How to recover from a devastating election loss

April 24, 2012

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(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
Raja Krishnamoorthi back at work at Sivananthan Laboratories, a few weeks after losing a primary election for the U.S. House.

It's been five weeks since Illinois voters went to the polls for the state's primary elections. It was a happy day for winners, and a devastating one for the losers.

We talked to some candidates who know what it's like to fall short, and then have to ease back into everyday life.

First, in an effective election night concession speech, you have to show some fire, grace, humility. And don't forget the thank yous.

GERY CHICO: I just want to thank you all...
DON MANZULLO: ...for the opportunity to be here...
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: ...so many names, so many people...
ALEXI GIANNOULIAS: I just spoke to the congressman...
CHICO: ...and we had a very, very pleasant phone call...
BRAUN: ...and I wish the victor all the success.
GIANNOULIAS: Stick around for a little while. I've got a lot of hugs to give out. I love you all very, very much. Thank you very much.

And then, after the hugs, having sunk their life into a months- or even years-long campaign, what's a losing politician to do?

"I slept a lot," Raja Krishnamoorthi said with a laugh. "I slept a lot. I ate a lot. I slept a lot."

Krishnamoorthi lost a primary for Congress last month. Two years ago, he lost one for state comptroller. His post-defeat activities included spending time with his two young kids.

"[I] got to see my family in the daylight hours, which was really rare in the months leading up to the election," he said.

Krishnamoorthi waited three weeks before returning to his day job as president of a research lab. The transition from campaign to life is not an easy one, he said.

"It's kind of like you're going a hundred miles an hour. And then all of a sudden you stop. And you're going zero miles an hour. And inevitably there's some whiplash," Krishnamoorthi said.

All of a sudden, the urgency is gone and what's left is the mundane: shutting down a campaign, paying bills, cleaning up. That was an especially big job for another defeated candidate, Debbie Halvorson.

"The one campaign office I had in Crete, I've had for probably ten years," Halvorson said. "That was a bit emotional going through everything."

That Crete office was with Halvorson when she was a state senator, when she won and then lost a seat in Congress and during her unsuccessful comeback attempt this year.

With no leftover campaign cash to keep the doors open, she packed up old thank you notes, awards.

"Just things...you...had to go through and letters you had to read and...decide what you really had to keep and what you couldn't," she said. "I didn't do very well, because I've got boxes and boxes of things that I marked, just called 'memories.'"

Halvorson stuffed those boxes in her crawl space at home. She said now she's finishing her memoirs and getting back to work as a consultant and lobbyist.

Stella Black didn't wait long to get back to work after her two election losses for Metropolitan Water Reclamation commissioner. Both times, the 70-year-old tax consultant was in her office less than 12 hours after the polls closed.

"I get here at 5:55 almost every morning," Black said.

Even after election night.

"Absolutely, you know, that's the best thing to do is just to get back in," she said.

Black's election loss this year was different than when she ran in 2010. Her son died this past November. She said the campaigning helped her get through the unhappiness. And this election, she said, felt smoother.

"This time it just seemed like I had an angel on my shoulder," Black said. "I know that's corny, but I just felt different about it, so. And I guess I felt in my heart I had a better chance of winning."

She finished last in a field of six, but has no regrets.

Still, like several losing candidates we talked with, Black can't help but wonder, What were those voters thinking?

"Nobody cares, it seems. I shouldn't say nobody cares," Black said. "But if you want more of the same, which I think in this race it looks like people did."

Tony Peraica felt that same way after he lost a 2006 campaign for Cook County Board President.

"I went down to Florida for a couple of weeks and rested," he said, an escape from Cook County. "Definitely, definitely. This place can get to you, if you let it."

Peraica lost again two years later in a run for state's attorney. And then again in 2010, when he tried for reelection as county commissioner.

"Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? I'm not surprised by anything," Peraica said. "I just didn't have the same fire in the belly I suppose that I did in previous elections."

Compounding the disappointment, Peraica was arrested two days before that election, for allegedly destroying a yard sign of his opponent. Peraica said this is all "ridiculous," as his opponent was mayor of suburban McCook and he was arrested in McCook.

In July, Peraica goes on trial for a misdemeanor charge of criminal damage to property.

"It's frivolous. It's a waste of taxpayer resources. It's a farce," he said.

Maybe, but it's also a lingering reminder of an old election loss.