidates will always be outspent. Part of your strategy has to be to make them spend money when they don’t have to. Remember that a $20,000 mailer for an establishment candidate costs only $8,000 for a progressive who uses a volunteer graphic designer and negotiates their own rates with a printer. An establishment Dem will use a $10,000/month consultant and an over-priced attorney just to get on the ballot. While they can raise more, they will also spend much more. Our strategy needs to be to make them spend it frivolously.
Ballot access petition signatures were gathered in the dead of winter in Illinois when the Omnicron variant had most people still working from home and hesitant to answer their doors. It was clear to us that Eric Mattson did not personally collect the 627 signatures that he signed and swore an affidavit to collecting. We talked to our attorney about the possibility of challenging the signatures based on a “pattern of fraud” charge and he thought it was a good idea if we could collect 7-10 affidavits from voters who said that someone other than Eric Mattson had circulated the petition. For the next month, both his campaign and ours chased affidavits.
I collected 29 total affidavits, including two from people who said that the Will County Clerk, Lauren Staley Ferry, had collected the signatures. Ferry is dating a fireman and they were all working together to gather signatures for Eric. I won’t bore you with the details of the petition challenge, but ultimately, Mattson lied under oath, committing double perjury. When I presented this as a huge political viability to the Will County Democratic Party Chairman, also a fireman, he doubled down and walked away from the conversation only to appoint Mattson to the seat a few days later, when State Senator John Connor stepped down.
Our initial reason for challenging Mattson’s petitions was because Rachel can’t stand it when people don’t play by the rules. For a decade she worked for Legendary Games, a tabletop game company. I’ve played board games at the Ventura household, and she frequently wins because she knows the rules and out-strategizes her opponents. She hates cheaters and Mattson was cheating to get on the ballot.
Looking back at the challenge I understand how it really stunted his fundraising and caused him to spend money he didn’t have. Mattson spent $41,000 on one of the most expensive election lawyers in Illinois, Burt Odelson. All I know is that it kept Mattson from raising money for well over a month. I still don’t know if the DuPage State’s Attorney will ever prosecute Mattson for fraud and perjury, but the case is more damning than the 16 fraudulent signatures that Thomas Rudd was indicted for in Lake County. We documented over 29 pages of fraudulently filed signatures and four firemen told the truth under oath that they were the actual circulators of Mattson’s petitions.
LESSON 3 - IGNORE THE PARTY GATEKEEPERS AND BUILD YOUR OWN TEAM:
Some of the people who show up at Democratic Party meetings are well-intentioned citizens who watched the horrors of the Trump presidency on TV and decided to do something about it. Others are elected committee people who worked on a campaign or two to get a government job and have become part of a political machine. The latter category rarely flexes independence from the machinery that butters their government job bread. A few people might be recruited from the party meetings, but for the most part, there isn’t much reason to court these voters if you are challenging the party establishment.
In the same way, most of the local elected officials will either stay out of the race or side with the “hand-picked chosen one.” Elected officials and establishment organizations take an incredible amount of time and energy to convince you that you are worthy of their support. Many will want you to run an expensive poll, hire an expensive consultant, or hire one of their politically-connected fundraisers. Even after a candidate wastes her or his time and energy courting the gatekeepers, you are unlikely to get their support.
You will need to court some endorsements and work hard to bring in new volunteers. It is important to bring new volunteers in quickly and explain to them why you are running and how they can help you. Volunteers are the lifeblood of an anti-establishment/grassroots campaign. Everything in a campaign is about voter contact. This includes contacting voters online, on the doors, at events, or on the phone. A volunteer will get out and work for the issue that they believe in. It takes very little energy to work with new volunteers and turn them into committed supporters.
A growing number of progressive/ideological groups are coming out to support grassroots candidates, but many of them don’t come with useable support. Some come with long, time-consuming questionnaires, but offer nothing in the way of boots on the ground or resources. It doesn’t mean that these organizations should be ignored. It means that you should focus your time and energy on the endorsements that will help you win, and not consume two or three days to fill out a questionnaire from an out-of-state organization that doesn’t bring resources to the race.
LESSON 4 - KNOCK DOORS AND RAISE THE MONEY YOU NEED TO WIN:
Most consultants and campaign advisors will want to strap you to a chair and make you raise money to pay for their experience and connections. This is certainly one way to get elected.
Rachel Ventura is well known as, “the lady with all of the yard signs.” I can’t tell you how many times on her campaign someone said, “I’ve seen her signs,” or, “I met her at such and such event.” If a voter meets you at his or her door, or at an event, they are more likely to vote for you than if they receive 10 pieces of mail designed by your overpriced consultant. The Mattson campaign easily sent 10 or more mail pieces and bought up every minute of cable television during the last days of the campaign.
A grassroots campaign will need to build name recognition using creative techniques and more traditional approaches like yard signs. Every campaign will need literature, a website, a social media presence, and an earned media effort. You will need to raise money for these common campaign pieces.
Listening to voters and answering their questions is one way to earn their vote. Once they agree to support your campaign you can ask them to put a yard sign out and help you build name recognition in their neighborhood. Placing a few yard signs in a neighborhood will make it easier to place more on your second pass through the precinct.
Rachel dislikes hosting fundraising events and I agree that it is easier to do some donor research and call donors to ask for their support. Online fundraising is probably easier, but less effective. Some donors will only donate if they attend an event. It’s good to know the difference between different donors and use the method that is most effective for you.
But ultimately, it comes down to reaching voters directly instead of primarily talking to people who can afford to donate to campaigns.
LESSON 5 – MAKE THEM FIGHT A MULTI-FRONT EFFORT:
Upon finding out that Mattson had entered the race, it was clear that we needed to challenge the establishment on a multi-faced effort. We encouraged candidates to run as precinct committeemen, county board members, and house seats.
We forced the establishment to spend money defending their seats and keeping them busy in their districts instead of helping Mattson. This strategy worked as intended. We also partnered up with like-minded progressives who were running for Will County Board in districts that overlapped the 43rd State Senate District, and most of them won.
LESSON 6 – BE PREPARED TO RUN MORE THAN ONCE:
Rachel Ventura is not the only candidate to run more than once before landing a position in office. Cori Bush, Marie Newman, Bernie Sanders, and Abraham Lincoln all lost in several elections before winning. Running for office is a large sacrifice and doing it more than once can make most lose their motivation. To win, we will have to blaze our own trail and navigate a narrow, bumpy path filled with unnecessary obstacles.
The establishment politicians who are recruited, groomed, well-funded, and have had their path funded for will be beholden to the entities that helped get them elected. Those who get into office with the full support of the people will serve the voters who put them there. They will also be strong enough to articulate their ideas on the floor of the legislature instead of following the advice of consultants and lobbyists.
LESSON 7 – STAY POSITIVE AND INOCULATE AGAINST THE NEGATIVITY:
Challenging an incumbent or party insiders typically means articulating a case “against” the opponent. Most campaigns are built on, “vote for me because the other person is really bad.” The end result of this kind of campaigning is that people are perpetually stuck with the lesser of two evils. Instinctively, I also want to swing first and define my opponent, but Rachel had a different idea on this campaign. She has never been about negative campaigning, but this time insisted on running a positive race on issues and her record.
We knew that this campaign would be nasty. What we did instead was to inoculate against the negative attacks early on. At people’s doors, we let the voters know, “our opponent is backed by Springfield’s big money and they are going to run lots of negative, untruthful ads about Rachel. Rachel insisted on running an issues-based campaign and staying away from the negativity in politics.” When the attacks did come, voters largely ignored them.
There is a spiritual side of this that Rachel has stickered onto her laptop, “you bring your own weather.” It’s a statement that you can focus on the “Good News” in the day, in your world, or in your life and it will bring more “Good News.” You can focus on all that is wrong in the world, what’s wrong at your job, and what’s wrong in your life, and it will bring more negativity and darkness. The campaign purposely sent out “Good News Wednesday” posts once a week on social media, and it focused only on people fighting for better wages and benefits at Starbucks, or a good legislation passing somewhere else in the country.
I believe that fundamental change won’t happen when we change out Republican lawmakers for Democratic lawmakers or even socialist lawmakers. Fundamental change will happen when we start modeling good behavior, fairness, honesty, and treating others how we want to be treated. Ventura encapsulates all of these. We have to become the change we want to see in the world.
I wrote this piece with the intent of sharing what we learned during a brutal 12-month campaign for State Senate that landed a populist/progressive in office, despite overwhelming odds, money, and party favoritism. I believe that Ventura models ethical government with the will of the people at the core of her governing policies and I hope that this little candle of hope will light more fires of hope and spark the bottom-up revolution of consciousness that we need.