Rep. Bustos treads unusual path as a journalist-turned-politician

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) has always treasured the opportunity to effect change. Though she now represents the 17th district of Illinois in Congress, Bustos has already worked for years to help the area through the power of the press.

For nearly two decades Bustos worked as a journalist, most of it for The Quad-City Times, a paper that serves five cities on the Illinois-Iowa border. It was a profession that suited her well.

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“I think I was born to do it,” Bustos told The Hill. “From the time I was a little girl, I’d just always been naturally curious. And I was raised in a family that … would just get really worked up about inequities and unfairness.”

She had plenty of opportunities to discuss inequities with politicians who sought to combat them. Her grandfather, a state representative, would often stay at her family’s house while the legislature was in session, but he was not the only visitor they had. A parade of public servants ensured that a young Bustos had plenty of conversational partners.

“We had governors over to our house. We had lieutenant governors,” Bustos said. The list of guests even included a half-year stay from Paul Simon, a giant in Illinois politics who sandwiched a lieutenant governorship between stints in both chambers of the state and federal legislatures. (Simon’s period of greatest national prominence was as a two-term U.S. senator, first elected in 1984.) She was allowed to rub shoulders with anyone and could ask any question that came to mind. 

“Never ever, ever did I ever hear ‘This is an adult conversation, go in the other room,’ ” Bustos said. “I could sit at that table; it didn’t matter who was sitting around it.”

The only price of admission was to get another round of drinks for the guests whenever they asked for one. 

The early love of politics led to a degree in political science from the University of Maryland and an internship with the Illinois state Senate Democrats, which presented her with a quandary. 

Her internship consisted of analyzing bills in a small, windowless room with several other interns. “Our job was to take bills that might be 20, 30, 40 pages — whatever — to analyze them into a page or two synopsis,” Bustos said. Working in politics was all she had ever wanted to do, “but I really did not like it at all.” 

She explained: “Here was my dilemma: This is what I always thought I wanted to do. And I had my degree and, literally, I had somebody say ‘You ask so many questions you ought to be a reporter.’ ”

It was a statement she had heard most of her life. So back to school Bustos went, to obtain an M.A. in journalism from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Her first job out of journalism school was working in a news bureau, covering the state legislature for four daily newspapers. She loved it. 

“From day one, I knew that [this was] what I was meant to be and what I was meant to do,” Bustos recalled fondly. “Every day, every single day, I walked into the newsroom and I felt that I had an opportunity to make a difference.”

Make a difference she did. She recalled with fondness an early period on the police beat (“I could have stayed on that forever because I loved it; you never knew what you were going to walk into that day,” she said), but she ended up covering or overseeing a number of beats in her 17-year career as a journalist, working as both a reporter and editor. She preferred her time as the former, though.

“I didn’t like being in a newsroom all the time,” she said. “I always saw the best reporters as ones you hardly ever saw other than when they were back in the newsroom, writing their stories. And then when I was actually an editor and I’d see people in the newsroom all the time, [I’d say] ‘What are you doing here? Go out and talk to people.’ ”

The stories she’s proudest of are the ones that resulted in lasting change, such as an investigative project that revealed a town commissioner was using the township’s gas for personal use. Her pieces resulted in a grand jury investigation, but no jail time. Still, the commissioner was defeated when he ran for reelection.  

 One particular story she worked on still stands out in her mind. 

There had been a bizarre series of cases in the early 1990s involving the murder of young boys, generally at the hands of their mothers’ boyfriends. One case involved a family that had moved to the Illinois Quad-Cities after being placed under investigation in the Iowa Quad-Cities. The abuse began again, but there was no mechanism for the Iowa Department of Humans Services to share information with its Illinois counterpart. The boyfriend beat the child to death. Bustos covered the story and interviewed the mother. She succeeded in getting some information out of her that the police had not, which resulted in Bustos testifying during the murder trial. 

As a result, there was legislative action, and there is now a mechanism in place to share investigation information between Illinois and its neighboring states.