Rep. Cheri Bustos speaks about career as a journalist, women's legislative representation
    Photo by Ashley Wood / North by Northwestern

    Rep. Cheri Bustos is not a career politician. The Illinois 17th District representative spent most of her career in journalism, asking questions and developing a thick skin.

    “You have been hung up on so many times, you have been sworn at so many times, you have gotten phone calls because somebody is angry at your about your story. Somebody is angry at you because you told the truth," Bustos said of her journalism background. "Somebody is angry at you because you made a mistake. And you do make mistakes.” 

    Speaking to a Political Reporting class on Monday evening, Bustos emphasized the perspective women bring to governance and her experience as a journalist while sharing advice with students, given her experience on both sides of political reporting. Professor Peter Slevin, a veteran political reporter, teaches the master's course in the Medill School of Journalism.

    Bustos heard about the wait time for veterans to receive medical care in her district's clinics and said she felt her instincts as a former investigative reporter kick in.

    "You run across a story and you think, we’ve got to expose this,” Bustos said. "And you just feel that to your core, and you've got to let people know about it."

    Bustos transitioned to reporting after having studied political science and growing up in a family engaged in Illinois politics. Her natural curiosity and tendency to ask questions, Bustos said, led her to pursue a master’s degree in journalism. Now that she analyzes legislation, Bustso said she sees the impact of her experience covering several forms of government and asking and investigating questions.

    For Yingxu Hao, a master's student in the class, Bustos' comments about learning to listen from journalism struck a relevant chord. "That's something we might really be lacking in Congress," she said.

    While working in communications for a health care company, after 17 years in journalism in the Quad Cities area of northwest Illinois and southeast Iowa, she began her public service career running for city council in East Moline. Bustos was elected to Congress in 2012. 

    The 17th District of Illinois, where Bustos serves and is running for re-election in November 2016, is highly contested. One of Bustos' potential opponents is Patrick Garland (the Illinois primary is March 15th), who chairs the Knox County Tea Party and is a member of Ted Cruz's leadership team in Illinois.

    The district is close to evenly split on issues of women’s choice, and supporters of marriage equality are in the minority, Bustos said. 

    “I am for equality of every sort,” Bustos said. “That is something that gets me fired up, and I figure, however I vote on that, if I lose my election, that is something I can totally live with.”

    Bustos said she is adamant about bringing a variety of perspectives to Congress, where she said she believes a variety of legislation would be treated differently if Congress reflected America in gender, race and occupation.

    "These are issues I think we would have a better shot at getting through if Congress truly reflected the makeup of America," Bustos said, citing the Violence Against Women Act, equal pay for equal work, sick leave and raising the minimum wage.

    "If you truly had a Congress that looked like America, I think we would be such a better place," Bustos said.

    "If you truly had a Congress that looked like America, I think we would be such a better place," Bustos said. 

    Women comprise only 20 percent of legislators in Congress, Bustos said. However, her discussion on electing women to office was not limited to legislative priorities.

    "We really approach how we govern, I think, in a very different way," Bustos said. "I don't see ego getting in the way of coming together and trying to work together." 

    Bustos cited friendships made with women in Congress, like on the bipartisan women's softball team. On a national level, Bustos has endorsed Hillary Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

    Reacting to recent comments by Madeline Albright at a Clinton rally, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other," Bustos admitted the quote's timing was off. Bustos pointed out, as Albright did in a later reflection of her "undiplomatic moment," that the former Secretary of State and feminist icon has used this quote many times before. Bustos, too, has used this quote while discussing electing women. 

    Bustos' remarks were in line with this sentiment when it comes to electing legislative bodies that reflect America.

    "That's only going to happen if perhaps women see the value in how women govern," Bustos said. "We do really govern in a different way."

    Satvika Khera, a master's student in the class, said she agreed that certain things would change if a woman were in power, but she questioned the degree to which this is based on gender, given her international perspective. 

    "I don't think whether it's a man or woman in power it makes a difference as to how he or she approaches the issue," Khera said. "I think it depends on who the person is and how they work in politics."

    Khera and Hao agreed that such differences come down to policy ideas. But women in Congress may pay more attention to certain issues, Hao said, which does matter. 

    Bustos questioned how a female would react to the Illinois budget crisis. The budget has yet to be adopted for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2015. 

    "I really do wonder if there had been a female governor, which there has never been in the state of Illinois, if a female governor would be sitting back and watching women go to domestic violence shelters and have to be turned away," Bustos said.

    "I really do wonder if there had been a female governor, which there has never been in the state of Illinois, if a female governor would be sitting back and watching women go to domestic violence shelters and have to be turned away," Bustos said. "There were 118 women in one domestic violence center in my district that had to be turned away as a result of this budget."

    "I don't know if it's an ego thing or what it is, it is hurting our state," Busto said. "And it is hurting our people in a desperate, desperate way, and I hear from them all the time."

    Bustos serves as Vice President of the Recruitment Committee for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, co-chairing the Red to Blue committee. As the name suggests, the committee works in districts where the Democrats think they have a good shot at winning seats currently occupied by Republicans. Bustos said she notices differences in the initial questions of male and female candidates considering a first run for office.  

    For potential female candidates, "their first question is their concern about their family, whether it's her husband or kids, but it's almost always the first question," Bustos said. She said this a question typically followed by another one about the impact of the public attacks members of Congress receive. Later, she said, they ask about the chances of a victory, an order of questions Bustos said varies greatly for men considering running, who often ask about the impact on their family later down the line or after deciding to run. 


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