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Kwame Raoul: Attorneys General Don’t Just Enforce the Law. They Shape It

The Democrat for Illinois AG talks gun control, Kavanaugh, and how his opponent’s personal views could affect state legislation.

Photo: Daily Southtown

Fourteen years ago, Kwame Raoul, then a senior staff attorney with City Colleges of Chicago, was tapped to replace a DC-bound Barack Obama in Illinois’s state senate.

That’s a tough act to follow, but Raoul has built an impressive legislative career, eventually rising to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now, he’s the Democratic nominee for Attorney General, opposing Republican Erika Harold.

Before joining the General Assembly, Raoul, 54, worked as an attorney in the criminal, civil, and juvenile divisions of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. He was born in Chicago to Haitian immigrants, and is a lifelong resident of the Hyde Park/Kenwood area.

Read our interview with his opponent here.

We’ve just had a Supreme Court confirmation, which you opposed and your opponent favored, that may lead to decisions that go against the wishes of most Illinoisans — on reproductive rights, gun control, labor rights, and other issues. As Attorney General, what will you do to protect those beliefs?

I thought about running for Attorney General four years ago, because I thought Lisa Madigan was going to run for governor. The office I was going to run for then is different from the office I’m running for now. 

The role of the state Attorney General has changed, not only in regards to fighting for a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions, but making sure there’s not discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — in the workplace, or with regards to a couple wanting to marry.

Access to healthcare is [also] very important to me. When the Trump administration was trying to take away subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, Democratic Attorneys General intervened. As a survivor of prostate cancer, I know that my access to healthcare led to the early detection and treatment that allowed me to run for Attorney General.

[Then there’s] law enforcement reform — when police departments have demonstrated patterns of abuse. In the case of the City of Chicago, it was Loretta Lynch, as U.S. Attorney General, that initiated pursuing the consent decree, [which stipulates oversight of the department by an independent monitor]. When Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions came in, Jeff Sessions backed away from it, and that’s where Lisa Madigan stepped up.

As a state senator, you voted for a law guaranteeing that abortion will be legal in Illinois even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. How can Supreme Court decisions impact abortion in Illinois?

Every year, there’s going to be a bill in the legislature to change the law that we passed this past session. An Attorney General weighs in on proposed policy changes, either on behalf of them or in opposition to them. That’s why [Harold’s] notion of personal views not mattering is a fallacy.

You’ve run ads criticizing your opponent for her views on abortion and same sex marriage, but she says she’ll enforce Illinois law regardless of her views. Why are those views, in fact, important?

I spoke to Lisa Madigan a few weeks ago, and she said she’d passed more laws as Attorney General than she ever did as a state senator. The job isn’t just enforcing the law. It’s weighing on what the law should be. I guarantee there will be legislators who are going to try to overturn what HB40 [the law that ensures abortion will remain legal in Illinois if Roe is overturned] put into place. There’s already been a lawsuit against it, so the Attorney General has to weigh in on that.

On the issue of marriage equality, [my opponent] says I’m lying about her position — that her position changed, and she supports marriage equality. But she qualifies it: She says she supports marriage equality because the Supreme Court has decided the matter and it’s settled law.

Justice Kennedy authored that opinion, and it was a 5-4 decision. Justice Kennedy is no longer on the court. And Brett Kavanaugh, who was very evasive with regards to questions on the Obergefell case [which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide], is now on the bench. So the status of marriage equality is very tenuous at best.

The federal courts have invalidated quite a few Illinois gun laws, including Chicago’s handgun ban and Illinois’s concealed carry ban. Is there a difference between the way you and your opponent will advocate for the state’s gun laws?

First of all, my approach to gun violence is comprehensive. It’s not all about gun laws. I’ve sponsored and supported various gun laws, including banning bump stocks, [requiring] background checks on private gun transfers, and making sure there’s reporting of lost and stolen weapons.

[But I’ve also] had to come home to my own kids on multiple occasions after there was gun violence outside of my home. I’ve had to have those difficult conversations with my kids, and I know how traumatic it is for people within a community to have normalized violence in their neighborhood. I believe we have to do something to treat that trauma. Because someone who starts out as a vicarious victim of violence can evolve into a perpetrator of the same.

During his confirmation hearing, Brett Kavanaugh said that people need AR-15s for self-defense, and that we’re just going to have to harden our schools. Do you expect gun laws to be harder to defend in front of this newly composed Supreme Court?

It depends on what they are. Even in [the Supreme Court’s] decision on the McDonald case [invalidating Chicago’s handgun ban], there’s room for regulation.

I think the notion that you need an AR-15 for self-defense is extreme. That said, I don’t think there’s anything from the opinions of the Supreme Court that says you can’t license a retail gun dealer. There are things we can do that are consistent with how even a conservative Supreme Court interprets the Second Amendment.

You sponsored a bill, which was vetoed by Governor Rauner, to establish a Workplace Protection Unit in the Attorney General’s office. Do you think that will go through if JB Pritzker becomes governor, and can you talk about what it would do?

Yes and yes. There are contractors [in Illinois] that will come in and ignore the laws of the state — whether it’s minimum wage laws, worker’s compensation coverage, or failure to pay prevailing wage. This disadvantages businesses who follow the law.

Moreover, it takes advantage of non-union workers, some of whom may be undocumented immigrants. You don’t pay them the minimum wage, because who are they going to go to? On some of these violations, there’s a statute of limitations. The Department of Labor investigated certain cases, but they dragged their feet, and referred some cases after the statute had expired. The Attorney General shouldn’t have to mandate that the Department of Labor finish [cases] if there’s evidence that there’s something they should pursue.

We’ve written about the Sterigenics case in Willowbrook. Can the Attorney General’s office do anything about that?

Absolutely. The Attorney General’s office is looking into this. Part of the problem is the Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t cooperating with the Attorney General’s office, and was withholding documents. That implies there’s something to hide.

I sponsored some legislation earlier this year that didn’t advance. It was a bill that would allow victims of corporate polluters to have standing in hearings about the activities of those polluters. So if you’re a resident of Willowbrook, and you suspect that ethylene oxide is being emitted into the air and causing you or your neighbors to develop cancer, you can intervene.

As a cancer survivor, I feel for some of the residents I’ve spoken to on numerous occasions. They feel helpless, and it’s the Attorney General’s responsibility to be an advocate on behalf of those people.

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