Smile Politely

Close calls and campaigning during COVID: A Q&A with Ramona Sullivan

The Illinois primary happened this spring at the same time the world turned upside down (sorry, too much Hamilton recently). Ramona Sullivan had been campaigning more or less since 2018, and her wait for results were extended after the primary race for Circuit Judge was too close to call. “I had hoped to have an event to celebrate the primary victory and thank my amazing volunteers and supporters,” said Sullivan. “That still hasn’t happened, and I don’t know when it will.”

I talked with Sullivan about the primary season during COVID, her election night, and how campaigning for Circuit Judge in 2020 has been different from other races.

Smile Politely: The Illinois primary was held March 17th, toward the start of COVID-19 concerns and closures for this area. Can you reflect on the end of your primary campaign season, what COVID concerns meant for your campaigning, and how the primary campaign wrapped up for you?

Ramona Sullivan: Everyday, something new and unprecedented was happening. It was so disorienting, for all of us. The schools closed. Churches closed. Businesses closed. The courthouse closed. Everything, except the election, was canceled. I stopped trying to talk to anyone and spent the last weeks putting door hangers on as many doors as possible.

SP: The night of the primary your race was too close to call, with just 200 votes separating you and Ruth Wyman in your four-way race. Can you describe your St. Patrick’s Day Election Night? What was the waiting for official results like as the world seemed to wait on the pandemic?

RS: I spent much of election night collecting yard signs from polling places, then watched the results at home with my family. When it became clear that the race wasn’t over, it was pretty stressful for me because I had been pushing myself so hard for so long and telling myself that March 17th was the finish line. When I got home on March 18th after watching the clerk’s office process that day’s votes by mail, I had one of the worst headaches of my life. After that day, I accepted that I had to wait for the process to run its course and I reassured myself that I was in the lead after early-voting and after election-day-voting and that the votes-by-mail would probably follow the same pattern.

SP: A recount confirmed your win on April 6th. What was the recount process like for you? Did COVID precautions change or postpone the recount in any way?

RS: Ruth Wyman talked to the newspaper about the possibility of a recount because the race was so close, but she chose not to pursue a recount once all of the votes by mail were counted and the clerk had final results. I understand how difficult it must have been for Ruth to work so hard and come so close, because I worked very hard and came very close in 2018, so I really appreciated her decision to let it go and accept the election results. 

SP: With the Champaign County Courthouse being closed during Phases 1 through 3, how has your work as a public defender changed this year?

RS: For several weeks, the building was closed to the public and courthouse employees were expected to take turns working from home to maintain social distancing. We were still having court every day for arraignment court and detention hearings and shelter care hearings, but we weren’t having trials or sentencing hearings or addressing any non-emergency matters.  Clients had to wait, even clients in custody, because of the shutdown. Some people are still waiting. It was a very strange spring, and it’s been a very strange summer. 

SP: How has campaigning in a pandemic changed your plans for your 2020 race? What methods of campaigning are you focusing on more or changing? What are you missing about these changes?

RS: I really do love a parade. My family seems relieved that they are not expected to appear at multiple parades every weekend this summer and fall like they have done for the past three years, but I miss the parades. I miss talking to voters at the Farmers’ Market. I miss talking to voters at their doorsteps. I miss the “meet and greets” and campaign events. But the next leg of the campaign will likely be focused on mailers and literature drops and social media. I miss the personal voter contact, but I don’t know when personal contact will be possible.

SP: How is the general election campaign different from the primary this year? What message are you working to get out in your candidacy for Circuit Judge?

RS: My message has been consistent for three years: I’m running for judge to bring balance to the bench. The judicial screening committee said I am “well qualified” for the job, the ISBA State Bar Poll said I am “Recommended” for the job, and we need judges with my career experience and my life experience on the bench.

I started this journey without any political experience or any political connections. Fortunately, some people believed in me and worked very hard to help me reach voters. I know I couldn’t have come this far without those people, and I hope to have an opportunity to thank them in person soon.

Photo from Ramona Sullivan for Circuit Judge Facebook page.

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