Bill Knight column for 5-22, 23 or 24
Since late March, when he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination to face GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner next year, the 39-year-old former University of Chicago math teacher has juggled the challenges, hopes and resolve ahead.
“The oddsmakers aren’t betting on me right now,” Biss says of the crowded field of candidates. “There are powerful people, wealthy people, and, on the Democratic side, good people.”
There’s bad news, too: Illinois’ inadequate school funding; Rauner’s attacks on unions and workers compensation, a growing state debt, and almost two years without a budget.
“First, we need a budget,” says Biss, elected to the state Senate in 2013 after one term in the House in Springfield. “That’s job Number 1. But that’s only one year. If we don’t fix the underlying problems, we’ll be right back in this situation.”
People aren’t stupid, and Biss has faith that if Illinoisans see a way out and a way to share the burden, progress will happen.
“Most states do better,” he says. “We have to explain that and the path forward. Democrats too often duck that responsibility.”
Already, some Democratic insiders are bypassng a grassroots effort to instead focus on big money from a few big players, Biss concedes. For example, earlier this month, 14 unions endorsed Democratic billionaire J.B. Pritzker. However, they were union locals, not state or national unions; mostly from Chicago and the building trades; or historically linked to House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), who’s been speaker for 32 of the last 34 years and has amassed considerable power in what many feel is a 21st century political Machine.
(Interestingly, the Teamsters haven’t endorsed Pritzker, who was part of the ownership group at PECO Pallet in Hegewisch, Ill., where the Teamsters had difficulty bargaining a first contract. Likewise, UNITE-HERE, who had a long labor struggle at Hyatt Hotels, owned by the Pritzker family, haven’t endorsed a candidate.)
“It’s Pritzker’s vast wealth – and his stated willingness to invest it toward vanquishing Gov. Bruce Rauner and in support of other Democrats – that makes his candidacy so attractive to party leaders,” commented Mark Brown in the Chicago Sun-Times.
On the phone, Biss softly chuckles and admits that doing the right thing isn’t always easy.
“We have to keep our heads down and keep plugging away,” he says.
Biss is plugging away by means of a “comeback agenda” that calls for real investment in public services, reforms such as getting money out of politics, and fair taxation – a progressive tax based on citizens’ abilities to pay.
“Illinois’ ‘original sin’ is the flat tax, in our constitution,” he says. “We tax the middle class and the working poor more, and the richest Illinois residents – the beneficiaries of two generations of all the economic growth – aren’t being asked to pay their fair share. It’s unfair, unjust, and it keeps Illinois broke.
“Changing it is a long-term process, which is why it’s more critical [to start],” he continues. “A constitutional amendment is hard work, but it’s doable. We can’t wait. People want fair taxation [and] government should work for the people.”
Biss is anything but cranky, but he’s very independent. In 2011 he introduced House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 20, which would impose term limits of 10 years on the legislature’s leaders, a measure that would force Madigan out.
“It can be frustrating. There’s too much power in the Machine,” Biss says. “If Mike Madigan had had his way, I wouldn’t have been a State Representative.”
Others are glad he was, and is a Senator, and is now a candidate. State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria), a 10-year veteran of the Senate, this month endorsed Biss for governor. Biss appreciates such support and sees other progressive voices from Illinois, including U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly and Jan Schakowsky, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth. But he’s mostly counting on everyday Illinoisans.
“People are ready to chip in,” he says. “People are demanding more, they’re hungry to be involved – they just want to be asked.”
That sentiment is echoed in his campaign slogan: “It’s about us,” which he summarizes as, “Decisions are being made about us, without us.”