All five candidates for 1st District Cook County Commissioner primary race faced off Saturday, February 22, 2014, at the Maywood Public Library for the Think Democracy Candidates Forum. The forum was sponsored by The Village Free Press, Forest Park Review, Neighbors of Maywood Community Organization (NOMCO) and other community organizations.
The five candidates were former 29th ward alderman Isaac “Ike” Carothers; attorney Blake Sercye; attorney and lobbyist Richard Boykin; educator and consultant Ronald Lawless, and community activist Brenda Smith. This was the first forum in which Smith has participated.
Many of the same issues, such as the County Land Bank, taxation and the budget, were brought up by all five candidates.
The difference on Saturday was that, with the Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle endorsing 27-year-old attorney Blake Sercye, the dynamics of this race have changed. What many may have considered a two-man duel between Carothers and Boykin has turned into a race of three.
Carothers, who carries the baggage of 2010 corruption charges, to which he pleaded guilty in exchange for a 28-month prison term, urged attendees to look at his record of achievements while an alderman in the 29th ward. Among the achievements he touted were a new school and a senior housing complex.
“I’d like to provide the same leadership I provided for the 29th ward,” he said.
Smith heralded her status as the only female on the ballot and stressed that as commissioner, “excellent service” would be her priority.
“I’m Richard Boykin–unbought, unbossed and unafraid,” said Boykin, in what sounded like a rhetorical pivot following the Emanuel-Preckwinkle endorsements.
During a February 18, press conference, Preckwinkle said that she and Mayor Emanuel plan to pull no punches in helping Sercye get elected–even to the point of pledging to commit more than $50,000 each to his campaign. The development seems to have motivated Sercye’s opponents to overplay the underdog card.
“You have a clear choice on March 18,” said Boykin, Congressman Danny K. Davis’s former chief of staff, during his closing statement. “You can go with the machine or the people’s candidate.”
Funds Preckwinkle pledged have yet to fully materialize according to sources inside the Sercye campaign and public records show Boykin has a clear fundraising advantage. Yet that still hasn’t stopped Boykin and Sercye’s other opponents from painting him as the puppet candidate of forces bigger than himself. A Manchurian candidate, of sorts.
During his opening comments, Sercye didn’t directly address the backlash surrounding the endorsements. Instead he talked about his personal story as the son of a single mother who was able to go to Princeton. He framed himself as an honest alternative to his older opponents.
“I can talk until I’m blue in the face about policy, but what matters most is a commissioner who you know is ethical and trustworthy,” said Sercye in what may have been a subtle reference particularly to Carothers’s corruption charges and questions regarding Boykin’s official residency and his acceptance of multiple homestead exemptions.
Lawless was the first candidate to explicitly bring up the endorsements, when he said during his opening comments that endorsements don’t win elections–people do. And people, said Lawless, appear to have had it with Mayor Emanuel, a claim that, if true could turn a major endorsement into a major liability for Sercye.
“I’m the only candidate who has the people’s endorsement,” said Lawless. “You have to be true to yourself… anyone who will close 50 schools in Chicago is not a friend of mine and he’s not a friend of yours … if [Emanuel] got his city right, he wouldn’t have to worry about the county.”
Carothers said he didn’t understand Emanuel’s reasoning for getting involved in a county race, since his jurisdiction is the City of Chicago.
“Why aren’t they [Emanuel and Preckwinkle] endorsing all those other races that are down ballot?” Carothers asked.
Since he landed those major endorsements, it’s been a common complaint lodged by Sercye’s opponents that his campaign is now being bankrolled by interloping heavy-hitters bent on pulling the West Side and the western suburbs into their sphere of influence.
“We have nothing against Mr. Sercye,” said Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin and a supporter of Boykin at a Boykin campaign press conference held on the same day of the Emanuel-Preckwinkle announcement. “But we do resent when the Mayor sits in his ivory tower and tries to select our leadership. You have too much of this already. The previous mayor [Richard Daley] picked his aldermen and councilmen. Madigan picks his state representatives.”
Coming from Carothers, once one of the most powerful political figures in Chicago, and Boykin, the establishment frontrunner, seemed rather odd, to Lawless. He humorously incorporated it into his closing comments.
“Last week, I was the only people’s candidate,” Lawless said. “Now we have three people’s candidates … Rahm has shifted everybody.” VFP
Full video and more in-depth coverage from this event will be available soon.
Isaac “Ike” Carothers, 59, likes to quote Luke 6:37 nowadays. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The former 29th ward alderman is less than two years removed from serving time in prison after pleading guilty in 2010 for bribery and tax fraud. In 1983, his father, 28th ward alderman William Carothers (son-in-law of 28th ward committeeman Isaac “Ike” Sims), was sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy and extortion. The Chicago Tribune described the dynastic irony as “perhaps the most striking combination of aldermanic nepotism combined with Chicago-style corruption.”
Ike Carothers has heard all of this before and yet, with Chicago-style audacity, is nonetheless running for office again. Only this time, he believes, he’s doing it with more humility and bringing more honesty to the political process than any of his opponents. He emphasizes that, unlike the other candidates in this race, his life is an open book. His vulnerabilities and wounds exposed for every would-be voter to see. But being vulnerable won’t automatically reclaim voters’ trust.
Some assume that Mr. Carothers is only running for the Cook County Board because state law forbids him from running for his old aldermanic position. Others see him as a mere opportunist, the scion of a fractured political dynasty who doesn’t know much else. But Mr. Carothers still has a base of support (the scripture from Luke was told to Carothers by the prominent Chicago pastor Rev. Clay Evans, whose endorsement the former alderman landed last month) and anyone who discounts what redemption, familiarity, political skill (and perhaps a little prayer) can do may be surprised come March 18th, when the polls open to the people’s hearts. Before then, however, Ike just wants you to let him explain.
According to a recent article by former Oak Park President David Pope, “The contest to fill the open Cook County Commissioner seat representing Oak Park, Austin, and the near west suburbs, has become, in effect, a two-person race. Either Richard Boykin or Ike Carothers is going to be our next County Commissioner.” Whatever the accuracy of that assessment, at this junction in the race, I’m sure you’re aware of the perception that this race is between yourself and Mr. Boykins. And if one looks at the race from that perspective, a binary narrative inevitably emerges–the populist choice vs. the establishment choice. Mr. Boykins has received a lot of endorsements–from virtually all of the mayors in Proviso Township to various unions and ministerial alliances. How do you counter his institutional support?
Our campaign is a people’s campaign. At the end of the day, even those mayors only have one vote. The people will decide this campaign, not those endorsements. We hope the people can make an informed decision.
I mean its interesting that, because of Congressman Davis’s relationship with those suburban mayors, they just endorse who he asks them to endorse. It’s not about experience or platform with them [Mr. Boykins is Congressman Davis’s former Chief-of-Staff]. And the same thing would’ve happened with anybody else running as Congressman Davis’s candidate. The funny thing about it is that Congressman Davis isn’t the one running for Cook County Commissioner.
Why do you feel that you’re a better candidate than your challengers [in addition to Mr. Boykins, Blake Sercye, Brenda Smith and Ronald Lawless are also running for the position]?
I’m certainly qualified. I’ve been elected six times in the 29th ward. I’ve been an alderman and a committeeman. I was the first executive vice-chair of the cook county central committee. These positions came about because of the leadership I displayed. In the 29th ward, we built schools, residential facilities, senior community centers, hospitals, a police station, created streetscaping and landscaping throughout the ward. I’m proven and tested in my ability to get things done and I think I can do that for the first district.
Let’s address your biggest liability. How do you respond to the obvious criticisms that you may receive regarding your corruption conviction and the suspicion that you’re simply running for Commissioner, because you can’t run for alderman?
When you run for political office, you have to run for the office that’s available. This position just affords me the opportunity to continue the progress we made in the 29th ward while i was alderman. That’s how I see it. I’m a second-chance candidate. I believe in second chances. I made mistakes in life for which I’m regretful and remorseful, but I’m still the same individual with the knowledge and relationships about government.
It’s really interesting if you think about it. I could run for US senator or president, but i can’t run for alderman, which brings me to question the law [prohibiting felons to run for municipal office] itself. The 29th ward is a bright example of what i was able to do on the ward level. Just imagine what i could do throughout the first district.
One of the things that’s interesting about this race is the question of financial influence. This is particularly pertinent to your and Mr. Boykins’s campaigns. He’s a registered lobbyist, which raises its own questions. You’ve been convicted of bribery. How do you reassure voters that your financial interests won’t have an adverse effect on the decisions you might make as a commissioner?
First of all, my financial interests are different from Mr. Boykins’s. If you look at his W2’s, you’ll see that he’s getting money from people outside the district and from Republicans. I’ve made my mistakes, but there’s no questioning my abilities if you look at what I did in the 29th ward. My life has been an open book, because I’ve been a public official. His hasn’t. And that’s the same with the rest of my opponents. I have a reputation for being in the community that proceeds anything else that people may say about me. Before I ever got elected to anything, I had a grassroots organization for seven years that helped ensure that citizens’ 311 complaints got heard, among other matters. I was a community organizer before I was an elected official.
With respect to the mistakes I’ve made in my past, they are mistakes. But I’d stress that just because you may plead guilty, doesn’t necessarily mean that you committed the crime for which you’re being charged. The circumstances of my case are complex, but again, they’re readily available. My finances, my whole life, has been an open book and in the public record. I’m pretty transparent and open when it comes to my financial interests and everything else in my life. That’s not the case with my opponents.
What are some of the marquee issues on which your campaign is running?
There are a number of them. One thing we have to do is straighten out this county budget. We didn’t have to have any tax increases this time around, because the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and bailed the county out. In the future, we need to restructure our budget. We should consolidate offices and services that are duplicated. We need to look at renegotiating our healthcare plans. We certainly have to look at our re-entry policies for those with criminal records. The bond system in the county is broken. There’s a big battle between the sheriff’s department and the judges over who should have the authority to release people on electronic monitoring. We need to resolve that, because there are a lot of people in jail for nonviolent offenses who simply need monitoring. The responsibility for fixing that is with the judges, they should be the ones to determine if someone is fit or not for electronic monitoring, but this has become a big political fight. See, politicians fight for political reasons, but people suffer.
Returning to the budget gap, which has shrunk considerably since 2011. You’re saying that that’s primarily because of the ACA subsidies?
Absolutely. Over the last few years because the ACA has subsidized part of the county’s hospital system. That’s allowed the Cook County Health System to be stabilized. That waiver allowed us to sign up people a year in advance and it created a stable base of patients for the county. However, the challenge is this–will all those patients stay with the county when they have other options? So the county has to bring its level of service up to par in order to compete with other hospital systems, because people have choices now.
So what efficiencies do you propose will help increase the county’s competitiveness in the area of healthcare?
We need to have a major healthcare facility in Proviso Township where people can go for regular, preventive care. A lot of people utilize the emergency room as a regular hosptial. We need to create a network of clinics available in outlying areas like Proviso. We have to bring healthcare to the people.
What’s your position on taxes? How does the county close that budget gap?
The last resort i think is trying to raise fees and taxes. The problem is people’s salaries are not going up, but their fees and taxes are. We were fortunate that no new fees were passed for 2013, but I’m not sure that that’s going to happen for 2014. We need to look at the retirement plans and the consolidation of county offices, among other measures, for cutting the waste out of the county government; but the last thing I want to do is continue to raise fees and taxes. That’s always the easy way out. That would be the last resort.
How would you ensure that the county doesn’t balance its budget on the backs of the working poor and middle-class, who already bear the brunt of taxes and fees (while many major corporations are hardly taxed at all). How do you strike a balance between making large corporations pay their share of taxes and fees (so that the burden of collecting the necessary revenue for key social programs doesn’t fall on the very people who need those programs the most) and sustaining a healthy, job-creating environment?
Certainly companies are in a better financial position than residents are in. When I talk about not raising fees, I’m really talking about not raising fees on residents. We do need companies to pay their fair share through fees and employment opportunities. I’m not opposed to placing conditions on corporate subsidies, but we do want companies to thrive. There needs to be a balance on what’s appropriate for them to pay without driving away business as well.
Having served as an alderman during the Daley administration, you know up close and personal the effects of various privatization schemes that have been proposed by municipalities to deal with the epidemic of municipal budget crisis. For instance, Daley’s decision to privatize the parking meters is widely considered a failure by people who’ve closely evaluated the deal. But these kinds of privatization schemes keep popping up. What are your thoughts on the merits of the privatization of erstwhile public services that we’ve witnessed in the last three or four decades in virtually every sector in the country–from education to finance to infrastructure.
We have to pick and choose with respect to privatization. There are times when the government must utilize the private sector when it doesn’t have the necessary expertise to implement certain measures. But that’s a slippery slope. I believe that we need to give as many opportunities to our public employees as possible. But in areas where there are no public employees to do the work, then we have to go private.
The Central Avenue bridge construction in my ward is an example. That was a multi-million dollar project and we contracted out certain work that public employees couldn’t do. However, it’s important for private companies to understand that they have to work with us. It’s really about looking at each situation and weighing out the costs and benefits.
As you may know, Maywood Mayor Edwenna Perkins endorsed Richard Boykins. One of the reasons she provided at the press conference was that she believed that Mr. Boykins would pay particular attention to Proviso Township, which she feels has been overlooked at the county level at times. How do you respond to those who’ve endorsed your opponents on the basis that they’ll pay closer attention to Proviso Township.
First of all my record shows that I work closely with whomever I represent. But if you look at my opponents’ record, it shows that he deals closely with the Republican Party. Now, the Republican Party proposes policies that ensure that people in Proviso Township are left out. He gave [U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk] $9,000. He’s supported Congressman John Shimkus. Both of them asked for cuts in funding that ultimately would help communities like Proviso Township. So it’s interesting that Mayor Perkins felt that way, because all of those people Boykins has supported support policies that would overlook Proviso. I don’t see where Boykins did much for Proviso in his lobbying efforts.
So what are your particular positions on how Cook County and Proviso Township can more closely collaborate with each other? For instance, the foreclosure crisis is something that has adversely affected both governments.
I’m sure the other candidates talked about the Land Bank, which is something new. It’s not really fully staffed yet. It has about $6-7 million in its account right now, but we need to use that land in many different ways. It shouldn’t only be used for grabbing vacant properties. We should also use it to help people stay in their homes. The Land Bank needs to be structured to help people threatened by foreclosure–not just those who’ve already been hit by it. We need to get the banks involved and place a stop gap on these rising foreclosures. Board President Preckwinkle did a good job with loan modification, but it doesn’t help everybody.
Once people lose their home, it becomes a property that’s a burden to the taxpayer. A vacancy contributes to crime and a lot of other problems. So we need to partner with the banks to stop the rate of foreclosures and educate folks about the various opportunities available through county government that may help them keep their homes. I think we should have a housing resource center right in Proviso for people to learn about, and receive help with, residential issues. So that’s one major way to collaborate.
We can also create some stronger linkages with communities like Maywood, which may have some dilemmas, because of their budgets, but experience the same kind of crime and public safety issues as Chicago. We currently have a program that links fire departments around the county to ensure smoother collaboration. We need the same with healthcare, law enforcement, etc. We need to put together some think tanks and come up with out of the box ideas to help some of these suburban areas that are being swallowed up by their budgets. They have big city issues without the big city budgets.
How has your own experience with the criminal justice system shaped your current political life?
Since my release, I’ve worked with the Safer Foundation helping people who have criminal records find a job. That’s what I do everyday that I wake up. Clearly, I understand the plight of people who have backgrounds and can’t find jobs because of them. I’m involved in a campaign where, but for my past troubles, I’d be viewed a lot differently. If I didn’t have my background, I’d be in a much different position in this race. In fact, when I was in the 29th ward, Boykins supported me. What’s changed about me except that I made a mistake?
You have a lot of people in my circumstance. For example, the Austin area, the largest community in Chicago, also has the largest number of people coming back from some kind of penal institution. We have to address this issue and I think that I’m equipped to address it properly. VFP