STEINBERG: ‘This is the moment to do it,’ Dan Biss says

SHARE STEINBERG: ‘This is the moment to do it,’ Dan Biss says

State Sen. Dan Biss | Sun-Times file photo

Choosing the Republican belief that has most damaged our country would be a challenge, like picking just one chocolate from a newly opened box of Fannie May, though without the pleasure.

Would it be the lie that immigrants are bad for the country? The denial of any science that conflicts with corporate interests? Or maybe the notion that law should enforce Christian orthodoxy?

How to choose? There are so many!

Myself, I would go for the insistence that government is bad and politicians are bad. The mendacious mantra that gets amateurs like Donald Trump elected: Look, our man is untainted by experience!


Anti-government cynicism is contagious. After Illinois elected sour multi-millionaire Bruce Rauner as governor, Democrats looked at his dismal record of failure then served up its own pair of I’ve-never-done-this-but-I’d-like-to-try candidates, J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy.

It’s easy to overlook a candidate hurrying after them, boosted by government experience but handicapped by his lack of a personal fortune: state Sen. Dan Biss. I mentioned him in a column and he phoned.

Are you sorry you left mathematics yet? I began; Biss was a mathematician in a previous life.

“I feel weirdly, preposterously lucky to be doing what I’m doing,” he laughed. “I love it.”

Love it? Really? What part?

“Two parts,” he said. “The mechanics of democracy. I love being able to go to Springfield, with a desk with a red and a green button. You press one and the world changes a little. There’s magic to that.”


“I love the people part,” he said. “You go out into the world, some people care deeply about issues and some could not care less. But each has a stake, and I listen and learn and build something.”

RELATED: Biss: Faith that fuels divisiveness is ‘dead wrong’

What’s wrong with Bruce Rauner?

“He has no economic argument. The experience of other states makes pretty clear he’s wrong, motivated by some deep self interest,” Biss said. “That’s what he’s focused on, obsessed with. He can’t get past the unwillingness of the Legislature to enact his Walkerite agenda and has found himself in a never-ending series of battles, having chosen to handle this in the most repugnant way possible, chosen to declare war and be surprised when people aren’t nice about him. He’s not a collaborative person.”

Are you?

“I’ve actually done it,” he said. “There are more than 80 laws in place because I sponsored a bill.”

Which of those 80 laws is he proudest of?

“I’m proudest of the Secure Choice Savings Program Act,” he said. “Two and half million people in Illinois have no retirement plan at all, no pensions, no 401(k). People in this situation are almost entirely relying on Social Security, which is just not adequate.”

He said both parties had tried to create an automatic 401(k) program similar to what many businesses offer.

“Every state that tried to do it hit the brick wall of the life insurance lobby, the Wall Street lobby,” Biss said. “I decided [I was] not going to take ‘No’ for an answer and in spring 2014, passed a bill out of the Senate and spent the whole summer organizing people. Finally, in early December, the bill passed out of the House. One of the very last bills Gov. Quinn signed into law. After this, the floodgates opened: California, Oregon, Maryland, Connecticut and Vermont. Now this is a genuine movement, about retirement security in America.”

That’s something. Particularly to someone puffing on his anemic 401(k), hoping it grows quick so I don’t have to scrounge all my nourishment in old age from Costco samples. People need help and government can provide it. Talking to Biss, the guttered wick of hope flickered, slightly.

“You can actually change something,” Biss said. “It’s not true that the whole system is fixed and nothing anyone does matters. There are a lot of entrenched interests, a lot of status quo bias. But if you push hard enough, build coalitions, you can change things. I’m running for governor because it’s a much better stage to build a stronger coalition. This is the moment to do it.”

Or not to do it, as the case may be. We’ll see.

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