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Rep. Bustos Recruited To Help Improve Democrats' Message


House Democrats decided to stick with the leader they have. They re-elected Nancy Pelosi yesterday. But as they seek a way back toward power, Democrats did add some new members to their leadership team including our next guest Cheri Bustos of Illinois.

Representative Bustos, thanks for coming in this morning, really appreciate it.

CHERI BUSTOS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: It's said that you're supposed to help reshape the party's message for the working class. Why you?

BUSTOS: Well, I'm from the heartland. I represent the entire northwestern portion of the state of Illinois. And in my state delegation, all of the Democrats in the congressional delegation are concentrated in the Chicagoland area. I'm the only one outside of Chicagoland.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you point that out. I was looking at a map of the counties and how they voted in this past election. And even though Illinois is a blue state, you're in a red district. I mean, most of your counties voted for Donald Trump.

BUSTOS: Well, Donald Trump won my district. I have 14 counties, 7,000 square miles. I won all 14 counties. Donald Trump won every one of the rural ones, which is 11 of them. So, yeah, so somewhat of an anomaly. There are only eight Democrats nationwide where the Democrats won and Donald Trump also won those districts. And I'm one of those eight.

INSKEEP: What are Democrats doing so wrong in rural America?

BUSTOS: Well, I don't want to say what Democrats are doing so wrong. But there's a lot more that we can do. You know, why I won by 20 points and Donald Trump also won my district is - you know, I go home every time we're not out in Washington, D.C. When I'm not doing my business in D.C. voting on the House floor. I go home and I do things like what we call Supermarket Saturdays. I just go to grocery stores all over my congressional district and walk the aisles and I ask what's on people's minds.

We do something that we have dubbed Cheri on Shift. My name is Cheri and I do shift work. I job shadow people who are processing carps - the fish. I deliver UPS packages. I drive forklifts. And I look at what people are doing for a living. And I ask them questions about...

INSKEEP: Does anybody recognize you when you knock on their door with a UPS package, by the way?

BUSTOS: Every now and then, yeah (laughter).

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. That's good to know. That's good to know. Let me just mention Tim Ryan...


INSKEEP: ...One of our colleagues who ran against Nancy Pelosi and lost for leadership. He was saying people in the working class essentially don't want the economy to be changing the way it is. They don't want to be working at computer keyboards. They want old-style jobs of the kind that they did have and there are fewer of. Is that correct, do you think?

BUSTOS: Well - you know what? - people want to make sure that they have a path to success and a path to being able to support their families. You know, I give Tim Ryan a lot of credit because he got about a third of the votes. And I think he elevated the dialogue about what we need to do to make sure that we are relating to working-class men and women. You know, we've got to make this about families and working families. That is my family's background. I come from a long line of farmers. I'm a granddaughter of a hog farmer. My father-in-law's a UAW retiree, built combines at - for John Deere. And we've got to be able to relate to those people. How you do it? You talk to them. You listen. You know, I'm a former newspaper reporter. It's what I did for 17 years. And, you know, what do you do as a good reporter? I mean, you are one, you listen to people.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much. Are you saying that Democratic policies are OK and it's just a matter of tone and listening to people? Is that really all it is?

BUSTOS: We have been the party of working-class men and women for the entire history of our party. You know, I - my dad raised us to say if it weren't for organized labor and the Democratic Party, there wouldn't be a middle class. I believe that. But we've got to go where people are. And we've got to listen. And we've got to talk about our policies in a way that makes sense to them, that we are about making things in America.

INSKEEP: Just a few seconds left here. But as you know in 2009 when Republicans were completely out of power, they decided to strongly resist almost everything President Obama did. They realized they wouldn't get back in power otherwise. Took them a while but they they won eventually. Do you expect to resist almost everything that President-elect Trump will do?

BUSTOS: Well, I can tell you my personal philosophy and that's this. We need to work with President-elect Trump. And when he's president Trump we need to work with him where we can, where it makes sense to help working men and women. And if he takes us down a dark path, we need to fight that.

INSKEEP: OK. Cheri Bustos, thanks very much.

BUSTOS: All right. Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's a representative from the 17th District - is that correct? - the 17th District in northwestern Illinois. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.