For most of my adult life, I was a faithful Democrat. I had become a Humanist before that, but I was swept up with the Obama wave of 2008. Like many 18-19 year olds at the time, the message of hope and change was inspiring. I would later go on to intern and consult for a local state senator and by proxy my state Democratic Party. In Illinois, The Republican party had been decimated during the 2000’s after former Republican Gov. George Ryan’s corruption scandal along with changing state demographics. Republicans were the backwards Tea Partiers screaming, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” More importantly, they did not seem welcome to an atheist, being the party of God and all.
In 2015, Republican Gov. Rauner took office, and the now infamous budget stalemate began. It was a full year of messaging battles and fundraising emails shooting over every other minute. It was around this time that the State Senator decided to run for Congress as “the real progressive.” He had a reputation of standing up to Democratic leadership, whether it was wise or not. I expressed interest in helping his run. He told me that I should run for office myself. I was a bit shocked, considering that it hadn’t crossed my mind at all. I was fresh out of school with a Master’s degree, managing a Jimmy John’s sandwich restaurant and teaching online political science classes. After some discussion, I decided to go for it.
It’s one thing to be part of the machine, it’s quite another to challenge it. I decided to run against one of Speaker Madigan’s favorite representatives, who had never had a primary challenger before. After taking several calls from reporters and local party officials, many of my former associates suddenly wouldn’t talk anymore. People who were not fans of this representative suddenly weren’t interested anymore. My state senator encouraged me to drop out, saying Madigan might go easy if I did. I refused.
It became clear why he wanted me to drop. My senator was encouraging me to run against one the Speaker’s most loyal members to try and leverage the Speaker to get endorsements from local unions. Even though this rep had voted against their interests, they would not back a challenger. One union rep told me, “We heard about you from Madigan, we won’t endorse without his approval.” I was blocked from Democrat events and party locals wouldn’t sign my petitions. My run was doomed before I could even reach the minimum number of signatures needed to file.
The same party I spent nearly a decade working for turned its back on me when I challenged their leaders. Then one night, while in despair, I received a call from a representative from the Illinois House Republicans.
“We came across your website, and we love your fire and energy. If you want to take on Democratic leadership, we would like to meet.” Thus began my conversion. I met with local Republican leaders who were thrilled to see a (relatively) young person who wanted to run for office. I expressed concern that my past might not bode well for Republican voters. They assured me many Republicans were former Democrats who grew tired of the party taking them for granted. While some Republicans would never accept that, the vast majority welcomed me with open arms. People who had been opposite sides in parades, ballot challenges and debates were beyond welcoming.
Needless to say, by the time I got things up and running again, I couldn’t get enough signatures in time. I went to meetings and told my story to receptive and warm people who love that I “saw the light.” I would go on to help several other candidates during the 2016 elections. I would go on to develop my candidate run for the seat being vacated by that state senator who threw me under the bus. He was crushed in the primary and has since faded from politics. He left, mocked by colleges on both sides, his influence drained by poor decisions.
My candidate didn’t win the heavily Democratic district, but we picked up seats and broke the super majority while defending seats in a presidential year in a state where Trump was blown out. There are many people like me who have socially liberal but fiscally conservative views who would find a welcoming reception in the party. Of course, I have spirited debates with those who are more socially conservative.
In terms of my Humanist/atheist background, most people didn’t really ask or care. Those who push the more religious agenda are a loud minority. Even as our governor is being challenged by a hard line social conservative for “betraying the party,” the party is sticking with Rauner. As a delegate to our state convention and precinct captain, I take great pride in helping to promote Republicans who want to help fight poor Democratic Party rule.
In the political trenches and foxholes, there are people from all types of religious backgrounds. The Republican Party is in need of a new generation of leadership, and is open to move away from more divisive social issues to make sure our party stays a big tent. Republicans at the college and local level are always looking for new people. You never know where it will take you. I took a leap of faith. I landed with and invitation to the President’s inauguration and an appointment to my local Selective Service Board. Democrats don’t want nobody that nobody sent. Republicans want everyone who knows they aren’t a nobody.
Steve Anderson is an Academic and Political Strategist from the suburbs of Chicago. Reach Steve by emailing steve42089[at]gmail.com.