Time for a change is one of the oldest and most effective arguments in politics. And that’s the argument that won out in the hard-fought Democratic primary race for the in the 21st District of the Illinois House, as 32-year-old Abdelnasser Rashid narrowly defeated seven-term incumbent state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) on June 28.
Rashid with now face Republican Matthew Schultz, a 26-year-old from Brookfield who works for the anti-tax group Taxpayers United in the November general election. Schultz ran unopposed in the Republican primary.
With all but one suburban precinct reporting, Rashid led Zalewski by a mere 255 votes. Despite the narrow margin, Zalewski conceded defeat in a phone call to Rashid around 9 p.m. Rashid received 51.7 percent of the vote to 48.3 percent for Zalewski.
A few minutes after that call, Rashid proclaimed victory in a brief speech to a roomful of jubilant supporters in his campaign’s small storefront office in Berwyn.
“It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for,” said Rashid who lost two previous runs for office in Cook County. “Our message resonated with the people of the 21st District, with the voters. Our message about fighting for middle class families, putting their interests first, our message about taking on corruption and machine politics, our message about protecting a woman’s right to choose, always. And I look forward to being the first Palestinian and the first Muslim who’s going to Springfield.”
Rashid, a Harvard graduate and resident of Justice who resides just outside the boundary of the 21st District, is the youngest of 11 children born to parents who emigrated from Palestine to the United States.
His victory is a point of pride for Palestinian Americans in the Chicago area, many of whom live in and around Bridgeview and other southwestern suburbs.
Zalewski, 43, who has been in office since 2009, issued a brief statement on his campaign’s social media sites.
“I loved this job, gave my all for the people of the district and the state, and did it the best I could,” Zalewski said. “The voters of the district made their voices heard, and that’s democracy. I look forward to some much needed time off with an incredible spouse and four amazing children. Onward.”
In some ways it was a shocking defeat for a well-regarded and popular state legislator who is the chairman of the powerful Revenue and Finance Committee of the Illinois House of Representatives. He is quite popular with his colleagues, a number of whom campaigned for him.
Zalewski had the strong support of Gov. J.B. Pritzker who came to Riverside last week to a campaign rally Zalewski’s campaign headquarters in the Arcade Building. Zalewski also had a big edge in money, raising approximately $1 million which allowed his campaign to flood the district with direct mail in the final weeks of the campaign and air television ads.
He was also supported by unions, special interest groups and had the support of local leaders, including Riverside Village President Joseph Ballerine and former President Ben Sells.
Rashid was the aggressor throughout the campaign, constantly tying Zalewski to former House Speaker Mike Madigan, who is facing trial on federal corruption charges. Rashid wasn’t shy about pointing out that Zalewski’s father, also named Michael Zalewski and the former alderman of Chicago’s 23rd Ward, is a bit player in that investigation.
One of the charges against Madigan is that he demanded that ComEd hire the elder Zalewski, who is not charged with any wrongdoing, to a $5,000-a-month consulting contract.
A Rashid mailer referred to the “Madigan-Zalewski Corruption Family Tree” and pointed out that Zalewski’s wife, Carrie Zalewski, was appointed as chair of the Illinois Commerce Commission by Pritzker at Madigan’s request, according to the mailer.
Rashid also reminded voters that the elder Zalewski and Madigan helped put the younger Zalewski in the state legislature. They were among the Democratic ward and township committeemen who named Zalewski as the Democratic candidate in 2008 after incumbent state Rep. Robert Molaro conveniently withdrew from his race for re-election after the primary.
Rashid’s campaign raised about a third as much as Zalewski’s, although final figures won’t be available until next month. But Rashid ran a sophisticated campaign with direct mail, television ads and an enthusiastic core of volunteers who went door to door throughout the district.
His campaign chairman, Clem Balanoff, said he thought Rashid was the first state legislative primary challenger to ever air ads on network television in the Chicago area.
Zalewski had never faced a serious opponent in his career, and he spent most of the campaign simply defending his record and appeared uncomfortable making attacks, although his campaign did hit back at Rashid in recent weeks in mailers and television ads.
Zalewski, who helped found a caucus of moderate Democrats in the House, was hurt last year when he voted against the repeal of an Illinois law requiring minors to notify their parents before having an abortion.
Some pro-choice voters never forgave him for that vote despite Zalewski’s strenuous efforts throughout the campaign to affirm his pro-choice stance and highlight pro-choice votes.
Zalewski even went as far as handing out and wearing a pink T-shirt that said “Pro Choice” on the front and back on June 24 and renting a bus to take people to a Chicago rally protesting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
“I think that he equivocated,” said Sue Joseph of North Riverside about Zalewski after voting for Rashid on June 28. “He isn’t really pro-choice if he isn’t willing to let minors have domain over their own body without their parent’s permission.”
Helen Gallagher, a Rashid voter from Riverside agreed, saying she supported Rashid in his 2018 race for the Cook County Board and his 2020 race for the Cook County Board of Review and liked his progressive politics.
“I’ve been following his efforts for a few years and I’ve been impressed by his stance and his willingness to step up,” Gallagher said.
Alyson Scanlon of Riverside voted for Zalewski. She was impressed by his work on the state’s financial problems.
“I definitely appreciated what Zalewski did to get Illinois out of the budget stalemate and the way that he fought to get funding relief for non-profits to provide critical services,” Scanlon said.
The 21st District stretches from Cicero to Justice and includes nine precincts in Chicago including eight in the 23rd ward where Zalewski grew up. Zalewski won nearly 69 percent of the vote in the relatively small Chicago portion of the district but Rashid carried the much larger suburban portion of the district with nearly 54 percent of the vote in the suburbs.
Zalewski will remain in the state legislature until his term ends at the end of the year.