Palatine, Ill. — No city does St. Patrick’s Day quite like Chicago. As thousands congregated downtown on Saturday morning to watch city workers dye the Chicago River bright green, Illinois attorney-general candidate Erika Harold opted for something a little less flashy but perhaps even more remarkable: a local St. Patrick’s Day parade in Palatine, a small village in the city’s northwestern suburbs.
Outside Gray M. Sanborn Elementary School, the sharp Midwestern wind blew children’s shamrock bowler hats into the street. A procession of several dozen decorated lawnmowers waited on the nearby grass, and a contingent of kilt-clad bagpipers warmed up in the parking lot.
One particularly enthusiastic village resident brought along a white Great Pyrenees dog, whose fur was tinted green for the occasion, and an amateur saxophonist repeatedly played “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” smoothing out the off-key notes just a bit with each rendition.
And Harold stood in the middle of it all — matching the crowd’s festive flair in her own lime-green scarf and sparkly shamrock earrings — clearly at home in the bustle and thrum as Palatine residents finished their hasty preparations. The swirl seemed second nature to her, and why wouldn’t it be? She has already excelled in a much more intense atmosphere: In 2003, she was Miss America.
Harold was born and raised in Champaign, Ill., and though her stint as Miss America over a decade ago sent her traveling across the country, she’s now back home in the Prairie State, hoping to serve as its next attorney general, and as the first Republican to hold the office in over a decade.
Along with the Palatine Township Republican Association, Harold marched in the parade to meet members of the community ahead of the March 20 primary elections. “People always remember when you show up at their parades and when you don’t,” Harold tells me as we begin walking the parade route. “They view it as a proxy for if you’re willing to work hard for their vote.”
If the children of Palatine could cast ballots, Harold would surely win their votes in a landslide on Tuesday. “If you have no candy, no kid wants to shake your hand. Your message is candy on a day like today,” she says when she arrives, armed with a bag of the stuff. Her strategy seemed to work with children and adults alike. One man on the sidelines called out after her, “I vote for the candidate who gives me the most candy!”
As the parade swept through the streets of Palatine, the former Miss America had to jog to catch up with volunteers holding her banners. Consistently, she lingered to talk with residents: “You should never ride in the parade; always walk. It’s important to make a one-on-one connection.”
Harold says she first began to consider herself a conservative when she was a student at the University of Illinois. “I know that’s not the usual course of events,” she tells me with a chuckle. After graduation, Harold was dead-set on going to Harvard Law School but needed to find a way to pay for it. And so she did, in a very unusual style: She entered the Miss America pageant in 2003 — and emerged the victor.
Though perhaps few realize it, winners do more than wear crowns and gowns and smile for the camera. Harold’s official platform as Miss America was preventing youth violence and bullying, and she deferred law school for a year to travel across the country, speaking to students, teachers, and parents about practical ways to identify and stop bullying in schools.
Her dedication to the issue stemmed from her childhood experience of being a victim of bullying and harassment — often as the result of her mixed-race background: white on her father’s side and both African American and Native American on her mother’s. “When I won Miss America, it was still at a time in which people didn’t take the issue of bullying in schools all that seriously,” she tells me. “They sometimes viewed it as an adolescent rite of passage.”
Harold went on to graduate from Harvard Law in 2007, and has since worked full time as a lawyer. Now, she wants to take what she has learned both from the law and as Miss America to improve her home state, which she thinks has been plagued by corruption for much too long.
In her view, current attorney general Lisa Madigan — daughter of notorious Democratic-party boss Mike Madigan, who has been speaker of the Illinois house since the 1970s — has squandered the unique authority and the resources of the office. Instead of keeping her promise to lessen both public and private corruption, particularly in Chicago, Madigan has helped her friends and targeted her enemies.
‘Political corruption in Illinois is not a partisan issue,’ Harold insists.
“Political corruption in Illinois is not a partisan issue,” Harold insists. “Political leaders in both parties have abused their positions of power and created cynicism in our state that has undermined people’s view of our government.”
Last summer, Madigan said she planned to seek a fifth term, but when Harold announced her own candidacy a month later, the current attorney general dropped out of the race. Before she can face a new Democratic candidate in November, Harold has to defeat primary challenger Gary Grasso, a Chicago-area politician who currently serves on the DuPage County board.
In the final weeks of the primary campaign, the GOP contest has gotten particularly ugly. Grasso recently sent mailers accusing Harold of choosing to “place a child in the home of known child abusers,” decontextualizing remarks Harold made during the Miss America pageant when she was explaining her opposition to same-sex adoption.
“I switched my vote because of that mailer and am going to support Erika,” one member of the Palatine Township Republican Association told me at the parade. “That attack just wasn’t right.”
Grasso also sent mailers suggesting that Harold is anti-family and pro-choice, as well as implying that he had received the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune editorial board, when in fact the paper had endorsed Harold.
When supporters at the parade asked her about Grasso’s negative ads, Harold shrugged them off with a pleasant smile. “When you get late in a race and your opponent doesn’t like the way things are looking, sometimes they turn to tactics like this. The best thing to do is ignore it and stay focused on the positives,” Harold told one man.
“Well, I’m not falling for it,” he replied, shaking his head. “You’ve got my vote. I think you’ve got the best chance in the fall. That’s why I’m voting for you.”
According to an SIU poll from late February, Harold leads Grasso 18 percent to 14 percent, with a full 65 percent of voters undecided. Among residents of Chicago proper, Harold was up 21 to 14 percent, and in downstate Illinois, where she was born and raised, she leads Grasso 19 to 13 percent. In the suburbs, however, the two are tied at 14 percent support.
Which makes Harold’s St. Patrick’s Day excursion to the suburbs even more appropriate. Though she appears to be the slight favorite to win today’s primary, she isn’t the type to slack off. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I remember shaking your hand’ or ‘I remember you coming up onto my porch to meet me,’” she tells me. “You have to actually enjoy people and be curious about their stories.”
“Very few people fully understand all the political issues,” one of Harold’s supporters told me just before the parade began. “But we remember when you show up.”
If he’s right, Harold’s knack for showing up in style like she did in Palatine might be exactly what she needs to put her over the edge in today’s primary — and it might even help her win in November, too.