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Robin Kelly Winning Jesse Jackson Jr.'s Seat Is a Textbook Case for Women Politicians

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Illinois's second congressional district seat, held by Jesse Jackson, Jr. for 17 years, is a big political prize: a safe seat for Democrats, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the general. The seat is not likely to be open again anytime soon.

District voters, wearied by the saga of Jackson's downfall, and by his apparent inability to serve the district, were looking for someone who cared. The result was that once Jackson resigned, a couple dozen names were tossed around. The Election Day Democratic primary ballot included 14 of them.

At the start, among the better known names was state senator Donne Trotter, whose years of legislative experience and close ties to powerful political leaders appeared to make him a frontrunner. Then, he was arrested for carrying an unlicensed gun. With at least a gun killing a day in Chicago, a gun-toting candidate, no matter his clout, was not a plan. No campaign for him.

Viable candidates did include Anthony Beale, a long-time Chicago city council member; Toi Hutchinson, a young, up-and-coming state senator; Debbie Halvorson, a former congresswoman who lost last year's primary to Jackson; and, last, but now first, Robin Kelly, a former state representative, chief of administration for Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle, and chief of state for former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Reflecting on why Kelly prevailed -- for there was no dispositive reason to think she would when I started getting fundraising calls in December -- I realize Kelly's campaign is a textbook case for women who want to run to win.

Here is my thinking on Kelly's take-aways. First, the "don'ts."

-- Don't wait to be asked, especially if others are considering running. By the time you (may be) get asked, you'll be perceived as a not-so-serious latecomer. Late-comers don't win.

-- Don't fear other women candidates. You're not running because you are a woman. You are running because you have something to contribute to public decision-making, of course reflecting your life experience as a woman, giving you a unique understanding of policy issues that affect women (that is pretty much all issues; keep reading), but not only because of that.

-- Don't fear clout. Use it. Clout producers winners by providing campaign workers, endorsers, community allies and behind-the-scenes influencers. Since your male (and, increasingly, female) competition won't shy away from using every advantage, you shouldn't either.

--Don't be shy about welcoming clout that is campaign cash. There is a lot of naysaying about the role of Michael Bloomberg's political action committee in Kelly's victory. (According to news reports, Bloomberg's PAC spent millions of dollars, buying TV exposure Kelly had no other way to purchase.) But, as the late Illinois US Senator Paul Simon, an advocate of campaign finance reform, frequently reminded us: "I'm not going to unilaterally disarm." You shouldn't either.

-- Don't be deterred if it takes endorsers a while to come around publicly. You never know what's really going on behind the scenes. Kelly received the endorsement of Jan Schakowsky, her presumptive sister in the Illinois congressional delegation -- and other Chicago-area Members of Congress -- thirteen days before Election Day. Nine days before, Preckwinkle endorsed. Then, all worked to get her elected.

Bottom line on the don'ts: Women win the same way men do. There is no special dispensation because you are a woman candidate. Do what you have to do.

Second, the "do's":

-- Do run on an issue that broadly concerns your community that can also be framed as a "women issue." In Kelly's case, the issue was gun violence. Ever take a look at the grieving mourners at all those funerals for dead Chicago children? They are mostly women.

-- Do target women voters. Women vote more than men do. (I read that 60 percent of the voters in the second district Democratic primary were women.)

-- Do understand that "field" is king, or queen, as was the case for Kelly. Kelly's election day was a snow day. No matter. Hundreds of campaign workers made sure that Kelly's voters got to the polls.

-- Do run as a pro-choice feminist. Presumptive new Member Kelly will join three other pro-choice, feminist Illinois Members: Cheri Bustos, Tammy Duckworth and Schakowsky. There are no other women Members in the Illinois congressional delegation. This isn't an accident: Pro-women women candidates are the women who win congressional races.

-- Do get the experience you need, taking the measure of it at every turn. Like heart surgery, politics isn't for amateurs.

-- Do believe in yourself, no matter the naysayers, no matter those who plead with you to "just be practical." Kelly's election teaches us that number one is believing in number one.

Bottom line on the do's: If you're thinking of running, do like Kelly did.

Bottom line for Americans everywhere: We benefit when women win. Women make good public officials: They care, they collaborate, and they fight for their communities. Congratulations, second district, for making a good decision for all of us.