By CARL GREEN
Belleville – It’s a very long way from Granite City High School to the elected office of Chicago city clerk, but that’s just the trip Anna Valencia, dutiful daughter of a hard-working Labor family, has already taken.
Her next step is even harder to imagine, potentially to one of the highest and most powerful offices in Illinois government – secretary of state, the office that deals directly with the state’s residents and has some 3,600 workers.
It has been a launching pad for such leaders as Jesse White, George Ryan, Alan Dixon, Jim Edgar, Paul Powell and even Stephen A. Douglas, 180 years ago.
Valencia, 36, is one of four announced candidates for the office in the 2022 Democratic primary, now planned for next June 28. Lawmakers moved it back from March 15 after census data delays affected district maps.
‘IT’S ABOUT HELPING PEOPLE’
Her story is that at every step of the way, she has been prepared and ready to move forward. When good advice was offered, she took it and ran with it. Her goal has been to find ways to improve people’s lives – people like her parents, Joe (a union painter) and Debbie Valencia of Granite City, now moving into their retirement years.
“For me, it’s really just about helping people, and making sure that we’re all represented,” she said last week at a meeting with Metro-East union leaders.
“People say, ‘Oh, you understand working families.’ No, I AM working families. I understand what it’s like to live from paycheck-to-paycheck. I understand what it’s like to make sure your parents’ pensions are there so they can retire with dignity, making sure they have health insurance, making sure they can afford college or have opportunities for the kids to do better than they did.”
The meeting, at TR’s Place south of Belleville, was hosted by Totsie Bailey, executive secretary-treasurer of the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council. Valencia was accompanied by her husband, Reyahd Kazmi. They have a one-year-old daughter Reyana Joy.
When Valencia was president of her high school student council, her student council advisor and teacher Linda Ames urged her to reach higher, leading to a scholarship to the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, the starting point for many a public service career.
Going to college seemed like a stretch to Valencia, whose father had immigrated from Mexico and found a good job as a member of Painters Local 120, part of Painters District Council 58.
“College was something my parents always talked about, but I didn’t know it was something we could actually afford and do,” Valencia said.
After earning a degree in international studies, she took a job as an intern with Madison County Circuit Judge Dave Hylla’s 2012 election campaign.
“That’s when I learned that, wow, you can run for office, you can help with field work, and help people get elected that you believe in,” she said. She followed that experience with organizing work in Virginia for the Democratic Party.
It also sustained her as her parents went through their own difficulties. Her father survived a kidney transplant and her mother lost her job at age 60 during the financial crisis under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“If it wasn’t for the union and the health insurance he had, there’s no way he could have afforded the surgery or the cost of anti-rejection meds,” she said. “This is personal for me, to be in this race and to go into public office, I’m running to help people like my parents.”
ON TO CHICAGO
Relocating to Chicago, Valencia worked for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and served as Illinois coordinator for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s successful 2014 re-election campaign. Her next opportunity came in 2016, when Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza became the state comptroller. Valencia was appointed to replace Mendoza as city clerk, and she won the job outright in the 2019 election.
When current Secretary of State Jesse White, 87, announced he would retire at the end of this term, Valencia said running for the office seemed like a natural step.
Valencia sees herself as an advocate for downstate Illinois.
“Being from downstate, I think it’s really important, when we’re putting up candidates in the Democratic primary and the general election, that we have representation and understanding about who lives where and what their issues are,” she said.
“Being able to represent Chicago now, and also being a downstater, felt like it was a very good bridge-building opportunity, the way Secretary White has been a bridge-builder all of his career.”
RACE TAKING SHAPE
The race for secretary of state is just now taking shape. In addition to Valencia, other Democratic candidates include former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulis, Chicago Alderwoman Pat Dowell and Chicago Alderman David Moore. No Republican candidate has announced yet.
Valencia has been endorsed by Painters District Councils 14 and 58, UNITE HERE Local 1 and the Latino Victory Fund.
“I’m 100 percent good with Labor, and I’ve been standing with them since before becoming city clerk, because of where I came from,” Valencia said. “You know who I am, you know where I stand.”
Giannoulias has been endorsed by unions including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, the Illinois Pipe Trades, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Locals 881 and 1546 and 14 locals in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Who is Anna Valencia?
Anna Valencia grew up in Granite City, and is well-known as Chicago’s city clerk, but she may not be as well-known politically to voters in southern Illinois. Here are some insights from three Labor and political leaders who know her:
• Roushaunda Williams, Unite Here Local 1, vice president on the Illinois AFL-CIO executive board –
“Anna has truly earned her place in the hearts of our union members through her meetings with fire fighters, walking picket lines with striking hotel workers and advocating for policies that help working people. With her being a champion of our cause, people stepped forward to share their stories. Anna has been in our union life and part of our union family since 2017. She gets the work done. She does what she says she’s going to do.”
• Nathalie Rayes, president, Latino Victory Project – “Anna’s candidacy is historic for Latinos, women and millennials. She’s a highly qualified candidate with a bold vision for modernizing the secretary of state’s office and ensuring it is accessible to everyone. Anna has demonstrated her leadership as the Chicago city clerk and throughout her career by building a bench of young leaders to follow in her footsteps.”
• U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) –
“I can’t think of a better person to represent us and, more importantly, to serve the people of Illinois. She knows what working families are going through. She knows what every single one of us has faced in terms of difficulties in our life, but she has persevered.”