Mike Zalewski | Photo by Jerry Nowicki

When Mike Zalewski walked out of the State Capitol on Jan. 10, his 14-year career as a member of the Illinois General Assembly came to end. 

Last June, Zalewski was defeated in the Democratic primary to represent the 21st District by Abdelnasser Rashid, who went on to win the November general election against Brookfield Republican Matthew Schultz. Rashid will be sworn in as a new member of the Illinois House of Representatives on Jan 11. 

Zalewski worked to the end, participating in the last day of the veto session on Jan. 10, marking a fitting end to his seven terms as a state representative.

“I loved the job dearly and I like to think I did it incredibly well. I’m going to miss it a lot,” the 44-year-old Zalewski said. “I’m going to miss my colleagues a lot.”

His colleagues threw a well-attended going away party for him last week at a Springfield tavern, many of whom went door to door for him before the June primary. Zalewski, who served as the chairman of the House Revenue and Finance Committee, was highly thought of in Springfield.

Rich Miller, who writes the Capitol Fax newsletter which provides perhaps the most detailed coverage of the ins and outs of the Springfield and the General Assembly, awarded Zalewski’s his 2022 Golden Horseshoe award as the best Democratic state representative.

“His bipartisanship, consensus building, common sense, attention to detail, and collegiality are rare in the Capitol,” Miller wrote. “His experience and institutional knowledge will be missed more than others. Hate to see you go, Z.”

But the high regard that Zalewski is held in Springfield wasn’t enough for him to prevail in the June primary, the first time in his political career that Zalewski faced a tough opponent.

Zalewski always viewed the primary campaign as a referendum on himself. In an extensive interview with the Landmark last October, Zalewski said he thinks he lost because of his 2021 vote against the repeal of a law requiring minors to notify parents before getting an abortion and the impact of the federal indictment of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan on federal racketeering charges.  

“They really were a one-two punch,” he said. “I think those two collided into sort of a cloud of skepticism that prevented me from being victorious.”

The federal indictment of Madigan mentions Zalewski’s father, also named Michael Zalewski, as one of the people who got a $5,000 a month consulting contract from ComEd, allegedly for little or no work, after the elder Zalewski retired as the alderman of the 23rd Ward of Chicago. The elder Zalewski has not been charged with any crime.

Zalewski said that he thought his vote against the parental notification repeal was the most important factor in his defeat. The vote angered many progressive voters, especially women. 

The issue took on even more salience after it was leaked last May that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. Five days before the June 29 primary, the Supreme Court did just that.

“I poorly misjudged the [Supreme] Court’s willingness to overturn Roe versus Wade and again that is one me,” Zalewski said. “If there was even a quantum of doubt in a female voter’s mind that if they felt you weren’t 100 percent for reproductive health rights, they weren’t interested in having you back in Springfield.”

Zalewski said he regretted his vote to repeal the parental notification act, and not just because of the political impact it had on him.

“I should know better than to vote in ways that don’t reflect the will of my constituents, the will of what’s in best interests of Illinois citizens and ultimately sort of prioritize things in a way that’s reflective of the kind of member of the General Assembly that I want to be,” Zalewski said. “I told people at the doors I wish I had the vote back. Had I to do it all over again, I would have supported the bill.”

Zalewski, who had a reputation for collegiality, said that the political atmosphere of the last year was not hospitable to him. 

“I think that [voters] want someone who they perceive is going to fight corruption and fight for reproductive health and fight the forces of Republican extremism,” Zalewski said. “That was all sort of counterintuitive to the sort of campaign I thought was going to be persuasive with voters.”

Going door to door for nearly two months before the primary, got some indication that it would be a difficult race. One day he went to one home in Riverside that had a Rashid sign in the front yard and got a curt reception from the couple there.

“They were so angry to see me that they said something like ‘thank you for the service’ and they slammed the door in my face,’” Zalewski said. “And I just remember really being mortally wounded by that. … In this instance, I just became unlikable. And likability is one of things I liked to think I had going for me.”

Rashid won nearly 60 percent of the vote in the Riverside portion of the district and 52 percent overall.

“It hurt to lose Riverside,” Zalewski said.

Rashid ran an aggressive campaign, constantly attacking Zalewski for his ties to Madigan and his vote on the parental notification act. But Zalewski said he has no hard feelings and wished Rashid well.

“I think he ran he ran a campaign that was commensurate with what you’d have to do to beat me, and I don’t begrudge him that,” Zalewski said.

Zalewski said while the defeat was difficult for him emotionally, he is now feeling good. Over the summer he and his wife, Carrie, who is the chairwoman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, along with their two oldest children visited Uganda on a trip that included volunteering at an orphanage and sightseeing.

“It was a summer of reflection and healing and doing some things to sort of grieve a little bit … but at the same time feeling like this was an opportunity to move on to whatever’s next.”

Zalewski said he’s proud of his record in the state legislature, particularly the role he played in bringing legalized sports betting to Illinois.

“Sports betting is number one and I don’t say that lightly,” Zalewski said when asked about his biggest accomplishments. “People probably think that’s crazy. But both because of the difficulty of doing it and the amount of capital investment it’s ultimately going to provide.”

Zalewski is also proud of his work to get state funding for projects such as the fountain at Eight Corners in Brookfield, the Ehlert Park splash pad and the new Swan Pond path.

Last week in the veto session of the General Assembly, Zalewski voted in favor of a bill that would do a number of things to protect gender-affirming healthcare and reproductive rights.

In a telephone interview with the Landmark, Zalewski said that he has always been “100 percent pro-choice” on abortion.

Zalewski said he hasn’t decided what he will do next. He is a lawyer and is currently of counsel to the large law firm Taft.

He still serves as the Riverside Township Democratic Committeeman but said his future will probably not include another run for public office.

“I really do want to move into a private phase of my life and do something different,” Zalewski said.