Running for:State Representative, House District 2
Political/civic background:Community organizer/neighborhood activist/aide to Governor Pat Quinn
Occupation:Former College Professor
Education: Ph.D., University of Chicago; B.A., UC Berkeley
Campaign website: theresamah.com
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent candidates for the Illinois House of Representatives a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois and their districts. Theresa Mah submitted the following responses:
Please tell us about your civic work in the last two years, whether it’s legislation you have sponsored or work you have done in other ways to improve your community.
My civic work in the last two years has centered on the needs and priorities of 2nd District residents and the ways in which I am able to address those needs as their elected representative. Even before I ran for my position, I was very active in efforts to improve and bring resources to the community. I was deeply involved in the campaign to get a new library built in Chinatown and to restore the 31st St. bus line through Bridgeport. I was also interested in fighting for a better public education system, so I got elected to the Local School Council at Thomas Kelly High School and have served for the past 6 years.
Since I have been elected State Representative, I have consistently leveraged resources at my disposal in order to bring needed services to my residents. Our office has organized a health fair and a job/career fair each year for the past three years. We have held numerous town hall meetings and local neighborhood coffee meetings. We have sponsored utility bill clinics, property tax appeal workshops, a green energy town hall, a census job fair, and information sessions on immigrant rights and citizenship workshops, among other events.
I have also passed almost two dozen bills as chief sponsor in the areas of immigrant rights, civil rights, healthcare access, language access, data transparency and consumer protection. The legislation I work on always has a direct relationship to the needs of my constituents and I have been proud to build a track record for working on and securing passage for meaningful legislation that improves people’s lives. In addition, I have been active in the budgetmaking process in various areas such as K-12 and early childhood education, afterschool programs, public transit, and affordable housing. whether in the fiscal year budget or the capital budgets that we passed this year, I have been an active advocate for funding that results in investments or improvements in my community.
Please list three concerns that are specific to your district, such as a project that should be undertaken or a state policy related to an important local issue that should be revised.
The three main concerns specific to my district include education (strengthening and improving the education system from birth through higher ed); making health care more accessible and affordable (including prescription drugs); and building an economy that works for everyone including making taxes fairer, lowering property taxes, and fighting for fair wages.
My district is home to a large percentage of immigrant residents for whom educational opportunities for their children are a priority. That’s why I am so committed to strengthening our public education system from early childhood through higher education, including career technical education, ESL and workforce development programs for adult learners.
There is a significant percentage of seniors in the 2nd District as well, and along with the immigrant population, access to healthcare and affordable prescription drugs is a critical issue for this population. Also, the availability of state-funded programs such as the Community Cares Program, which provides in-home help so that seniors can stay longer in their own homes, is not only fiscally responsible but also an important lifeline for this population.
What are your other top legislative priorities?
In addition to my legislative priorities focused on strengthening our public education system, access to health care and affordable prescription drug costs, and programs for seniors, as mentioned above, I also have worked on and will continue to champion legislation to promote and support our public transportation system and to fight for fair wages for people with disabilities.
I have established a strong track record in the priority areas mentioned above. I was a strong supporter of strengthening our schools as one of the strongest champions for revising our state’s school funding formula and then providing $350 million in new funding for local public schools (SB 262). I am proud of supporting legislation that makes college more affordable and by increasing the funding for MAP grants, and fighting for an elected school board.
With regard to lowering health care and prescription drug costs, I am proud to have supported legislation capping the cost of insulin (SB 667), creating stronger oversight of prescription drug prices (HB 156), and stopping insurance companies from unjustified, double-digit increases of their premiums for no reason.
I will continue to prioritize these issues, which my constituents have told me over and over again that thee are their priorities. but in addition, there are a couple of bills that I have worked on in previous session that I will work next session to usher through to passage. One of them is the Transit Benefits Savings Plan which will allow all employees to take advantage of pre-tax savings for using mass transit. This bill will not only benefit the environment by increasing public transportation ridership, but it will also help the average commuter save money. I was able to pass this bill in the House in 2017 but the legislation stalled in the Senate. The other bill, which was filed in 2018 but did not advance to a vote in the House, puts forward a plan to phase out the use of sub-minimum wages for people with disabilities in Illinois.
What is your position on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax? Please explain.
I support the Governor’s proposed graduated income tax plan, also known as the Fair Tax. Voters in Illinois have made it clear that millionaires and billionaires should pay their fair share and that the flat tax that currently exists in Illinois is one of the most unfair in the country. The currently system makes it such that the middle class and those who are struggling carry the bulk of the tax burden. in order to balance our budgets and properly fund our schools and social services, this overhaul of the state’s tax system is absolutely necessary.
Illinois continues to struggle financially, with a backlog of unpaid bills that tops $6 billion. In addition to a progressive state income tax — or in lieu of such a tax — what should the state do to pay its bills, meet its pension obligations and fund core services such as higher education?
As I stated in the previous answer I am a strong proponent of the Fair Tax proposal, and I believe its passage will help tremendously in paying down our backlog of bills, meet pension obligations, and fund core services. During this past legislative session, I am proud to have voted for a budget that committed more than $1 billion to paying down our backlog of bills while prioritizing essential services and controlling spending.
Should Illinois consider taxing the retirement incomes of its very wealthiest residents, as most states do? And your argument is?
I believe that the implementation of the Fair Tax is the most significant way of making millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share, while providing relief to middle-class families. I am generally against taxing retirement income at any level, since it could open the door to its taxation at lower income levels and I am firmly against any taxation that would be regressive and hurt older constituents who struggle on a fixed income.
What can Illinois do to improve its elementary and high schools?
I am proud to have voted to provide $350 million additional dollars to fund local public schools (SB 262) in this spring’s budget. Prior to that, I was one of the strongest proponents for passage of a more equitable funding formula for our state’s public education system. The $350 million exceeds our commitment under the revise funding formula. However, we do still have a ways to go in terms of improving our K-12 schools.
In Chicago, the provisions won in the recent teachers’ strike: smaller class sizes, more nurses, social workers, counselors and librarians in the school district, for example, will go a long ways in helping improve conditions in the state’s largest school district. But there is more that could be done. I supported legislation for an elected representative school board for CPS. I would also like to see CPS disperse their funding within the district in accordance with the guidelines laid out in our revised funding formula so that schools that are farther away from the measures of adequacy will have more funds with which to reach adequacy.
As an educator myself with experience in the classroom and an understanding of the interplay effective pedagogy, socio-economic conditions, and public sentiment, I understand the challenges that our educational system faces. Improvement hinges on adequate resources, smart policy, and a deep understanding of how the system works, especially how the inequities within the system developed in the first place. With a Ph.D. in US history focused on the history racial inequality, three years serving on the Elementary and Primary Education Appropriations Committee, 6 years serving on a local school council, and plenty more on-the-ground, hands-on experience with our public school system, I am in a better position than any of my opponents to address this priority issue for our state and for our district.
Mass shootings and gun violence plague America. What can or should the Legislature do, if anything, to address this problem in Illinois?
As a member of the Firearms public Awareness Task Force, I attended a recent hearing in which public health professionals, gun violence victims and their families, and anti-violence advocacy groups spoke about the impact of gun violence. There is an urgency to address this issue. As a member of the 100th and 101st General Assemblies, I am proud to have supported every measure that was proposed to curb gun violence in the past 3 years, from the increased waiting period for assault weapons, to gun dealer licensing, to the red flag law for those with orders of protection, to the Fix the FOID bill, which closes loopholes and fixes glaring problems in the system.
In addition to stronger gun-safety laws, there is a need for more holistic approaches such as reinvestment in underserved communities. I voted to fund community-based anti-violence programs that had been de-funded in the Rauner administration. I also am proud to support increased funding for child-care and afterschool programs, and a stronger educational system in general that provides mental health, job training and wraparound services for impoverished families.
The problem of gun violence also needs to be addressed by having a serious discussion about the toxic combination of lax gun laws and mental health. It might be productive also to talk about gun violence as a public health issue. In any case, discussion of stronger gun laws should always be in conjunction with law enforcement, medical professionals, educators, and other stakeholders in order to address a complex problem that cannot be solved simply through addressing one small portion of the problem.
Do you favor or oppose term limits for any elected official in Illinois? Please explain.
I believe that elections are natural term limits that allow the voters to decide whether a legislator has been in office long enough. However I do agree with the existing term limits for executive branch officials.
Everybody says gerrymandering is bad, but the party in power in every state — Democrats in Illinois — resist doing anything about it. Or do we have that wrong? What should be done?
Gerrymandering is bad, but the drawing of legislative district boundaries is a complex undertaking that also needs to follow existing Voting Rights Act provisions and respect local and minority community boundaries as much as possible. Any approach to redistricting has to protect minority voters to make sure their voices are not silenced or disenfranchised. The challenge for states that would like to propose “non-partisan” redistricting commissions is that it would be extremely difficult to create a commission that is sufficiently representative of the diversity of the state and its diverse communities yet still be non-partisan along political party lines.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago is investigating possible official corruption by state and local officials. This prompted the Legislature to pass an ethics reform measure to amend the Lobbyist Registration Act (SB 1639). It was signed into law in December. What’s your take on this and what more should be done?
I am proud to have supported HJR 93, establishing the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying reform. However, this is only a first step. There is much more to be done and I believe the commission will conduct a thorough, non-partisan review and make their recommendations. In light of recent events, there is no question that there is a need for an overhaul of our ethics laws and regulations around lobbying, but there are complexities that need to be taken into account, and giving a bipartisan commission the space and the time to consider every intricacy is important for achieving the best, most effective outcome.
When people use the internet and wireless devices, companies collect data about us. Oftentimes, the information is sold to other companies, which can use it to track our movements or invade our privacy in other ways. When companies share this data, we also face a greater risk of identity theft. What should the Legislature do, if anything?
I support legislation that would protect consumers’ privacy and not allow companies to profit off of people’s personal data. I believe we have an obligation to protect the public from identity theft and that businesses should be held accountable for their data breeches.
The number of Illinois public high school graduates who enroll in out-of-state universities continues to climb. What can Illinois do to make its state universities more attractive to Illinois high school students?
It is imperative that we strengthen and invest in our state’s public higher education system and make it more attractive for students to stay in Illinois. I have made Illinois my home for almost 30 years because I moved here to pursue my Ph.D. Higher education is what attracts talented new tax-payers or retains young people who grew up in the state. We must invest in higher education for the future of our state and the strength of our economy.
I am proud to have supported budget increases for MAP grants so that middle-class Illinois families could afford to send their kids to college in the state. I also supported legislation to allow students to access MAP grants all four years of college rather than just one, and I also supported the creation of the new AIM HIGH merit-based grants for talented Illinois students that we want to keep in our state.
What is your top legislative priority with respect to the environment?
Passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act.
What historical figure from Illinois, other than Abraham Lincoln (because everybody’s big on Abe), do you most admire or draw inspiration from? Please explain.
I really admire Jane Addams, social worker, advocate of women, children, workers, immigrants and families, Nobel Prize winner, and founder of Hull House, an important settlement house in Chicago. As an undergraduate, I wrote a senior thesis on early twentieth century immigrants and their experiences with settlement houses, Americanization efforts, and identity. Hull House is just up the road from the northern boundary of the 2nd District and the concentration of immigrants that I count among my constituents owe quite a bit to the location of Hull House and the work they did with immigrants in the area that is now UIC. As I serve a community that is largely made up of immigrants, I can’t help but look back and admire someone who spent her life serving immigrant communities.
What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
I really liked The Wire because it provided an in-depth, if dramatized look into the complexities of social life, culture, and politics in inner-city Baltimore. I like it because it provided a lot of insight into issues that large, diverse cities shaped by poverty and racial inequality deal with, much like the city I call home. The characters were not uni-dimensional, and you got to see the humanity even in environments wracked with poverty and violence. Every season was fascinating, absorbing, but also heartbreaking. I think what attracts me the most is the way that it presents scenarios that are extremely relevant to our everyday lives and work, if we are students of public policy.