JOLIET – Chris Kennedy moved to Illinois 30 years ago, has had a successful business career, ran the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and served on the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Now he’s running for governor against a stacked group of Democratic rivals and then, he hopes, against Gov. Bruce Rauner, who he said is holding Illinois “hostage” through the state budget crisis.
Reporter Alex Ortiz caught up with Kennedy before he spoke at the Will and Grundy Counties Trades and Labor Council dinner April 28.
Ortiz: So what are you doing here tonight?
Kennedy: In part, I’m going to surf a wave of Democratic activism that is sweeping the country right now. And you see these events with record turnout and a renewed commitment to public involvement by people at every level, a renewed interest in service and the understanding that we need to participate in our government or we’ll end up with a disaster.
Ortiz: What specific things are you concerned about with organized labor in Illinois?
Kennedy: One of the most important themes is truth ... I think all we need to do is tell the truth in Illinois. The truth is, we don’t have a budget stalemate. We have a hostage taking. It’s not a question of two groups arguing between them. It’s a question of one man holding the budget hostage to get a turnaround agenda that nobody but him thinks is more important than a budget. More companies move to Illinois to open an office at the Merchandise Mart Center than any other location in the state. I know what it takes to get companies to move here and to expand. Not one of the 5,000 companies that I ever dealt with, not one, zero percent ever asked me about worker’s comp, right to work, tort reform, how we draw our maps or term limits. They’re just not critical to small businesses or large corporations, either. What they do want, everybody, big and small, entrepreneurs and corporate types, they want certainty. They want predictability. They want to budget their taxes. They want to know what it costs to operate here and they don’t.
Ortiz: What drew you to run for governor?
Kennedy: I’ve been here 30 years. I want to stay for another 30. I want the same thing that every family wants, which is to enjoy being around their children and grandchildren as they grow older. That’s what the Kennedys want. That’s what everybody wants and I’m worried that if the state continues on this wrong track, that our children and grandchildren will move away. They’ll leave the state and we will not be around our grandkids when we get older. And I’d rather work hard now for five years and have the ability to be around my children for the next 30 or 40, than to have it easy for the next couple of decades and be left behind.
Ortiz: You talked about this wave of Democratic energy, especially since the election. As you travel around the state, what are the kinds of things you’re seeing?
Kennedy: Well, first of all, you start in the city core. You look at Chicago and you see 200,000 people show up for the Women’s March and then you realize that’s impressive. But on a relative basis, the same sort of massive turnout is occurring in the suburbs and the outer collar counties and throughout the state. Everywhere I go there’s enormous turnout, whether that’s in East St. Louis or down in Perry County, everybody is motivated now and that’s a good thing. If you want to know what a progressive wants, what they believe, well, we’re eternal optimists, but we also believe that every decision is a better decision when it’s made by more people. When there’s more input and that’s like an organizing principle. We think more people should be involved in democracy, not fewer. We want people to vote. We make it easier for them. We want to solicit their input. We try to go and hear them and that’s what’s happening now. There’s greater participation in democracy and that’s a good thing for everyone.
Ortiz: I’d be remiss to not ask you about the rest of the Democratic field. Obviously there are some who see you and J.B. Pritzker and they’re a little concerned about all the money in politics these days in general. What do you say to those people who have those concerns about all this money being thrown around?
Kennedy: I think they should be concerned. You look what’s happening to the Republican Party in the state. It’s a disaster. What Gov. Rauner has done to our economy, what he’s done to the million people who he’s thrown out of the government programs, that’s unforgivable. But what he’s done to the Republican Party is shameful, the party of Lincoln. There is no one left who will speak up for the future of that party, who will offer any form of dissent. He’s bullied his own state reps with his money. He’s scared his own state senators with his wealth. He, his wife, and three friends supplied maybe 80 percent or more of the funding for state reps, state senators and constitutional officers in the last election. No one can afford to take the risk and object to anything that he’s done. We can’t let that happen to the Democratic Party. That’s wrong. We can’t say to our people, you know, let’s find another billionaire. Let’s find someone to fight our fights so that we don’t have to and make him our kind. If we do that, if we’re not willing to make the sacrifices to win an election, sacrifices such as taking time to go door-to-door, signing a petition, giving five or 10 or 15 dollars to a candidate, if we’re not willing to do that, we don’t deserve the freedom that comes with being an American.
Ortiz: Do you have any specific ideas in mind? For example, Pritzker said he’s in favor of campaign finance reform.
Kennedy: Yeah, sure. If I was to look at a whole slew of reforms, what are we trying to do with reforms? What’s the end game? The end game is to get more people involved in the decision-making process. So how do we do that? One thing we can do is, we can embrace term limits, that people can feel like they can move up and be part of our system. We can embrace open maps so that we don’t end up with the extremism that is occurring. Fair maps are important because what’s happened now in the United States is that these state reps and state senators, these congressmen have drawn their districts. In the old days, people used to choose their representative. Now the representative chooses their people. And that’s sort of a funny quip and all but the outcome there is, they’re no longer beatable in a general election, but they’re beatable in a primary, because they have extremists in their district. ... So we’ve incentivized extremism in our country instead of making people fight for the middle. ... We should embrace ideas like same-day registration and early voting, the very things that Gov. Rauner vetoed. We ought to look at campaign finance reform. There aren’t great examples around the state, but I’d probably look at Connecticut but I’d double or triple the benefits of embracing campaign finance reform and make it really punitive for people to spend their own money in a race and outspend their competition. Let’s make this a war of ideas, not the size of your pocketbook.