February 28, 2014 || By Michael Romain
Antonio “Tony” Favela, 31, is running a campaign to unseat the current state representative for the 77th District, Kathleen Willis; he’s a Melrose Park commissioner; while still campaigning, he was completing the last year of law school; and at the time of this interview, he was about a week away from taking the Illinois Bar exams.
Mr. Favela hasn’t slept in months, which makes the uphill climb of taking down an incumbent–albeit a first-termer–all the more steep. However, if there’s a subtle aura of tiredness, exhaustion and even a slight grumpiness (toward his opponent) that contours his presentation, there’s also, ironically, an almost fearless, carefree, abandon woven into his campaign rhetoric. Over the course of this race, that truth serum (combined with the fact that he’s in the race at all) may have put him on a collision path with the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives–by many accounts the most powerful politician in the State and Rep. Willis’s backer–Michael J. Madigan.
The very thought is almost heretical–a young, ambitious, reform-minded Democrat running a race against the biggest Democrat of them all–which is why this particular race is perhaps the closest I’ll get to using the word Biblical in a sentence (as in epic, as in David and Goliath, as in…you get the picture):
What got you into this race?
I’ve been involved in the community for a long time. I’ve lived in the district my entire life. I was born and raised here. Just knowing my opponent’s background made me want to give the voters a choice. Our district lacks a true leader and I think I can be a better leader than she’s been.
What about her background made you want to be an alternative for voters?
Here’s a person who was a lifelong Republican. She was an active member of the Addison Township Republican Party. The first time she voted in a democratic primary was for herself. When you trace back all the money, it comes from one source [Speaker Madigan]. Her political beliefs are for sale to the highest bidder. The leadership of the Illinois Democratic Party has dumped an obscene amount of money and invested it in her; they have been holding her hand every step of the way, but their resources can be better spent.
For instance, they could be spending money on Governor Quinn’s reelection, instead of on someone who is really not a true Democrat. She’s a puppet and does what they say. I’m running my own campaign, knocking on doors, everything. And the people who are helping me believe that I’ll make a better candidate than her. Her people don’t even know what she stands for. She goes knocking on people’s doors and says, ‘Hi, I’m Kathleen Willis, vote for me.’
What about your professional and educational background makes you a sound alternative?
I’m a recent graduate of John Marshall Law School. I’ll be taking the bar on February 25th and 26th. I’m a graduate of Fenwick High School and DePaul University. I attended Melrose Park Elementary. I’ve taught at Triton and substituted in District 89. I currently serve on the zoning board in Melrose Park. I was appointed last May by Mayor Serpico and unanimously approved by the board of trustees. I’ve worked for ComEd. I’ve also worked for a startup business right out of college. I’ve spent a lot of time volunteering for organizations and giving back to my community.
Getting back to Rep. Willis. You say that one of the reasons that you’re a better alternative is because you won’t be a tool for the Democratic Party, which implies that Rep. Willis, despite her Republican background, seems to be rather effective in furthering the Democratic Party’s various platforms. Isn’t that what the Party wants? Someone who’ll toe the line and help it pass legislation? Unless, of course, you don’t believe that the legislation it’s passing is particularly beneficial to constituents.
For instance, there was quite an outcry from the public after the General Assembly passed the latest iteration of pension reform, for which Rep. Willis voted. Unions and public sector workers (teachers in particular) felt kind of betrayed and many thought it was consistent with a national trend of states going after public sector unions and their benefits (i.e., Wisconsin).
There are a lot of legislators doing great things. I know a few that are great Democrats. I don’t necessarily think that it’s the Democratic Party as a whole that’s problematic. I think a lot of people who voted for the pension bill voted for it because something had to be done about the pension system. You have to balance the unions’ interests along with the taxpayers’.
So I don’t think you can say that, because the Democratic Party voted for reform, that means that the Party’s automatically anti-union. As far as my opponent goes, I can be seated right next to her talking to you and I can say ‘ditto’ to every response she gives, but there would still be a huge difference between me and her. If a libertarian comes and throws a million dollars at her, she’d be espousing libertarian principles. So the main thing is that I don’t know what she actually believes. The only reason the Party is spending money on her is because they can control her.
Take the gay marriage bill, for instance. According to the Illinois Observer, she had to be given the green light to vote for that. That’s not leadership. What if the Democratic Party would not have been in favor of the gay marriage bill? She wouldn’t have been allowed to vote for it. We need a representative who can stand on her own two feet, make decisions for herself and is not beholden to those whom she counts on for financial support and for help running her campaign.
How can the State stabilize its fiscal situation without doing so on the backs of its poor and working class residents? For instance, there seems to be a lot of focus on austerity measures–cutting public services, cutting public employee benefits, etc.–and yet, barely any talk of raising revenue by raising taxes on corporations, for instance, many of which barely pay any taxes at all. Before jumping to the conclusion that the state has no money, maybe it should first try collecting some of the revenue that it’s owed by the very entities in the best position to be taxed without being unduly harmed.
One of the good things that have come about because of pension reform is that investors have more confidence in Illinois. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think the bill will be proven constitutional in court, so we may have to revisit it.
What we can do right now is streamline services. Illinois has almost 7,000 units of government and a lot of them offer duplicate services and they’re units of government that serve minimal purposes and are relics of the past. We’ve got over 900 school districts and some only have one school in them. We need to take a look at all these units of government and get rid of the ones no longer necessary. Although, some townships in Illinois might still provide something beneficial to taxpayers, others may be redundant. For instance, is a township in Cook County really necessary? We need to at least ask that question.
You’re right about the corporate taxes. Two-thirds of corporations don’t pay any taxes at all other than the property tax, but Madigan just announced that he wanted to give a third of corporations that do pay taxes a tax cut. The argument that high taxes in Illinois are causing people to flee is just not true. The economy has grown in the private business sector by 16 percent in the last five years, according to one report. I wouldn’t be against lowering taxes for businesses, but we do have to make that two-thirds of corporations that don’t pay taxes pay taxes.
I’m also for reforming our personal income tax code. I’m for a progressive tax in Illinois. Studies have shown that if we institute a progressive tax system–where 94 percent of Illinois residents won’t see a tax cut; only the six percent making at least $200,000 a year–the revenue will be in the billions. Right now, the tax rate is at five percent. It’s up from 3.5 percent. It is scheduled to go down, but unless we fix our fiscal situation, we’re going to be back in the hole again.
A number of states have different progressive tax standards. Each state has its own solution. But we can institute a progressive tax system where 94 percent will see a tax decrease. They’re the people who need to benefit. I think it would be okay if Bruce Rauner wasn’t able to afford another commercial. I don’t know anyone who would have a problem with that.
What are some key issues for which your campaign wants to raise awareness and attention?
The most important one is the financial situation of the state. Another issue would be schools. They’re the pillars of communities. The better they are, the more people want to move in. Right now, the 77th district is a working class district and our schools could be better. For instance, I’m a proponent of having schools rely less on property taxes and more on state investment. Right now, Illinois has the fifth largest economy in the nation among states and we’re ranked last in state funding for education. So, the effect of relying so heavily on property taxes is that in some of these communities like Maywood, where foreclosures are rampant, there’s less money for the schools. I was recently endorsed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and they really understood that I believe that education is something critical for the state to become better than what it is. We can’t keep cutting and cutting and putting 48 kids in a classroom and expect Illinois to be prosperous.
What are your thoughts on the bipartisan charter school reform movement?
My biggest problem with charter schools is the lack of transparency and the potential for patronage and nepotism and awarding contracts. Take a look at Juan Rangel, the former CEO of UNO Charter schools, for an example. I think we need greater transparency and accountability for charter schools. The other issue I take with them is that, in the City of Chicago, almost half are under-enrolled. And yet, the City is proposing to open thirty more in the next year or so. If we’re going to open any new schools, it should be to serve communities where the schools are overcrowded. In my district, District 89, some schools have 38 kids in a classroom.
The privatization of public education is just one aspect of the privatization the world, really. Everywhere we look, we see functions and services that used to be within the realm of the public (whether we’re talking parking meters, roads, schools, etc.) that are now in the hands of wealthy private investors. What is your perception of this global move to privatize the public sphere? Do you see any potential benefits in it?
I don’t see the benefit to the people of Illinois in privatizing everything. The City of Chicago lost billions of dollars privatizing parking, for instance. Worse, when you start privatizing, you’re going to see prices go up. When you privatize something, the purpose is to maximize profits. And when main goal is profits, profits, profits, people suffer. You have to pay $15-$16 to park somewhere downtown for three hours now. So, I’m against privatizing public services.
But, as you probably well know, the ideology of privatization is rampant, especially in a place like Springfield, where, just like in Washington, powerful private corporations have lobbyists and those lobbyists have lots of money. Money talks. How do step into a place like Springfield and not get eaten up by the “profits over people” and the “pay-to-play” culture so pervasive there?
I think the reason why a lot of that is happening is because private interests donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns. The other thing is that it’s on the voters as well. We elect the people we elect, and so when people don’t care about voting, then the politicians that do get elected see that people don’t come out to vote. They’ll take that into account when the foreign investors come in and want to donate thousands of dollars to them. That has a lot to do with it. That’s why I think we should have some kind of reform in campaigning and government ethics.
In the majority of legislative districts in Illinois, there’s hardly ever a challenger. These districts are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican, so no one bothers putting up a fight. But in districts where there is a fight, the party leadership ends up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to win it. That’s what happened to the 77th district. We need an independent commission to draw these districts so they’re not gerrymandered and so that they reflect the population and not the party most likely to win in that district. And we need to have some restraint on how much money parties can dump on a candidate. We should open up the democratic process and maybe that will take care of that pay-to-play stuff.
Maywood isn’t really aware of the 77th District. A lot of people don’t realize that Maywood has two representatives, since the 77th only covers a sliver of Maywood North of Lake Street. However, that sliver encompasses several hundred residents, which is significant. How would you make Maywoodians more aware of the fact that, as a Village, it has two representatives in the State House, not just one?
Most people don’t know what a state legislator does, so the simple answer is to explain what we do. And yes, Maywood has one precinct in the 77th district, but that’s still about 900 people. So one of the things we can do to bring awareness is work with Rep. Chris Welch more. He clearly has the majority of Maywood in his district, but people have to see us working together more because we both represent Maywood.
For example, when the library closed, Chris Welch got everybody together and found a solution. Now imagine if Kathleen Willis was there. It would’ve been twice as effective. But she was nowhere to be seen. I was there. Not campaigning for political reasons, but because I’m concerned about my district. So if people don’t know that there’s a 77th District in Maywood, that’s the representative’s fault. We need to make sure people know that there’s somebody representing them in Springfield.
What are some lessons you’ve learned about the democratic process during the course of this campaign?
I think that one of the things I wasn’t prepared for is how easy it is to knock someone off the ballot. That’s a situation where the rules are meant for the game to be fair, but people use that in their favor. I wasn’t challenged, but you have to make sure that your sheets are clean, because any little mistake will get challenged. They didn’t challenge me, but they terrorized my supporters. I wasn’t expecting that. So in the future, I know that I’ll inform my volunteers on how to get a 100 percent clean signature. Also, you learn a lot of election law. You think you have a grasp on something until the moment when you realize that the way things are is not the way you interpreted them to be.
Any closing statements?
I want the voters to know that i’m a true Democrat. My beliefs haven’t been bought. I can’t be sold to the highest bidder. I’m truly in this because I’m passionate about where I live and I think our district deserves better. I can offer better leadership that’s accountable to voters and not to one person who donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to me. I can stand on my own two feet and effectively represent the people of the 77th district. We deserve better. VFP