Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender

On a hot summer day in early August, people packed into the Englewood field house for an official announcement that some anticipated was the boldest move made by the JB Pritzker campaign since the billionaire started his bid as an Illinois gubernatorial candidate.

The evening before, the news leaked Pritzker tapped 5th District State Representative Juliana Stratton as his running mate for Lieutenant Governor. To political insiders, this decision would not be surprising since the Democratic candidate has laid down stakes in the Black community since May. To select the first African-American woman as a campaign partner brought the added the adrenaline shot it needed and once again thrusts Stratton back into the political spotlight.

Working in public service throughout the last two decades and managing her small law firm as a mediator, Stratton threw her hat into the ring to challenge (seven-term) incumbent, then State Representative Ken Dunkin. Dunkin was not present for the last effort to vote along side other colleagues to acquire the needed votes to override Rauner’s veto. His absence was the final straw for some who supported the long-time legislator for so many years but highlighted the rift developed between him and Speaker Michael Madigan.

Stratton became the poster child for child care, labor, and home care advocates with campaign support from leading unions including AFSCME, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). In addition to having the support of former boss and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle—the 5th district race was set as the first electoral battleground with Rauner. It would become the most expensive political race for the state representative office in Illinois. There was nearly $5 million spent and mile-high direct mail from candidates filling resident mailboxes. Stratton also received a personal endorsement by President Barack Obama bringing national attention to the Southside district.

The mother of three and Bronzeville resident defeated Dunkin, winning the 5th district seat by 68 percent. Eight months later she continues the regimen of connecting with folks in her community.

Stratton Goes To Springfield

“After being sworn-in January, I continued most weekends to knock on doors and listen to residents. As I said to many of them, over and over again, ‘I cannot represent people if I don’t hear their concerns directly. I love it! that’s one part of being a state rep. The other part is being in Springfield meeting with advocates, organizers and ling bills. I led over 25 bills after this first session,” she said. “I was very ambitious because these were all things that I knew were significant. One of the things I learned during my time in Spring field, there’s a process going on from a bill into making it a law. I’ve known that process—you learn it in school or ‘School House Rock’ [she laughs]. It’s different when you’re there and see that process and how much it requires you to build relationships with those who have advocated around an issue with my colleagues in the state legislature.”

She said out of the 25 bills that led; nine ended up on the Governor’s desk.

While she admits her pace has been non-stop as a junior state representative and the office is new, she feels her experience in public service has prepared her for the opportunity to join JB Pritzker as his running mate.

“I’m so excited to have been asked by JB to join him on this team. I very much believe in his leadership ability. I believe he is the one to steer this state in the right direction after the failed leadership of Gov. Rauner. He and I have gotten to know each other over these last several months,” Stratton says.

Stratton and Pritzker enjoy a moment of laughs at the official announcement. Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender

“JB was a leader in early childhood education—that’s a priority of his. He helped to make sure 100’s of thousands of children and low-income families got breakfast. He recognized that getting a good early start in life is important.”

Stratton currently serves on several different committees as a state legislator which involves higher education, criminal, mental health, aging, economic and policies.

Her New Role As Pritzker’s Running Mate

Although she is making strides along with her colleagues on the key criminal justice bills that were signed into law last week by Gov. Rauner, the question remains… is Stratton ready to leap into the Lieutenant Governor’s shoes?

“I didn’t think about being ready. I’ve been in public service for about 20 years on different levels. I’ve been on the city, county and now on the state level. I went to Springfield because I wanted to be a strong advocate for the 5th district and the state because we are state representatives—every law affects the entire state. I went to Spring field because I knew that I had a passion and wanted to work hard for the residents and wanted to be effective.”

The district Stratton represents is diverse in race and economic levels which includes from the South Loop, Oakwood, Kenwood, Bronzeville, Hyde Park and Washington Park. Her base is predominately African-American residents, but both Hyde Park and South Loop are not limited to her core base.

To those outside of her district and Cook County, the familiarity of reaching other Illinoisans built on the same foundation in which she won her seat. Stratton’s main concern is how Gov. Rauner’s policies are affecting the working and middle-class residents.

“He [Rauner] has a personal agenda. His agenda is not about doing what’s best for our communities. I’m motivated that I can join up with someone like JB. I believe he brings the vision. He brings the leadership abilities. He brings capacity to get things done because we’ve been stuck in Illinois for the last 2 1/2 years under Gov. Rauner’s failed leadership,” said Stratton.

Photo: Mary L. Datcher/Chicago Defender

Both she and Pritzker has been very outspoken on why Gov. Rauner should sign HB 40 to protect women’s reproductive rights. Knowing this is a ‘hot button’ issue among pro-choice advocates, it can bring Pritzker the necessary female boost to the campaign.

Stratton explains. “The ability for women to decide in consultation with their doctors for what is best for their bodies. I’m a sponsor of HB 40 and spoke out on the House floor and talked in particular about the fact that for women of color, our bodies throughout history have been legislated. We deserve the right to make decisions for ourselves about our bodies. The message that I’ve given to my daughters, people should have the right to decide what is best for themselves with consultation with their doctors. It’s not just that. When I think about the message to mothers, I think about education, healthcare, and public safety.”

Moving Forward 

With the concerns of many Illinoisans throughout the state, the effects of budget cuts have rippled throughout both major townships and rural areas. Towns such as Rockford, Cairo, East St. Louis, Decatur, and others rely on government services when employment is still high—Illinois is at an average 4.9 percent compared to 4.6 percent in the US.

“Social service organizations dissipated and cuts to funding that would’ve costs institutions of higher education to close their doors. Gov. Rauner and his veto of the budget. He vetoed services for autistic children, vetoed domestic violence programs, vetoed funding for violence prevention, senior care, and early childhood education. Virtually everything we could think of that would be necessary for the very fabric of sustaining our communities and communities across the state, not just Chicago,” Stratton continues. “When we think about the entire state, communities that were struggling at a time they needed it the most, Gov. Rauner vetoed the budget that would’ve provided funding to help those cities and towns and villages to start putting the pieces back together.”

In talking with folks across the board, she feels the connection is about ‘relatability.’

“We find ourselves in that sandwich generation where we have to do both— take care of children and our elders. That’s something I would never change. I was very privileged to look after my mother during her last years of her life. When I think about safety, and we’re concern about our children as they go back and forth to school. Men are also concerned about this but often, we as women, are not thinking about how to care for just our families but about our entire communities,” she sighs. “Raising the minimum wage and thinking about how women are often in jobs and how we can increase those wages so they can better care for their families. Equal pay, believe it or not, came up before the Illinois legislature this year and there was a heated debate—still in 2017 on whether women should make the same amount as men do for the same work.”

When addressing a room full of people, Stratton is poised and con dent. Her discipline is attributed to her love for working out and training for marathons and triathlons over the years. She is focused and direct but conscious of the campaign ahead in the next few months while gearing up to travel throughout central and downstate Illinois—she says “as many communities as we can to hear from talking to people directly.”

The grueling schedule of a state-wide campaign is no joke and pales in comparison to walking the streets of her 5th District. She understands and adds, “To train for marathons and triathlons, which I’ve done as a hobby for the last decade, people often say: ‘Oh you run 26 miles, bike, swim and run.’ I don’t think about it as far as from the physical capability, I reflect on the mental tenacity and the discipline that is required to train your body and your mind for long distances.”

Stratton smiles and says, “I think about a campaign like an endurance sport in some ways. You have to remember to drink your water, you have to get sleep, you have to eat right, and you have to know yourself. That is something I’ve come to know in my years of training; it’s something I’ve applied to my first campaign and this one. To recognize it’s not a short sprint, it’s a long-distance race. We have another 14 months to go—hopefully. I’m keeping my eyes on the prize.”

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