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Silvana Tabares, Chicago Journalist, Pursuing Open Seat In Illinois Race

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For 10 years Silvana Tabares, a child of Chicago raised with a belief in public service, used the tools of journalism to have an impact on her community.

But in September 2011, Tabares left that career to pursue politics. She is now a candidate in the Democratic primary for an open seat in the Illinois legislature, as state representative of the 21st District, which stretches across Chicago's Southwest Side and into the suburbs.

"I will not be an elected official as well as a journalist. I will be focused on being a public servant as an elected official," said Tabares in a recent phone interview.

Since the moment of her resignation, Tabares, 33, has devoted her entirety to reach victory by the State primary day March 20, now less than a week away. Her mission is to get to Springfield and fight to bring quality education, secure public safety and create jobs to its residents.

The new district covers the neighborhoods of Brighton Park, Garfield Ridge, Little Village, and the townships of Bedford Park, Cicero, Lyons, Riverside and Stickney. During her initial "listening tour" where she knocked on residents' doors to introduce herself, hear their concerns, and obtain signatures to get on the ballot, she learned that the district is mainly middle class and Democratic, made up of middle aged-to-senior citizen Hispanic, Caucasian and African-Americans.

"A lot of the residents are excited to see a very young Hispanic woman running for office, so they're very receptive," she said energetically. "Many residents are supporting me and immediately when I knock on their doors and introduce myself, they like the energy I project to them."

Tabares initially pursued journalism with the desire to help others. She received her associate degree from Richard J. Daley College, while also working at Radioarte 90.5 FM. In 2007, she earned her bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from Columbia College in Chicago.

Tabares says she got her first taste of leadership at the radio station. She began as an intern and within five years had worked her way up to producer for a teen audio magazine program called Youth Metro, where she wrote about youth affairs topics such as health, social and political issues.

"That was definitely a great outlet to really express yourself," she said. "It was really empowering, and that was a turning point because it sparked my interest to be more involved as a leader in the community, because you are given an outlet. It is a media outlet where people are listening to you, and you have to have the responsibility that you need to act on."

In 2008, Tabares moved on to work at Extra newspaper as an editor, reporter and writer. For four years she covered topics such as gang violence, public safety and education, which helped bring public awareness and government response to those issues in the neighborhoods of the 21st District.

"And that lead me to politics. I feel that we need somebody who is going to speak on the issues. As a journalist I wrote about them. I have my ear to the ground, and so I understand the community well. I want to be that leader, and that's why I am running," she said.

It was in the middle of last year, that a journalism colleague saw on Tabares' Facebook page that she was running for office. The colleague recommended that Tabares look into The 2012 Project, because it could help her connect with the right resources for the campaign.

"The 2012 Project is non-partisan and we're a campaign of Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. Our main mission is inspiring women to run. We reach out to women in as many ways as possible. And in fact we met Silvana Tabares through Twitter," said Laurie Kretchmar, media director for The 2012 Project.

Kretchmar explained that the reason why the organization is called "The 2012 Project" this year is because this is a big year in open seat elections due to redistricting in every state for State Legislature and for Congress. She added that generally women and newcomers do best in running for an open seat, regardless of past political experience and the level of position they are pursuing.

Once Tabares contacted them, Kretchmar said they linked her to seven different organizations in Illinois that work to help women get elected, including Emily's List and Progressive Majority, to name two.

"Our main job, when she reached out to us, was to call the candidate and find out about her and her affiliation - because we work with both Democrats and Republicans as well as independents -- and link them to resources in their state," Kretchmar said. "Basically we are trying to speed the on- ramp. Someone brand new to politics might not know how to put together a campaign team, raise money or whom to talk to in their state. So we are trying to find new women to run, and also say 'Hey, did you know that right in your state there's resources?' "

"[They] helped me to be wiser and ...to expand, to grow as a person. It's an excellent organization because so many women are coming out and running for office. It's very empowering to see that you are not alone, that there are many women out there who have an interest in public service," Tabares said.

Kretchmar added that if a woman has life experience from another field -- like Tabares -- and has even thought of running, she could be a potential candidate.

Aside from having the experience of reporting on the community's issues, Tabares also believes she can represent the people of Springfield because she knows the neighborhoods first-hand. Tabares grew up an only child, raised by her mother, who was a single parent in the southwest side of Chicago -- Little Village and Pilsen. Today she lives in Garfield Ridge.

"From [my mother] I really learned about the value of work ethics and being humble and appreciative of how you can give back," said Tabares, noting that she never expects anything in return.

Public service is second nature to Tabares. In her childhood, she dedicated her time to her local Catholic church. She sang in the choir, read passages during mass and participated in religious plays during Christmas season. As a teenager, she was a eucharistic minister at Lourdes High School. And today, Tabares makes herself very "visible and accessible" to the public, she affirms, by attending community events to meet voters. After the January snowstorm hit Chicago, Tabares and her team of strong volunteers were out shoveling snow for senior residents of her neighborhood.

Though no longer a journalist, Tabares continues to utilize her interviewing and listening skills with voters to learn their needs. She said the difference here is that their stories will not be published; rather, they serve the purpose of bringing current issues and concerns to her awareness. If elected, she promises the community "to work very hard with fellow elected officials to solve problems and issues."

What is her Plan B if she does not get elected?

"No: this is going to happen. This is going to be a win," Tabares replied quickly and firmly. "I've been working very hard every day and the only thing on my mind is victory. There's no other plan. This is what I want and I have a great campaign team volunteering and helping me out and we're all working toward victory."

UPDATE: On March 20, as early spring temperatures in Chicago soared to 83 degrees, Silvana Tabares won the Democratic primary race, tallying 3,761 votes, or 52.2%. Tabares explained that with no Republican filing for a Republican primary, "unless the Republican Party appoints somebody for the general election, this race will decide the next state representative for the 21st District."

Olivia N. Castañeda is a 2011 graduate of the Columbia College Journalism Program and a freelance writer and model in Chicago. This is her first story for Off the Bus. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's political coverage in your area, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.