When I returned to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois for the fall 2002 semester, the potential invasion of Iraq was heating up. The looming war dominated news coverage, and we all believed this could be our generation’s Vietnam. Protests were held across the country, as well as on the campus of our small Midwestern university.
The 2002 midterm elections presented me with my first real opportunity to participate in politics. I was 20 years old and had never voted before. As a member of the campus Green Party, I had a front row seat for Carl Estabrook’s campaign for 15th Congressional District. I’d always considered myself more libertarian, but I was young and eager to get involved, and most of my close friends were on the left.
It was an uphill battle. Illinois’ 15th Congressional District consisted of east central Illinois, including Champaign-Urbana, Danville, Mattoon, and Charleston, and a narrow strip running south along the border with Indiana (the 15th has since been redistricted). Aside from the liberal outpost of Champaign-Urbana (home to the University of Illinois), this was deeply Republican territory. The incumbent, Timothy V. Johnson, won in 2000 with 53.2% of the vote (he would be re-elected five times).
Carl G. Estabrook was a visiting professor of sociology at the University of Illinois with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He was antiwar, with a progressive agenda that included opposing free trade, reducing military spending, ending the death penalty and the War on Drugs, and supporting universal healthcare and guaranteed annual income. While these positions are almost indistinguishable from those held by Democratic presidential primary candidates in 2019, it was pretty radical at the time, especially for that part of Illinois.
“A choice for a change”
Back in April, a group of volunteers and I canvassed residential areas in Charleston getting signatures to put Estabrook’s name on the ballot. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle because several Democrats outright refused to sign on the belief that Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader had spoiled the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush. Despite needing 5,000 signatures, Estabrook pulled it off and became the first third-party candidate on the ballot in Illinois’ 15th Congressional District since 1914. (In the 1914 election both Progressive and Socialist parties fielded candidates.)
On September 19 at 7pm, Estabrook spoke at EIU in Room 2080 of the Life Sciences Building. Charleston Green Party President Jeremy Pelzer and I had dinner with him before the talk, and I remember we initially went to the wrong room. The room where the talk was supposed to be held was locked and Jeremy had to run and find someone to open it up. (The Daily Eastern News front page photo the next day shows senior history major Chris Lempa talking with Estabrook in front of the locked door.)
About 50 people showed up to hear him rail against two party politics, which was a great turnout for a notoriously apathetic campus. His strategy, he said, was to draw from the apathetic majority who usually don’t vote in elections by giving them a viable alternative to what he saw as two pro-war parties.
Estabrook dominated candidate forums. He had his talking points and policy proposals memorized. Unfortunately, voters respond to emotional appeals and non-rational factors like appearance, body language, and party affiliation. No one cares about the complexities of public policy or wants to sit through a laundry list of proposals. Also, he was trying to sell a radically progressive message in a deeply conservative part of the state. But I think he could have done better with a simpler message.
Election night, November 5th, was cloudy and in the high 30s. Jeremy, our friend Kelly, and I hung out at the Coles County Courthouse eagerly watching the election returns roll in. In the end, Estabrook received a scant 7,836 votes, or 3.8 percent. Tim Johnson won in a landslide with 65.2 percent, and Democrat Joshua Hartke trailed with 31 percent. After all our hard work, knocking on doors and handing out flyers, Estabrook only received 455 votes in Coles County (3.11%).
We hoped to garner enough support for Estabrook to at least break the 5% threshold required for being recognized as a legally established political party in Illinois. That benchmark was finally achieved in 2006 by Green Party candidate for governor of Illinois, Rich Whitney, who won 10% of the vote. However, it lost that status four years later when he ran again and received an embarrassing 2.7 percent.
Eighty-one Democrats and 215 Republicans, including Tim Johnson, voted in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq in the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2002. No antiwar candidate was ever able to mount a successful bid for the Illinois 15th Congressional District. Carl Estabrook was the last third party candidate to run for that seat. The district has become so solidly Republican that John Shimkus (R) won 71% of the vote in 2018.
In retrospect, Estabrook was relying on the enthusiasm and idealism of college students to put him over the top, but college students are a notoriously unreliable demographic. Though the Iraq War would drag on until 2011, it was no Vietnam, and the antiwar movement and antiwar candidates like Carl Estabrook faded away as other issues gained prominence. In those months of campaigning, I learned valuable lessons I would take with me when I ran for public office a decade later.