Yesterday here, I told you why I admire Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who I knew once, and hope to know again.
I told you I was going to reproduce here, a kind of introductory stump speech I wrote for her as she cranked up her campaign, around 2011. I don’t know whether she liked it, or whether she used any of it. I like to think telling me her story and seeing how I translated it into a speech might have helped her find her footing in those early years, but her footing was pretty solid already. I also don’t know the ethics of running a decade-old speech written pro-bono that was likely never delivered. So I’m going to ask forgiveness, not permission.
I simply reread it, and I like it. And I thought it might be of some inspiration to other people with a chance to lead in places in America where a gentle, earnest, honest voice might still be believed.
An Insider and an Outsider Too
The question is, “Cheri Bustos, why are you running for Congress?”
The question comes from moderators of candidate forums. It comes from voters at town hall meetings. It comes, perhaps most sternly, from my husband, Gerry.
It’s a good question.
And I’ve already answered it a thousand times. I’ve talked about ideas I have to reinvigorate the economy in this region. I’ve shared my vision for a fairer health care system. I’ve said I want to bring new leadership that puts people’s interests first.
But it has occurred to me that that’s not what people want to know when they ask me why I am running for Congress.
They want to know about me what they want to know about all the leaders they choose. What kind of a person is this? What kind of heart does she have? What kind of mind does she have? And why on earth would anyone with a good heart—in her right mind—want to run for Congress, especially in these terribly contentious, economically troubling times?
Cheri Bustos, why are you running for Congress?
That, I have come to realize, is just a nice way of saying what my own husband has said to me in private discussions, and what I have even asked myself. It’s the sort of question old-fashioned parents ask of children when they do something that seems a little crazy—the sort of question my own old-fashioned parents used to ask me once in while.
Cheri Bustos, what in the world has gotten into you?
And that, my friends, is the question I’d like to finally answer tonight, at least to my satisfaction. And if I don’t answer it to yours, I know you’ll let me know.
[long pause, deep breath]
I’d better begin at the beginning. I’d better begin at the breakfast table, when I was 12 years old.
My grandfather was in politics, serving in the Illinois House of Representatives.
And my dad was in politics, too. His name is Gene Callahan, and he was press secretary for a number of Illinois public servants, including the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon. Senator Simon and my dad were close friends, and for half a year in the middle of his life, Senator Simon lived at our house.
We called him Paul, but that was just about the only informal thing about him. He was Felix to my dad’s Oscar, coming down to breakfast in pajamas and a robe while my dad sat down in his customary household attire of underwear and a Tie-Dye t-shirt.
But their minds were as compatible as their clothing styles were not, and at the breakfast table, the conversation flew. They talked and talked and talked. That kitchen was always teaming with ideas, debates, theories and stories from the world these men both loved: the world of public service. If there were conversations about difficult political opponents, I honestly can’t remember them.
What I do remember is being utterly welcome to participate in the conversation, the assumption being that politics was no off-limits “adult” subject; rather, it had to do with everyone, and everyone should not only be allowed to discuss it, but encouraged to do so.
We loved Paul, and we certainly loved Dad, and those guys loved Illinois and they loved being involved in public service and politics. So whereas many people understandably equate politics with backbiting, cowardice and greed, I’ve always associated it with ideas, inclusiveness … and my own happy childhood.
So I guess that’s the first and most basic answer to the question, “Cheri Bustos, why are you running for Congress?”
But if it had been that simple … then I suppose my family breakfast table might have been a warm and fuzzy foundation to a traditional political career.
Instead, it was the beginning of a much longer journey, which made me much more of an outsider in politics, than an insider.
When I graduated from college, I went to Washington, D.C. where I got a job as an ____ for an ______. Pretty heady stuff! I spent my days reading bills and interpreting them to help my boss decide how to vote on them.
[PAUSE; a look of dreamy happiness melts into a pout]
I hated it.
I didn’t know why at the time, but with the hindsight I have now, I know that what I hated about that job was that it didn’t involve creating things, and it didn’t involve people.
Luckily I soon found work that did. And how.
I went to work at the Moline, as a reporter for the Quad City Times. I was there for about 16 years, and I loved almost every day of my career there, because I liked just about everything about being a reporter. Every day, I had a chance to either expose some terrible wrongdoing in my community … or write about a victim of a misfortune, knowing my story would help that victim get help.
I’ll let you in on another secret: Being a reporter also satisfied a fierce competitive streak that I had developed in my college basketball career. I wanted my story on page one. Every day. And I worked very hard to make that happen, and always expected to spend my whole career in journalism.
But as John Lennon said, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. I was reporting on healthcare, in Sept. 2001. In the course of reporting a complex story about a controversy between two healthcare entities in the Quad Cities, I met a CEO who I came to admire very much. In an atmosphere of great discord and bitterness, he struck me as wise and imaginative leader who was able to serve the interests of his institution and the community at large.
(That’s a pretty important skill these days—and as rare as it ever was, I think you’ll agree.)
[PAUSE FOR AN AMEN]
Anyway, this CEO must have liked me, too, because he invited me to interview for a job as PR director for his hospital. Ridiculous, I said. Just meet with me, he said. Okay, I agreed. Between my agreement and our meeting, 9/11 happened. I met with him. He was persuasive, and I thought I could work with him and I was about to turn 40 and 9/11 had happened and I was feeling open to a change.
So I jumped.
And I fell.
Down, down, down, into a job that I now remember with two words: black hole. The job was hard, the learning curve was steep, the adrenaline rush of the newsroom was missing … and worst of all I didn’t feel like I was helping anyone. I’d left a job where I thought I was helping someone every day, and gone into a job where I was … in marketing, for a healthcare organization?
I was seriously thinking about returning to journalism—there were overtures from my old paper—but I’d told myself I was gonna stick this new thing out for two years. I was pretty close to the end when I had one very important cup of coffee with a friend of mine. I told her how miserable I was, and confessed I was thinking of quitting.
Her jaw dropped.
She said, “You’re in health care. That is a huge opportunity to help people with life and death issues. Programs, screenings, foundations. Create and promote these, and you have the ability to change people’s lives instantly and profoundly, and in a way that you can actually see—not in that vague, hopeful way that the newspaper might help.”
Something clicked. She was right. I’d gone from an outsider—the reporter, who can call attention to problems—to an insider, who can solve them. [MAY NEED TO LIST A FEW THINGS HERE THAT YOU DID IN YOUR HEALTHCARE CAREER THAT MADE A DIFFERENCE AND FELT REWARDING; ALONG THE WAY YOU YOU MIGHT SHOWCASE YOUR ABILITY TO BUILD GOOD TEAMS.]
So after the two-year black hole, I spent the next eight years—here, and at the Iowa Health System in Des Moines—every bit as happy and energized as I had been as a reporter.
And, I ought to add, a lot better paid.
Considering the comfort and happiness I’ve enjoyed over these last ten years, the question may seem even more perplexing. It sure was to Gerry.
Why am I running for Congress?
Because when the opportunity arose—when I heard this seat had opened—I couldn’t think about anything else. It was as if I’d subconsciously known this moment was coming all along.
The moment had started at the breakfast table with my dad and Paul. It had continued in the newsroom as I built a taste for afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted. And it had culminated in my work in healthcare, where I realized I had learned how to improve things from the inside, too.
You know, it’s popular for politicians to claim that they’re outsiders, and it’s a claim I’ve made too. I am an outsider, in the sense that I’m not a career politician. I’ve had all these other experiences that, I think, help me understand real life a little better than someone, no matter how well-meaning, who has spent all their working days in the ethically, morally, intellectually byzantine world of modern politics.
But to get things done, in Washington or anywhere else, you do have to participate in the existing system. One of the saddest things we’re seeing right now, in fact, is the Tea Party representatives, elected for their anti-government stance, sitting in Washington with their arms crossed, refusing to negotiate with people on both sides of the aisle who are trying to improve the lives of Americans, and invest in the futures of American children.
So there’s a need for an experienced insider too.
I recently came across a funny little prayer, written by a little known but talented Illinois writer named Larry Ragan, who once worked on a campaign by Senator Paul Simon, maybe not coincidentally.
“There are the insiders and the outsiders,” the prayer goes. “Two kinds of people. Two ways of looking at life. Two ways of making things happen.”
The outsiders raise hell. They demonstrate; they organize marches. They issue reports that excoriate the establishment, challenge the status quo, appeal to all who thirst for justice.
Outsiders are often wild. At first, they don’t seem to make sense. The first black kids who sat at a lunch counter and refused to move were outsiders. The first marchers to Selma were outsiders.
Please God, let us always have outsiders and give me the grace, in my better moments, to know how to be one.
But I’m torn because I want to be an insider too. The insiders resist the first answer that comes to them: they have heard it before. They are offended when they see the world’s complexities reduced to slogans shouted into a microphone or preached at a town hall meeting. They are saddened when they hear someone argue that God is on his or her side, and they wonder why God doesn’t speak so clearly to them. Often they share the goals of the outsider but continue to say, “things aren’t that simple.”
I love that prayer, because I have come to understand and embrace both the outsider and the insider inside myself.
My experiences have taught me when things aren’t that simple—and when things are that simple.
I’ve learned when to listen and when to speak.
When to shout from a soapbox, and when to whisper in an ear.
When to identify a problem, and when to solve it.
When to think, and when to act.
And I’ve learned to do all of it—all of the shouting and negotiating and thinking and problem-solving—always, in the way I learned from my dad in his underwear and Paul in his pajamas—in a sprit of happiness and love and gratitude, to be participating in such a meaningful way in this great American democracy, and spending every ounce of skill and experience and energy on behalf of my fellow Americans.
I’m running for Congress because I want to the job. I want the job because I think I’ll do it well. I’ll do it well because I’ll love it. I’ll love it because I long ago learned to love everything about public service in Illinois, and in America.
So once and for all: Why am I running for Congress?
I’m running because of love.
What other reason could there be?
I hope I’ve answered at least one of your questions, but feel free to ask more.
And thanks for listening.