Cheri Bustos is a former journalist, a fact made evident the second you meet her and start getting peppered with questions: Where are you from, how long have you been doing this, do you do a lot of these interviews, do you like doing them?
But she’s got plenty to say, not just ask. That combination of inquisitiveness and outspokenness made her a natural politician — the type of Democrat who could still win over working-class white voters who have been leaving the party — and a rising star.
After leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to a record fundraising total in 2020, though, she saw the party lose seats in the House even as it gained in the Senate and won the White House. A few months later, following the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol, Bustos announced she would retire at the end of this term.
Bustos won’t say what exactly is next for her, but she refuses to “burn bridges or tear down the house” on her way out. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: It’s been about a year now since you announced you wouldn’t run for reelection. How have things changed for you since then?
A: The district I represent got 10 points better [after redistricting in Illinois], and so I get a lot of questions from people: “Do you wish you would have run again?”
I have no regrets whatsoever. If there’s anything that gnaws at me a little bit, it’s that we’ve never gotten this much done legislatively. You’ve got this learning curve when you’re brand new and navigating how this place works. But now President Biden has signed a bill into law that I’ve been working on for five years that will impact lives all over this country — the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act. You had 60 million Americans working under these clauses, and those are all now null and void.
I told everybody in leadership that the forced arbitration bill was among my top priorities, and I didn’t want to leave Congress and not make that happen. We have Joe Biden in the White House, we have the majority in the House and Senate, but you still have to be willing to compromise. We got 113 Republicans to support that bill. I mean, think about it. Here we are in 2022. How many times do you get 113 Republicans to vote for a bill that’s written in a Democrat’s office?
Q: What about Congress? What’s changed about the institution since you came here a decade ago?
A: I think it's gotten less bipartisan, unfortunately. And that hurts the end product, and it hurts our nation. Jan. 6 was a turning point, it really was.
There are some people on my side of the aisle who don’t want to do anything with any member who did not vote to certify the results of the election. And I understand that. I mean, I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing and knowing that if we’re going to be successful, you have to put some things aside, even though that vote was a terrible vote for democracy. But it’s changed things out here. That moment, on that day, changed things more than anything else.
Q: Did seeing what happened at the Capitol on Jan. 6 play a role in your decision to retire?
A: It did for my family. My husband is the sheriff of the county where we live — Rock Island County, Illinois. And he said to me shortly after that, “You know, things are not going to get better.” We have three sons. I was on the floor that day, and I think they were more worried than I was. For them, it was really the last straw.
Q: You represent part of Peoria. So I have to ask: What plays in Peoria these days?
A: Reasonableness. Results. People just want you to get things done and to do so ethically — I think that describes a district where Barack Obama wins and four years later, it swings to Donald Trump. And then four years after that, Donald Trump wins it by an even larger margin, but yet I win, a Democrat. So that’s what plays in Peoria.
Q: In 2020, there was a lot of expectation that House Democrats were going to build on the majority, and the majority shrunk. What went wrong there?
A: I would reject the premise of the question. Look, we held on to a majority that was a very fragile majority. When I gave my speech to my colleagues and they elected me to run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, I said that was my number one goal. We raised a third of a billion dollars, which was a record amount. We had the most diverse slate of candidates and staff and consultants that we’ve ever had in the political arm of House Democrats.
That is why we’ve been able to get the American Rescue Plan Act done. That’s why we’ve been able to pass the best infrastructure package since the Eisenhower days. If you don’t hang on to the majority, none of that stuff happens.
Q: One of the joys of retirement is you get to tell people what you really think on the way out. What’s next for you, and what would make Congress better?
A: I don’t use the word retirement, I just say I’m not running for reelection. I’ve got at least another career or two in me — I’m still young enough and healthy enough and energetic enough. Look, I feel really lucky that I’ve had this job for five terms and met amazing people. I'm not one of those who’s going to burn bridges or tear down the house.
I think there are two things we should do in America to make our system better. Number one, campaign finance reform. And number two, [fix] gerrymandering. We need to have independent groups decide the district borders. If we had more swing districts all over the country, I think we’d be a much stronger Congress.
And we need more Midwesterners in leadership positions in Congress. When I think of diversity, I look at diversity in a much broader way than a lot of people look at diversity out here. It’s not just racial or gender, but it’s geographical. It’s rural and urban. It’s swing districts. I’m a Democrat from a Trump district. There’s now three of us left, who won in ’16 and won in ’20 — that's Matt Cartwright, Ron Kind and me. And Ron and I are both leaving. We have a different perspective, and it’s an important perspective.
Last book you read? I’ve got two books going on at the same time — the John Boehner book “On the House” and the Nancy Pelosi book by Susan Page.
In politics, can the ends justify the means? If the means is to compromise, the answer's yes. That’s something we need to do a heck of a lot more in Washington — compromise, and be happy with that.
What’s one thing you would change about Congress? I would make bipartisanship easier.
What are you proud of? We just got an award for offering the best constituent services out of every Democratic office in the House and the Senate.
What’s next for you? Hopefully something good and exciting and meaningful. That’s my criteria.