Chuck Sweeny: Cheri Bustos may get House leadership post

Originally appeared in the Rockford Register Star.

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, was not only re-elected Nov. 8 in a 20 percentage point landslide, she’s poised to get a promotion into the ranks of Democratic Party leadership in the House of Representatives.

“I’ve been nominated to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee,” Bustos told me last week.

Now, that may sound bureaucratic and boring, but it is a critical job for the party that is out of power in the White House, the U.S. House, the Senate, most state legislatures and governors’ offices throughout the land.

Whatever the Democrats’ message is — and it’s hard to tell these days — it clearly isn’t connecting with voters in enough places across the country to win cross-country.

If she gets the appointment Bustos will help shape and deliver a new, and she hopes, winning message throughout the country that will win back many of the disaffected working-class voters in the Midwest who opted this year for Donald Trump.

By winning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Iowa, Trump won enough electoral votes to offset Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2.3 million popular vote victory, which was concentrated in a few heavily Democratic states.

Here’s why Democrats are looking to Bustos to help lead them out of the wilderness:

“I’m one of only eight Democrats who won their congressional district while Donald Trump was also winning those districts,” she said.

“I won all 14 counties in the 17th District, Trump won 11 of them.”

Bustos reckons she won by such a big margin because she stays in touch with people in the wide-ranging district, which includes rural and suburban areas that have been hit by offshoring of industrial jobs. She promotes industrial development in a party that lately has seemed more concerned with identity politics, gender-bending lifestyle issues and environmental absolutism.

Also, Bustos is the only Democratic member of Congress in Illinois who lives in the vast land of “downstate,” which includes all counties outside Cook and the collar counties. She tries to commute between her district and Washington as much as possible.

“Anytime I’m not in Washington I’m home in my district. I do ‘Supermarket Saturdays’ where I go to supermarkets around the district and ask people what’s on their mind. I ask a lot of questions, and I take action based on what they tell me,” she said. Bustos is particularly good at asking questions; she was a newspaper reporter for 17 years.

“I also do what I call ‘Cheri on shift,’ where I job-shadow people in various occupations,” Bustos said.

Unusual for a Republican, Trump campaigned on a pledge to reverse trade deals and bring back factory jobs to the U.S. It resonated in districts such as the 17th. Bustos says she understands and fights for the working people, too, and said Democrats intend to get those voters back.

“A lot of people were frustrated this election cycle; they wanted to know what we’re going to do for them. I want to make sure everyone knows we believe in putting working families first. We have a legislative package called ‘Make it in America,’ which resonates with people,” she said. Trouble is, that message wasn’t communicated by Clinton.

“We must make sure we no longer have incentives for companies to take jobs out of the country, and there are incentives in place for people who lose their jobs to be retrained for new ones. We have the right policies; they go back as long as I’ve been in Congress. I’ve been talking about jobs and the economy since I announced I was running for Congress in 2011. We should have a road show to tell our story to the people.”

Bustos said she doesn’t believe in trying to thwart everything Trump wants to do, as Republicans did to President Barack Obama.

“Donald Trump made a lot of promises; our job is to make sure he backs those up. I have built strong relationships with Republicans and Democrats and have every intention of working with the new administration where we can work together.” And where Democrats disagree with Trump, such as his pledge to dismantle health care programs, “he is going to have a fight on his hands,” she said.

Bustos was first elected to Congress in 2012. Considered one of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, all eyes will be on Bustos to run for Senate if her mentor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, decides to retire in 2018.