Sun-Times Endorsement: Andrea Zopp for the U.S. Senate

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U.S. Senate Democratic primary candidate Andrea Zopp met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When the CTA embarked on a massive reconstruction of the Red Line three years ago, Andrea Zopp , then president of the Chicago Urban League, assumed a lead role in making sure a fair chunk of the jobs and contracts went to minorities, women and the poor.

The Urban League and others made sure disadvantaged groups knew about those jobs and got them — everything from construction work to driving buses — and hooked up the CTA with minority contractors. In all, 32 percent of the Red Line contracts, worth $82.5 million, went to businesses owned by minorities and women.

Zopp was effective because she was able to employ skills she had honed over a lifetime in corporate management and appointed public service. She could work the boardrooms of the biggest companies — she has been there. She could work the levers of government — she has been there. And she understood the importance of jobs and business opportunities to growing the African-American middle class.

We believe Zopp has what it takes to be highly effective in the U.S. Senate, where the rules of power and advancement are as arcane as in any boardroom. She is well equipped to again work the levers, this time on behalf of Illinois and the nation. Her top three legislative priorities are good ones, especially for Chicago and Illinois — criminal justice reform, rebuilding the middle class and immigration reform. Our endorsement in the Democrat primary goes to Andrea Zopp.

Zopp, a former state and federal prosecutor, is running against another qualified candidate, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who is better funded, enjoys greater name recognition and is ahead in the polls. Duckworth is to be admired for her military service, her indomitable spirit in the face of devastating injuries and her work on behalf of veterans. Either Zopp or Duckworth would be a credible challenger against incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk in the November general election.

A third candidate, State Sen. Napoleon Harris III, who owns a chain of pizza restaurants, is comparatively inexperienced. Harris is a former NFL football player, but politically he’s not in the same league as Zopp or Duckworth.

We favor Zopp, a Harvard-trained lawyer, because of her breadth of experience and broad policy interests. Duckworth has been a champion for veterans, but Zopp could be a major player on a range of issues, from Wall Street to urban affairs. Zopp is defined less by an issue than by a skill set.

As president of the Chicago Urban League, Zopp immersed herself in issues of unemployment and criminal justice. She worked for summer jobs programs for youth and for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

As a member of the Cook County Health and Hospital System Board in the days before the Affordable Care Act, she learned firsthand why Obamacare may be, as she says, “a work in progress” but should not be repealed.

As a vice president and general counsel at three Fortune 500 companies — Sara Lee, Sears and Exelon — Zopp gained the kind of insider insights that would give weight to her views on business taxation and regulation. “I know how businesses think,” she told the Sun-Times Editorial Board. “I know how they make decisions to invest. Most importantly, I know how to hold them accountable to be good corporate citizens.”

Zopp ‘s one big misstep of late — and it’s a doozy — came as a member of the Chicago Board of Education. She cast a vote in 2013 in favor of a $20.5 million no-bid contract that is now at the center of a federal probe. The contract allegedly was arranged by former Supt. Barbara Byrd-Bennett in exchange for a kickback. Nobody on the school board, which is appointed by the mayor, questioned the contract.

Zopp ‘s defense is that this is how oversight boards work — they hire the best executives available and presume they’re not crooks. Our view is that the scandal was made more likely by the board’s ask-no-questions culture. Zopp failed to challenge that culture. We’re hoping she’s learned.

The Great Recession is over, but millions of Americans continue to struggle. Wages are flat and income disparities have grown wider. Nearly half of young black men in Chicago are neither in school nor working, according to a study released last month. Violent crime, mostly involving guns, remains a national shame.

Zopp has never had to struggle in this way, certainly not like Duckworth, who took a job as a teen to help pay her family’s rent on a studio apartment. Zopp ’s father was a prominent lawyer who served on the New York Appellate Court. She went to fine schools. But that, she says, is exactly why she wants to go to Washington — to give back. She wants others to have those same chances in life.

The “door of opportunity” that opened for her and her family and others, she told us, “is closing.” She wants to push the door wide open.

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