Chris Kennedy, moderate?
The Democratic gubernatorial candidate never once used that word, but in an appearance before Crain’s editorial board on Wednesday that’s exactly how he presented himself: less bullheaded than GOP incumbent Bruce Rauner, not a far-populist like Democratic rival Daniel Biss and more committed to serious reform of politics and the property-tax system than Democratic front-runner J.B. Pritzker—up to a point.
The essence of Kennedy’s argument was that the state will not pull itself out of an economic rut without good schools, but the schools won’t be properly funded until powerful politicians like House Speaker Mike Madigan are forced to leave their side jobs as property-tax appeals lawyers.
“I’ve seen my older friends lose their kids to out (of state) migration,” Kennedy said, making the point that Rauner often does. Among millennials, Illinois has “the largest out-migration of any state except New Jersey. That’s scary. I don’t want to grow old alone.”
But when talking about Madigan—who all of the major candidates except Pritzker accuse of putting his personal business interests ahead of critical tax reform efforts—Kennedy softened the blow.
“I’m a Kennedy Democrat, a Ted Kennedy Democrat,” he said, referring to the late Massachusetts senator. Uncle Teddy “had his finger” on all of the great progressive legislation that passed the Senate for decades, Kennedy said, but he had a let’s-go-out-for-drinks-after-session demeanor that made “friendships on both sides of the aisle.”
“I don’t think Gov. Rauner has done that,” Kennedy said. But that doesn’t mean Rauner is all wrong about Madigan’s impact on the state as both Illinois Democratic chair and speaker.
The answer is to force Madigan to choose between working as a tax lawyer or speaker, and then make him step down as chair. Holding all of those posts permits Madigan to block change in a property tax system that now is stacked against homeowners and lower-income people and in favor of big businesses with political connections, Kennedy said.
Kennedy added that if he is elected and the Democrats retain control of the General Assembly, he will float his own plan for legislative remap after the 2020 census, a plan that may offer Republicans a somewhat better deal than they’d get from Madigan.
Kennedy made no apologies for failing to voluntarily include affordable housing units in a series of luxury high-rises his family and others are building on Wolf Point, just south of the Merchandise Mart. That area “has some of the highest construction costs in the city and maybe the U.S.” he said. “That’s not typically where affordable housing ends up.”
But he was quick to attack Biss’ call for a “LaSalle Street tax” on the city’s financial exchanges that Biss estimated would pull in $8 billion to $10 billion a year.
“Who with a straight face who knows anything about how the exchanges work believes we could generate any money” from that, Kennedy said.
If such a tax was imposed one evening, the commodities exchanges and trading firms the next morning would flip a switch and the transactions would formally take place in Atlanta or somewhere else. All the tax would do is “put an entire industry at risk.”
Kennedy seemed to back proposed subsidies to lure Amazon’s second headquarters here, calling the contest for the promised up-to-50,000 jobs “a once in a generation opportunity.” But he left himself some wiggle room, saying he’s not familiar with the offer from the city and state (reportedly $2.2 billion) and said any subsidies come from tax revenues the state would not have received if not for Amazon.
Like the other Democrats, Kennedy did back the call to amend the state constitution and implement a graduated income tax. And, given Illinois Supreme Court decisions, he said the state likely has no choice but to pay accrued pension debt, which according to the latest reports is more than $120 billion. “I don’t believe we can violate the law,” he said.
Kennedy rejected a widespread feeling in political circles that he has run a poor campaign and now may be stuck in third place. “I’m up against a machine that has had a stranglehold on our state government and economy,” he said, asserting that his campaign’s internal polls show him beating Pritzker when voters are fully informed of the views of both.
One other hot-button issue: Does Kennedy still believe that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is intentionally driving African-Americans out of Chicago by closing schools and taking other steps that inevitably will spur flight?
“I don’t know what’s in the mayor’s heart,” he replied. “That’s what’s happening.”