Why Andrea Zopp is Running an Uphill Battle for U.S. Senate
This interview was originally conducted by Carol Felsenthal with Chicago Magazine.
The former president and CEO of the Urban League is challenging Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth in the March 2016 Primary.
“I was eager to ask Andrea Zopp, 58, how exactly she plans to run for the U.S. Senate in the March 2016 primary against Tammy Duckworth, a purple-heart recipient who lost both legs and the much of the function of her right arm when the Black Hawk helicopter she was copiloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents in 2004. And, should she survive that challenge, how she plans to run the next November against the incumbent, retired naval reserve officer and stroke victim Mark Kirk.
Zopp, who is making her first run for office, answered like the politician she has quickly become: “I’m focusing on what I bring to the table—a unique background and perspective that is relevant to so many of the critical issues we have to address; criminal justice, education, economic development and job creation, health care…And I think people find that message compelling.”
We met downtown on Tuesday afternoon. Her campaign manager listened intently while she answered every question in a polished style that reflects college and law school at Harvard, seven years in the U.S. Attorney’s office and almost seven in the State Attorney’s office , some law firm practice in-between, three gigs at major corporations—deputy general counsel at Sara Lee, general counsel at Sears, Roebuck & Co., and then the same title at Exelon. To top it off, she served five years as president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League, a job she left to embark on the Senate quest. (She left her Rahm-appointed place on the CPS board for the same reason.)
Zopp, who is African American and lives in Beverly/Morgan Park where she and her husband reared three children, now 23, 22, and 19, has the support of some big names, including leaders of Chicago’s black elite—John Rogers, Mellody Hobson, Leon Finney, Frank Clark, and Jesse Jackson, Sr. among them. And then there’s Bill Daley, who was instrumental in persuading Zopp to run.
Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Your opponent in the primary, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, is the darling of the liberal community here, with the support of many big names, including Sen. Dick Durbin. Why are you running?
We’re facing some really serious issues in our state and in our country—declining middle class, growing wage disparity, communities that are awash in guns and violence. We need leadership that’s grounded in experience, that has a dedicated commitment to taking on tough issues. You look at my background and that’s the kind of leadership I’ve demonstrated for the last 30 years. That’s why I’m running.
Did you consider running first for an office that isn’t quite so grand?
For me, the question was, Can I do this job that I’m running for? Can I bring something to the table? Not are there other jobs. I don’t think the background and experience that I bring would otherwise be represented in this race.
In the state’s attorney’s job, what would you consider your accomplishments?
I led the narcotics bureau. At the time, we didn’t have a separate place to prosecute narcotics. We had a lot of narcotics cases, so we created a narcotics bureau which enabled us to take the nonviolent, lower-level possession cases and really treat them the way they needed to be treated, with alternative sentences, probation, really handle them the way I think we need to do more of. That way you avoid sending nonviolent offenders to prison. We also did some major drug prosecutions.
And before that, at the U.S. Attorney’s office?
I prosecuted terrorism cases. I investigated FALN, the Puerto Rican terrorist group. I prosecuted large scale drug organizations.
In 1997, when Carol Moselely Braun was a senator, you were in contention for the U.S. Attorney’s job. You didn’t get it. Were you disappointed?
I was devastated. I very much wanted it. I thought I had the right skills. And Sen. Moseley Braun made a different decision. (She recommended Scott Lassar, then the interim U.S. Attorney, to Bill Clinton, who then appointed Lassar.) That happens in life, but your life brings you different things. I believe God closes one door and opens another. After that, I had a significant career in the corporate sector that I would not have had. Those were tremendous experiences for me.
If or when it becomes available, would you be interested in the U.S. Attorney’s job?
I was originally considered for the job in 1997. And so while I was ready and would have been a very good U.S. Attorney in 1997, I’m a very different person with different experiences. For the last five years, at the Urban League, I’ve been working on the issues that are really impacting our city and our African American community; issues that I think are critical across the country. The Urban League job has been just a blessing to me. We are really moving the needle, helping people to get jobs, helping people to grow their business, helping young people get experiences and exposure that will change their lives. We took 60 kids from the city to China. One year my husband and I went, and to watch these kids who barely kind of knew what China was, but to go make friends with students in China, to be treated as ambassadors [with] tremendous respect. Just to see their whole perspective of themselves change; just open up. It was profound, and you realize what a difference you can make in a kid’s life. These experiences are what I want to bring to Washington, that perspective about what’s important, about how you can move the needle if you make the right kind of investments. That’s a perspective that’s not really represented in the Senate now. And I also don’t think [represented] by either of the other candidates in the race.
How important was Bill Daley in your decision to get in this race?
Bill’s a friend. I would say he’s one of several people I talked to when I was thinking about running, but certainly his support made a difference because he has had a lot more experience than I at the federal level. I value his advice and support. I also talked to John Rogers and Frank Clark and Jim Reynolds. And Mellody Hobson, who’s a long-time good friend.
When I looked at your FEC report of contributions for the second quarter [in her case only 30 days because she launched her campaign on May 31] I noticed that Bryan Traubert, husband of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, gave the max allowed by law. Does that bring Penny’s support along with it?
Penny is Secretary of Commerce. She is not involved in this race at all. Bryan is a friend and I’m pleased and proud to have his support.
So many of your contributors were supporters of President Obama—Cheryl Whitaker, Susan Sher, Bettylu Saltzman. Do you expect Obama’s support too?
I don’t know what the President is going to do. We need an open primary and we need the opportunity for both candidates to come out and tell their story without influence from Washington. I would hope that the President would respect that. I don’t have any indication that he’s going to do anything other than wait to see what’s going to happen with the primary, and then support the Democratic candidate.
You have been publicly critical of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee because it came out and endorsed Tammy Duckworth without talking to you. Jesse Jackson, among others, has called that disrespectful. Hanging in the air, although not said in so many words, is that African Americans here might not bother to vote in the general election.
As I’ve already openly said, we need to have an open primary. I think that’s the right thing to do. The DSCC has not endorsed a candidate in the Senate race here in the primary in 35 years. I think it was a mistake for them to do it.
Tammy Duckworth’s mother is a native of Thailand and her father a Caucasian American. As I talk to people about this race, I’ve heard the sentiment that an African American ought to occupy this seat that was held by Barack Obama and, before him, by Carol Moseley Braun. What’s your response?
Obviously my perspective as a African American I think is relevant. I think the African American vote is critical to the Democratic party, but I don’t think that’s the reason anyone should support me. I think people should and will support me because of what I can do in DC.
Emily’s List has also announced that it’s supporting Duckworth. Both the DSCC and Emily’s List are important fundraising engines.
Right, Emily’s List was announced a while ago; I think too early. I think that they didn’t know there was going to be anyone else in the race.
How do you run against Mark Kirk? I give him great credit for bringing himself back the way that he did, but he’s not back fully. And you’re in a primary running against a heroic victim o f the Iraq war. How do you run?
I’m focusing on what I bring to the table. I bring a unique background and perspective that is relevant to so many of the critical issues we have to address—criminal justice, education, economic development and job creation, health care. I served on the Cook County health and hospital system board, so these are issues that really affecting lives in Illinois. I’m the only candidate that has hands on, not intellectual, but hands on experience dealing with these issues in a critical urban area. That would apply not only to Chicago but of course to the rest of the state and the country. I intend to start there, and that’s really going to be my focus. And I have a track record of focused results on tough issues—everything from the death penalty to public education to public health, all very tough, challenging issues.
Do you know Tammy Duckworth personally?
We’re not friends. Again because of my job at the Urban League, we met with her in DC a couple of times. But I don’t know her well.
You were on the CPS board, appointed in May 2011 by Rahm Emanuel. Did your children go to CPS schools?
They all went to CPS, Clissold for elementary. My daughters graduated from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, otherwise known as the Ag School at 1111th & Pulaski. It’s a working farm, the only working farm in the city. They have cows, horses, pigs; they grow plants and they do animal science horticulture, have a partnership with the U of I. One of my daughters took animal science, delivered pigs, cows. [Her son went to the private, Catholic De La Salle for high school.]
Did either girl have a particular interest in agriculture?
No, it was a strong neighborhood school for us. Sophomore year you have to go and work in the field, you have to work on the farm, and I liked that in terms of teaching life skills. It’s a really fantastic school, so the idea of sending them to a great school—if they developed an interest in agriculture, great; if they didn’t they had a great education. My [younger] daughter just graduated from Skidmore as an English major and is working full-time on the campaign. My [older] daughter is at Columbia College, a theater major. She’s on the list to get on the Chicago Police Department, so she’ll be an actor/police officer.
How about your son?
He was a freshman at Eastern and he’s here now. He’s going to work and we’re enrolling him in Harold Washington College as we speak. So he’ll be at City Colleges for at least a year. He wanted to come home.
Your husband is white, your daughters biracial, and your son is African American and adopted, correct?
My son was born on October 5, 1995, which was the day Mel Reynolds was sentenced. [Zopp, then First Assistant State’s Attorney—the first woman and African American to hold that job—prosecuted Reynolds on sexual misconduct charges.] In the morning I went to Reynold’s sentencing. And I came back to my office, and the social worker called. We had turned down a baby because I was in the middle of the trial and investigation and I thought this is not the time to bring a baby home, and then they called and said, “We have a baby.” We got the son we were meant to have. He’s terrific, but we face the same issues that lots of other parents face in terms of raising African American boys in this country. My son and his friends really enjoy going to Water Tower Place. He’s a football player, so when he and his football player friends go places, they’re big African American kids, and he’s got to remember that, and he’s got to watch how he acts.
What’s your take on Black Lives Matter?
The underlying issue they’re raising is critically important. And that is to remember that we still have significant issues with race in this country that impact African American lives everyday.
Some of Rahm Emanuel’s first appointees to the school board were personal friends. Were you one of those?
I did not know Mayor Emanuel personally. I think he got my name from others he was talking to and liked my credentials and knew that I had a passion for education.
Chicago is critical in a state-wide race. Do you expect to have Rahm’s support?
He said some time ago publicly that he’s going to stay neutral in the primary race.
Would you do it again if offered a chance to serve on CPS board?
Absolutely. Some of the things we were able to do—the longer school day, the full-day kindergarten for every child—were accomplishments. But schools are a very emotional issue, and so we had to make some tough decisions. Closing schools was difficult. People are very attached to their schools and very many of our parents thought that we were taking something away from them. We still have kids in the CPS who go to school every day, they do what they’re supposed to do, yet when the day is done, they graduate and they still don’t have the educations that they need to compete. We had whole swaths of neighborhoods on the south and west side…if you looked at the choices available to parents, they could not find a school to send their kids to that was performing. That’s just not acceptable. That’s why I was on the board and we’ve changed that, not totally, but we’ve improved it. Obviously there are serious financial issues, resource issues, but the whole school funding issue is something I’ve been involved in through the Urban League well before I went on the school board. We have to change how we fund schools in Illinois.
People in the business, legal and nonprofit communities know you, but you’re not a household name. Give me some biography.
My husband, Bill, and I have been married for 25 years. He’s retired from the DEA and he does a lot of volunteer work in our community. He painted all of the fire hydrants in the 19th ward, all 1700 of them. He talked to [Ald. Matt O’Shea] and said, “The fire hydrants really look terrible.”
“You’re right, we’ve really cut back. I can get you the supplies but I probably won’t be able to get a team out here for a while.” Bill took the supplies, and it took him three summers to paint all 1700 [and to paint the adjacent curbs yellow]. He took kids who were doing community service. He had a guy who had a criminal community service he had to do, my neighbor’s hockey team. He’s now volunteering with Father Pfleger on their basketball league.
Your roots are in Rochester. How’d you end up in Chicago?
I wanted to be in a city and I’d never been here before, but I applied for and got a federal clerkship with Judge George Leighton, a dedicated civil rights lawyer who represented Martin Luther King. It was a two-year job, and I thought, if I don’t like it I can leave after two years. That was 34 years ago.
What about your parents?
My father was a lawyer and a judge. My mother was in the first class of women police officers in Rochester. But ultimately she didn’t stay on the police force. I think balancing kids and police work was more than she bargained for. She became a science teacher and taught at my [all-girls Catholic] high school.
That must have been challenging.
Actually it worked out really well because my mother taught seniors and she was a really popular teacher. When I was a freshmen, all the seniors were really nice to me because they liked my mother. I had some coolness, which was really good because otherwise I had none, zero, zippo.
Do you have siblings?
A younger brother. He was a professional dancer; now he’s a professor of musical theater at Northern Ohio University. He was the Zebra in the original Broadway cast of The Lion King.
There are currently no African American women serving in the U.S. Senate. Which woman serving now do you particularly admire?
I’ve been really, really impressed with [New York Sen.] Kirsten Gillibrand. I also think she’s doing a lot to bring younger women into focusing on the public sector and what they can do.
If you were in the Senate, how would you vote on the Iran deal?
I would vote to support the deal.
If elected, will you move your family to DC?
My family is [grown]; it’s only my husband and he’s coming where I go. Our children are all very attached to our house in Beverly—it’s 131 years old and has a big gold dome on it—so we’ll continue to live there.”
This interview was by Carol Felsenthal.