Although now in her third term representing Illinois’ 17th congressional district, Rep. Cheri Bustos never envisioned herself as a politician while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in government and politics from the University of Maryland.
“I always saw myself as behind the scenes—maybe a press secretary or helping run campaigns,” Bustos said.
Politics in general, however, have always been a part of Bustos’s life. Throughout her childhood, she watched both her father and grandfather become involved in government at the local, state and federal levels.
“We would always have people over at our house and we would always be talking politics,” Bustos said. “I can never ever remember a time when my father would say ‘Cheri go to your room, this is an adult conversation.’ If I wanted to be there, I got to sit around and listen to these guys talk.”
When it came time to decide on a college after high school, Bustos says UMD’s proximity to the nation’s capital and the reputation of its Department of Government and Politics made her choice an easy one.
“I feel like I got an outstanding education,” Bustos said. “I was very challenged. I was not one of those students where I walked away from a class and thought that it was easy or not interesting or not helpful. I felt every day the professors were tough and smart.”
Bustos says some of her fondest memories from her time in College Park include rooting for the Terps at both football and basketball games. Predictably, she became involved in student government while at the university, held various internships in Washington, D.C., was a member of the Young Democrats and volunteered on campaigns for several Democratic candidates, including a young Steny Hoyer in 1981. Rep. Hoyer, who is now in his 19th term representing Maryland’s 5th congressional district, ended up returning the favor more than three decades later when he helped campaign for Bustos during her first run for Congress in 2012.
“Congressman Hoyer is now a mentor to me and I am very close to him,” Bustos said. “That relationship started back in 1981 when I was a student at the university.”
After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1983, Bustos returned to her home state of Illinois and diverted away from politics for a while. She received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois at Springfield and worked as an investigative journalist for nearly two decades before becoming a healthcare advocate. Bustos says that working in healthcare gave her an opportunity to get more involved in the community, which reignited her passion for politics and public service. After being elected to her local city council, she decided to run for Congress in 2012 and became the first woman from her district to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Today, Bustos is blazing a trail on Capitol Hill, being tapped for a growing number of leadership roles within the Democratic Party and gaining attention for achieving what few Democrats were able to in 2016: winning big in rural areas where Trump support was strong. She is also personally devoted to drawing more women out from behind the scenes and into political office.
“I am a believer that women govern differently,” Bustos said. “I don’t think we look at everything as a win or a loss. Relationship building is very important to us.”
Bustos points to her experience playing on the Congressional softball team that has a mixed roster of Democrats and Republicans (unlike the men’s teams that are divided along party lines).
“I think a lot of women in Congress are doing things the old fashioned way; we’re building relationships and getting to know people,” Bustos said. “I certainly don’t think Democrats have a corner on all the good ideas. I think there are Republicans who have good ideas and who want what’s right for our country as well. It’s a lot easier to simply look at them as human beings.”
Bustos and her husband Gerry have three grown sons and two grandchildren and live in Rock Island County in northwestern Illinois.