ST. CHARLES – Transcending extreme partisanship in politics is one of the hopes for Illinois that state Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-St. Charles) of the 33rd District expressed before she stepped down from office Sept. 3, two months shy of completing her second term in the legislature in Springfield.
Former St. Charles mayor Donald DeWitte was set to be sworn in Sept. 5 to complete her term, and will be on the Nov. 6 ballot running for a full, four-year term, facing Democratic state senatorial candidate Nancy Zettler of Algonquin, an attorney and activist.
McConnaughay shared a look back at her career in elected office as chairman of the Kane County Board from 2004-12 after joining it in 1992, and as state legislator.
"I have had the distinct honor and privilege to represent in one capacity or another a majority of Kane County residents," she said. "I've been grateful for the trust that they placed in me. I think that – after nearly three decades – it's time to bring new people in."
She credits realizing the importance of working in a nonpartisan manner for her legislative successes on various issues.
"I think the culture in politics today is unfortunate – both parties have continued to track to the extreme, abandoning the middle," McConnaughay said. "Both [demand] litmus tests of people who run for office to be 100 percent far to the right or far to the left. That's a troubling fact in our political dynamic today. Unless you have people who can acknowledge and respect differences of opinion and work toward compromise, we are a divided state and a divided nation."
Among successes in which she takes pride, she cites working to combat human trafficking in the state, teaming up with, among others, then fellow Republican state Rep. Patti Bellock of Hinsdale.
"She and I tackled the issue of sex trafficking in Illinois [with the] first-ever statewide task force to identify priorities and strategies for addressing the rampant problem of sex trafficking in our state," McConnaughay said. "We're number two in our country. Chicago is a transportation hub. It's all over the state."
She said she also worked on passing HB 138, addressing legislative ethics in Illinois, including sexual harassment, by creating greater independence and transparency for the inspector general's office.
"It makes the ethics commission and inspector general process more accountable to the people of Illinois," McConnaughay said. "It's just the start – [there's] a lot more to do."
Charges against legislators previously had gone into a file and were ignored, she said.
"I worked very hard on educational reform and criminal justice reform [and] sponsored a number of bills that tried to make positive movement in those areas," she said.
Causes where she regrets a lack of progress include consolidating government bodies and property tax reform.
"It's been a very frustrating six years," McConnaughay said. "As I leave, nothing has been accomplished in terms of pension reform. … We have done nothing about stopping the exodus of businesses and people out of this state."
She said she is troubled that with her own departure, only two women are left in the senate Republican caucus in Illinois, noting there were five a year ago.
"Female legislators on both sides of the aisle are critical," she said. "[They] respect different opinions, but at the same time seek compromise."
She calls Illinois a great and diverse state.
"We have so much to offer, so much going for us," McConnaughay said, but then cautioned about the threat of mounting state debt. "We need to be responsible to our children and our grandchildren that we do not leave them with insurmountable debt. … The best way for Illinois to prosper is to be a job creator, to be a place where people can seek a high quality of life … get a good job that pays a strong middle-class income. Things we used to be known for."
"Collectively, we all need to do a better job to respect our differences and find solutions that protect our families and our communities," she said. "That's my wish. … I've been incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve. I get kind of emotional just talking about it. I don't fault anybody individually for anything. I think everybody [who] comes to this wanted to do the best they can do."
McConnaughay said the next chapter in her life is to use her public service experience to help organizations achieve their policy priorities. One of her first clients is the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
BGCA is one of the largest charities helping youth in the United States, annually serving more than 4.3 million young people through more than 4,300 club facilities, according to a news release from her office.
As a senior adviser, she said she will help the organization's local boards' members across the country better communicate to officials and legislators the life-changing services that BGCA provides through its after-school and summer programming.
"I'm not retiring," she said. "I'm not ready to do that. I want to apply [my] skills and abilities in various ways that can make a positive impact."
Looking ahead to the election for her seat in November, she added, "Don DeWitte was a very successful mayor and worked hard and understood the importance of public service and I think he'll do a great job."