It can be awfully hard to tell at times if Illinois Treasurer candidate Michael Scott Carter is giving you a TED talk or a stump speech.
“We’re in the process of building a website that’ll be a clearinghouse for innovation,” he says earnestly about his work with the United Nations’ Leading Group on Innovative Financing for Development.
“I believe that if we’re able to turn our hat to making money solving people’s problems, I think the world will change instantly,” he continues.
This kind of optimism is a common feature of coffee shop conversations with the young and idealistic, and mine with Carter was no different. Carter, in fact, has been shaped by his own optimism, which sustained him through half a lifetime of adversity. He was raised in Roseland by a single mother, who was diagnosed with cancer when he was thirteen. She passed after he left for college, and the resulting financial strain forced him to drop out and join the Navy, where he trained to be a SEAL. He then suffered a serious knee injury, forcing the Navy to discharge him. Eventually he wound up studying at the University of Buckingham in England—paying his way by founding startups—and traveled Europe while working in the finance industry. He later returned to America to become the chief economist of the Chicago Urban League’s Entrepreneurship Center. Most recently, he’s been involved with an ambitious music education project, the Chicago Academy of Music, that aims to bring free music classes to Chicago children from the ages of three to eleven through the establishment of twenty conservatories across the South and West sides of the city. With this resume, Carter hopes to carve out a place in the Republican Party as an ambitious problem-solver—and, in turn, carve out a place for the Republican Party in places like the South Side and among African-Americans.
“Well, my family’s been Republican since Emancipation,” he says with a laugh. “One of the things I say to people all the time is: There is no natural Republican. But there are natural tenets to the Republican Party.”
Those tenets, accessible, in theory, to everyone regardless of race, can be broadly defined as conservative—a word that, for Carter, is less a rhetorical flag to be planted than a deeply meaningful descriptor of the principles that protect the core institutions of American society: family, community, small businesses, and large businesses. Creating an accessible party message focused on those institutions would involve a turning away from the kind of divisive social issues that have come to define the party in the eyes of many and that Carter, who is personally pro-life but supportive of choice as well as gay marriage, can’t seem to offer an opinion on without grimacing.
“I think it’d be slightly unfair for me to start pontificating about whether people should or should not do anything,” he says slowly. “I think the breakdown of communities is the root cause of most of our problems.”
“When we’re not looking at people being able to have jobs,” he continues, “at how in whole swaths of Chicago there are no real jobs—no good food outlets, no good schools, the roads are terrible, it’s dangerous, and all of these things, and we [instead] want to focus on whether a person wants to be with another person…to me, that’s very random when there are a lot of things to fix.”
There’s a technocratic matter-of-factness to the way Carter talks about, and perhaps, would deal with these problems—he is, after all, an economist. This comes through most clearly when he talks about the inefficiencies of status-quo policies, like property taxes.
“This is one of the reasons why we have so many people renting,” he tells me. “Hyde Park is a prime example: property costs are massive, but if you live in a flat, it’s cheaper. So you could have technically the same amount of space in a condo as you do in a house but your property taxes are going to be more [in a house] because your physical space is not bordered on all parts by the outside. Really?” he says, incredulously. “I personally believe we need a form of consumption tax that takes into account people’s economic status.”
Conservatives and economists tend to like consumption taxes because they incentivize saving money and are notionally fair—the amounts paid are based purely on the goods and services consumers choose to buy. But many argue that pure consumption taxes unfairly burden the poor in practice, because those in poverty tend to spend more of their income than wealthier people. Carter’s preferred system would be a compromise in which the rate would be staggered by income. The issue is still hotly debated by economists and implementing such a system even on the state level would be well outside the bounds of Carter’s role as treasurer, if elected. But his stance is reflective of the kind of brand he’s working to create for himself: advocacy for conservative principles tempered by an awareness of complex social realities, like the dynamics of poverty—realities familiar to him as a born and bred South Sider, of which he warns those who downplay societal inequality should quickly take notice.
“A lot of people don’t understand that problems with social inequality will be coming to your neighborhood soon,” he says. “It’s not locked anywhere. And I believe that there are members of the Republican Party that realize this.”
Right now, the state’s Republicans are more fixated on Illinois’ $100 billion public pension shortfall than anything else. But Carter isn’t fretting about it.
“It’s more literarily a problem than actual,” he says, arguing that the threat is mainly rhetorical.
“The pensions as they stand—they pay for themselves. The trouble is the debt that’s been accrued because we were able to sort of borrow against it.”
In his view, there aren’t potential solutions out there much better than cuts and boosting tax revenue through growth, an indication that the state’s inability to solve the crisis has more to do with an unwillingness to act than genuine uncertainty about how to address it. Carter thinks this kind of political immobility is symptomatic of the feeble state of American politics.
“Good people aren’t running anymore,” he tells me simply. “We don’t have any debate. That’s all it is. I know that’s a horribly immodest thing to say. And it’s uncharitable. But it’s the truth.”
So is Carter a good person? Naturally, it’s hard to say based on a single encounter. It is clear though, that Carter wants to make the case that he’s a sensible one, willing and able to help take the party in a new direction. If he gets the five to ten thousand petition signatures needed to appear on the ballot by November 25, the state’s Republican voters will decide in mid-March if they want to come along.