'We're going to win with dignity and respect'

'We're going to win with dignity and respect'

The suggestion box was a surprise.

Created by local artist Chris Evans and painted in red and white stripes, topped with white stars on a blue background, the wooden box was one of the first things Carol Ammons saw early Tuesday morning when she dropped by her campaign headquarters.

The words painted on the box asked: "What do you dream the General Assembly should do?"

"I'm going to take this to Springfield," Ammons said when she saw it.

What a great reminder, she said, that her campaign for state representative for the 103rd district was never about "Carol's agenda. It was going to be our agenda."

Ammons won Tuesday with 61 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results. She received 13,177 votes to Republican Kristin Williamson's 8,317. Ammons is the first African American woman in Champaign County to be elected to political office beyond the county board level.

Historically, Champaign County voters have elected bankers and lawyers to serve on Champaign and Urbana city councils and the county board, but that has been changing gradually over the last 10 to 15 years, said Ammons' campaign chair Danielle Chynoweth.

"I feel like this campaign ... is part of a trajectory," she said. Chynoweth pointed to her own election as a young community organizer to the Urbana city council in 2001, to when Democrats won a majority on the county board, to when the Urbana City Council tipped progressive, and to when Democrat Don Gerard upset Jerry Schweighart as Champaign mayor in 2011.

"Carol's campaign is really the fruit of that 15 years of labor and what we found is that ground game wins. When it comes to local democracy, ground game wins," Chynoweth said.

On election day, Ammons' ground game was on.

"No butterflies here. Just work," she said, dismissing any questions about feeling nervous before heading out into the rain to visit with people at Sam's Cafe, Cafe Kopi, Pekara, Aroma Cafe, Merry Ann's Diner, Caffe Paradiso, Common Ground Food Co-Op, Piato's, Cafeteria & Co. and the University YMCA.

The News-Gazette went along with her for the ride (and walk).


Ammons set her alarm for 5 a.m., but woke up at 4:30 a.m. By then, her husband Aaron Ammons, a member of her campaign staff, was already dressed and almost out the door to organize volunteers. She chose a bright, lime-colored suit for the day. And plaid rain boots.

Her polling place at the Vineyard church in Urbana opened at 6 a.m. She was first in line. Being first at her polling place has become a tradition for her in recent years as she has voted for herself on a ballot: for a seat on the school board, the county board, the city council and now state representative.

After casting her vote, she and her campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell visited campaign headquarters on University Avenue. Overnight, someone had tacked up on the wall a huge piece of paper, invoking a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead.

"Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

It was an emotional moment for Ammons, whose group of supporters was anything but small on election day.

Volunteers beat her to the office, meeting there between 5 and 5:30 a.m. before heading out to drop off flyers on doorsteps, stand on street corners throughout Champaign-Urbana and wave red and white signs, and drive voters to the polls.

"They're so energizing," she said.

At campaign headquarters, she checked in with campaign manager Michelle Jett, who also worked on her primary campaign against Sam Rosenberg, and Jesse Hoyt, a field organizer who graduated from the University of Illinois. He worked as a labor rights organizer in Chicago before returning to the area to work for Ammons.

Hoyt's office walls were covered with poster-size sheets of paper, where he had hand-written messages and tips about training volunteers and developing relationships with voters. A paper on the door lists his name and title. Underneath is the name "Amir Ammons," deputy field director. That's Ammons' 13-year-old son, who has put in his share of folding flyers in recent months. There's a chess set on the desk where Hoyt and Aaron Ammons often strategized.

"Jesse doesn't just work in the campaign. He's not just the field director. He's a part of our family. It's a very connected kind of campaign. Everyone who works in here can say: Maybe we can try this," Ammons said.

This is the first political campaign Hoyt has worked for and he admitted prior to joining that he wasn't "a big fan" of political campaigns in general.

But what impressed him about the Ammons campaign was the organization already in place; the network of supporters that grew from the primary; her connections to community organizations like CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, the group that opposes jail expansion; and the positive tone, he said.

"From the beginning, our intention has been base building, training the local community" and inspiring them to continue their work after Ammons was elected, he said.

Hoyt has given Ammons and her staff homework, such as reading chapters from books about organizing and campaigning. One particular chapter from "Roots for Radicals" on "relational meetings" stood out to her because it touched on how to learn from people while sitting down and having a conversation with them.

"When you send any candidate to any office, you have to have a base who understands what you are trying to do so when ... there are really hard issues in Springfield, we have an educated electorate that says, 'OK, this is what we've been talking about all this time,' " Ammons said.

"Now we can mobilize and organize to influence other legislators in the state, which is what I'll need to do to make these things happen. We didn't just send some folks out. We trained them to make sure they knew what they were doing and why they were doing it."

More than 250 volunteers have helped out on the campaign. On weekends leading up to election day, about 30 people stepped up to be "door-knockers," typically the toughest job to staff, Hoyt said.

A priority for Ammons on election day was showing appreciation to those volunteers, the "gladiators" standing in the drizzling rain and drumming up support for her.

After touching base with staff in the office, a volunteer drove Ammons around town.

"Thank you for coming out," she said to Jeremiah Moore, who was stationed at Fourth Street and Bradley Avenue, near Church of the Living God in Champaign. He waved the sign, "Want respect? Vote today!"

Ammons offered him a bright yellow rain poncho and gloves.

"I like what you're trying to do for the community," Moore told her. He only moved to Champaign from Chicago a few months ago, but he heard about her campaign and decided to volunteer and come out that morning because he wanted to support the first African American for the 103rd Illinois state house district.

'It's Carol Ammons!'

After checking on her volunteers, Ammons headed to downtown Champaign, where she paid a visit to Sam Issa and people eating breakfast at Sam's Cafe. She ordered hot water and grits, the same meal Gov. Pat Quinn had when he ate at the cafe in September.

A few doors down at Cafe Kopi, she ran into Realtor Debby Auble, a supporter from Champaign and owner of Ward & Associates.

Ammons, Auble said, "embodies the principles and practices of the values we need to progress as a culture in our society. ... I want people to represent me politically but who also represent me as a woman."

Ammons popped into Pekara and splurged on a tiny Russian tea cookie while a supporter wearing an "I voted" sticker said in a low voice, "You've got this in the bag!"

From there it was on to Aroma, where she sat down and spoke with a local business owner and wrote on the cafe's signature wall in dry erase marker: "Carol Ammons for state representative," followed by a quick stop at Merry Ann's Diner.

Meanwhile, Katie Fizdale was back in the campaign office making sure there were plenty of doughnuts, muffins, biscuits, fruit and other food on hand for volunteers. Upon hearing that volunteers were being brought back in for a break to have some hot breakfast, Ammons returned to thank them again.

"It is a long day, but we've built in breaks," she said.

Ammons also took some time late in the morning to visit her mother, Brenda Davis. Davis was recently admitted to intensive care at Carle Foundation Hospital after falling ill. Now stable, she is recovering in the hospital but was unable to attend the victory celebration at the Brookens Administrative Center.

"Oh my God, it's Carol Ammons!" yelped one woman while Ammons walked through Common Ground Food Co-Op in Urbana. "Please be politically incorrect," urged another shopper.

At Caffe Paradiso on the east side of campus, she met graduate students and university employees. Ammons started to run a little behind schedule. She would introduce herself and shake hands with plenty of people, but she also sat down with many of them, like Alissa Harvey, for longer conversations about what issues are important to them.

"I've never been approached by a politician in a coffee shop," Harvey said. When she lived in Colorado prior to moving to Champaign-Urbana in 2013, she'd see politicians at parades. "I have not seen candidates do what she's doing. It's more typical of (electoral) delegates. She's personal and approachable."

At Cafeteria & Co., Ammons also joined a few people at their tables.

"Her ability to dig into the issues and educate herself is impressive," said Bette Leach, who called the campaign "clean," adding, "I think that's important."

At the University YMCA, Ammons headed upstairs to visit a phone bank organized by the Graduate Employees' Organization, the Campus Faculty Association and labor unions. Several student groups, along with the GEO, organized rides to Brookens. Ammons sat for a few minutes to watch students be interviewed for a TV segment.

"I really liked her from the beginning," said UI student body president Mitch Dickey. He met her last year at a student debt forum, which Ammons participated in. "She wasn't just giving out talking points. You could tell she saw this was a problem she wanted to solve."

Late afternoon, the sun began to set and Ammons took a seat in the Hot 105.5 SUV with DJ Suava Lake for a radio remote. They were parked outside the Douglass Community Center, a polling place for a good part of north Champaign and the African American community.

"You have two hours before the polls close," she told listeners. "Give us a high five on your way out!"

Long time coming

After the polls closed, supporters started gathering up their things and moving to the Laborer's Hall just north of I-74 in Urbana. They brought along the suggestion box and the Margaret Mead sign.

"It was a long day," said Abdul Washington of Champaign, who took turns with his brother Ali Washington standing near Washington & Lierman Avenue in Urbana.

They pitched in on the campaign because of Ammons' support for raising the minimum wage and seeking alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Tuesday was the first time either one of them had ever voted.

"I never really believed in politics," Ali Washington said. "I think I'm going to start to get more involved. And keep voting."

Yes, it's important for people to follow national politics, but "local politics directs their lives," Ammons said. Voting "should be as natural for us to do as going to work. It should be a part of our lives." Registering voters has been a key part of the campaign strategy, according to Chynoweth. The campaign registered over 2,500 of them.

Linda Turnbull had been going nonstop Tuesday picking up voters and taking them to their polling places and offering rides to Brookens to people who had not yet registered. She has known and admired Ammons for years.

"She believes in a better future for everybody," Turnbull said.

From 7 to 9 p.m., Ammons' supporters filled the Laborer's Hall.

"Carol, Carol, Carol!" they cheered when she entered with a big smile.

A DJ turned up the Pharrell Williams song "Happy" and Ammons approached each table of volunteers, embracing many. It was reminiscent of the Champaign County Democrats dinner earlier this year when she had everyone clapping along to the song, Chynoweth said.

"We're going to win with dignity and respect," Ammons said.

Among the supporters Tuesday night were retiring 103rd state representative Naomi Jakobsson and her husband Eric, who endorsed Rosenberg during the primary. Jakobsson campaigned for Ammons during the general election.

Ammons briefly addressed the crowd, drawing attention to the suggestion box, and asked people not only to keep her accountable, but also to be willing to respond to any S.O.S. call when needed.

"Let's finish this deal," she said.

And with that, Sam Cooke's voice came through the sound system, singing the 1964 song, "A Change Is Gonna Come."

"It's been a long, long time coming," he crooned.

'Victorious grace'

Around 9:30, Ammons supporters packed into their cars and filled up the Lyle Shields meeting room in Brookens as County Clerk Gordy Hulten posted election returns.a

Among her supporters: a university professor, a retired physician, a small business owner, a labor organizer, a former felon, an artist, a student from China interested in learning about American politics and a recent college graduate looking for a job.

"Tell me what community looks like! This is what community looks like!" Aaron Ammons led supporters in a chant reminiscent of the night of the primary election. "What's the word? Carol Ammons for the 103rd!"

Ammons made her way around the room, giving interviews. Williamson conceded after 10 p.m.

"We're going to do some great work and it's going to be challenging. We won't get everything that we want. But that's how we've been working in this community, where we keep striving forward. And when the challenges come, I ask you don't abandon the mission," Ammons told the crowd gathered around her. "It's going to be really difficult work for the next couple of years and we need you to make it happen.

"I say we celebrate with victorious grace and we thank our opponent for making us strong and for making us work. We didn't win because it was a Democratic district, as some will say or write, but because we worked hard. We knocked on thousands of doors. We made thousands of phone calls. We wrote thousands of thank you cards. ... To the voters of Champaign Urbana, I am grateful to be your state representative. Our door will be open to you.

"We've made a suggestion box already because we want to hear from you and we want to do the work of the community."

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Local Yocal wrote on November 09, 2014 at 5:11 pm
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Congratulations to Carol Ammons and her dedicated team. She should do a good job representing us, even if Madigan obstructs every good initiative she may propose.

Say What wrote on November 09, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Big Surprise !!

The way this district is drawn, anyone with a DEM

next to their name will win this race !!


787 wrote on November 09, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Wasn't this the race where the News-Gazette didn't endorse either candidate?

BruckJr wrote on November 09, 2014 at 8:11 pm

Sounds like a Mother Teresa clone.