Carol Ammons’ thrilling Tuesday started with a 6:01 a.m. trip to the voting booth and ended, 17 hours later, with swarms of supporters celebrating her historic upset. Christine des Garennes tagged along for the wild ride.
In her cardinal red suit — a wool one; this is March in Illinois, after all — and with a big smile, Carol Ammons walks through downtown Champaign as dawn unfolds.
"Isn't this nice?" she says as the sky turns a muted pink.
She has a cup of coffee, just one, at Merry Ann's Diner before heading over to Cafe Kopi, where for 20 minutes she greets every person who walks in the door.
Nearly every single one says they voted for her or will vote for her later in the day.
"Today is our day!" she says to them and again to supporter Byron Clark of Champaign. He stands at Fourth and Washington streets in Champaign, waving a sign for Ammons and reminding people to vote.
"She's the best. She's got a great heart and a great spirit," he says.
Clark's cousin, Robin Brown, has staked out a spot outside Church of the Living God, Ammons' home church, in Champaign.
"I'm your biggest fan," she says to Ammons, who gives her a hug.
Cars drive by and one after the other, supporters wave and honk. A bus driver shouts, "I'm gonna vote for you!"
Less than a mile away, across the street from Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, University of Illinois student Jamar Smith, who has never been involved with a political campaign before, also arrives early in the morning to wave a sign for Ammons. (But first, he had to fill out his NCAA bracket, he confesses to Ammons when she comes by to say hello.)
Ammons drops by Piato's and chats with people in Lincoln Square, pops into Cafeteria & Co. in downtown Urbana, then the Courier Cafe. Walking along Broadway Avenue, she pauses at the bus stop near the Champaign County courthouse to shake more hands while her husband, hearing she is nearby, comes bearing lemon bars made for her by a friend whose spouse just went into labor.
Like her campaign, which launched in early October and ran through one of the coldest, snowiest winters in recent years, Ammons spends Tuesday walking through Champaign-Urbana, talking with countless residents of the 103rd House District of Illinois.
"You can win person by person," says Ammons' campaign manager Danielle Chynoweth, who characterizes Tuesday's Democratic primary between Ammons and Sam Rosenberg as a "money versus people" kind of campaign.
Twelve hours later, around 10:30 p.m., Ammons' supporters surround her at the Brookens Center in Urbana chanting and cheering.
"Tell me what community looks like! This is what community looks like!"
First to vote
Ammons' alarm was set for 5 a.m., but she gets up at 4. She couldn't sleep.
"I read comments on Facebook about the campaign and the overwhelming support got me going," she says.
She dresses, prays, and volunteer Michelle Jett arrives to drive her to her polling place, the Vineyard Church in Urbana.
They pull in at 6:01 a.m., the first ones to arrive. After election judges get things organized, she signs her name in the signature book.
"That was good!" she says after casting her ballot at 6:20 a.m.
It's the fourth time she has voted for herself on a ballot: Urbana school board, Champaign County Board, Urbana City Council and now state representative.
"Something I've always said that Carol has brought to my life is that she pushes me to break the ceilings I may have placed upon myself. This is very much a reflection of who she is," says her husband, Aaron Ammons, later that morning. "Many may say her ceiling was the city council. She says, why not dream the big dream, go for what you really want out of life, and don't be limited by the parameters someone else puts upon you."
Before Urbana Middle School starts, Aaron Ammons drives to Mt. Olive church, where he meets Carol so their son Amir can see her before class. He gets out of the car to give her a hug. She also has a kiss for her grandson Jalil in the backseat.
Ammons' organizers built in a couple of breaks in the day (including an abbreviated session with her hairdresser), but mostly from 6 a.m. onward she's on her feet.
"It's one of the longest days of the year," says Ammons supporter Angie Patton, who spends much of the day watching polls as well as making sure Ammons doesn't forget to eat and drink. (A big glass of water with a lemon is welcome.)
"By 7 p.m. I will be running on adrenaline," Ammons says early in the day.
Tuesday is different from campaigning, she says. Instead of discussing issues like education funding and pensions today, people are excited to express their support for her.
Over at Lincoln and Fairview avenues, Kevin Cory Lesure, a songwriter, composes and sings a song for her.
"Vote for Carol," he waves to people driving by.
"This is grassroots campaigning at its best," Ammons says.
The sun shines and the temperature rises.
"We could not have asked for a better day," she says.
Midday, she checks in at campaign headquarters located on the lower level of the Independent Media Center, in the old post office building in downtown Urbana.
Volunteers are calling people to remind them to vote and offering to drive people to the polls for anyone who needs a ride. Pizza is delivered. Someone jokes about doing a conga line down Interstate 72 to Springfield.
"This is a very organized campaign," says Jeanne Roberts of St. Louis. She heard about Ammons' campaign from a friend of a friend and decided to visit for a few days and help out. She mans the phone bank and observes Ammons.
"She's like Mother Earth," Roberts says.
At a speech last fall, Ammons told the audience that no matter what the outcome of the campaign was, she hopes people are inspired to become more engaged in their community. She repeats that message throughout the day Tuesday.
"She's got a long track record in the community," says Brian Dolinar, who stops by the center. He's worked with Ammons at the Independent Media Center and CU Citizens for Peace & Justice, of which Ammons was one of the co-founders. Her involvement with CU Citizens for Peace & Justice, which over the years has spoken out against police use of Tasers and jail expansion, "laid the groundwork that has helped her in this campaign," he says.
"This has been a real opportunity to expand the domain of civic engagement," Chynoweth says — to get people involved in their schools, to protect drinking water and more.
Lots of new people were attracted to the Ammons campaign, she says.
"And the long-term effect of that is pretty big. I've described it as 'a movement,' not just a campaign. This is a piece of that movement ... building the power of ordinary people to create change," Chynoweth says.
In the days leading up to the primary election, area Democrats received a dizzying number of mailers from the Rosenberg campaign, which took in more than $67,000 from committees directly controlled by House Speaker Mike Madigan.
"People are not stupid," says Stephen Kaufman of Urbana. "Those fliers that she's a puppet of the politicians couldn't be further than the truth by a million degrees."
Ammons' husband says reading and listening to negative campaign ads was "very tough."
"But we were trained well in the principles of nonviolence and we know that this comes with the territory. I hope her behavior and the way we handled it provides leadership for the whole community," he says.
Throughout the afternoon and early evening, Ammons divides her time between Mt. Olive church, the Douglass Community Center and other stops before heading back to campaign headquarters.
"We ran a positive campaign and I feel good about that," she says.
At 7 p.m., polls close. Around 8:30 p.m., the results from several key precincts come in, and it's apparent Rosenberg didn't bring in as many votes as some had expected. With about 25 percent of precincts reporting, Ammons is told she has captured almost 60 percent of the vote.
"I'm being conservative," she says, noting that final results won't be posted for a while yet. Still, "I think my temperatures just went up a few notches. You didn't make that number up? Oh my gosh," she says, taking off her jacket.
"I'm overwhelmed," she says.
"Congratulations," someone says in a quiet voice.
Without a beat, Ammons says, "I congratulate you. And you. And you," she says, looking around the crowded room.
Over the next hour, people make their way from the campaign headquarters to a larger space upstairs and they help themselves to a spread of Thai food and drinks. The crowd grows and the room fills with supporters who come over to hug and congratulate her.
Ammons' 12-year-old son, Amir, also dressed in red, stays within hugging distance of his mother.
"It's been fun," he says. Throughout the campaign he has baby-sat children of volunteers and helped out canvassing neighborhoods. Next weekend, Ammons has scheduled a trip to Indiana, where they will go fishing and ride horses.
'We did this'
After pulling into the parking lot at Brookens Administrative Center, but before walking inside to greet the growing number of supporters and see the final results posted, Ammons hugs supporters like Patton.
"It was emotional," Patton says, tearing up. "At no point was she ever like, 'I won.' It was 'we did this.' That's really it in a nutshell. It was everybody together. This is history so it is not lost on me the enormity of the situation."
Ammons is the first African-American candidate in the 103rd House District and, if elected in November, she'll be the first African-American woman to serve as state representative for the district.
After the results are posted, Ammons answers questions from the media, and her husband introduces her for her formal acceptance speech.
"I am so, so honored to be here with you all," she says, recognizing the diverse group of supporters around her — different races, straight, gay, retirees, students, professors, laborers, social workers.
"We are a multitude, but we are one people, one community," she says.
"We are going all the way in November. We will be successful. We will be united. I look forward to the next phase."
But first there will be a party.
On Friday night, volunteers are invited to celebrate at the Independent Media Center, where there will be a DJ, food and drinks.