In the game of politics, there is no room for weakness or hesitation. It is often like chess – know your opponent’s move before the move is made.
In the State of Illinois, the electoral process is a bootcamp of strong will, gut reaction, high-powered connections and often a legacy bloodline of ancestral entitlement. Moreso, it takes an extra layer of thick skin to withstand the intense scrutiny made by voters who are not familiar with the candidate.
No one understands this scrutiny better than Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp. The former President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League decided to resign her position in late May 2015 to run for Mark Kirk’s U.S. Senate seat this year.
To the legal and business community, Zopp’s name is familiar and associated with community empowerment, but to the average Chicago resident, the lack of familiarity in the very community in which she served has been the challenge.
Zopp has built a strong work ethic since entering the workplace at age 16 as she grew up in Rochester, New York. One of her first jobs was as a cash registrar at the local grocery store. Attending Harvard, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in History and Science in 1978 and paid her way through Harvard Law School to attain a J.D in 1981.
“We know education opens those doors,” Zopp says. “I was able to get a great education, but I had to work for it. I was able to get a job as a lawyer. This is why I’m running. Those types of opportunities that opened for me – we have to make sure they’re opened for everyone. Our youth want to work and they should be able to dream.”
Zopp’s career in law is both impressive and driven. She is a walking encyclopedia of legal knowledge. At the start of her career, she worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office from 1983 to 1990.
“I got my first job there because of a woman named Ann Williams, who is now the only African American on the U.S. Court of Appeals. She was in the U.S. Attorney’s office at the time and she called me,” Zopp says.
“We went to lunch and she gave me a lot of counsel about my interview that was coming up and because of her counsel, I did very well in my interview and got the job – I have never forgotten it.”
Her career climb has included working in the Cook County State’s Attorney Office, serving as First Assistant; as a Partner in the litigation department at the Chicago law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal; and she has served in senior executive positions for Sara Lee, Sears Holdings Corp. and Exelon.
As Executive Vice President of Exelon Corp. since 2008, she joined the Chicago Urban League as the President and Chief Executive Officer.
She attributes a great deal of her career success to mentoring and helping other professionals in her field as a key lesson to growth.
“My family was very engaged in the community, but that was one of the profound lessons I learned,” she says, “that it doesn’t have to be somebody you know. You have an obligation to make sure that door opens because none of us got where we’re at by ourselves. So I’m passionate about it.”
She’s never one to brag about her accomplishments and influence that she’s had on other professional women, but when people speak of powerful women attorneys, Andrea Zopp’s name consistently comes up.
Cook County State’s Attorney candidate Kim Foxx and Illinois Commerce Commissioner Sherina Maye Edwards mention Zopp as a wonderful mentor to aspiring young attorneys.
Zopp humbly said, “It’s very kind of people to say this; those are some amazing women as well. That’s part of my stealth plan so that I can retire – to build up the youngsters. They are going to rule the world. That is the thing. We have so many amazing people. We plan on hosting a special Women’s Summit on March 2 inviting some of these great women.”
Some would say this would be contradictory to Zopp’s term as a member of the Chicago Public School Board. She served on the school board when the decision was made in 2011 to close 50 schools in predominately Black communities.
It has been a constant issue of concern when the question arises about her commitment to Chicago’s low-income residents and their needs.
The school closings have now been overshadowed by another major hurdle – the state budget stalemate. How can the federal government influence a governor who is withholding essential funds to the Chicago Public Schools district?
About Governor Rauner
In the fight to unseat Senator Mark Kirk, Zopp recommends the government penalize detrimental decisions such as Governor Rauner’s.
She says, “If you’re not managing your educational dollars consistently or fairly or in ways that disproportionately impact communities of color or poor communities, then we’ll impact other funding. There ought to be a way to work across the government. That is one thing that I would like to see us work at.
“We also have to provide some support to help districts. The pension issue is the single biggest issue for the state and CPS. It has to get resolved before we move forward,” Zopp continues.
“If anyone thinks that the violence is not tied to the dramatic decrease in services because of the lack of state funding, then they are mistaken. Job, after-school, training, mental health and addiction programs – all of these things are being cut. We need to start standing up immediately, at the governor and at the leaders. We have to find a pathway; this is not acceptable.”
Zopp has her work cut out, as the March 15 primary election is a month away, against both her Democrat opponents, Cong. Tammy Duckworth and State Sen. Napoleon Harris, as they fight for voter support. The winner goes against Kirk in the November general election.
In the last few weeks, Zopp has attained the endorsements of Cong. Danny Davis, Cong. Bobby Rush and Rev. Jesse Jackson. And although she is new to running for a public office, she is not new to understanding people.
“I don’t think I realized quite how big our state is. It looks big on the map but you don’t really realize how big it is until you get in the car and drive and drive,” Zopp said. “But having done that – you meet people and you hear the things they’re concerned about.”
She realizes that issues people face downstate are different from the problems Chicagoans face, with police misconduct being one of the “hot button” topics.
“I know police cases involving police violence or misconduct – I know that because I’ve prosecuted them. I also know we have thousands of really good police officers who are doing their job and working very hard every day in helping us keep safe and staying safe themselves,” Zopp says.
She relates to both sides of the fence, as a prosecutor who indicted Chicago police officer Gregory Becker for the unlawful killing of Joseph Gould, a homeless African-American man, and as a member of a law enforcement family that spans three generations. However, she also believes in having opportunities set forth for those that are re-entering society to improve their quality of life.
“A lot of people have criminal records because of over-incarceration. We have to address that and recognize that people who have past history, nonviolent offenders, can move into the workplace,” Zopp says.
“We have to make those paths easier. Use tax credits to incentivize employers to hire people who are ex-offenders. CTA has a great program as does John Hopkins in Boston,” She said. “These are strong examples.”
On Economic Development
She continued, “There is a horrific unemployment rate for African-American young men and we have to fix that. They don’t have a pathway to economic engagement. They’re going to stand around and engage in criminal conduct because they have to eat; their kids have to eat. There’s a whole economic agenda that ties in my view to violence.”
Without economic development and access to opportunities for small businesses, specifically Black-owned businesses, how can there be more employment for youth from these communities of color?
Zopp answers, “We have a lot of people that own businesses and they work hard to keep those businesses together. But those businesses don’t get the same opportunities to contracts.”
During her time at the Chicago Urban League, Zopp helped put several youth employment and entrepreneurial programs in place, including the City of Chicago’s “One Summer” job program.
“Part of my economic agenda is to reinvest in our communities,” Zopp says. “We have to get some infrastructure investment underway that will create jobs. How do we incentivize businesses to invest in zones where you need work in order to create jobs?”
With Illinois not having had an elected Black U.S. Senator since Carol Moseley Braun, Zopp feels there is a deep disparity of both people of color and women being under-represented in the U.S. Senate.
Only four Black men and one woman have been elected to the U.S. Senate; five other African-Americans also served, but they were appointed by either governors or state legislators to fill vacant seats.
Zopp agrees that because a U.S. Senator holds the longest term of six years, this election is imperative for Illinois to have a diverse voice in Washington, D.C.
“We’re not present,” Zopp says. “It’s hard for us to build, yet we come from people who have persevered and achieved in the worse circumstances and our young people need to know that. They need to feel strong about that. Whenever I have a chance to encourage people, particularly people of color, I’m going to do it.”
One of the major obstacles in the Senate is maintaining the importance of the Affordable Health Care Act. Although Zopp feels that it is still a “work-in-progress,” she believes that it has improved the quality of life for most under-served Americans.
“The fact is that millions of people did not have access to health care before it. We cannot have that taken away,” Zopp emphasizes. “Also, I sat on the Cook County Health and Hospital System Board before the Affordable Healthcare Act, where people received their primary health care in the Cook County Hospital emergency room.
“The reason why that’s bad for everyone is by the time they get there, they’re really sick. When they’re really sick, their cure is going to be really expensive and taxpayers will eat the costs.”
The Personal Side
Zopp and her husband reside in Morgan Park with their two daughters and son. She understands the importance of setting forth a message that connects with Illinois residents in these challenging times.
However, she doesn’t dismiss how hard she’s worked to attain success and her family’s background is similar to most African-Americans that have migrated from the South.
“My parents came from just about nothing. My father was from Mississippi and mother from Virginia. They were able to work and go to school and build a wonderful life for me and my brother, enabling me to work hard and go to college,” she says.
Without losing a beat, she says her days and nights are filled with non-stop fundraising to assure her message is not lost on voters in the next few weeks, with her biggest challenger, Duckworth, having secured organizations such as Emily’s List and labor union SEIU.
Zopp knows she can’t afford to rest until each vote is counted.
“I’m a hard worker because I’m willing to put in the effort to earn the vote,” she says. “That’s what I want people to know when I go to Washington, D.C. I’m going to take that work ethic with me. That’s what people have to do every day to survive.
“The problem is that too many people are working really hard and are not able to build on that or have anything to show for that. They’re not able to build a better life and they feel like they’re treading water. We can do better as a country.”