U.S. Congresswoman Cheri Bustos knows that half the secret to making An Effort to Understand (and opening others’ hearts and minds to mutual understanding) is making the effort to show up.
She knows, because she’s a communicator. And now she wants others to know, too.
A little background:
The first day I met her, Cheri Bustos turned to me at dinner and told me I look like Illinois Senator Dick Durbin—in a good way.
That was back in 2010, when Cheri was attending a meeting I convened in New York, for communication executives. She was one then—VP of corporate communications for the Iowa Health System.
Cheri mostly listened during that meeting, but our Illinois connections kept us in touch, her weird ideas about my appearance not withstanding. So when she announced that she wanted to run for the U.S. House of Representatives from her district in Northwest Illinois, I offered to help in any way I could.
I met her in Moline, on the way to visit my in-laws in Des Moines. Over lunch, I got her life story, to compile a kind of introductory stump speech. We exchanged a few emails after that. I don’t know if she ever used any of that speech, but I like to think the process of making it together might have helped her consider her approach.
She won—and when she was reelected, she went from a House newbie to a guru for Democrats wanting to know how to win over Republican voters in the Trump era. Cheri represented a truly conservative district—the Quad Cities, Rockford, Peoria—in a terribly divisive time, and she remained popular there. She’s not running again this year, for reasons that are not entirely clear but that must have something to do with the terrible constant pinch of representing her Trumpy district and also dealing with the progressive wing of the Democratic party.
And now Cheri, who will continue to serve until her term expires in 2023, is out with an e-book, on How Dems Win in Trump Districts. Her secret, shared in a personal essay in the piece: “Showing Up and Listening.” Here’s Cheri in her own words:
The best way to listen to people isn’t through polls, social media or focus groups, but directly and by meeting them in the course of their daily lives. …
I started ‘Cheri on Shift,’ where I job-shadow people in a variety of occupations throughout the district. I started ‘Supermarket Saturdays,’ where I meet and listen to people as they do their weekend grocery shopping. …
When meeting people who might not align politically with me, I focus on common ground—my husband is a cop, my sons all hunt, we all own guns. My questions aren’t about issues—they’re about common experiences in life that we all share and can bring common understanding. Did they take a vacation in the last year? What do they do for fun?
I take every opportunity to meet people where they are. I visited nearly every library in the district, no matter what the size of the town. When time allows, I like to add some door-to-door, particularly in some of the smallest communities I serve. I knocked on every door in Hamlet, Illinois, population 43.
“Succeeding in areas Trump won in 2020 and 2016 is a lot of hard work and requires effective constituent service and outreach,” Cheri concludes. “But, most importantly, it’s about showing up, listening and taking nothing for granted.”
I admire the hell out of Cheri Bustos. She gets a lot of crap from the progressives in my party—many of whom I also admire. (As does Cheri, surely and quietly.)
Once, Cheri reacted on an issue on Syrian refugees in a way that inspired me to write her a critical note. I never heard back, but I’d be surprised if she and I don’t connect after she’s out of office. I hope so, because I’d kill for a chance to debrief her after a decade of political life in the age of Trump.
Among other things, I want to know what she thinks now about that speech that I wrote for her about a decade ago—that I’ll share with you here, tomorrow.