Debbie Halvorson is no stranger to uphill battles. The former U.S congresswoman won her first major election, a seat in the state Senate, by defeating an 18-year incumbent in 1996.
On March 20, Halvorson will try to repeat history as she faces off against longtime Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Illinois' 2nd Congressional District. The race is being hailed as one of the most contentious Democratic primaries this season.
With a lengthy track record that includes 12 years in the Illinois Senate, two years in the U.S. House of Representatives and a seat on the powerful Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, Halvorson poses one of the first serious threats to 17-year incumbent Jackson.
Halvorson, an outspoken straight ally, recently sat down with Windy City Times to talk about Barack Obama, community organizing and her 2012 campaign.
NOTE: View downloadable election guide charts at the following link. This election chart was updated online on Tuesday March 13 with corrections and updates. www.windycitymediagroup.com/pdf/WCT_2012_primarychartsforweb.pdf .
Windy City Times: You started your career as a saleswoman for Mary Kay cosmetics. What prompted the switch to politics?
Debbie Halvorson: I had always been interested in public service, but I worked on everyone else's campaign. I was the senior class secretary in high school, but when I was in school in the '70s, it wasn't thought that the woman would actually be the candidate. We just worked for everyone else.
In the late '80s, I was the campaign manager for someone who was running for county board, and he suggested that I run for office. I couldn't imagine being the candidate, but push comes to shove, I ran for Crete Township Clerk and won. One thing just led to another. Once you're in, they never let you sit still.
It was not your normal path, but I was a community activist. I was very involved with my children as a room mom and computer mom. People saw me more as somebody who was good for the community instead of just a politician.
WCT: You moved to the state Senate in 1997, right?
Debbie Halvorson: Yes. I ran for the state senate the same year that Barack Obama did [ 1996 ] . In fact, he walked precincts for me in my district. His election was over in the primary because his was just Democratic, but I was in the race of my life against an almost 20-year incumbent. [ Obama ] helped me by donating to the campaign and walking precincts. I pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year and won by 12 percentage points. So [ Obama ] and I were colleagues. We were sworn in together.
WCT: This year, you're up against a 17-year incumbent with a lot of name recognition. [ Jackson's father is minister and civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson. ] Are you worried at all?
Debbie Halvorson: I did it before. When I ran in 1996, it was against a guy who had been there since 1979. Just because a person has been there a long time doesn't mean he should automatically be appointed to the seat. With Jesse, he hasn't ever had an opponent with any name ID or credentials.
I feel good about the 2nd District. The new [ lines ] include a portion of my old [ U.S. House ] district; and when I was a state senator, I covered several townships in the area. In one way or another, I've covered almost every part of the district. People are very excited that they finally have a choice.
WCT: Jackson told CBS Local that he's never had to run this hard before.
Debbie Halvorson: I bet he did! He's never had to campaign at all, and finally he's got an opponent. He doesn't know how to do it. It's like he's out of shape, where I've always had tough campaigns and I've always had to work hard. People deserve somebody who's going to be there for them. People tell me that they see right through [ Jesse ] . If he didn't have an opponent, he would not be working hard like this. He would just continue the way he's done it for the past 17 years, taking [ his constituents ] for granted and not coming back home on the weekends. He lives in D.C.
WCT: His campaign has [ said a lot of comments about you ] . [ One of the ministers backing Jackson said "political demonic forces" were guiding Halvorson, according to the Chicago Tribune. ]
Debbie Halvorson: I know. Can you believe it? I promise nothing I do is demonic. [ Laughs ] I'm a person of the people, and people are very happy with the things I'm tying to do. I'm not surprised. Desperate people do desperate things, and they've arrived at a new low. And you know what? That's okay. That's how some campaigns work, and I'm staying above it all. He's just upset because pastors who used to support him are now supporting me.
I've got between 30 and 40 pastors that have potentially endorsed me. They haven't felt a response from [ Jackson ] , and he hasn't gotten things done.
He can throw all the dirt he wants. I'm talking about jobs. I'm talking about housing, and the fact that our kids need a good education. We've got to stop doing the things he's doing and talk about: Why does this Second Congressional District still look the way it did 17 years ago? We need to fix things.
WCT: You identify as a straight ally, right?
Debbie Halvorson: Definitely. I was a big supporter of ending "don't ask, don't tell." I've always had staff members who were gay and lesbian. We have to get back to equality and no discrimination. We have to make it better for everybody, especially when it comes to marriage and gay marriages. Nobody should be discriminated against because of their love for each other. It's about equality, and I stand up for those issues. I was for ENDA [ the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ] ; I even co-sponsored it in the House.
What frustrates me is that we've come a long way, but not quick enough and not far enough.
To learn more about Halvorson, visit www.debbiehalvorson.com .
[ Note: Windy City Times repeatedly reached out to Halvorson's opponent, Jesse Jackson Jr. However, he did not respond by the press deadline. ]