Stefanie Smith of Urbana is hoping to offer a more progressive option in the IL-13 Democratic primary. She is running against Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, who narrowly lost to Rodney Davis in 2018.
Smith grew up in the small town of Le Roy, and found herself homeless in Bloomington in her teens. She became involved in sex work to survive, and her experiences have made sex trafficking laws and their impact on protections for sex workers an issue she is passionately invested in. Her research in this area led her to an internship with Cunningham Township, studying the intersection of poverty, homelessness, and sexual violence. She is someone who has experienced all of those things, and hopes that she can be an agent for change, an example for others who may have been quietly suffering. “I’m very loud. Maybe someone like me in some small town will just get wind of it that you can have a life.”
Like many, the election of Donald Trump shook her into further action. She actually attributes getting sober to his election:
I kind of saw his profile rising over the summer [of 2016] and I just saw the hallmarks of all the abuse and manipulation I grew up with. I thought, I can’t survive an abusive relationship like this while being drunk...So I quit drinking, spent a lot of time in therapy...then someone passed along a job opening for a front desk person at Cunningham Township. I’d been working on this theory that when I felt overwhelmed by anxiety, or felt like nothing that I was doing was going to matter in the wider context...well, what’s an action you can take in three minutes? It could be as simple as checking in on a friend that hasn’t been doing well, or donating a couple of bucks to someone’s GoFundMe, something where I’ve got a tangible action.
She applied that theory to her job search, and upon learning that Cunningham Township served low income and homeless individuals, decided that it was a place she could make a difference, where she could be a supportive and friendly face for the people who came through the doors. She wasn’t qualified for that particular job, but ended up with the internship pursuing her passion project.
Smith has followed politics throughout her life, but was never particularly interested in becoming involved in it. However, through her work at Cunningham she learned more about what city councils, county boards, and school boards do, and she felt there were voices left out the process; those who were poor, disabled, unable to find childcare and transportation, were not a part of the conversations being had.
It’s quite a leap from seeing these issues that need to be dealt with in our community, to deciding to run for federal office, but as Smith explained:
The work I do locally is hyper-connected to federal legislation. I’ve spoken about SESTA/FOSTA a lot, also HUD canceled $13.5 million in grants earmarked for sex trafficking survivors, they canceled record expungment and healing funds for survivors...a lot of people think that sex trafficking and sex work are really niche issues, but SESTA/FOSTA violates the first amendment. We’re talking about housing, we’re talking about social justice, we’re talking about labor, we’re talking about migration...it really intersects with everything on the federal level.
A group of progressives in the district were not happy with Londrigan as the only option for a Democratic candidate. According to Smith, “The Democrats had tried to suppress having a primary. They professionally intimidated someone else out of running. It wasn’t supposed to be me...but they really needed somebody that wasn’t already working on campaigns or trying to build a career in politics.”
She was encouraged to take a look at the websites for Londrigan as well as Rodney Davis, then consider being the person to jump into the primary. Smith didn’t see the other candidates addressing the issues she thought were important, so with her 13-year-old’s approval, she decided to run. She explained:
Even if this isn’t the best thing that I could be doing, at least it’s something. It’s an opportunity I never would’ve expected to have. I hoped it would be a platform to bring these issues forward, but [it hasn't been] due to suppression from the Democrats and their alienation and isolation. ... This process has made me quite disgruntled and distrustful. I started out really plucky and wanting to work with people.
Whether it’s due to suppression or due to the fact that Londrigan has already been a known name and has more resources (including the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; she is on their “red to blue” list of flippable districts), Smith has an uphill battle. She plans to continue trumpeting the issues she is passionate about, regardless of the outcome.
We do issues-based canvassing. We work with local organizations, we try to make sure that when we send people out to canvass that we have petitions about fracking or Medicare-for-all or No War With Iran resolutions so that way people are actually working on the issues, and we are spreading information to the communities that need it the most. In that regard, canvassing efforts aren’t wasted because we are bringing people into these conversations.
Smith has been frustrated by the lack of opportunities to discuss the issues and debate her opponent. She did not feel the recent candidate forum was sufficient, as they could only talk about themselves and not address the other candidate. What is the message she most wants people to hear?
The party will not save us. They are not fighting for justice. Even on a local level, the infighting and manipulation is egregious, and people need to get involved. They need to go to meetings. They need to get loud. They need to make their voices heard, and they need to replace these people. We should be governed by people, not politicians. We need people that are willing to actually pick up the issues, collaborate, and create safety nets, because the federal government is stripping our safety nets. We’re losing disability, we’re losing Medicaid...what’s going to replace that? Either death or community. I would prefer community.
You can learn more about Stefanie Smith on her website or Facebook page, where she livestreams every Sunday evening, answering questions from community members. You can watch the League of Women Voters candidate forum for IL-13 here.