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The state budget shows signs of long-term fiscal irresponsibility; there is a culture of corruption in Springfield; Illinois’ funding of public education is dismal; and gay marriage is a matter of civil and human rights. Those were some of the stated points of agreement among the five Evanston residents, each of whom hopes to become the Democrat party nominee for 18th District state representative: Robyn Gabel, Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Eamon Kelly, Edmund Moran and Jeff Smith.
A debate sponsored by the Democratic Party of Evanston and the New Trier Democratic Organization and moderated by Bill Smith of Evanston Now drew a crowd of several hundred to the Kingsley School auditorium on Nov. 22, filling every seat and leaving some in the aisles.
Candidates first answered individually a single question to which others could also respond, followed by questions with shorter answer-times allowed. In the final segment of the debate, each candidate could ask one question of one other.
Because the candidates agreed on most major issues, they tried to distinguish themselves in terms of their past experiences and what each felt he or she could accomplish in Springfield.
Perhaps the greatest divide was between Mr. Moran and the other four: On the issue of abortion, Mr. Moran said he is pro-life; the others either said or implied they are pro-choice.
To Mr. Keenan-Devlin fell the question on state finances. “There is a structural deficit and there is also a pension crisis,” he said. “Social services have been [cut] by an irresponsible legislature. … I support an income tax increase, if we want to educate our children and have clean water and clean air.”
On a question about transportation, Mr. Keenan-Devlin said the legislature has about a 3:1 ratio of funding roads to funding public transit. “We need to invest more in public transit,” he said; he favors a 1:1 ratio.
Mr. Smith added, “Illinois has a regressive tax structure, and the people of Illinois won’t pay [more taxes] until they are confident they are not also paying a ‘corruption tax.’”
Mr. Kelly also said, “There are responsible cuts to be made.” He added, though, that he was against cuts to library funding, some of which came about under the Blagojevich administration. Mr. Moran said, in support of funding for libraries, “Reading is knowledge; knowledge is power. That’s one of the best ways we can help our citizens – by educating them.”
Ms. Gabel, next in line, was asked whether the current system of school funding discriminates against certain school districts. She said she had “heard people downstate complain that their children do not get as good an education [as some children do elsewhere]. We need to reform the way education is funded, but our Districts need to be held harmless. We should expand after-school programs and pay for special education and childcare and reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. We also need to reform teaching so teachers will not just teach to the test but teach critical thinking.”
Mr. Moran added, “It is completely unfortunate that we are the 49th state out of 50 in education funding.” Asked what three things he would do to improve kindergarten-through-eighth-grade education, he said he would “work on universal early childhood education; work for teacher training, recognition and rewards; and make sure teachers are paid a solid compensation.”
Mr. Kelly answered the question about same-sex marriage, saying it is a “fundamental problem [that same-sex marriages are not recognized]. It is a civil rights issue.” The others said they agreed with that position. Mr. Keenan-Devlin said, “Marriage equity is a civil rights issue.”
Mr. Smith was given a question about the statewide pension-funding crisis: Would he vote to replace the present “defined benefits” program with one that provides “defined contributions?”
If that were to happen, said Mr. Smith, “we would have a two-tiered system. New hires will have different benefits. … On a going-forward basis, most people realize we can’t continue [what we have been doing].” He added he is “open” to the defined-contribution system, “but only if it will not jeopardize the fiscal state of Illinois. I do not think firefighters, police officers and teachers … should have to put their futures into the casino of the market.”
Mr. Keenan-Devlin said, “How did we get here? It’s a failure of leadership. We should not be putting our police officers and firefighters and teachers at risk. This is fiscal irresponsibility in Springfield at its best.” Responding to another aspect of the pension issue, he said he would not support raising the age at which teachers could reap retirement benefits. “Thirty years [of service] is worthy and meritorious of receiving pension benefits.”
Campaign Financing Reform
All the candidates appeared to agree that reform is needed in the area of campaign financing.
Mr. Kelly said he supports “meaningful campaign finance reform,” in particular closing loopholes left in the laws passed this year by the legislature. Those loopholes, he said, “compound the culture of corruption,” which also includes patronage hiring. Separately he told the RoundTable he feels the legislation forecloses independence from the party’s leaders because “they can spend unlimited funds in the general election for the candidates they choose.” He said to the audience, “We need to impose an obligation on state workers and legislators to report corruption.”
Ms. Gabel said she favors public financing of elections. She added that there are laws on the books governing contract bids but said, “There is no enforcement of these bills; no teeth – no accountability.”
Asked how much blame the Democratic Party should bear for the state of corruption, Mr. Moran said, “The Democratic Party has to shoulder a lot of the blame. Both houses and many executive positions are controlled by Democrats.” He said he feels there “needs to be a more bipartisan approach [to issues] in Springfield.”
Mr. Smith said, “We need to elect a different type of Democrat to Springfield – stop the revolving doors and the ‘pay to play.’ Pushing an envelope of cash across a table for an appointment needs to be illegal.”
Experience, Capability and Desire
All the candidates emphasized their wish to continue their public service. Mr. Moran said, “One of the issues is ‘Who is going to be independent enough not only to show the values we share to have the political will to [make tough decisions]?’” Pointing to his 18 years on the Evanston City Council, he said, “I am independent, but I seek out ways to collaborate. I have demonstrated budgetary discipline. I have lived in this community for 36 years and I share the values of this community.”
Mr. Keenan-Devlin spoke of his experience in Springfield, the beliefs of his family and his love of Evanston. “I come from a family dedicated to public service. I was raised to believe in public service and in the ability of government to provide solutions. … I know this community well. I will be a progressive advocate in Springfield,” he said.
Ms. Gabel said she is running “in the footsteps of Julie Hamos and Jan Schakowsky.” She said each of them “had significant influence on the good for the people of Illinois before they got elected.” She pointed to her work as executive director of the Maternal and Child Health Care Coalition for Illinois, which, she said, has helped “millions of people get health care.” She added, “We need to rebuild trust in government.”
“Experience, engagement and track record,” said Mr. Smith, are necessary qualities for a representative in Springfield. “If you don’t come in with a first-hand knowledge [of the issues], the special-interest groups will run you over.” He asked his fellow candidates, “What have you done? What courage have you shown?” He added, “If you send a sword to Springfield, it should be a sword tempered by fire. … I’ll help forge a better politics that lets us believe again in Illinois.”
Mr. Kelly spoke of his experiences as chief of staff for the Illinois State Board of Education. In that capacity, he told the RoundTable, “I pushed to increase the graduation standards by increasing the math requirements.” He told the Nov. 22 audience, “I have experience in education reform, working for high graduation standards and for strong preschools.”