For most of the political world, 2019 was an “off year.” Not so in Illinois. We never take a year off from politics.
2019 began with Rahm Emanuel as mayor, and Lori Lightfoot as a second-tier challenger, polling in the low single digits. Now, she runs Chicago.
On the state level, Gov. JB Pritzker led one of the most productive (and most progressive) legislative session ever. He signed bills guaranteeing the right to abortion and legalizing marijuana, and passed a ballot initiative for a progressive income tax.
In 2020, most of the excitement will be at the federal level, as the most unpopular president in a lifetime runs for a second term. But if you’re a state and local junkie, you’ll have all this to look forward to.
14th Ward Committeeperson
This sounds boring, but it’s actually Round 4 of the war between Ald. Ed Burke and Rep. Chuy Garcia. The bad blood between the Southwest Side politicians goes back to 1998, when Burke backed a candidate who knocked Garcia out of the state senate. In 2018, Chuy retaliated against Burke’s brother, former state Rep. Dan Burke, by endorsing a 26-year-old high school guidance counselor, Aaron Ortiz, who beat him.
Prying the boss’s fingers off the ward he's dominated for 50 years has been more difficult. Burke won re-election with 54 percent against Chuy’s candidate (and Ortiz’s girlfriend), Tanya Patino. Chuy is trying again in 2020, running Ortiz against Burke in the March primary for Democratic committeeperson, a post Burke has held since 1968, even longer than he’s been alderman. If Burke loses, he’ll still be alderman, but he’ll forfeit his seat on the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, and with it his chairmanship of its judicial slating committee, which he used to promote his wife Anne to the state supreme court.
The progressive income tax
After the presidential election, this will be the most important issue facing Illinoisans in November. Gov. JB Pritzker campaigned on getting rid of the state’s flat tax and replacing it with a tiered system, in which higher earners pay a higher percentage of their incomes. Pritzker hopes this change to the state’s constitution will be the signature achievement of his governorship.
This month, the governor donated $5 million to Vote Yes for Fairness, a political action committee devoted to passing what he calls a “fair tax.” The billionaire who wants to raise his own taxes is determined to outspend Vote No on Blank Check, which is funded by millionaires who don’t want their taxes raised. You were tired of hearing Pritzker ads on Spotify in 2018? Get ready to get tired of hearing pro- and anti-tax ads in 2020.
Illinois is going to lose one, and possibly two, seats in Congress after the 2020 Census. That’s not really news. It happens to us every ten years. What’s significant is that Illinois’s population loss, especially in the Chicago area, has been driven by a decline in black residents.
Consequently, the new figures will make it impossible to draw maps that will elect the same number of black legislators and aldermen. The state’s three black congressional districts will have to reach so deep into the suburbs and exurbs for voters they'll barely retain black majorities.
On the other hand, the growing Latino population will demand its fair share of representation. Currently, black aldermen outnumber Latino aldermen on the Council 19 to 12, even though there are more Latinos in Chicago.
Kim Foxx vs. Bill Conway
Kim Foxx is the most controversial elected official in Chicago, and not just because she dropped charges against actor Jussie Smollett for filing a false police report. The Fraternal Order of Police has repeatedly asked Foxx to resign, frustrated by her decision to not prosecute low-level offenses, especially shoplifting, which Foxx believes should remain a misdemeanor unless the value of the stolen goods exceeds $1,000. The FOP joined 30 suburban police chiefs in a vote of no confidence against Foxx.
Foxx’s opponent is Bill Conway, an Afghan War veteran and former assistant state’s attorney. Conway’s billionaire father, the chairman of a private equity firm, has already donated more than $1 million to his son’s campaign. Foxx’s family doesn’t have that kind of money, but Foxx does have the endorsements of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, her political patron, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Can Lauren Underwood Keep Her Seat?
Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse who flipped the solidly red western suburbs in 2018, did not go to Washington to impeach Donald Trump. She went to expand access to health care. Defending Obamacare was the number one issue in her upset victory over Randy Hultgren.
Underwood is one of 31 Democrats representing districts that voted for Trump, so she didn’t decide in favor of impeachment until the day before the vote. According to the New Yorker, Underwood avoids the issue at town halls, even though protestors with MAGA signs have shown up at her district office.
The City Needs More Money
In her first budget, Mayor Lightfoot closed an $838 million budget deficit without raising property taxes for anything but expanded library hours. In the next two years, though, the city will be looking at deficits of $1.16 billion and $1.18 billion, as a result of wage increases and higher pension contributions.
Lightfoot balanced this year’s budget by tapping a TIF surplus and refinancing debt. She won’t be able to use those tricks again, so the city will need more revenue.
At November’s City Council meeting, Civic Federation president Laurence Msall proposed expanding the tax base by imposing a sales tax on services and taxing retirement income, but those changes would have to be approved by the General Assembly. A progressive income tax would bring in more money, but that’s a few years away. Some aldermen have suggested restoring the “head tax” on employees, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel abolished. So will Lightfoot raise property taxes? Obviously, she’s refusing to say.
Illinois Will Matter in the Presidential Primary, but Not the General Election
By the time of Illinois's primary on March 17, most states will have already voted for a Democratic nominee. In primaries past, that might have rendered our participation moot, but in 2020, there are so many candidates, bunched so closely together in the polls, that the nomination likely won't be decided by then. Some prognosticators think it won't even be decided until the convention.
Consequently, the surviving candidates will all be marching in our St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Given Illinois’s fondness for establishment candidates, you'd think Joe Biden would be the favorite here. But Lightfoot just beat a Daley, so we may be in a new world.
After March, the Democrats will blow off Chicago, except for fundraisers. Illinois hasn’t voted Republican for president since 1988. Trump’s approve/disapprove rating in the state is 31%/56%.
Thanks to the Electoral College, which is supposed to ensure that every state gets a say in choosing the president, only four states are going to matter: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
Lightfoot Still Needs a Casino
To help her balance the city’s budget, Mayor Lightfoot wants us to smoke pot and gamble. Marijuana will become legal on January 1, so we can start doing our civic duty by getting high. However, we won’t be able to veg out in front of a slot machine, because Lighfoot failed to persuade the General Assembly to approve a measure that would lower taxes on a casino, so an operator could turn a profit.
Lightfoot complained that the bill was sabotaged by legislators who weighed it down with self-serving amendments.
“They saw this piece of legislation, particularly around casinos, as their one opportunity to get something that they felt they were promised,” she said. “People came out of the woodwork with their ‘letters to Santa.’ ”
The General Assembly goes back into session in January, so Lightfoot will have to go back to Springfield and try again. In the meantime, you can bet on the Super Bowl at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond.