Women coach women on leadership

Legislators help new grads learn how to run

Twelve new graduates of the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership Training Academy met with legislators at the Capitol April 19. Graduates of the program who went on to election to the General Assembly gave the group advice on how to be more effective leaders and urged them to consider using their new skills in public service. Sen. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, told the group she would never have run for office had it not been for IWIL.

According to Liz Mitchell, deputy press secretary for the Senate Democratic Caucus, IWIL Training Academy prepares and trains Democratic, pro-choice women to run for elected office, seek public appointments, and govern effectively at all levels in Illinois. Mitchell is an alumna of the Training Academy, as are four members of the General Assembly and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton. This year’s graduating class includes Lisa Badger, a recent candidate for Springfield city treasurer.

The meeting is an annual affair where alumnae have an opportunity to tour the Capitol, witness legislators in action, and meet with alumnae who currently serve in Springfield. Rep. Margaret Croke, D-Chicago, credited her IWIL Training Academy experience in 2020 with giving her the tools she needed to successfully run for the Illinois House of Representatives later that year. She told this year’s class that any successful run for the Statehouse requires assembling a competent and dedicated team. She noted that the Democratic Caucus has more women than men, and that she’s found the General Assembly to be welcoming to women with children.

Croke said IWIL has helped shift conversations toward issues that are important to women. For instance, she has sponsored a bill that passed the House and is moving through the Senate that makes it easier for pregnant women to collect prenatal expenses from the fathers of their babies. She said that gun violence is another area of particular interest to women in the General Assembly and could be addressed by using consumer protection tools. As an example, she is in favor of only allowing guns that can have biometrically controlled safeties and imposing liability on manufacturers in more cases.

Crisis pregnancy centers also concern IWIL, according to Croke. She is cosponsor of a bill that would regulate these businesses that attempt to divert and delay pregnant women from accessing abortion services.

Fine started her legislative career in the House, serving three terms, when in 2018 she successfully ran for the Senate. She said one of the surprises of legislating is that some bills can create strange bedfellows. A recent piece of legislation, for instance, sought to give more power to the Illinois Commerce Commission. Opponents argued that the measure would hurt both individual and business consumers. “I never thought I’d see the Shriver Center on Poverty Law and the Small Business Advocacy Council on the same side of an issue, but there they were,” said Fine.

Fine also said that it’s critical not to hold grudges, and it’s important to be sympathetic to other members who vote their districts’ interests when they don’t align with her interests. “It’s important to have conversations and really listen before and after voting no,” she said. For Fine, listening also means a willingness to change her mind. “If you never change your mind, you’ve stopped looking,” she said.

Rep. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, another Training Academy alumna, represents a district that she estimates to be 80 percent first-generation and second-generation immigrants. Her campaign flyers are printed in three languages. She volunteered on various campaigns for 10 years before deciding to run for office. It was an intimidating experience, but her Training Academy experience was invaluable. “I went up against the son of the retiring representative. It felt like he was expecting to inherit the position,” she said. “I won by 500 votes.” Mah explained that her ground game was better, and her message was no more complicated than convincing constituents that she wanted to work with them to improve their community. “You’re never wrong if you’re fighting for more community engagement.”

Admission to the IWIL Training Academy is competitive. Applicants must write essays and provide letters of recommendation, and the class is limited to 12 participants from around the state. They then attend six multi-day sessions across Illinois and Washington, D.C. Participants attend about 115 hours of training. Of their 239 alumnae, 143 have run for office at least once and 61 women are currently in office.

Don Howard is an intern at Illinois Times while completing his master’s degree in

Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield. He can be reached at

[email protected] or 336.455.6966.

About The Author

Don Howard

Don Howard is an intern with University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting master's degree program. He is a former lawyer and Spanish speaker who has lived in both Mexico and Spain, and most recently relocated to Illinois from Georgia.

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