Mitchell vs. Travis

The race for the 26th District is Chicago's most important primary

ALLISON TOREM
ALLISON TOREM

After the Republican gubernatorial primary, the most expensive political race in Illinois is the Democratic primary for the state’s 26th District, a skinny strip of land that runs along the lakefront from Streeterville to South Chicago. The incumbent, Representative Christian Mitchell, is a mainstream Democrat interested in same-sex marriage equality, education reform, and gun control. The same could be said of his challenger, Jhatyn “Jay” Travis, an activist who has served as the executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) for twelve years.

The two candidates, Mitchell told the Sun-Times, agree on “ninety-five percent” of the issues. The two have similar backgrounds. They are young, politically speaking—he’s twenty-seven, she’s forty-one—and alumni of the University of Chicago. They both reflect on how growing up in rough environments shaped their interest in politics: Mitchell recalls a false murder accusation and harsh sentence against his aunt; Travis remembers her grandmother’s fight against racist housing policies in Bronzeville.

In spite of these similarities, the candidates have collectively raised an astounding $543,298 since October, when Travis began to raise money and collect signatures in a bid to unseat Mitchell. (A one-term incumbent, Mitchell was elected following a narrow 501-vote victory in the 2012 primaries.) In the lead-up to this cycle’s March 18 primary, the debate has centered on two key issues. The first is Senate Bill 1, a massive effort to overhaul the state’s pension system that was signed into law in December. The second is the prospect of an elected school board for Chicago Public Schools.

The race can also be contextualized within a splintering of the wider Cook County Democratic Party. Major Democratic leaders like Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Mike Madigan, Speaker of the Illinois House, find themselves at odds with a group led primarily by the Chicago Teachers Union. The CTU is dissatisfied with the political status quo, coming off a tumultuous couple of years that has seen a citywide public teachers’ strike and a record wave of school closings. They question if this leadership, with its support of elected officials like Christian Mitchell, is too enamored with big money to adequately represent the interests of working families in Chicago.

“We see the people who are bankrolling Christian Mitchell as a threat to our economic stability as well as our public education,” says Brandon Johnson, deputy political director for the CTU. “[They] have a different mission and vision. That’s why you’re seeing so much attention on this race.”

A graduate of Kenwood Academy, Columbia College, and the UofC’s School of Social Service Administration, Travis describes herself as having “dedicated my professional life to organizing and public policy advocacy.” In the past two years, Travis and KOCO, which advocates for education reform in Kenwood and Oakland, have focused on rallying community support against school closures and charter-oriented policies.

These policies are imposed by a school board whose seven members are selected by the mayor, without general elections or city council approval. Accordingly, Travis has made school board reform one of her campaign’s leading issues. “What we’ve found,” she says, “is that when you have an appointed school board that’s appointed by the mayor, they tend to vote his agenda accordingly.”

As she sees it, an elected school board would function as a preventative measure against sweeping actions like the 2013 school closures, which were backed by Mayor Emanuel and a 6-0 board vote. “If we were going to have a process in which people could actually impact decisions, we would need an elected, representative school board.”

House Bill 2793, a bill sponsored by South Side representative Elgie Sims, of the 34th District, would put board membership up for election. Christian Mitchell is currently one of three co-sponsors for the bill, but only added his sponsorship on October 10 of last year, six months after the bill was first filed and then sent to the House Rules Committee. Given that the Rules Committee is widely considered a place where bills “go to die,” Travis acknowledges that it would take considerable energy to move the bill forward if she were elected. Still, it remains a top concern for her campaign.

For Travis, Mitchell’s delay in sponsoring the bill raises a red flag. “The timing of his decision to sign on as a sponsor happened to be the same time that I circulated petitions for candidacy. I think that timing is not coincidental,” she says.

Mitchell rejects the notion that he has been insufficiently supportive of a more accountable school board. Speaking to the South Side Weekly, he was unequivocal in his commitment to accountability. “What I’ve consistently said is that making sure people have a voice in education is important.”

He also believes Travis’s single-minded focus on an elected school board is myopic, and in a recent interview with the Hyde Park Herald he warned against seeing an elected school board as a “panacea” for problems in public education.

Mitchell’s education platform moves beyond a call for the passage of HB 2793, which he views as part of a broader push for an overhaul in the way public education is funded across Illinois. To that end, he is happy to tout his work in an education funding reform taskforce in Springfield, an effort which he hopes will soon become a concrete bill.

If drafted, the bill would aim to address the root cause of last year’s CPS closures by ensuring equitable funding for schools. A new funding formula, with its precise weighting still yet to be determined, would recognize the added resources required for students living in concentrated poverty. Currently in Illinois, school funding is almost wholly provided through local property taxes. Mitchell decries the reality that a student in Winnetka “gets almost twice as much per year as compared to a student in CPS.”

“We know that general state aid is the most progressive way to fund public education that we have, and we know that the state is supposed to be providing fifty percent of all resources for public education, but isn’t,” he says.

The stakes are high. “[This formula] is literally the single biggest thing we can do to change the way we fund public education, to change a kid’s shot at life.”

Senate Bill 1, which was signed into law last December 5, will attempt to eliminate $100 billion worth of unfunded liability of statewide pension systems for its public workers by 2044. The law will use a mix of frozen cost-of-living increases for retirees and active workers, and will increase the state’s minimum retirement age by five years. The bill passed with slender margins in both the House and Senate, and Christian Mitchell’s vote for its passage has come under attack from the Travis campaign.

At a February rally of public sector workers in Springfield, Travis released this statement: “With his vote for SB 1, Representative Mitchell showed his true colors. He is a politician who is willing to slash the retirement security of the seniors and public servants who have worked hard, given up their Social Security, spent their money at local businesses, and formed the middle-class backbone of our communities.” (Statewide, public employees do not receive Social Security.)

Travis and her backers see the bill as an attack on the “working families” of the 26th District. In a February 19 press release, Travis stressed that the “pension crisis” is a manufactured one, and that the blame should not rest with the teachers, social workers, and police officers who have long contributed to the economic vitality of their neighborhoods. “Rather,” she said in the press release, “the problem is with the politicians who have mismanaged taxpayer dollars for over a decade, taking one payment holiday after another and persistently kicking the can down the road.”

Travis supports repealing the bill, and points to revenue generation as the main solution to the current pension crisis. Corporations and government, she believes, must pay their fair share. Mitchell insists that his vote for SB 1 was necessary for the long-term health of the state’s economy, and that this is especially true following Moody’s downgrade of the state credit rating earlier this year. Now at A3, the state’s rating is currently the lowest of any state in the country. “For every single day we did nothing,” says Mitchell, “the liability grew by $5 million. It’s almost like gangrene. If we didn’t take the hand, we would have lost the whole arm.”

Implicit in his argument is the claim that, given budget deficits, union workers would be even worse off if pensions and the minimum retirement age stayed at current levels. Illinois had  a budget deficit of $3 billion in fiscal year 2014; the University of Illinois’ Fiscal Future Projects predicts that number will increase to $13 billion by 2025 if current policies remain in place.

To that end, Mitchell prefers to understand SB 1 as only one part of a radical overhaul necessary for the state’s “broken revenue system.” In his reading, Illinois arrived at this point because the state’s tax code has for too long favored the richest in society. “We have a structural deficit problem, where two-thirds of corporations pay no income tax,” he says. “We have [in Illinois] an income tax where middle-class families making between $30,000 and $75,000 a year are paying more than twice as much a share of their income as the top one percent.”

But this is also a race in which context is everything; a look at each candidate’s endorsements shows that there is a widening chasm in the Cook County Democratic Party machine. Toni Preckwinkle and her supporters across the South Side—including Senator Kwame Raoul, Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, and 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns—have been explicit in their support for Mitchell.

Preckwinkle was key in providing financial and institutional support for his first political victory, over Kenny Johnson in the 2012 primaries, and that support has not wavered. She features prominently in Mitchell’s campaign literature, and helped him canvass voters earlier this year as Election Day drew closer.

The main challenge to this existing order comes primarily from the Chicago Teachers Union, which maintains that Mitchell and his allies have not done enough to protect the interests of constituents. Backed by the CTU, Travis has characterized Mitchell as a pawn of Political Action Committees and moneyed interests from outside the district. “It’s not just that he’s getting money from these PACs,” she says, “it’s that he’s voting their agenda.”

For Travis, it all comes down to demonstrating independence in showing accountability to the voters. While knocking on doors in a recent canvass of North Kenwood, a campaign worker for Travis told her that Preckwinkle had accompanied Mitchell when he canvassed the district. Replied Travis, “I just feel like you should be able to walk your district by yourself.”

Mitchell, for his part, disagrees that the Democratic political establishment has failed to respond to constituents’ needs. Leaders like Preckwinkle, he says, are “tough, independent, and progressive Democrats.” He draws great pride in his relationship with Preckwinkle in particular, describing her three-year tenure at the helm of the Cook County Board as a reaffirmation of her “unassailable” progressive record and “unique credibility” on issues of criminal justice.

“I don’t feel the need to justify my relationship with these really, really great folks,” he says. “I’m extremely proud of my affiliations with them.” It’s an affiliation that Preckwinkle is happy to confirm. Over email, she expressed her disappointment with the “misleading attacks” on Mitchell, and reaffirmed her support for him because “he’s committed to our community and our public schools.”

Mitchell has raised over $470,000 since October, and many of those contributions reflect his close ties to big names in Illinois politics. The Democratic Majority PAC, controlled by Speaker Madigan, has contributed over $37,000 to his campaign. Senator Raoul’s PAC has contributed $15,000. Notably, the Crown family, led by Chicago financier and philanthropist Lester Crown, has collectively given more than $100,000. The Crown family is one of the main contributors to the Stand for Children Illinois PAC, which has ideologically opposed the CTU and its leadership since forming in 2010. During the 2012 teachers’ strike, a petition backed by Stand for Children accused the union of “holding our students hostage in a negotiation where they have no voice.” The PAC has been the largest single donor to Mitchell’s campaign, giving him a total of $60,000 in 2014 alone.

Travis sees moneyed interests like Crown as not having the true interests of South Siders in mind. “He’s regularly enjoying money from Lester Crown and people of that level of influence who are not necessarily based in this district,” she says.

To rebut Travis’s claim that he has been captured by big money, Mitchell points to endorsements from unions like the Illinois chapter of the AFL-CIO and grassroots organizations like the People’s Lobby. A statement released by his campaign on March 10 reiterated that Mitchell “has consistently fought for working families.”

For her part, Travis accuses the state Democratic Party of denying her access to lists of registered voters simply because she was challenging an incumbent. Her campaign has effectively been bankrolled by the CTU and its PAC, Chicagoans United for Economic Security, which was formed very recently on February 5. The CTU is the largest direct contributor to Travis’s campaign, having donated $20,000 in total. But far more important is Chicagoans United, which has spent $199,000 on Travis’s behalf in uncoordinated spending. The money has gone toward ads on WVON and local TV stations.

Without the CTU’s support, it’s unlikely that Travis’s campaign would have happened at all. In many ways, she’s the union’s ideal candidate: with her background in KOCO, she has long-standing organizing relationships with individual teachers and a history of seeing eye-to-eye with the union. Brandon Johnson of the CTU says “Jay Travis has shown herself to be a champion for students, a strong advocate for publicly-funded neighborhood schools.”

The CTU’s role in her campaign is one that Travis embraces. “Through the years,” she says, “we [KOCO] have worked with many organizations throughout this city to promote what actually works in public schools. In this push, the CTU has been an organization that has consistently stood for making sure that neighborhood schools get the support that they need.”

Political arguments over the future of Chicago’s public schools will likely continue beyond this election. In the legislative session beginning March 19 in Springfield, lawmakers will debate whether to reduce the retirement benefits owed to public school teachers. If the state is not freed from these obligations, they will be required to make a budget-busting $696 million contribution to the Teachers’ Retirement System for fiscal year 2015, more than three times last year’s figure. Represented by Travis, Mitchell, or Republican Jacob “Coby” Hakalir, who is running unopposed for the GOP, the 26th District will likely make a meaningful impact on the outcome of that vote. Travis, with her ties to the CTU, is likely to vote against such a measure; Mitchell, having voted for SB 1 and received support from Stand for Children, seems more likely to vote yea.

With mayoral and aldermanic elections looming in February 2015, it’s likely that the Mitchell-Travis race represents only the first shot across the bow in a CTU-led effort to shake-up Chicago politics. For now, the union sees state elections as its battleground. “Springfield,” said CTU President Karen Lewis in a recent interview with Crain’s Chicago Business, “is where we have to look to change the landscape politically.”

All spending figures as of March 8.

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