Big spotlight on down-ballot race

Written By By LAURA WASHINGTON Posted: 03/25/2014, 12:13am

Travis vs. Mitchell. It may be down-ballot, but it’s definitely marquee. The spotlight is hot and harsh on the contest for Chicago’s 26th District.

Freshman State Rep. Christian Mitchell is facing a stiff and vocal challenge from Jay Travis in the March 18 Democratic primary.

Both live in Bronzeville, in the heart of the district. Both have been community organizers. Both are poised, articulate and whip-smart. Yet, their differences have inspired deep-pocketed unions, business leaders and politicians to pile on the cash.

The unions despise Mitchell for supporting Senate Bill 1, the pension-reform bill approved by the Illinois General Assembly last year.

Taking down Mitchell, a darling of the Democratic Party establishment, would extract a golden pound of flesh for the union cause.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars will pour into this contest. Travis is getting big bucks from political action committees tied to the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Mitchell is enjoying the largess of donors like the Crown family and Stand for Children, a national school policy reform group.

Mitchell, 27, is a policy nerd and political operative who has amassed the support of heavyweights like Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his close mentor Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Travis, 41, is the charismatic former executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, bringing 20 years of organizing and policy advocacy. She spearheaded a successful campaign for community participation in Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid, and her work led to the creation of a major youth summer jobs program.

Travis says she is mounting a “people’s campaign,” fighting for “many families that are deeply concerned about issues such as school closings or the lack of leadership that many of our elected officials have demonstrated. . . .”

Her campaign labels Mitchell a “machine incumbent” and flunky for anti-union interests. Travis notes, for example, that Mitchell declined to support a moratorium on school closings and supports charter education.

“Christian chose to go with the powerful elected officials, and not to hear the voices of his constituents,” she said.

Mitchell responds that he, Travis and the unions agree on “95 percent” of the issues. He criticizes some charter school operators, who “have to be more focused, more aggressive, more ruthless about rooting out mediocrity.” But effective charters “must be part of the solution,” he adds.

Mitchell touts his leadership on legislation that helped eliminate background check loopholes for illegal guns, the expansion of Medicaid and child-care programs, and same-sex marriage.

“I didn’t like Senate Bill 1,” he said, but added it was the best deal the Legislature could get at a time of fiscal crisis. “Everyone who says ‘we should have had something better,’ etcetera, etcetera,’ cannot give me the next 10 words.”

Voters are often disenfranchised by venal, corrupt politicians whose only goal is keep a job. The voters of the 26th are lucky to have this choice.

Travis is an ambitious up-and-comer with a future, but she’s got an uphill climb. Her campaign was slow out of the box, heavy on rhetoric and light on pragmatism.

Mitchell is way ahead in the polls. Doubters might be reassured that Preckwinkle’s backing shows that Mitchell is not a hack politician wearing progressive clothing.

The race is Mitchell’s to lose.


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