The congressional candidate in Illinois is challenging incumbent Dan Lipinski’s betrayals—and her party’s conservative tendencies.
The banner that read “Marie Newman: Democrat for Congress” was sandwiched between a trailer for a beauty salon and a dashing troupe of small horses in Homer Township’s annual Independence Day parade. It was noon on a clear day, and the parade meandered past tidy homes, farmland, and a cemetery shimmering in the heat. Behind the banner, a group of about 20 campaign staffers, supporters, and volunteers waved signs and nodded along to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” which blared from a speaker pulled in a red Radio Flyer wagon.
The parade moved slowly, and Marie Newman jogged ahead wearing a blue campaign T-shirt and white jeans. Zigzagging across the shadeless road to shake hands with the spectators lined up on either side, she hoped she could secure their vote in next year’s primary election for the Third Congressional District of Illinois.
The story of how she decided to run for Congress has practically become a standard Democratic Party narrative. On November 9, 2016, Newman, who said she rarely cries, stayed home from work, racked with sadness and fear. Then she began researching how to run for office. She found an organization called the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership and spent the day powering through its application for an upcoming training program with a deadline two days later. When her husband got home from work that evening, she was still in her pajamas, but her application was just about done.
She planned to run against Dan Lipinski, a then six-term incumbent Democrat who took over the seat from his father, Bill Lipinski, who spent more than 20 years in office, serving for 10 years in Illinois’s Fifth District and 12 years in the Third. Dan Lipinski is known as one of the most conservative members of his party in the House. He voted against the Affordable Care Act, opposed recognition of same-sex marriage, and initially voted against the Dream Act, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people brought to the US as minors. He is also vehemently against abortion. Lipinski co-chaired the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus and was the only Democratic member of Congress who spoke at the 2019 March for Life. The National Right to Life Committee rates him as “75% pro-life.”
The opportunity to challenge a candidate who she felt was out of step with her values, the Democratic Party’s ethos, and most important, with the district’s views. IL-03 covers areas to the west and southwest of Chicago, encompassing urban, suburban, and exurban communities. It is solidly blue, with pockets of conservatism. With Donald Trump in office, her kids growing up, and Lipinski secure in his seat, Newman said, she felt it was time to make the leap into politics.
“I knew it would be really hard for me to raise money, and it was,” she said. “I knew it would be really hard on my family, and it was. But no one else would stand up to this bully. No one would stand up to the Chicago machine, and that’s not OK.”
In the March 2018 primary election, Newman came within 2.4 percentage points, or 2,124 votes, of beating Lipinski with a campaign that was “put together with gum and sticks.” She was pretty sure she would run against him again in the next cycle and announced her candidacy on April 16 of this year. This time she has an existing supporter and donor network and better name recognition than when she started out. She’s optimistic that voters in a presidential election year will swing in her favor: she’s registered some 7,000 progressive voters since the midterms, she won the under-50 set by 21 points, and her district typically sees a 10 percent voter turnout bump during a presidential election year. However, her campaign has a new and daunting obstacle to face: the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
This past March the DCCC issued new standards that stop vendors of political services—such as strategic consulting, research, and marketing—from working with primary candidates who challenge incumbents. It essentially created a blacklist: If vendors help a primary challenger, the DCCC will not hire them or recommend them to any of its campaigns. The organization justifies this by referring to its goal of supporting incumbents, maintaining or expanding its House majority, and dedicating resources to endangered or flippable districts. But the effect has been to protect the party’s straight white men. That has made it predictably unpopular among rising new stars in the party, like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who won their seats by primarying incumbents. But it has teeth. Three vendors have dropped Newman’s campaign, and a handful of others dropped out during the vetting process. “It’s ridiculously expensive to run a campaign,” she said. “Now we have to throw out a good bit of work…and I have to figure out how to cobble together volunteers to help me out with this, which takes my time and my campaign manager’s time. It’s stressful.”
Newman’s run highlights urgent and unavoidable questions about the future of the Democratic Party: Can it encourage new blood, promote diversity, and increase its number of seats while supporting middle-of-the-road incumbents? Should the party embrace a big tent, or is there a place for ideological litmus tests? Will the party be more successful by embracing its progressive wing or hewing more closely to the center? Should being a member of Congress be a job for life? And if the DCCC is truly interested in change, will it be willing to alter its institutional approach to running and funding campaigns?
I asked Newman these questions a few days after the parade, at her home and temporary campaign headquarters in the suburb of La Grange. We sat in a cozy home office, surrounded by stacks of paper, family photos, and a map of the district pinned on the wall. Iggy, her beagle, sat behind her on the desk chair and snored lightly as we talked. Her campaign has attracted national attention because she has been vocal about the impact of the DCCC vendor rule and because “Pro-Choice Candidate Takes On Anti-Abortion Incumbent” makes for a nice headline in a moment when reproductive rights are under attack.
She said she recognizes the larger forces at play but is focused on what’s going on in IL-03. “Dan is out of alignment with the district and the party,” she said in between fund-raising calls, a purple fleece blanket wrapped around her legs. “You shouldn’t run to run. You should run because you want to do something, not be something. Dan wants to be someone. I want to do the work.”
Newman is petite with layered brown hair, expressive eyebrows, and the pinched vowels of someone raised in the Midwest. She talks with an intensity moderated by terms like “scooches,” “darn,” and “horse hockey” and often tosses out idioms that are ever so slightly off. She’ll rail against a Lipinski position one minute and break into an impression of a local octogenarian reporter with a pack-a-day habit the next. Her supporters and staffers characterize her as someone who works hard—too hard, perhaps: During the parade and at a gun violence event she attended afterward, she was running a 101 degree fever. She’s the type of person who makes campaign calls while walking the dog and gets bored on vacation. “Weirdly, I have a freakish amount of energy,” she said. “When I was younger, my mom would say I literally made her exhausted looking at me, but it makes campaigning easier. I know I can outwork [Lipinski] every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”
Newman grew up in IL-03 in “the middle of the middle class.” Her father was an actuary, and her mother stayed at home with the kids. Newman is the youngest of four, which, she said, is why her voice can project without a microphone. She put herself through the University of Wisconsin with a combination of student loans and jobs in food service and retail.
After graduation, she went into marketing and advertising, where she eventually became an executive. She was also involved in advocacy work that was deeply personal. She and her husband, Jim Newman, got married in 1996 and have two children, Quinn, 21, and Evie, 18. When Quinn was in middle school, he was viciously bullied. Marie Newman said she did everything she could to support her son but nothing helped. So she started talking openly about what Quinn was experiencing and was flooded with phone calls from parents whose kids were enduring the same thing.
“I remember distinctly that the onus was on me to solve this,” she said. “No one else is going to be able to do this. I’m not necessarily the most qualified, but I’m going to do this because I’m willing, so I put together a task force.”
In 2011 she founded the national nonprofit Team Up to Stop Bullying and co-wrote a guide called “When Your Child Is Being Bullied: Real Solutions for Parents, Educators & Other Professionals.” A few years later she became her state’s spokesperson for Moms Demand Action, an advocacy group that lobbies for gun law reform, and she has been an outspoken advocate for trans rights, largely because of her daughter. Evie was born Tyler, and when she was a preteen, she became deeply depressed. The Newmans were worried she would self-harm and found a nearby therapeutic program she could attend as an inpatient, which helped her come out as transgender.
Newman said that was the happiest day of her life because it meant her daughter could be her authentic self. “My daughter is trans, and over my dead body will anything happen to roll back her rights,” Newman said. “She knows what a force I can be and what a loud mouth I have.” Still, Newman insisted that her run against Lipinski isn’t driven by identity politics alone. “Lipinski has a horrible economic record, a horrible middle-class record, a horrible lower-income record, and he’s horrible on social values,” she said. “And just quite possibly he’s the most ineffective legislator in the Democratic Party.”
She frequently talks about how Lipinski was “gifted” his seat from his father. In 2004, Bill Lipinski withdrew from a reelection campaign after winning the primary election and urged party leaders to put his son, who lived in Tennessee at the time, on the ballot. Ben Hardin, Newman’s campaign manager, said this exemplifies Chicago politics; she, in contrast, is trying to position herself as an outsider and is not taking corporate, PAC, or lobbying money.
“We are running against a Chicago machine candidate, and the machine is actively working against us,” Hardin said. “He’s trying to actively attack her as part of the radical left. ”
This year Newman has been to 118 meet-and-greets. I went with her to the 97th, hosted by a constituent named Nicole Gregus at her home in Lyons. Ten people sat around a coffee table with cheese and crackers and glasses of water. Gregus, who has dyed reddish hair and an armful of tattoos, said she was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs and taught at a school right after college but was let go because of budget cuts just a year later. She struggled to find a full-time teaching job with health benefits and switched to working as an administrative assistant. That experience, she said, informed her support for Newman.
“Marie’s positions on health care as a human right, LGBTQ+ equality, and easy access to reproductive health care…are largely why she has my vote,” Gregus said. “Lipinski [aims] to essentially disenfranchise a large portion of his own constituents while using his religion as an excuse.”
Newman’s support for reproductive rights and abortion access has earned her endorsements from organizations like NARAL, Emily’s List, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. NARAL president Ilyse Hogue said Lipinski’s opposition to abortion is “dragging the Democratic Party down.”
“It’s a price too high to pay for the party,” Hogue said. “We know the anti-choice movement will fight until they have the opportunity to ban abortion and criminalize women…. [We] simply can’t afford to have someone who will vote for control over freedom when that moment arrives.”
Newman is vocally committed to abortion rights. But she’s also wary of having it define her campaign; she only lightly touched on so-called social issues during the meet-and-greet, focusing more on the economy, health care, immigration and the district’s environmental concerns, such as lead water lines in neighborhoods like Crest Hill. Income inequality is her top priority: She talks often about the “patchwork” of jobs that constituents cobble together to get by. She supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, universal child care, and expanding access to public transportation to help bridge the economic and racial divide.
I had many questions relating to abortion—the role Illinois may play as an access oasis in the Midwest, for instance, and whether there’s still room in the party for anti-choice Democrats in a moment when states are passing extreme abortion bans. But before I could ask, she stopped me short. “I am very clear with reporters. You get one question about reproductive rights. It is very clear where I stand. We don’t have to talk about this too much anymore.”
She continued, “I will not let Dan Lipinski or national reporters hijack this campaign. This campaign is about the income divide, paid leave, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, transportation, and infrastructure jobs, period.”
Because of Lipinski’s views on abortion, he has enjoyed support from groups that don’t generally support Democrats. Sometimes, their tactics are downright Trumpian.
Before the 2018 primary, the conservative Susan B. Anthony List sent canvassers to knock on doors and disseminated Facebook ads and directmailers calling Newman a pro-abortion extremist. Constituents received text messages from an unknown source that claimed that she was running an abortion clinic. (All I saw in her living room were overstuffed couches and campaign interns on laptops.) “There’s something FISHY about Marie Newman,” said one mailer funded by the ostensibly nonpartisan group No Labels, featuring an image of a dead fish lying atop a garbage can. “We know Lipinski is going to straight-up lie,” Newman said, rolling her eyes. “He will say, ‘She is from Mars and has horns in her head and kills puppies.’ ”
Newman sees herself as “ridiculously thick-skinned,” yet it’s tough to fight Lipinski and the groups that support him and the Chicago machine—and on top of that, the DCCC. The vendor policy has set back her campaign; finding, vetting, and registering vendors is time-consuming and expensive. The DCCC rejects the description of its policy as a blacklist, but Newman said vendors have received threatening phone calls for even considering work with her. The organization has even gone after primary challengers directly: In 2018 it published opposition research against Laura Moser, a Democrat running for Congress in Texas.
This practice of prioritizing incumbents over candidates from a diversity of racial, ethnic, gender, and ideological backgrounds frustrates many Democrats—and, of course, Newman. Because even if the IL-03 seat is safely in Democratic hands, what’s the point if someone with Lipinski’s views is wielding that power?
Newman said there should be consequences if incumbents can’t hold up their end of the political deal.
“I wouldn’t put my money on a losing horse,” she said. “I wouldn’t put my money on an unethical horse that behaves badly at every turn. And I wouldn’t put my money on a horse that doesn’t belong in the corral.”