Local rep. Gabel becomes Illinois House Majority Leader

Ethan Ravi, Assistant News Editor

Photo courtesy of Robyn Gabel

Robyn Gabel has been in the politics business for a long time. For the past 12 years, she has served the 18th District, which includes Evanston, in the Illinois House of Representatives. On Jan. 13, 2023, Gabel was named House Majority Leader. This step up in responsibility had come as a result of a career full of activism and advocacy.

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, a time rife with political movements, she became involved in that lifestyle from a young age. That would serve as the kindling for her long and prosperous political career, eventually leading her to the seat she holds today.

Growing up in Skokie, Gabel quickly became interested in the political world, especially the women’s health movement.

“At the time, there were a lot of movements. And I got involved in the women’s health movement and my early career was working at feminist women’s health centers,” said Gabel.

She enjoyed her early experience working in health centers but felt that policy changes would be the best way to improve the lives of many, all around the state. This led her to pursue a graduate degree in public health, which she obtained from the University of Illinois Chicago. After graduating, Gabel brought her newfound knowledge back to the movement, this time joining the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, a policy advocacy group for women’s and children’s health care.

“I felt that, with women’s health centers, we could make change and help individual women and their individual lives, but that policy really mattered,” said Gabel.

An early role model in her political career was Harold Washington, a lawyer and politician who was mayor of Chicago from 1983 until 1987. He exemplified the importance of legislation in everyone’s daily lives, and was what drew Gabel into electoral politics.

“It seemed like a great opportunity to actually help working people in the city,” said Gabel. “A way to diminish the control that the Chicago machine had on everybody’s lives there. It was a very exciting time, and it got me into politics.”

It seemed like a great opportunity to actually help working people in the city. A way to diminish the control that the Chicago machine had on everybody’s lives there. It was a very exciting time, and it got me into politics.

— House Majority Leader Robyn Gabel

Before her time as a state legislator, Gabel had already been working very closely with government officials as a part of her job at the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition. Her work with Illinois legislators showed the real impact that the laws she was pushing for had on people’s daily lives.

“We did policy at the state level, a little bit at the federal level and a little bit at the city level, but the state government was really where a lot of the decisions were made that affected people’s lives. So, I worked at the state level trying to get legislators to support the policy issues that I thought were important and that my coalition thought were important,” said Gabel. “I would spend a lot of my time convincing legislators and state health departments that [my proposed legislation] was the way to go.”

One major result from Gabel’s work as a part of the coalition was the expansion of Medicaid for children in Illinois. When she started her work on the issue, there were about 800,000 children and parents on Medicaid in the state, and when she left the coalition, there were almost 2.5 million. Children’s health, along with women’s health, would remain an issue that Gabel would prioritize throughout her political career.

“Kids can’t learn in school if they have ear infections, or if they don’t have glasses that they need,” said Gabel. 

As a result of her work, “Kids were getting treated who had not been having access to healthcare before that.”

By then, Gabel had moved to Evanston, and it was there that a seat for the Illinois House of Representatives opened up.

“It was an open seat, and I said, ‘Well, if I run, then I don’t have to convince other legislators to carry my bill. I can do my own work.’ And I can have a little more clout with the departments to do what I want them to do. And I can also branch out into other areas that are important to me, including, in addition to women’s health and children’s health, environmental issues, which were very important to me,” said Gabel. “So I ran, and I won.”

Gabel was elected as a Democrat to represent the 18th District of Illinois in 2010, and has represented the same district and party since. Besides healthcare, improving the environment is another cornerstone of her political work, and she was one of the key negotiators for the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA). This bill was signed into law by Governor J.B. Pritzker in 2021.

“The goal that was set in CEJA was to have 100 percent clean energy in the state by 2050,” said Gabel. “It set a process for closing gas and coal plants, and a process for funding renewable energy projects in the state.”

Another aspect of the bill was the jobs that it would create within the state, especially within environmental justice communities.

“It was one of the most equitable bills in terms of energy and the development of new jobs in the country. We had a lot of partners in environmental justice communities, and we ensured that a lot of the jobs would go to folks from those communities,” said Gabel.

On the healthcare front, Gabel has passed multiple laws concerning women’s health, one of which expanded Medicaid postpartum from two months to a year.

“There had been an increase in the number of maternal deaths while giving birth or for the first year afterwards. One of the reasons we thought this was the case was because their insurance dropped after only two months,” said Gabel. “So I was able to get [the expansion of Medicaid] passed.”

Another bill that Gabel was able to pass restricted the use of tanning beds in Illinois for children under the age of 18.

“The CDC found that there was a great increase of young women coming up with melanoma, and they linked it with the early use of tanning beds,” said Gabel.

In early 2023, Gabel was named House Majority Leader. Besides supporting the Speaker of the House, Chris Welch, and the rest of the leadership team, Gabel also works closely with her fellow Democratic representatives, many of whom are new to the House.

[My colleagues] have questions; they need help. My new position allows me to be a mentor to all 78 of our members, which is great, and it allows me to help solve their problems, which I love to do.

— Robyn Gabel

“[My colleagues] have questions; they need help. My new position allows me to be a mentor to all 78 of our members, which is great, and it allows me to help solve their problems, which I love to do,” said Gabel.

Another part of the job is working with constituents and interest groups throughout the state.

“[They] come to me about their issues, and I help them strategize and figure out how we can help their causes as well,” said Gabel.

Gabel divides her time between Springfield, the state’s capital, and Evanston. She spends three days a week in Springfield from January through May, and also spends a few weeks there every November.

“Other than when we’re in Springfield, we’re pretty much located in our districts. I always attend a lot of events in our district, as well as constituent meetings,” said Gabel. “I continue to work with folks in that way.”

In the future, Gabel hopes to pass a bill that would make it much easier for owners of electric vehicles to use charging stations across the state.

“I’m still working on that bill as a follow up to CEJA,” said Gabel.

As the new Democratic Majority Leader in the Illinois House of Representatives, Gabel hopes to continue to lead the party towards a better future for all citizens of Illinois.

“I work with our leadership team to really make sure that we meet our goals as a Democratic caucus,” said Gabel. “We help lead the entire House in a direction that we feel will really improve people’s lives.”