There hasn’t been an official statement from long-time Cook County Board Commissioner Jerry “Iceman” Butler on whether he would run for another term in the 3rd district. But, at 77, the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Famer and seven-term board commissioner’s silence has become an open indicator for prospects to throw their hat into the ring for his seat.
One candidate has taken the bull by the horns, announcing her bid for the 3rd district office over the summer.
Charise Williams’ interest in public service was first triggered by an incident that involved her then 12-year-old son falling ill and being hospitalized while she was in grad school. Not having health insurance at the time, she sought out medical care through Cook County’s health system. With the support and guidance by the doctors and faculty, she realized how they had saved her son’s life.
A single mother and finishing up her MBA program at the University of Chicago, she chose the path of seeking a career in public service.
She says, “I interned for Toni Preckwinkle in 2012 right after she was elected. I worked on the bond court study, I worked in the juvenile department and I saw a lot of really good people doing good things in the county. You hear these stories about politicians not working hard and I saw people working hard. I was able to be a part of real policy,” Williams said.
Currently, Williams works as Deputy Chief of Staff for Civic Engagement for Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs where she has worked for 2 years.
A conversation with then Commissioner Robert Steele a few months before his passing in June of this year also motivated her to consider running for public office.
“He asked me if I considered going into politics. I loved being in the background and making things happen. But I wanted to actually be able to do things. He said there are actual politicians that do things. Robert Steele, for those who knew him, was all about the community and he was the first one to bring the idea to me,” she remembers.
“After evaluating everything, I [realized I] could actually make real change within things I generally care about–public health and public safety.”
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Williams and her brother were raised by her mother—a CPS teacher at the time. Still very close to their father, they were between both households receiving valuable lessons. Her father, a Marines veteran, and mother, who retired this year after 25 years of service for CPS, instilled in her the importance of giving back.
“Everything she [mother] did was about service to others. I remember her buying granola bars at the store for us and also buying for others because her students would come to school and hadn’t eaten. My father is very disciplined—he’s sweet and cool, but he’s disciplined. He taught us ‘Your word is your word and you do what you say you’re going to do’. Having the best of both worlds but also seeing my mother struggle at the same time,” she said. “She always gave us what we needed even though we may have not gotten what we wanted. My story is not unique to most people.”
Since early October, Williams has traveled around the district on a “listening tour,” talking directly with constituents about the issues that plague them as County residents. The third district stretches from parts of the Gold Coast to Bronzeville and as far west as Pulaski Rd. Two main concerns have been the additional taxes, which include the sweetened beverage tax, and the threats to healthcare provisions.
“I feel you can still have access to public health and public safety without pulling back services. I don’t feel they go together—they can be exclusive. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality healthcare and good service because of bad spending,” Williams adds in her dismay.
“It’s on our elected officials to be responsible and be fiscal. I can’t come to somebody’s house and demand they give me something if I haven’t done anything on my own to work to get it. First, we need to figure out what we can do right as an elected official without sacrificing any of the services we’ve been paying our taxes to receive. All of a sudden, we shouldn’t have to lose good doctors or good prosecutors because we mismanaged monies previously. Yes, we’re going to have a budget deficit but what have the elected officials done first to make sure the budget is met without cutting jobs?”
In the primary race ahead, petitions are being hustled as candidates sprint to file them by the Dec.1 deadline to the Board of Elections office. Williams knows it’s not going to be an easy path to victory with Cook County Board President Preckwinkle openly endorsing former Chicago Community Trust executive William Lowry for the seat.
At 40, she believes in the same attributes that has carried Commissioner Butler over the finish line.
“The one thing that leads to Commissioner Butler’s legacy is healthcare. He is a huge advocate of healthcare especially for single moms. I honestly believe if it wasn’t for people like him, me and my son would’ve been in a different situation. I don’t know if it was directly because of him but I know he’s been an advocate for single moms, children and seniors since he’s been in office.”
If Williams wins the primary and ultimately the general election, she will be the first female Cook County Commissioner to represent the 3rd district and possibly the third woman to serve on the board overall in a heavily male-dominated club.
“I’m excited about the next generation of leaders. Yes, the Cook County board has traditionally been considered a ‘boys club’ but I’m hopeful and excited to have people like me to change that,” she says. “I’m one of the first ones stepping out, but I’ll make sure I’m not the last one. I believe if I’m coming out there, I’m bringing 10, 20 more people who look like me coming through the door.”