Abby Witt was a freshman sitting in a political science class at American University in 2001 when planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Witt — who will manage state Sen. Daniel Biss’ (D-Evanston) gubernatorial campaign — said 9/11 was a “life-altering” event that helped energize her interest in politics. She said the attacks inspired her to enter politics and make a difference.
“Having that crystallizing moment about not just how it might affect one person but how it might affect communities, and what an individual can do about that is what drew me in,” Witt said.
Witt, an Evanston native, will lead the Biss campaign through a crowded field of five other challengers in the Democratic primary next year. The winner of that primary will likely take on incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in the general election.
Witt has worked on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, first in 2008 as a regional field director and then four years later as the director of political operations. She most recently worked with Chicago Public Schools as director of strategic initiatives.
“Building a bold and progressive grassroots campaign requires an organizer leading us every day, and we got one of the best in Abby Witt,” Biss said in a news release last week.
After graduating from American University in 2005, Witt signed on with the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute. While at the center, Witt did research for a policy team and worked on a comptroller race in Maryland.
Sam Berger, who met Witt at the center, said his former colleague convinced him to leave law school and volunteer for Obama’s first campaign in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He said Witt’s persuasive skills and campaign experience demonstrate her ability to face the dynamic challenges that come with politics.
“She’s just one of these people who has really knocked it out of the park every time she’s gotten an opportunity,” Berger said. “(She’s) made a real difference and (I) don’t anticipate it will be any different this time.”
One of those opportunities came as managing director of Organizing for Action, an organization founded in 2013 to focus on progressive issues. The organization aims to translate progressive energy from Obama’s 2012 campaign into more permanent advocacy to keep government accountable, Witt said.
Katie Hogan, current executive director of OFA, said she worked with Witt to set priorities and make sure “all the trains at the organization were running on time.” She said Witt was responsible for communicating daily expectations to the staff and making strategic decisions.
Hogan said Witt has an “unending respect” for people who want to make a difference in their community. She said there wasn’t “anyone more qualified” to lead a grassroots campaign.
“The first-hand experience is not easily come by in politics,” Hogan said. “Someone who’s truly done the hard, grassroots work, who’s risen up the ranks to get to her level — that’s not something you normally see in a campaign manager at such a high level.”
Witt said her various political experiences have been formative, but that she got “the campaign bug” early on. Throughout her career, Witt said she has been driven to work on things she cares about.
The opportunity to work on Biss’ campaign, she added, was not one she could pass up.
Witt said Rauner and President Donald Trump represent two “inexperienced,” wealthy businessmen who have been allowed to hold high political office. Rauner’s “allegiance to ideology,” she said, is indicative of the problems in state politics over the past 30 years and has prevented him from advancing policy.
With Biss, she said, voters have the chance to elect a “rare” candidate who will address those issues honestly.
“Do we want to take our state back? Do we want the state of Illinois and those in leadership to represent the interests of the people and be held accountable to them, or do we want to keep going down the same path?” Witt said.
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