Ellen Leyerle, an IT Business Coordinator for Carle, is warm and affable. She’s got a framed photo of Mr. Rogers with the character Officer Clemmons —the iconic image of Rogers and Clemmons, who is African-American, resting their bare feet in a pool together — hanging on her wall. Her home looks pretty similar to mine — dogs underfoot and the obvious signs of family life. If you didn’t know her you wouldn’t have necessarily pegged her as someone who has taken up the charge in a local political movement, and a fairly adversarial one at that. But that’s what she has done in the almost two years since the 2016 election.
She began with a submission to the News-Gazette’s Sunday Extra in February of 2017, expressing her frustration with the results of the election and setting into motion a simple action: asking local residents to take an Unseat Rodney Davis magnet to put on their cars for the 20+ months until the 2018 election. Jillian Nickell, a graphic designer who works for the Institute of Genomic Biology, saw the call and went one better. She offered her skills to design the magnet. They’ve since been distributed throughout Champaign-Urbana as well as to other corners of the IL-13 district: Decatur, Bloomington-Normal, Springfield, Edwardsville. It’s frankly pretty difficult to go anywhere in C-U and not see one. Now with the election less than 30 days away, I wanted to touch base with Leyerle and Nickels about the movement and what comes after the election.
Smile Politely: Were either of you actively involved in politics before the 2016 election?
Jillian Nickell: No. I voted, and I would sometimes donate money to campaigns, but that was it.
Ellen Leyerle: Absolutely ditto.
SP: You were obviously spurred to action, as many were, by that election. Why magnets?
Leyerle: I don’t know how I got the exact idea for the magnets, but I was very disturbed after the election, partly because my children were Chinese-American. My 14 year old woke up the day after and she was crying. She felt like she was no longer welcome in America. I just percolated on it, and my kids’ schools had magnets like that, so I thought what would it be like to have those driving around for the next two years until the election? I never dreamed it would get this big. My (at the time) 16 year old did a design, and (the call to action) ran as a Sunday Extra in the News-Gazette. Jillian saw it and emailed the address and said “Hey, I’m an artist and I would love to help out.” She improved the design 1000%.
Nickell: I was really glad that you had that idea. It was nice to be a part of it and have a way to help. That’s my skill set. I’m a designer. You can’t do everything, but you’re part a collective. And you (Leyerle) seem like you’re really good at organizing.
Leyerle: I guess that’s true? It is just a whole community initiative. It’s been great to meet people and it bodes well for the future because regardless of what happens on November 6th, we’re going to stick together.
SP: Why the particular focus on the congressional race?
Leyerle: Well we have Dick and Duck (U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth) so that leaves Rodney. It was the obvious seat to want to flip. I really thought we had a shot at it (in 2016). Then I thought that I might start to feel torn in this election cycle, that he’s not really that bad, that I shouldn’t be picking on him, but he’s just terrible. I feel no qualms whatsoever about kicking him in the ass as much as I can. I think 96.8% of the time he votes with Trump, so he’s just Rubber Stamp Rodney. That’s my alter ego. I dress up in a glorified ketchup bottle, put a Halloween cauldron on my head, and go around as Rubber Stamp Rodney.
SP: How has this extended beyond handing out magnets to people? How else have you run with this Unseat Campaign?
Leyerle: The magnets have been a big distribution effort. The kids are involved, my whole family has helped fund it, others have stepped up as well to fund it, there’s another fella who’s doing distribution. We ordered a big vinyl banner that says Unseat Rodney Davis and we’ve marched in two PrideFests here and one in Springfield. My mom has become really politically active with Bend the Arc - she went with them to Washington D.C. (to protest DACA being rescinded) and got arrested. My kids have become involved too. It’s been a nice family affair and brought us together with a common goal. I really think this generation is going to carry it forward.
SP: So. Rodney’s campaign ripped off the design. As the designer did that bother you at all?
Nickell: No, I thought it was funny.
Leyerle: I thought it was pathetic.
Nickell (laughing): It was funny and pathetic. You can’t even come up with your own design? It was a testament to how popular the campaign was.
Leyerle: I really thought it was just some guy, so when I found out it was actually from him I thought are you kidding me?
Nickell: Well at least I managed to get under his skin.
SP: With the election just under 30 days away are you intensifying your efforts? Have you maintained the same energy as you started with?
Nickell: When 2016 happened, I felt this sense of dread. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I didn’t think it was going to be good. When you (Leyerle) sent out the “bat signal” in the News-Gazette I don't even think I knew the impact that this was going to have, I just knew that I was feeling really frustrated and upset and scared and I wanted to do something. It’s been heartening to see it everywhere. So I feel like we’ve already done a lot, but for me personally it’s just continue to phone bank, canvass, and donate money.
Leyerle: And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that our big push is to get the Betsy magnets out (also designed by Nickel) so that you can have the matching set on your car.
SP: What happens after the election? Have you thought about where your activist energy will be directed depending on the outcome?
Leyerle: My kids bring this up. “If you don’t unseat Rodney what are you going to do mom?” I can’t even think about it. If he’s elected for another two years I guess we’ll be doing it again.
Nickell: I would like to do more political design and get involved that way. One of the reasons I like working where I work is because it’s about the advancement of education and science. So it feels like a good cause. I just hope to do more design work and continue to be involved even if I’m not paid for it. Also, I feel like we still have a fight even if she wins.
Leyerle: A lot of it is just showing up and following through. It’s been a long effort and people have been right there beside us. But we’re getting tired.
Nickell: I think I’m getting tired, but also...you have that picture of Mr. Rogers hanging up and it makes me think of what he says about when something bad happens look for the good people that are helping. That’s what this has been for me. I see a lot of bad stuff happening, but also good people too.
Leyerle and Nickell may never have a complete picture of the impact this project has had, but the needle is moving. It was announced this week that Londrigan is now within one point of Davis in the polls, a big GOP super-pac is throwing money at Davis, and now VP Pence himself is coming to Springfield to help fundraise for him. Of course there are a lot of factors that go into that, but maybe these car magnets conceived by a mom on a mission are playing some part.
If you are interested in having an Unseat or Betsy magnet of your very own, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo by Julie McClure. All others provided by Ellen Leyerle.