While next year’s primary is still nearly a year away, the race for the Democratic nomination for governor is just getting started. On Saturday, two of the main Democratic contenders appeared before an overflow crowd of about 175 people at the Fox Park Recreation Center in Oak Park.
State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) and businessman Chris Kennedy were invited to Oak Park by the Democratic Party of Oak Park (DPOP) and appeared at their regular monthly meeting, which was moved to Fox Park to accommodate the expected large crowd. Next month, on May 13, DPOP will host two other contenders, billionaire investor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, at the Oak Park Public Library.
Biss and Kennedy presented a marked contrast in styles, although they both harshly attacked Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. The 39-year-old Biss, a former mathematics professor at the University of Chicago, was more detailed and specific than Kennedy who spoke in more general terms.
Biss, wearing a skinny green-hued suit over an open collared light green shirt spoke for about 10 minutes and then answered questions for another 20 minutes. As a sitting state senator, Biss demonstrated a detailed understanding of state issues.
A graduated income tax is necessary to solve Illinois budget problems and to fund essential services, he said, decrying Illinois’ current flat-rate income tax.
“It’s wrong; it’s economically insane,” he said.
Biss referred to his lack of personal wealth compared to Kennedy and Pritzker.
“If you want someone to self-fund his race, I’m not your guy,” Biss said. “I’m not a billionaire; I’m not a millionaire.”
He advocated for a financial transactions tax — a small tax on stock, options, and commodities trades — that is a favorite talking point of many on the left.
He also acknowledged the problem of underfunded public employee pensions in Illinois.
“We have an insane amount of pension debt,” said Biss, who served on the joint legislative committee that came up with a solution to the pension debt issue before it was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court.
The solution, Biss said, is for the government to pay its fair share and perhaps some tweaks in benefits.
“We have to be disciplined,” Biss said.
The 53-year-old Kennedy is the son of liberal icon Robert Kennedy and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. He spoke for about 20 minutes and then took questions for another 15 or 20 minutes. Wearing a black fleece jacket over a white shirt and sporting gray wool trousers, Kennedy, speaking in an understated conversational style, stuck mostly to generalities.
He bemoaned the increasing gulf between rich and poor and the increasing economic segregation in Illinois. Kennedy said poverty in southern Illinois is more recent than poverty in Chicago ghettos but not fundamentally different.
“We’re screwing the poor and we need to stop it,” Kennedy said. “Let’s come together as a state and remember that the same problems we have in the cities we have in the heartland.”
He accused Rauner of trying to further his presidential ambitions by playing to the most conservative southern-dominated elements of the Republican Party.
“He wants to destroy our government and our economy,” Kennedy said.
He touted his work with Box Top Foods, the nonprofit he and his wife Sheila founded to bring high-quality food to undernourished neighborhoods.
When asked about solutions, he said he would steal ideas from some of the best-run states in America, citing California and Minnesota, though he didn’t mention what specific solutions he would poach.
When asked about school funding in Illinois, Kennedy attacked the property tax system.
“This property tax is completely rigged,” Kennedy said. “It’s rigged against the poor, the minorities as well.”
He favors term limits, public financing of elections, and a fairer map of legislative districts.
Some of Kennedy’s answers were long-winded enough that one attendee blurted out, “Answer the question, please.”
Some in the crowd preferred Kennedy; others preferred Biss.
Alicia Davis liked Kennedy so much, she might volunteer for him.
“I liked Kennedy a lot and I liked the fact that he talked about what’s happening to the poor and the basic philosophy, the traditional Democratic and really the traditional American values the Democratic Party embodies,” Davis said. “He really amplified that for me: that we care about the poor, we care about the homeless, we want to feed people, we care about living wages. That’s what important to me.”
John Berardino also preferred Kennedy.
“I liked them both but I kind of liked Kennedy,” Berardino said. “He seems to be like a regular guy and seems to be there for regular people. I liked his talk about how he helps disadvantaged and poor people.”
Others preferred Biss.
“Biss clearly has an understanding of state government,” said Daniel Lauber of River Forest. “He has an understanding of the issues and of solutions and the difficulty of achieving those solutions in today’s toxic political world, a political world that Donald Trump and Bruce Rauner have made more toxic. Chris Kennedy is a billionaire and that’s it. He had no understanding of local issues, no understanding of any solutions, and to support term limits shows an abysmal lack of understanding of the nature of government. It was just no contest to me.”
Arti Walker-Peddakotla also preferred Biss.
“We need somebody who’s pragmatic and analytical in terms of figuring out how to resolve the tax issues that we have in Illinois,” Walker-Peddakotla said. “I think that’s one of our biggest problems and he got right to the point. He actually had very straightforward answers to all of his questions.”
Longtime Democratic volunteer and activist Bob Haisman saw a lot to like in both Biss and Kennedy.
“I was impressed by both of them,” Haisman said. “I came here prepared not to like Dan Biss, but I was very impressed by him, much more than I ever thought I would be. What Biss has is experience with state government; that’s going to be tough to make up. I think we’re going to need somebody to straighten this mess up once Rauner’s defeated. Now Kennedy rang every button of a good Democrat’s heart. I came not expecting much from him. I thought he was great. I liked his answers.”
State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) the DPOP committeeman, diplomatically said each candidate has strengths and weaknesses.
“I think every candidate brings a different set of strengths and a different set of weaknesses to the race,” Harmon said. “I’ve had the pleasure of serving with Daniel Biss for many years in the Senate, and I cannot think more highly of him. He’s a terrific candidate, a great person and certainly has the governmental experience that others in the race lack. But Chris Kennedy really did appeal to some of our members here today with a call to action evoking history. I think that’s an important part of our Democratic message as well. So looking forward to the rest of the candidates coming out to Oak Park as well.”