A former single mother and cosmetics salesperson, Deborah L. Halvorson became the first female majority leader of the Illinois state senate before winning election to the United States House of Representatives in 2008. On Capitol Hill, she supported health care reform, alternative energy development, and veterans’ benefits during her term. “Growing up as a female, being born in ’58, so growing up in the ’70s, women were not thought of as senators,” Halvorson once said of her pathbreaking Illinois political career. “My job is to level the playing field and bring government back to the people,” she continued. “I’ve never changed my mission statement of helping others.”1
Deborah L. Halverson was born Deborah L. DeFrancesco in Chicago Heights, Illinois, on March 1, 1958, to Richard and Joyce DeFrancesco. After graduating from Bloom High School in 1976, DeFrancesco married Gordon Halvorson, raised two children, and started a small business selling cosmetics. They later divorced, and Halvorson has two stepchildren with her second husband, Jim Bush, and four grandchildren. Halvorson was elected clerk of Crete, Illinois, a small town roughly 40 miles south of Chicago after 14 years in cosmetic sales. In the mid-1990s, Illinois state senator Emil Jones recruited Halvorson to run for the state senate. “I looked at him like he was crazy,” Halvorson said of Jones’s idea. “He asked me to see him the next day. I just never showed up.”2 Jones, who was the Democratic Party leader in the state senate, eventually succeeded in convincing Halvorson to run, and she defeated longtime incumbent Republican Aldo DeAngelis with 56 percent of the vote in the 1996 general election.3 Halvorson returned to school after her election to the state senate. She earned an associate’s degree from Prairie State College in 1998, her bachelor’s from Governors State University in 2001, and a master’s from the same university two years later.4
In the state senate, Halvorson sponsored legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors and prevent abuse in nursing homes.5 She also made several international trips to promote businesses in her district. Halvorson’s mother was a cancer survivor, and at the age of 44, Halvorson herself faced the threat of cervical cancer. In the state house, pointing to her own family’s experience, Halvorson advocated for mandatory vaccinations for all girls between the ages of 11 and 12 against the virus that can cause cervical cancer.6 In 2005, following the death of Vince Demuzio, Halvorson was elected majority leader of the Illinois state senate, becoming the first woman to hold that office.7
National Democratic Party leaders recruited Halvorson—a lifelong resident of the traditionally Republican congressional district that ran south of Chicago and westward near the Iowa border—to run for the U.S. House in 2008, after incumbent Representative Gerald C. (Jerry) Weller announced his retirement. Halvorson was unopposed in the primary, and in the general election, faced Republican Martin Ozinga III, a concrete company executive who entered the race late after another candidate withdrew.8 While Halvorson and Ozinga found common ground on a range of issues, they disagreed over tax policy and abortion rights. Halvorson favored ending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, while Ozinga favored extending the 2001 tax cuts.9 On November 4, 2008, Halvorson defeated Ozinga with 58 percent of the vote.10
Elected to the 111th Congress (2009–2011), Halvorson, who described herself as a “fiscally conservative, socially conscious and moderate-to-conservative Democrat,” joined the centrist New Democrat Caucus and co-chaired its energy task force. She also served on the influential Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which helps shape the party agenda in the House, in addition to her assignments on the Agriculture; Small Business; and Veterans’ Affairs Committees.11
As she had done in state government, Halvorson made health care a priority in the House and supported the Affordable Care Act, the Democratic reform package that overhauled the country’s health insurance industry. “I know what it is like to grow up without health insurance,” she said. “My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s and my parents were never able to obtain affordable health insurance again.”12
Representing a district with six nuclear reactors—the most in the country—Halvorson supported alternative energy investment and cap-and-trade legislation to limit emissions.13 She sponsored a bill to give tax credits to producers of alternative energy and cosponsored legislation that would aid nuclear energy research and development. “If we’re truly going to be energy independent, we need a comprehensive energy strategy that invests heavily in nuclear energy, and it’s been my mission in Congress to be an aggressive voice for more safe nuclear power,” Halvorson said.14
A member of a military family—her father and husband are veterans, and her stepson, Jay Bush, fought and was injured in Afghanistan as a member of the United States Army Special Forces—Halvorson was the only member of the Illinois congressional delegation to serve on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee during the 111th Congress.15 She sponsored or cosponsored many bills and amendments that provided benefits to servicemembers returning to civilian life. The first bill Halvorson introduced in the House would have eliminated Veterans’ Administration health care copayments for veterans who suffered catastrophic injuries.16
Halvorson sought re-election to the 112th Congress (2011–2013) in 2010 but faced tough competition from Republican Adam Kinzinger, an Iraq War veteran who announced his candidacy shortly after Halvorson took office.17 In a race that drew national attention, Kinzinger and Halvorson sparred over a number of issues from Social Security to tax cuts.18 Kinzinger defeated Halvorson with more than 57 percent of the vote in the November 2, 2010, general election.19
After leaving Congress, Halvorson worked as an alternative energy consultant before unsuccessfully challenging Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr. in the March 2012 Democratic Party primary for Illinois’s Second Congressional District.20 After Jackson resigned in November 2012, Halvorson lost a special Democratic primary election to replace him in February 2013.21
1Dennis Conrad, “Rep.–elect Debbie Halvorson: From Cosmetics Sales to Congress,” 7 December 2008, Associated Press.
2Conrad, "Rep–elect Debbie Halvorson: From Cosmetic Sales to Congress."
3Steve Neal, “Halvorson’s Upset a Sign of Change,” 19 March 1997, Chicago Sun–Times: 43.
4Congressional Directory, 111th Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2009): 88.
5Almanac of American Politics, 2010 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 2009): 520.
6Leslie Baldacci, “Lawmaker Champions Cancer Vaccine, Reveals Her story: Sen. Halvorson Says Inoculation Against HPV Ought to be Law,” 22 September 2006, Chicago Sun–Times: 48.
7Conrad, “Rep.–elect Debbie Halvorson: From Cosmetics Sales to Congress.”
8Erika Slife, “11th Congressional District Race Heats Up,” 2 September 2008, Chicago Tribune, n.p.
9Erika Slife, “GOP Rookie Ozinga, Democratic Veteran Halvorson in Attack Mode Over 11th District Seat,” 30 October 2008, Chicago Tribune: n.p.
10Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."
11Conrad, “Rep.–elect Debbie Halvorson: From Cosmetics Sales to Congress”; Congressional Directory, 111th Cong., 1st sess.: 88.
12“U.S. House, Dist. 11: Debbie Halvorson,” Chicago Sun–Times: n.p.
13“Halvorson Builds Record as a Nuclear Issues Leader in Congress,” official website of Representative Debbie Halvorson, press release, accessed 7 July 2010, http://halvorson.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=292&Itemid=75 (link discontinued); “About the American Clean Energy and Security Act,” official website of Representative Debbie Halvorson, accessed 2 November 2010, http://halvorson.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=139:about-the-american-cleanenergy-and-security-act&catid=39:issues&Itemid=105 (link discontinued).
14“Halvorson Builds Record as a Nuclear Issues Leader in Congress.”
15“U.S. House, Dist. 11: Debbie Halvorson."
16“Halvorson Introduces First Bill to Benefit Disabled Veterans,” official website of Representative Debbie Halvorson, press release, 9 March 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090325093515/http://halvorson.house.gov/2009/03/halvorson-introduces-first-bill-to-benefit-disabled-veterans.shtml; A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to prohibit the Secretary of Veterans Affairs from collecting certain copayments from veterans who are catastrophically disabled, H.R. 1335, 111th Cong. (2009); Families of Veterans Financial Security Act, H.R. 2774, 111th Cong. (2009); Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010, H.R. 3219, 111th Cong. (2009); Congressional Record, House, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (13 May 2010): H3445.
17Shira Toeplitz, “Illinois: First GOPer Lines Up to Take on Halvorson,” 20 January 2009, Roll Call, https://www.rollcall.com/2009/01/16/illinois-firstgoper-lines-up-to-take-on-halvorson/.
18Kristen Schorsch, “Kinzinger out to recapture 11th District seat for GOP,” 19 October 2010, Chicago Tribune, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010–10–19/news/ct–x–s–11th–cong–preview–1020–20101019_1_halvorson–adam–kinzinger–republican–jerry–weller (accessed 26 April 2012).
19“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."
20Phil Kadner, “Halvorson to Challenge Jackson in 2nd,” 10 January 2012, Herald-News (Joliet, IL): n.p.
21Rick Pearson and Bill Ruthhart, “Democrats Pick Kelly,” 27 February 2013, Chicago Tribune: C1.