The five Democratic candidates for state representative of the 18th District – Robyn Gabel, Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Eamon Kelly, Edmund Moran Jr. and Jeff Smith – squared off in a debate at Evanston Township High School on Jan. 10. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the District 65/202 PTA Council, the forum drew a crowd of about 200. For the most part, the candidates stuck to the issues, with only a few jibes by one against another.
Voters will determine in the Feb. 2 primary which of the five will represent the Democratic Party in the General Election in November. None of the candidates garnered sufficient votes to win endorsement by the Democratic Party of Evanston, and Julie Hamos, the current representative from the 18th District has not endorsed any candidate. A spokesperson from her campaign office told the RoundTable that Ms. Hamos will not endorse a candidate. There is no Republican running in the primary; it is anticipated that the Republican Party will select a candidate after the election.
The candidates fielded questions crafted by the sponsoring agencies and from the audience on topics that included the state budget, campaign-finance reform, education funding, the environment, rebuilding public infrastructure, the decennial legislative redistricting, public corruption and immigration.
Budget Deficit – A Structural Problem
There appeared to be a general consensus that addressing the state’s budget deficit – said to be $12 billion dollars – was a critical issue. Most agreed that the deficit was a systemic problem that could not be solved only by paring expenses, but instead required an increase in income taxes.
The views included supporting House Bill 174, which would raise taxes from 3 percent to 5 percent, with increased exemptions that would limit the impact on the middle class. Others supported imposing a progressive tax, which would require a constitutional amendment.
Ms. Gabel said she supported the bill and added, “It would be very difficult to cut ourselves out of that kind of deficit. We need to get rid of loopholes, collect the fees and taxes that are owed to us, and we need a progressive income tax linked with property-tax relief.”
Mr. Smith said, “We need to increase revenues; we can’t tax our way out of this crisis.” He also said he favored “belt-tightening rather than layoffs,” because he does not want to see people lose their jobs. He added that he is “not in favor of increased dependence on sales tax.”
Mr. Keenan-Devlin – who displayed grace each time the moderator mispronounced his name – said he supported House Bill 174. “It is absolutely essential to raise taxes. This is the right road to take. … There are efficiencies [we can garner]. … We don’t have to spend $27 million in lottery advertising.” He also said he supported a “smart, progressive income-tax increase.”
Mr. Kelly said, “We need tough decisions – fight the fights to get efficiencies. We should cut the racetrack subsidies and eliminate Governor Rod Blagojevich’s free [CTA] rides for seniors. [One way to] address the structural problems is by living up to our obligations.”
Mr. Moran said, “The confidence level about our Illinois state government is in a significant decline.” He also said he would like to build the budget up from ground zero – have a “top to bottom review and cut waste” – making sure everything possible was pared before deciding an income tax increase was necessary.
Education Financing – Illinois is Near Bottom
All the candidates agreed that changes are needed in the way that public education is financed. Illinois is ranked 49th in state education funding.
Mr. Kelly said the impetus for his decision to run for office was the state’s so-called “Doomsday budget,” which, among other things, cut universal preschool. He added, “The state bears the main burden of public education, but the local community should have some control.”
Mr. Moran said he also supports a change in the tax caps – which limit the amount of a school district’s tax levy – by changing the index from the consumer price index to an “employment-cost” index, and eliminating the tax cap altogether for special education and life-safety.
Ms. Gabel said she favored reforming the way public education is financed. “The goal of education is to have students who will be college- or career-ready. … Funding issues are complicated. The foundation [state-mandated] level is $5,900 per child, but studies show that $7,000 per child is needed. We don’t need rich and poor education districts in the state; we need good education for all.”
Mr. Smith said he feels the state “needs better metrics [to assess student progress] – but we have an obsession with metrics, and we teach to the test. We need to foster critical thinking and nurture intellectual curiosity.”
Mr. Keenan-Devlin said, “Now is the time to pass progressive tax reform. We need a new way to fund education, to protect education.”
Environment – A Social Justice Issue
Responding to a question about what they would do to address climate change, Mr. Keenan-Devlin said, “There’s a lot we can do at home. I look at the environment as a social-justice issue. We can promote smart [utility] meters. We should reduce diesel pollutions. CTA buses, for example, should be retrofitted. Many poor people live near bus stops and are exposed to the pollution.”
Mr. Kelly said he shared Mr. Keenan-Devlin’s thought that “the environment is the social-justice issue of our generation. … We need to look at new construction and building codes, to promise resources to families to allow them to save energy, and to continue to educate a new generation [on environmental issues].”
Citing his work on Evanston’s multi-modal transportation plan and on the zoning code that allowed solar panels in Evanston, Mr. Moran said he would also support ways to ensure that materials that go into housing are environmentally safe.
Ms Gabel said she believes “environment, jobs and the economy are all connected. We need tax credits, and public-private partnerships to create affordable housing.”
Mr. Smith said, “We can help people learn their carbon footprint, let people know about grants. … [We need to use] renewable and alternative energy. [As for new construction], if it’s not going to be green, don’t build it.”
Corruption – In the Hands of Some Springfield Legislators
The candidates agreed that campaign-finance reform is one way to address the corruption in Springfield. Mr. Kelly and Mr. Moran said they favored limits on the ability of legislative leaders to distribute money to certain campaigns. Mr. Kelly said, “I believe the legislation we passed is worse than the system [we had] before.” Mr. Moran said he supported additional limits, and “as a corollary, there has to be a protection for independent legislators.”
Mr. Smith said, “We’ve had a thumb on the scale of politics, and the thumb is green: Money is a real problem. The real problem with contributions is not so much the money, but what it does to the candidates.” In his opening statement he said, “This is a transformational moment in Illinois history. We must transform Illinois politics.”
Mr. Keenan-Devlin and Ms. Gabel said they supported publicly financed campaigns.
Asked what impact they would have on corruption in Springfield if elected, each candidate promised to be an independent voice. Several said they had experience in building coalitions and said they would seek out other independent legislators.
Mr. Smith said, “I am looking to form a ‘coalition of the reasonable.’”
Mr. Keenan-Devlin said, “I have experience in Springfield building coalitions.”
Mr. Kelly said, “In terms of personal impact, I will not accept money from the legislative leaders.” He added, “I am not the youngest person running, but I can say to [the corrupt leaders] in Springfield, ‘I’m going to be here when you’re gone.’”
Mr. Moran said, “I won’t be afraid of legislators … I will reach across aisles.” He also said he believed that redistricting and putting limits on spending by legislators would help address corruption.”
Ms. Gabel said she has spent a lot of time in Springfield as a public advocate for progressive legislation. She said she favored two approaches: “Clearly, we need to develop a progressive caucus in Springfield. We need a coalition for health-care reform at the state level; we need to rebuild the economy and nurture green-collar economy. We also have to work across the aisles.”
Throughout the debate, the candidates attempted to distinguish themselves on many issues based on their experience and accomplishments.
Ms. Gabel emphasized her 20 years of experience as executive director of the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Care Coalition, and before that her work as co-director of the Chicago Women’s Health Center. She said she helped to develop the KidsCare health insurance program for low-income children and pregnant women and subsequently helped implement the All Kids Program, which provides every child in the state access to affordable healthcare.
Ms. Gabel said, “I have had many, many accomplishments over the last 20 years. … I have been able to double the number of health centers. … I have been able to provide 500,000 adults with dental care. … I have been able to increase immunization rates. I have shown the proven capacity to work relentlessly for change, building winning legislative and community alliances. … I may be petite, but my experience makes me a political heavyweight.”
Patrick Keenan-Devlin, the youngest of the candidates, said he served as the health policy advocate at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and later as the legislative director of Citizen Action/Illinois. He said he advocated for campaign finance legislation, improved access to health care and predatory lending reform.
Mr. Keenan-Devlin said, “I’m running for state representative because I know how broken Springfield is and I know that we need a way to address the systemic problems that our State is currently facing. … You go down to Springfield, and those vulnerable citizens are typically the first on the chopping block. That is wrong. That is my inspiration for running. We need to protect our vulnerable citizens.” He said the state needs to make sweeping reforms and that it needs to address its structural deficit. “We can protect our vulnerable citizens by providing funding for vital social and human services.”
Eamon Kelly, an attorney at Jenner & Block, pointed to his tenure as chief of staff of the State Board of Education, where he says he worked to pass higher graduation standards, extend health care benefits to retired teachers, and expand preschool access for low-income families.
Mr. Kelly said, “More than ever, we need to elect a candidate with the experience and the commitment to make the tough decisions we need to protect our most important community institutions. Oftentimes, people distance themselves from the human cost from the failure of leadership. … In the face of cuts to social services, pre-school and health care, it’s easy to give into skepticism.” Referring to a sermon in which the preacher challenged the congregation, Mr. Kelly said, “He said, ‘I dare you to believe.’ … I dare you to believe that working together supporting independent legislators we can elect people who will make the tough decisions we need to support important community institutions.”
Edmund Moran Jr., an attorney for 36 years, pointed to his public service in Evanston, which includes four years on the Evanston Parks and Recreation Board and 18 years as an alderman of the Sixth Ward. He says he has worked on many infrastructure issues, including transportation, sewers, electrical distribution, and budget and human service issues.
Mr. Moran said, “I think I have a proven track record of making changes that are positive, progressive and will be fiscally responsible. The absolutely first thing we need to address … is to get the financial house in order. It has to be the first thing because all other things will crumble without that.” He said he has 18 years experience preparing City budgets and said, “I know what it means to go through that and to express your values in a budget.” He said he had been involved in addressing issues concerning transportation, the environment, immigration and jobs. “I have a proven track record. It’s not a promise. … People can look up my record and they can see I have supported these issues. I will continue to support them in Springfield.”
Jeff Smith, an attorney for 25 years, says he has worked on many local school and municipal issues in Evanston and has a track record of challenging the Democratic Party to become more issue-oriented, transparent and inclusive, with special attention to the environment, peace and justice, and political reform.
“I like all my competitors and probably by now, all of you do, too,” said Mr. Smith. “This isn’t a popularity contest. You’re hiring somebody to do a job, and you’re sending somebody down to Springfield to do a job. And the name of the job is representation. I believe I am the person most representative of the community when you take the various aspects of engagement, of experience, of being involved in the community.” He added, “Repairing the Land of Lincoln won’t be easy. It will take creativity, wisdom, courage and perseverance. I will be an effective champion of reform, the environment, and common sense in Springfield.”
After the debate, several persons commented that the candidates did not appear to differ substantially on the issues, and that each candidate would serve Evanston well in Springfield. One person said it was too bad that all five could not be state representatives.