Hyde Park’s Kwame Raoul, 51, holds the state senate seat of his former neighbor and basketball buddy, Barack Obama, and expectations for him remain sky-high. Not a year passes that he’s not mentioned as the perfect candidate for congressman, U.S. senator, governor, state’s attorney, attorney general, or the position he seems most interested in at the moment: mayor.
But he never pulls the trigger. In an interview last week at his Lasalle Street law office I asked about his reluctance to get in the arena for each of those races. He answered that he wasn’t going to run for anything without being meticulously prepared. So far, presumably, his ducks have never been in a row long enough or straight enough, so, since 2004, he has remained in Springfield.
The voters of Illinois should hope that he stays there. He’s so obviously a cut above in Springfield: chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a protégé of senate president John Cullerton, and the brains and sweat behind some of the body’s most significant legislation.
One Hyde Parker who knows him well told me: “I guess we all wanted another Barack, but we got Kwame. He’s too frightened to be ambitious.”
That might change. As we talked about the incredible shrinking Rahm Emanuel in the wake of the Laquan McDonald killing, Raoul told me that he would like to be mayor—or maybe even governor. “Would I love the office of mayor or governor handed to me on a silver platter? Yeah, I would love that, but the reality is you have to run, and this past time you had a billionaire [Bruce Rauner] finance a $60 to $70 million campaign.”
Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation:
You’ve been in the state senate for 11 years. Has it been anything like you thought it would be?
People ask me that all the time and I say, if you’ve watched the Illinois legislature over the last 11 years, could anybody have predicted anything that transpired during that time?
It’s frustrating. I talk to people who have been around the legislature for decades and they say it has never been this bad.
My first day down in Springfield, Barack was down there, and so I asked to spend a little time with him, just to know what I was up against. He said to me, “You have to get to know people on the other side of the aisle; get to know people from other parts of the state. Not just passively but actively: go out to dinner, have drinks together, get to know about each others’ families. You’ll find out you have so many commonalities.”
Did you take his advice?
I always thought of Obama as kind of a loner.
I know he was part of a poker game they had down there. I think he played golf. I’m not much of a golfer. I stopped playing poker when I was 17 years old and I diagnosed myself as a compulsive gambler, so I don’t do casinos.
You’re close to [senate president] John Cullerton?
When I came into the legislature, John was chairman of the Judiciary Committee and he was the workhorse. I learned a lot from John in terms of work ethic. John had the talent for looking for common ground. He tries to negotiate. Notwithstanding how he’s characterized often in the papers, I think he tries to—sometimes naively so—look for common ground, and so I watched that and kind of learned from that.
The big story in your life is the offices put in front of you and suggestions that you run for those offices, but your decision is not to pull the trigger. Why do you pass up all these opportunities to move up?
So first, the legislature is underrated and some of those other positions are overrated. Let’s say six years ago I had decided to run for congress and I was successful. I would not have achieved nearly as much in my career as an elected official as I have by staying put. The opportunity to actually get stuff done—gay marriage, workers comp, capital punishment.
You’d have more prestige in Congress.
I’d much rather have the accolades for getting things done than the title, so that’s part of my evaluation of when do I consider something else.
I was a couple of years ago under the assumption that [Attorney General] Lisa Madigan was going to be running for governor. I focused on running for attorney general. I think it’s a great job—you’re an advocate, you’re the state’s lawyer, you can pick and choose topics on behalf of which to advocate.
So when Lisa Madigan changed her mind and decided to stay put after her father refused to step aside as speaker, you didn’t want to run against her?
No, that’s impractical. And it takes a lot of money to run for various offices.
Lisa’s done an admirable job. I worked closely with her, so there’d be no point in my running against her. To the extent that she wanted to keep the job, I was supportive—jealous but supportive.
Why didn’t you run in the primary against Pat Quinn for governor?
I considered it. I did conduct a poll after Lisa announced she was running again for attorney general. At the time I was chairman of the conference committee on pension reform. And I decided as a result of me chairing that and the pressure to get something done, there’s no way that I was going to be a viable candidate for governor and chair the conference committee at the same time. I was not going to resign from the conference committee.
That’s not exactly a sexy job.
It was probably the most important thing that was going on at that time, and so what kind of leadership would that show to step down to fulfill my political aspirations?
Are you still interested in the AG’s job?
I think it’s a great job.
Have you asked Lisa, “What are your plans because I’m interested in your job?”
I haven’t had a direct meeting to have that conversation. I think everybody has to play their cards close to their chest, so I don’t imagine having a very open conversation with her about that.
Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly higher offices that I wouldn’t mind serving in, and I think I’d do a great job.
Did you ever seriously consider running for state’s attorney?
No, but many people asked me, both this year and then the last time before that.
Speaking of state’s attorney: You’re supporting Kim Foxx over Anita Alvarez? What do you make of the charge that Kim will be Toni’s puppet?
I think it’s insulting. Notwithstanding your background, notwithstanding everything you’ve done, you’d be nothing but a puppet, when everything in her history says the opposite. It’s so insulting.
The mayor’s race. You considered that for a time?
I didn’t really. My name has been thrown out, but I had nothing to do with throwing it out there.
In 2010, when Rich Daley said he wasn’t running again, that was not an office you were looking at to jump into?
No, because I hadn’t prepared for it.
And in the 2015 race, when some Democrats were really looking for someone to take on Rahm after Karen Lewis dropped out because of her brain cancer?
No one approached me and said, “Hey, I have several million dollars for you to take on this guy who’s known nationally as a master fundraiser.”
Going forward, I think it’s something that I shouldn’t say no to. It’s not something that I’m preparing for right now. I think right now we’ve got a hell of a challenge ahead of us with this governor, and if I can’t contribute to solving the state’s problems right now than I can’t be a viable candidate for anything.
If you had to choose between attorney general and mayor?
If it was handed to me on a silver platter, my preference would be mayor. I think the AG’s job probably would be a more enjoyable job. Being mayor is not an easy job. I’m not saying that the AG’s job is easy, but the problems that you inherit as mayor are not easy problems. They are years in their creation and they’re not solved overnight.
Do you have any role on the task force Rahm announced when the McDonald case blew up?
I received a phone call last week from Inspector General Joe Ferguson asking me to work on a working group within that task force. I said yes.
In the McDonald case, what should happen to the cops who mischaracterized what occurred that night?
They should be disciplined. This is a great opportunity for systemic change. A lot of the police officers come from certain neighborhoods that are very segregated and known to nurture prejudice. There’s a lot of prejudiced, racist police officers and they’re going to carry out their duties consistent with how they were raised.
We talk a lot about sensitivity training, but I don’t believe you’re going to train somebody out of being a racist. But I do believe if you create real consequences, negative consequences, to their carrying out racist behavior, they’re going to at least care about the act.
“Black Lives Matter” I think is a significant tagline because while some might not be as racist as others, they devalue black lives. The case with the NIU engineering student and his neighbor [Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones]—I think it’s a carelessness that grows out of a reduced value to an African American life. If the same situation occurred in a white neighborhood, I don’t know he’s going to be so quick to pull the trigger.
What’s your relationship like with Gov. Rauner?
He invited me to meet with him a week after the election. He said to me, “I’m very passionate about the African American community.” I said to him, “I think there’s a great opportunity for you and that is for you to take on criminal justice reform.” He embraced it. He appointed a commission on criminal justice reform. I’m on the commission. We actually penned an op-ed together early last year. I applaud him for taking it on.
Who do you blame for this impasse on the budget?
Rauner’s a venture capitalist and he’s accustomed to hiring and firing CEOs. Government doesn’t work that way, nor should it. [State Senator] Donne Trotter said to Rauner at one point, “I don’t think that we elected a king.” I don’t blame Rauner. He said who he was going to be. And he was elected.
When will there be a budget in place?
It’s impossible to predict. This type of stubbornness and being unafraid to hold vulnerable people hostage to get his agenda is saddening; this assault on higher education.
What do you think of [House Speaker Mike] Madigan’s role in all this?
I have times when I’ve been at odds with the speaker, but I understand what he perceives his role to be. If you’re unable to maintain a Democratic majority the way the speaker has been able to do, and the way President Cullerton has been able to do in the senate, if we don’t do that we don’t have all the progressive things that we’ve achieved: gay marriage, abolition of the death penalty. To maintain that majority you have to swallow some bitter pills of not achieving other things along the way.
Tell me a bit about your family.
I was born in Chicago. Both my parents are Haitan-born. My dad went to medical school in Haiti, and when he finished his residency in New York, they came to Chicago. Around 1960 he had an interview at Loretto Hospital. The sister running the hospital comes out several times and looks around and goes back in, comes back out the last time and says audibly, “I wonder what happened to this Dr. Raoul.” He stands up and says, “I am Dr. Raoul,” and she says, “There must be some mistake.” He walked out and opened a small practice.
Basketball. I play in a 50-and-over league with my Lab School teammate Arne Duncan. [Raoul’s son and daughter also attend the private University of Chicago Lab School.]
Have you ever played with Obama?
Not while he was the famous Obama. Back in the days when he was a community organizer, we played at the University of Chicago field house.
Do you think the Obamas will move back to Chicago?
I grew up on the block that the Obama house is on. People always tell me I’ve got the makings to follow him, but who’s following who? Before he was elected president, and they had been in their house maybe a year or less, I once told Michelle, “You guys moved onto the block that I grew up on.” Of course I can’t afford to live there. I hope that they don’t move back. It would be nice to have that block kind of opened up.