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Kennedy rips ‘corrupt’ property tax system in shot at Dem leaders

Businessman Chris Kennedy is shown last month after delivering his first major policy speech as a Democratic candidate for governor. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

A combative Chris Kennedy ratcheted up his campaign for governor on Tuesday by calling for “radical change” in Illinois’ “corrupt” property tax system, beginning with ethical reforms aimed at his own Democratic Party leaders.

Kennedy said the state should enact laws to stop elected officials from acting as property tax appeal lawyers and to prevent any property tax lawyer from making campaign donations to local assessors.

The former takes direct aim at both Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and City Council Finance Chairman Ed Burke, both of whom have become wealthy through law firms that specialize in property tax appeal work.

The latter is a shot at Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who Kennedy also said should be forced to “separate” his roles as assessor and county Democratic chairman.

OPINION

Kennedy declined to call anybody out by name as corrupt, arguing: “This isn’t about individuals . . . It’s about an entire system.”

But it was a clear signal that in his bid for the nomination he’s not expecting any help from the Democratic political establishment, which has been coalescing behind one of his opponents, billionaire J.B. Pritzker.

Kennedy, a mere millionaire, continued with his theme that “the rich” have corrupted the property tax system through the appeals system.

He cited as evidence a Chicago Sun-Times’ report on how Pritzker was able to save more than $230,000 in taxes on the Gold Coast mansion he bought next to his own by having it declared “uninhabitable.”

Kennedy didn’t mention that in his own role as a businessman and homeowner he also has played the property tax lawyer game, although I’m as yet unaware of anything as questionable as Pritzker’s mansion maneuver.

Kennedy argued ethical reforms are a prerequisite to Illinois enacting a graduated income tax, which he said is necessary to allow local governments to reduce their reliance on property taxes and make education funding more equitable. Other Democratic candidates also support replacing Illinois’ flat rate income tax with a graduated tax, which would require a constitutional amendment.

Kennedy declined to characterize his proposal as a tax swap, saying he would leave it to individual communities to decide whether or how much to lower property taxes.

Kennedy also said that unlike Gov. Bruce Rauner, he does not support a property tax freeze.

“He wants to freeze property taxes. I want to lower them,” Kennedy said, leaving unstated exactly how he proposes to accomplish that.

Kennedy’s comment came on the same day Democrats in the Illinois Senate, including gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss, pushed through a temporary two-year property tax freeze that Republicans say is inadequate.

No current elected officials attended Kennedy’s speech, the first major policy rollout of his campaign.

But former White House Chief of Staff William Daley, former county Assessor James Houlihan, former Board of Review Commissioner Robert Shaw and former Senate President Emil Jones were on hand to lend support.

Kennedy read his speech at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville, just across the street from where Pritzker recently accepted the endorsement of city Treasurer Kurt Summers, both symbolic of the importance African-American voters will play in determining the outcome of the Democratic primary.

His 30-plus minute talk was variously wonky and filled with soaring Kennedy-esque rhetoric.

One minute he was talking about “granularity of the data,” and the next he was saying: “Everyone, everywhere should be able to wake up on a hot, sunny summer day and look forward to it rather than see that gift of nature instead as a dark omen of a violent night to come.”

Kennedy indicated he plans many such long policy speeches as he rolls out his campaign.

That was unwelcome news for opponents who have been counting on Kennedy to quickly fold his campaign.