Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D)
Illinois 11th District
The low-lying land west and south of Chicago, where sluggishly flowing rivers run circles around industrial sites, is a great divide over which French explorers portaged the easiest path from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River valley. Today there is still a kind of borderland here, as the factories and shopping centers and subdivisions stop somewhere past the Cook County line and downstate prairies begin, cornfields bisected by highways and railroads radiating out from the Loop, and the rail yards of the nation’s transportation hub. Politically, this is a borderland as well, between the traditionally Democratic Chicago area, with its hard-bitten machine politics, and heavily Republican downstate Illinois, with its tradition of governance by local civic leaders that stretches to the days of Abraham Lincoln.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 11th Congressional District of Illinois covers much of this borderland. It includes most of Will County, the fastest-growing of the large suburban Chicago counties, and its county seat of Joliet. It is politically marginal territory, and Joliet grew by more than 35,000 people between 2000 and 2006, the largest jump in the state. Once a canal boat town, and later the producer of one-third of America’s wallpaper, Joliet was home to the famed Joliet Correctional Center, the prison featured in the movie The Blues Brothers, until it closed in 2002. It is the location of a 75,000-seat NASCAR racetrack. It owes its current prosperity and growing tourist locales in part to riverboat gambling.
The number of Hispanic residents nearly doubled in Will County. Farther west, on bluffs above the Illinois River, are the factory towns of Ottawa, LaSalle, and Streator. South of Joliet is Kankakee, a county seat amid rich prairie earth on the Illinois Central main line and the home of convicted former GOP Gov. George Ryan. This is Republican territory. The 11th no longer includes the southernmost townships of Cook County, which were increasingly Democratic, but it has added two ungainly-looking appendages. One goes west to rural Bureau County; the other heads south at the intersection of interstates 80 and 39 and includes most of Bloomington in McLean County, one of the faster-growing downstate counties. The 2001 redistricting made this district more Republican than its 1990s incarnation, but recent votes show it trending Democratic. President Bush won here with 54% in 2004, but in 2008, Democrat Barack Obama took 53% to Republican John McCain’s 45%.
Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: March 1, 1958, Chicago Heights .
Education: Prairie State College, A.S. 1988; Governors St. U., B.A. 2001; M.A. 2003..
Family: Married (Jim Bush); 4 children.
Elected office: Crete Township clerk, 1993-96; IL Senate, 1996-2008; Majority ldr., 2005-08.
Professional Career: Small businesss owner, cosmetics, 1979-1993.
The new congresswoman from the 11th District is Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat elected in 2008. Halvorson succeeds Republican Rep. Jerry Weller, who chose retirement amid political pressure over questionable Central American land deals. A former Mary Kay cosmetics saleswoman, Halvorson honed a business acumen that translated into political savvy in Springfield and on the campaign trail. Several years ago, she put a college education on hold while she raised two children as a single mother, juggling jobs selling the popular cosmetics brand and doing temp work for 10 years. She then went back to school, studying for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees while serving in the state Senate.
|Debbie Halvorson (D)||185,652||(58%)||($2,266,615)|
|Marty Ozinga (R)||109,608||(34%)||($1,969,363)|
|Jason Wallace (Green)||22,635||(7%)||($6,742)|
|Debbie Halvorson (D)||Unopposed|
Halvorson was the Crete Township clerk when she was drafted in 1996 to attempt to unseat an 18-year Republican incumbent in the Illinois Senate, Aldo DeAngelis. Halvorson walked all 210 precincts campaigning for over a year, and won with 56% of the vote. DeAngelis’s campaign manager later told Halvorson he knew she would win because “Aldo knew all the bank presidents, but Debbie knew all the tellers.” In the Senate, Halvorson sponsored bills to make cheaper prescriptions available to senior citizens and to protect them from abuse in nursing homes. She also passed a bill toughening laws against hit-and run drivers. In 2005, Halvorson became the first woman in Illinois history to become Senate majority leader.
Halvorson was courted by national Democrats to run, and she was unopposed in the February 2008 primary. On the Republican side, New Lenox Mayor Tim Baldermann emerged as the top vote-getter in a three-way contest, but a few weeks later, he withdrew, saying he had underestimated the time and fundraising commitment. The GOP’s substitute was concrete magnate Martin Ozinga. It was the local businessman’s first foray into politics, but his name recognition and ability to self-fund made him an attractive candidate.
The general election campaign in the swing district quickly became one of the closest watched races in the country. Residents were bombarded by negative direct mail, robocalls, and television and radio advertising. Ozinga accused Halvorson of being a part of unpopular Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s inner circle, though his attacks were muted by revelations that he had once made campaign contributions to Blagojevich. Ozinga also questioned Halvorson’s motives in voting against an electricity rate freeze that would have affected a prominent Democratic donor. Halvorson tried to tie Ozinga to the unpopular Bush administration, highlighting Vice President Dick Cheney’s planned visit to an Ozinga fundraiser. She also charged that his business deals had made him cozy with the Chicago political machine.
With Blagojevich coming under increased scrutiny in Illinois even before the election (he would later be impeached and removed from office in January 2009), it seemed as though some of Ozinga’s salvos might be sticking. He earned an endorsement from the traditionally liberal Chicago Sun-Times, but Halvorson got the backing of the National Rifle Association. Polls showed Ozinga inching closer to Halvorson in the weeks before the election. But Election Day was a different story. Buoyed by a strong showing for Obama in the district, Halvorson cruised to election with 58% of the vote to Ozinga’s 34%.
Once in Congress, Halvorson was appointed to the Agriculture, Small Business and Veterans’ Affairs committees. But even with her wide margin of victory, Republicans were already making plans to recapture the seat: an early entrant for the GOP was Air Force pilot and Iraq War veteran Adam Kinzinger.