Political provocateur: Stava-Murray makes waves in Springfield, blames Madigan, takes on Durbin
Anne Stava-Murray did not arrive quietly on the political scene, and now that she's here, she isn't following anyone's playbook but her own.
The 81st District state representative was inspired by the inaugural Women's March, became a grass-roots activist in her hometown of Naperville, won an election in November as a Democrat in a district she says was drawn to favor Republicans, and then announced before even taking office that she will run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Dick Durbin.
Stava-Murray, 32, almost immediately became a political lightning rod when she said online that Naperville has a "history of white supremacist policies." As she stood by her words -- which led one city council member to call for her resignation -- she turned what originated as a social media post into an animated discussion about racial inequalities.
The freshman Democrat did not vote in favor of House Speaker Michael Madigan -- she voted "present" -- and now says she has a plan both to challenge his power and to address the culture of sexual harassment she says he has allowed to perpetuate.
Stava-Murray has been called a "disrupter" by some and a "natural leader" by others. Her fiery rhetoric has been condemned and cheered, and even some longtime DuPage County Democrats admit they don't know quite what to make of her.
Three newly elected Democratic officials -- two at the state and one at the federal level -- did not return calls seeking comment on her actions and influence. Two others spoke about her only off the record.
There's no arguing she's making her presence felt, but some say there's no telling what her actions will stir up along the way.
When she first got involved in politics, 81st District state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray described herself as an "accidental co-founder" of Naperville Women's March Action, a grass-roots group formed out of the inaugural Women's March in 2017.
- Daily Herald file photo January 2018
First, a marketer
When Stava-Murray first got involved in politics, she described herself as an "accidental co-founder" of Naperville Women's March Action, a progressive group formed from the momentum of the march after President Donald Trump's inauguration.
She is a graduate of Benet Academy in Lisle and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. She launched a career in advertising and market research in New York and Chicago before having children and leaving a workplace she said no longer offered incentives for her to stay.
With time and motivation, Stava-Murray said, she looked every day for little things she could do to improve government in her area, mainly through Naperville Women's March Action, which met in her home. Fellow action group member Jean Baker of Naperville describes Stava-Murray as "energetic" about issues of race and equal rights.
"Her energy is amazing, absolutely amazing," Baker said. "The ideas just fall out of her head at a speed that hardly anyone else can keep up with."
As Stava-Murray's involvement increased, she said she received encouragement from Naperville City Council member Becky Anderson and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster; Anderson helped her seek an advisory-commission post in Naperville, and Foster encouraged her to run for office.
"If there's ever been a year to run as a newcomer to the field, this is the year," she said in late 2017.
Her optimism about her odds against incumbent 81st District state Rep. David Olsen, a Downers Grove Republican and fellow millennial at age 30, proved well-founded. She won by 930 votes, claiming 25,124 votes to Olsen's 24,194 from parts of DuPage and Will counties.
Their campaigns looked very different. She didn't use mailers. She didn't spend much on digital ads, didn't walk much door to door. She even took a few weeks away from campaigning over the summer for the birth of her third child.
But she did use Facebook to connect directly with voters. She handed out seed packets that said "Bee the Change" and created events around the theme.
"I just thought like a marketer," she said.
Financial disclosures filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections show Stava-Murray's campaign raised $38,972 between Oct. 1, 2017, and the end of 2018 -- none of it from the Democratic Party -- while Olsen's brought in $136,426.
Olsen said his campaign included all of the cornerstones: mailers, digital and social media advertising, canvassing door to door, and coordination with both the state party and the House Republican Organization.
He said he made his case to the best of his ability and still lost. He's now running for Downers Grove mayor.
Stava-Murray says voters responded to the inclusivity and independence of her campaign, in which she promised not to support Madigan as speaker of the House.
"I had a positive, uplifting message with me. I encouraged other people to run along the way," Stava-Murray said. "I was making sure that whether or not I was elected, in the end I was making a positive impact."
Even if she uses that strategy with her Senate campaign, political science expert Brian Gaines, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said success against the popular Durbin would be a "long shot."
"It's a difficult jump to make to go from one win in the state House to win the U.S. Senate," Gaines said. And even someone making as many local waves as Stava-Murray remains "not terribly well-known" at the federal level.
Anne Stava-Murray of Naperville, the newly elected 81st District state representative who is running for U.S. Senate, says "the establishment is afraid of me" for her willingness to be independent and step outside Democratic party norms.
- Courtesy of Anne Stava-Murray
Shortly after the Nov. 6 election, Stava-Murray knew the state House wouldn't be a longtime gig. That's why, she said, she felt free to announce her U.S. Senate candidacy so early, posting about it Jan. 1 on Facebook, a few days before taking office for the 81st District.
This puzzled many longtime politicos, such as Bob Peickert of Elmhurst, the outgoing chairman of the DuPage Democratic Party.
"That doesn't make any sense to me. I don't know what her logic is. To run for a position, get elected and then say, 'I don't want to do it,'" Peickert said. "I think it was a shock to many people that she decided to run for Senate. Maybe she has a good reason for it."
Stava-Murray said the main reason she won't stick around past one term in Springfield is the state political world's "culture of sexual harassment." She said she encountered it during an interaction with 55th District Democratic state Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines on one of the first days of new-legislator orientation.
At a dinner, Stava-Murray said, Moylan walked around a table of four women and one man -- she refused to name them -- "grabbing each woman by the side of the head and pulling them close into him and doing a very long, slow kiss on the top of the head." She thought Moylan might skip her because he hadn't donated to her campaign.
"I was the fourth woman in the series that was kissed," she said.
Moylan denies kissing Stava-Murray or anyone else during the event. He said he was one of the hosts and was welcoming attendees with handshakes or brief touches on the arm.
"Greeting people in a warm fashion is not assaulting or grabbing anybody," Moylan said.
He said he apologizes if he made Stava-Murray feel uncomfortable, but she could have spoken up to stop him.
Stava-Murray said among the response options of fight, flight or freeze, she froze.
"I still did not feel like I, that I could say no. I didn't want to cause a scene," she said. "I was already going to vote against the speaker the next day."
And sexual harassment was the reason why.
Before a caucus vote in December, in which Madigan was chosen as the Democrats' nominee for speaker, Stava-Murray said she met with him to explain herself.
"I wanted it to be abundantly clear why I wasn't voting for him, why this was a vote of conscience," Stava-Murray said. "The main reason, and if I've said it once, I've said it 100 times: the culture of sexual harassment in Springfield."
After her vote in caucus saying "I respectfully dissent" and her vote on the House floor saying "present" instead of "yes" for Madigan's speakership, she said he has retaliated.
In a Dec. 13 letter Madigan's chief of staff, Jessica Basham, sent to Stava-Murray, the speaker's office explains how Stava-Murray could discuss "your recent experiences" with an independent lawyer investigating discrimination and sexual harassment. The letter says Stava-Murray is eligible to use a list of resources to discuss allegations, despite not being an employee of the office of the speaker. And it says if she files a confidential report, "you will not experience retaliation."
But retaliation came in the form of a delay in her turn to choose her seat on the House floor, and possibly in issues related to office computers and furniture, Stava-Murray said. She said she is carefully tracking each instance.
"We actually have a federal protection for sexual harassment," she said. "So it's not actually OK to harass someone who's not voting for you on the basis of that. ... You're creating a workplace where someone cannot ask not to be harassed."
Stava-Murray is the third Democrat during Madigan's 34 years in his position not to vote for him as speaker. But experts say even that does little to propel her toward the name recognition she would need to become Illinois' next senator.
"She's getting a flurry of attention now for bucking the leadership," said Gaines from the University of Illinois, "but that's only something people who are deeply interested in politics are noticing."
Her next step against the speaker could come this month.
Stava-Murray said she plans to retain a civil rights attorney to work with her and other affected women in Illinois politics on a complaint she intends to file with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The complaint, she said, will be against Madigan for retaliation on the basis of her speaking out about sexual harassment.
She said she wants the action to set a precedent, making it easier for other women or men affected by sexual harassment to report any retaliatory responses they encounter after speaking out. She also hopes the complaint will lead to "the federal government sniffing around" in Madigan's organization.
And in a separate action against what she sees as the root of Madigan's power -- an army of legislators who feel they owe him for the success of their campaigns -- Stava-Murray said she plans to recruit candidates to run for as many Democratic State Central Committee positions as possible.
This is where her victory after an unorthodox campaign comes back into play.
Stava-Murray said she could use her marketing experience to help State Central Committee candidates succeed against candidates Madigan might support.
"Part of how he maintains such power in our House and legislature is because he actually does control people's campaigns," she said. "So if we free the campaigns, you free the legislators."
Seeking the Senate
Yet even as Stava-Murray works toward these aims -- and supports legislation to end unpaid internships or allow recall of "corrupt government officials" -- she's already committed to run for Durbin's seat in the Senate.
During a Friday visit to Harper College, Durbin said he's prepared to "match the schedule" of Stava-Murray or anyone who runs against him.
"It's part of the business. It's part of politics, and it's part of this government that people, the voters, have the last word," Durbin said.
Stava-Murray said she didn't speak with Durbin before announcing her campaign but was under the impression he did not intend to run. That proved untrue.
She said she's willing to meet with the longtime senator but is not willing to call off her campaign because she doesn't want Durbin -- or another "corporate Democrat" -- to represent Illinois.
She's equally unwilling to apologize for her comment about "white supremacist policies" in Naperville or to step down from her state House seat, as Naperville City Council member Kevin Coyne asked her to do. She said his public call for her resignation is a "political hit," unproductive to discussions that have started about such topics as racial disparities in student discipline and practices in policing.
She's not surprised her words and her fledgling Senate campaign have raised political eyebrows.
"People would have said the same thing about me if I announced a year from now because it's the audacity of which I flout the party. ... It's the audacity by which I demonstrate my independence," she said.
Even her supporters don't know what to think of her bid for Senate. Baker from Naperville Women's March Action said it's too soon to say if she backs Stava-Murray for the national office, although she's excited to be represented by her fellow activist at the state level.
None of this weighs down Stava-Murray's resolve to be the first millennial senator or makes her any more likely to follow a pre-charted course.
"I'm not a person who gives up. ... I got a long way by doing the things that you're not supposed to do," she said. "I know the establishment is afraid of me."