Cheri Bustos took advantage of her deep roots in Illinois politics—her father was a former chief of staff for Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon and her grandfather was a state representative—and the northwestern Illinois district’s historically Democratic leanings to unseat Rep. Bobby Schilling, who had ridden the Republican wave to victory in 2010.
Bustos grew up in the state capital of Springfield. Her mother was a social worker and preschool teacher, and her father was a journalist before entering government. Her first paid job was selling tacos and lemonade at the Illinois State Fair. As a 10-year-old, she met future Democratic Sens. Paul Simon and Dick Durbin, who at the time was a staffer for then-Lt. Gov. Simon.
After attending Illinois College, where she excelled at basketball and volleyball, Bustos graduated from the University of Maryland in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history. She earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Illinois two years later, and moved to the Quad Cities metro area to take a job as a reporter with the Quad-City Times, where she covered city government, crime, health care, and other issues over a 17-year career. Her husband, Gerry, is a captain in the Rock Island Police Department and commander of the Quad City Bomb Squad.
After leaving reporting, Bustos went into public relations for regional health care providers, most recently as the vice president of public relations and communications for Iowa Heath System. Health-related issues are a key concern: She lost her uninsured sister-in-law to cancer two years ago, and her brother to cancer months later, after his insurance refused to cover the medication he needed. President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, she said in an interview, is “at least in the right direction,” but Bustos insists that more has to be done to improve what she calls a “broken” system.
Bustos decided to enter politics with a run for the City Council in East Moline, and served from 2007 to 2011. She emphasized economic development, founding and chairing the East Moline Downtown Revitalization Committee.
Democrats were eager to reclaim the 17th District House seat, from which Schilling ousted Phil Hare in 2010. During redistricting, state lawmakers redrew its lines to so that President Obama would have had 60 percent support among its voters in 2008, up from 57 percent . When Bustos entered the race, her friendship with Durbin paid off—he provided a rare primary endorsement in January 2012 and urged other Democrats to exit the race. She went on to win the primary over two other candidates with 58 percent of the vote.
Her race in the fall against pizzeria owner Schilling became one of the biggest in Illinois outside the Chicago area, with about $1 million pumped in from the Democratic and Republican congressional campaign committees. Bustos received an early endorsement from EMILY’s List and was backed by several labor unions. Schilling aligned himself with tea party activists, speaking at National Tea Party Express events.
The race was negative. Bustos called her opponent “extreme” on abortion rights and suggested he didn’t care about women’s health. Meanwhile, national Republicans ran an ad accusing her of voting to spend $625,000 on improvements to the road “connecting her street to her local country club.” The ad was debunked—repairs began before Bustos served on the council, and she simply joined other members in approving the project’s second phase. In addition, it turned out she never belonged to the country club.