Doing the math: Gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss leads a Town Hall discussion at Oak Park Public Library last Thursday night. | ALEXA ROGALS/Staff Photographer

State Sen. Daniel Biss (D-Evanston) brought his campaign for governor to Oak Park for a day last week. On Jan. 4, Biss held two events, a morning meet-and-greet at the Live Café that drew about 20 people, and a town hall at Oak Park Public Library, which drew about 50 people.

Biss described his campaign as a transformational movement to change Illinois. He said Democrats must do more than just win back the governor’s office; they must change the way Illinois is governed and change the tax system. 

In response to a question, he bluntly criticized Michael Madigan, the powerful longtime speaker of the Illinois House of Representative, who also serves as the chairman of the state Democratic Party.

“Mike Madigan’s been there too long,” said Biss. “Mike Madigan is too powerful and that power has not been good for the state of Illinois.” 

Madigan has been speaker of the House for all but two years since 1983.

“I think the problem with Speaker Madigan is that longevity,” Biss said. “He doesn’t really care about public policy; he’s interested in holding onto political power.”

Biss, who has served in the state legislature since 2011, said that he proposed a constitutional amendment, early in his tenure, to limit the length of time any one person could serve as a party leader in the General Assembly to 10 years. That amendment has gone nowhere in the state legislature.

Biss, 40, is one of three leading candidates in the Democratic primary for governor but is a decided underdog, facing billionaire J.B. Pritzker and wealthy businessman Chris Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy.

Pritzker is self-funding his campaign, not even asking for or accepting contributions from others. Thus far, he has contributed $42.2 million of his personal fortune to his campaign and has been running television commercials for months. By contrast, Biss has raised about $3.7 million according to the latest figures and Kennedy has raised only $3.3 million. Biss has not yet run a television ad.

But he has turned his severe financial disadvantage into a talking point, trying to use Pritzker’s wealth against him.

“We’re in the middle of a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party,” Biss said at the library, “a fight over whether we’re going to have an election or whether we’re going to have an auction, a fight about whether we’re just going to accept the status quo and go back to what we had before Rauner and call that good enough or whether we’re going to actually transform our state.”

In a brief interview with Wednesday Journal, Biss was even more blunt.

“We are drifting toward plutocracy and that’s a problem,” Biss said. “It’s not what the state needs and it’s not what people want. People can weigh in on that in March.”

Biss jokes about his lack of personal wealth and pointed out in his speech that the Pritzker campaign has assigned a person to go to all of Biss’ public events and videotape him. But his lack of great personal wealth is appealing to many of his supporters.

“The fact that he is not running as a billionaire is appealing to me,” said Jenna Leving Jacobson, co-leader of the Oak Park-River Forest chapter of the gun regulation group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. “I don’t think Pritzker is terrible. I just don’t really think that’s what we need in Illinois.”

Marsha Borders of Oak Park, who like Leving Jacobson talked with Biss at Live Café, also likes that Biss is not rich.

“It would be nice to have a governor from the regular rank and file,” she said, “rather than deal with the billionaires and millionaires.”

Before being elected to the state legislature, Biss was a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago. He majored in mathematics at Harvard where he graduated summa cum laude and earned his PhD in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But 28-year-old Caitlin Hofert of River Forest found Biss easy to talk to at Live Café.

“He’s level-headed and intelligent,” Hofert said. “Even though he’s very intelligent and educated, he’s able to talk to a normal human being. I didn’t feel like I was talking to someone who’s so wealthy that they would never understand my problems or what it’s like to like to try and work with my monthly budget, which isn’t millions of dollars.”

Biss said running a campaign that has to pinch pennies is good preparation for serving as governor.

“Every single day our campaign makes really hard choices; theirs never does,” he told Wednesday Journal, referring to Pritzker. “Every single month, my family makes fairly hard choices; theirs never does. Both of those things are fine. When I’m governor, I’m going to have to make really hard choices. I have practice.”

On the issues, Biss is trying to stake out ground to the left of Pritzker and Kennedy.

When asked to point out issue differences, he said he supports a financial transactions tax, a small state tax on options trades, ending the so-called “carried interest tax loophole” on the state income tax, and he supports a single-payer health insurance system.

Like Pritzker and Kennedy, Biss supports a graduated state income tax although that would require an amendment to the state constitution.

He said the Illinois tax system must become more progressive and higher taxes on wealthy people would allow more state aid to schools, which would result in lower property taxes.

Biss fielded tough questions from one attendee at the library event about why he dropped his initial lieutenant governor running mate, young Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. He said he dropped Ramirez-Rosa from his ticket because, contrary to his expectations when he chose him, Ramirez-Rosa supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Biss, who is Jewish, said although he disagrees with many actions of the Israeli government, he opposes BDS.

State Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) has endorsed Biss, his colleague in the state Senate.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Daniel is ready on day one to be governor and to lead our state in the years ahead,” Harmon said in a statement posted on the Biss for Illinois website. “We need a governor who is committed to reforming our government at its core, someone who will change the way we raise revenue and run elections to ensure our state supports middle class families like his own. We need a transformational leader and that’s Daniel.”

However, the Democratic Party of Oak Park, which Harmon heads, is not making an endorsement in the governor’s race because its membership is split among the three leading candidates. To obtain the DPOP endorsement, candidates normally have to be supported by two thirds of active DPOP members. Harmon said it was clear to him that no candidate would be able to meet that threshold, so he is not bothering to have a DPOP endorsement vote.

Harmon said the key to Biss’ chances is whether he can spread his message broadly enough.

“He’s emerging as a strong voice for progressive values and I think if more voters across the state had a chance to meet with him, more voters would be convinced to vote for him,” Harmon said.

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