In September 2017, Jessica Vealitzek had a decision to make. She stepped into her Hawthorn Woods, Illinois yard and gave herself 10 minutes to clear her mind. She’d been wavering on whether or not to run as a Democrat for the Lake County Board’s 10th district in the November 2018 elections against Republican incumbent Charles “Chuck” Bartels. She knew she wanted to make a difference in her community and help create a better future for her kids, but she wasn’t sure if running for office was the answer.
“I kind of tried to let all the emotion around the decision filter away,” Vealitzek said. “I came back with the feeling that I needed and wanted to do something that might be hard, that might be uncomfortable, that might be scary, but I really wanted to do something.”
Running for office was never in Vealitzek’s long-term plans. As a history buff and former legislative aide, she worked on political campaigns while living in Minnesota. When the Arlington Heights native returned to the Chicago area, she volunteered politically a bit, but nothing more—until the 2016 presidential election. “It’s become cliché, but Donald Trump’s presidency just really, as a historian and as someone who has always been an idealist about our government, it really threw me for a loop,” Vealitzek said. “I became reengaged in local civic involvement, urging people to run for office, urging people to become involved. And then through it I just started thinking, ‘I want to do something more than just urge other people to do things.’”
She began looking at the Lake County Board, a body that oversees county government finances and ordinances. She saw holes in legal procedures and ethics ordinances that she thought ought to be fixed. So, out in her backyard in September 2017, Vealitzek decided to run. Three months later, she filed her paperwork and became a candidate.
Although their reasons for running vary, 2018 was a significant year for female candidates like Vealitzek, who ran and won in record numbers. Despite the influx, female candidates faced their own set of challenges, from building up the courage to run in the first place to crossing the finish line as the victor.
Running in Record Numbers
Women filing for Congress in 2018 smashed previous records—53 women ran for the U.S. Senate versus a previous high of 40 in 2016. For the U.S. House, 476 women filed to run, far outpacing the 2012 record of 298, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It doesn’t feel to me like a blip like it has in the past,” said Patti Russo, the Executive Director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, an organization that trains women interested in running for office. “This really feels to me like it has staying power.”
Of those women who ran, 102 went on to win House seats and 24 will serve in the Senate. Nine women won governorships. These successes trickled down to state legislatures and crossed racial lines, as well. The first Latina women from Texas were elected to Congress, as were the first Native American and Muslim women from any state. Letitia James became the first woman of color elected in a statewide election in New York.
Also significant is the number of women who sought office without previously holding an elected government position. Women from across Illinois decided to run for office in 2018—with or without political experience. In 2018, 94 women ran for state office in Illinois. That’s up from 87 in 2016 and 61 in 2014, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.
Lindsay Crete is the deputy director of state and local campaign communication for Emily’s List, a national group working to elect pro-choice, Democratic women. Crete said more women ran for state seats in Illinois this year than ever before, reflecting a national trend. “In the entirety of the 2016 cycle, we had 920 women reach out to us,” she said. “[By July] this cycle, that number has skyrocketed to 40,000.”
One of those women who successfully ran for office is Ann Gillespie, who won the Illinois State Senate 27th district seat. Gillespie has lived in the Northwest Chicago suburbs her entire life and was inspired to run for office after attending the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in January 2017. She saw the issues she cared about amplified there and saw other women toying with the idea of running for office. “It wasn’t something I had ever thought of doing before,” she said. “When I knock on doors, when I’m shaking hands…every single time I encounter women who are thinking about [running] as a possibility.”
Finding a Support System
The first obstacle for many women is the move from viewing holding office as a distant possibility to seeing it as an attainable goal. Getting women to believe that they belong is office is half the battle, according to Russo, and one best overcome by candidates finding a network of support. She said the number one reason women don’t run for office is a lack of self-confidence. Her school works with women on feeling smarter, more powerful and more capable of taking on a campaign. Men, she said, are more likely to jump into a campaign, while women agonize over if they’re truly the right candidate.
Aside from training women, the school maintains a mentorship program and active alumni network aimed at buoying women seeking office. “Woman fall off politically when there’s no support,” Russo said. “The day after election night, the first students I reach out to are the ones who lost.”
Support from others kept Vealitzek going through her campaign, as well. She quickly received backing from the Lake County Democratic Independent Women. “It can be very lonely, but there’s definitely support,” Vealitzek said. “I don’t think it’s ironic that most of that support came from women.”
The backing helped keep her focused on her original message—that she was a constituent, a member of the public questioning the system. Rather than focus on her opponent, Bartles, she focused on the systems she wanted to fix, primarily ethics. “Every time I started to second guess…it was back to the basics,” Vealitzek said. “Every candidate needs to find that fire in their belly that will keep them knocking on doors for a year-and-a-half. If you really believe what you’re saying, it doesn’t get boring.”
Overcoming the Funding Gap
Another roadblock women commonly face is a disparity in fundraising. Many male politicians fundraise through donor circles, which are often associated with powerful individuals in business and trade, where men tend to figure more prominently. The doors opened through these corporate connections are often closed to women, especially women of color.
The Center for Responsive Politics reported in October that women running for the U.S. House raised $185,000 less on average than their male counterparts. A Washington Post analysis found that, as of June 2018, these men had raised 17 percent more than their female competitors. As a result, women have to find other ways to raise money and make connections with donors, a challenge experienced by Vealitzek.
She said she made her family-and-friends list and began cold calling for donations. She soon found it much more awkward soliciting random family members for money than strangers. She only made those phone calls once, which she said was the opposite of what she had seen many male politicians do while working on their campaigns. She remembered them working the phones constantly in an orderly, business-like fashion.
Vealitzek found more success in hosting coffees and social events where voters were encouraged to make small donations in a more laid-back setting. Even if the donations were smaller, the more intimate events allowed voters to get to know her better – and she felt more comfortable in such settings.
In late November, after a lengthy process of certifying the official election results, Vealitzek received the news she had been waiting for: She won.—7,571 votes to 7,555.
She said the campaign was worth any initial hesitance nearly 15 months ago. Now, the real work of a Lake County Board member begins. “I would recommend it highly for anyone,” Vealitzek said. “[I thought] whatever way this goes, I feel proud of what I did. It’s so worthwhile to do.”
Other stories by Miriam Finder Annenberg