Syamala Krishnamsetty, Illinois House 40th District Democratic candidate profile
Her top priorities include ethics reform, criminal justice reform and affordable housing.
Running for: State Representative, IL 40th District
Political/civic background: Social Services, Community and Political Organizing
Occupation: Organizer, Social Service Support
Education: Bachelor of Arts, English and Philosophy, State University of New York at Buffalo
Campaign website: syamalaforstaterep.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 Illinois their districts. Syamala Krishnamsetty 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.
Prior to 2018, I worked in social services in Englewood and Marquette Park. Children aged 5 -17 who had been diagnosed with behavioral or emotional disorders were referred to work with me by a subcontractor of a social service agency. What I experienced and witnessed in those years shapes a lot about the values I hold today. I saw families doing their very best to take care of their children, and a network of neighbors, community members, teachers, social workers and others who were willing to support them for very few resources.
But corruption was getting in the way. Progress was stunted by the legal ways in which corruption has been integrated and legalized in our system. Illegal corruption was rampant as well.
Since then, I’ve taken leadership for many progressive candidates and issues. In 2012, I directed field for 42 counties in Illinois for President Obama’s re-election campaign, supporting the voter contact for Iowa and Wisconsin. I’ve also worked for or on behalf of Chuy Garcia, Kara Eastman, Elizabeth Warren, and Lawrence Lessig, and have been closely involved with Democracy Spring and Represent.us. A brief stint on Mumbai, India, gave me the opportunity to work for an organization called Haiyya that works to increase civic participation in disengaged communities.
About two years ago, I started to change my approach about how to create change and reform the system; instead of being centered on the influence of big money in politics and placing my bets on individual candidates and federal policy changes, I started to instead think about the small and big ways we can fix our democracy. Citizens United is the problem, yes, but it’s not just about money in politics. It’s about empowering citizens to create the world they want. And right now, the voters in my district are not empowered - our choices are too narrow. We are creating a future we don’t want because there aren’t enough mechanisms in place to allow us to create the future we do want.
In the last two years, my focus has been less political and less partisan - I amped up my involvement with Represent.us, which focuses on anti-corruption reform across the country, including red states, and have spent a great deal of time with the local Nonviolent Communication (NVC) chapter and its spinoff chapters, honing my skills of fostering mutual respect and diplomacy among people with extremely different views. I believe these skills will aid me in the statehouse to move Illinois forward.
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.
1. Democracy Reform and Anti-Corruption.
I will fight for independent redistricting which protects the constitutional right of communities of color to elect a representative of their choosing. My platform includes regulations on lobbying and conflicts of interest, ethics reform, strengthening automatic voter registration, ending felon disenfranchisement, and reducing the influence of special interests. The residents of my district know what they want - I’m focusing on reforming the system so they can enact it. We need to fix democracy to give people the power to change their community.
2. Restorative Justice and Abolition.
Short Term Priorities:
a. Ending money bail and all fees and debts associated with arrest or imprisonment,
b. Extending the ban on for-profit detention centers to include nonprofit detention centers, and addressing the conditions of our state and local prisons and jails,
c. Ending felon disenfranchisement,
d. Making gains on full community control of the police
Long Term Priorities:
I am a prison abolitionist. Our criminal justice system today creates conditions of violence by bringing poverty, fear, inequity and intergenerational trauma to vulnerable communities, with the bulk of that trauma landing on black and brown bodies. Meaningful change is intersectional with programs that work to eradicate poverty, but I hope that one day we will look back on our current criminal justice system as a historical relic.
There may always be some individuals who require social separation from the rest of society, but that separation should be extremely rare and overwhelmingly compassionate.
3. Affordable Housing.
While Chicago continues to struggle with affordable housing, the stock of naturally occurring affordable housing is dwindling throughout my district. Multi-flats have long provided the residential density necessary to keep rental prices low and offset costs for first time homebuyers. These buildings are also an asset to homeowners, who can rent out spare units to stabilize housing costs or provide housing for aging parents or other family members. Many of these multiflats are being demolished or deconverted to single family buildings or commercial properties.
Having fair property taxes for middle class families, preserving what affordable housing we have, and incentivizing architects and developers to work with the community is central to my platform.
What are your other top legislative priorities?
Immigration, Environmental Policy, Education
What is your position on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax? Please explain.
Illinois’ current tax system is one of the most unfair systems in the country. The average middle class family pays close to 13% of its income on state and local taxes, while those earning less pay over 14%. Meanwhile the top 1% pay only 7% of their income to state and local taxes. This has contributed to the rising inequality that we see in Illinois.
I support a graduated income tax which raises taxes on the wealthiest Illinois residents (including retirees), and maintains the current rate on incomes between $100,000 and $250,000 while reducing the tax burden on those who earn less than $100,000.
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?
To eliminate the excessive waste that’s involved with having so much bureaucracy and having so many municipalities directing their own pensions, I support the consolidation of state pension systems.
I’m a democracy reform candidate who is running because corruption (both the illegal and legal kind) has taken over this country’s political system. Illinois is a classic example of how corruption and conflicts of interest have affected the pension crisis; lawmakers and governors from both parties have repeatedly 1. skipped required contributions 2. contributed less annually than they should have or 3. have even borrowed from the funds to finance other projects. The increasing influence of special interests and political pressure to privatize essential services and projects is being touted as a solution when it’s actually contributed to the problem in the first place.
In the long term, eliminating corruption will be absolutely necessary to address the pension problem.
Right now, I support working with union leaders and other stakeholders to come up with a plan to consolidate state pension systems, create newer and better revenue streams, and address the underlying problem of chronic underpayment into pension funds.
Should Illinois consider taxing the retirement incomes of its very wealthiest residents, as most states do? And your argument is?
I support taxing the retirement incomes of our wealthiest residents. The additional revenue would fund important government services like affordable housing and education.
Illinois is one of only a few states that doesn’t tax retirement incomes regardless of wealth. The revenue from such a wealth tax would ease the burden on middle class retirees who earn less than $250K per year in retirement income, and generate revenue for other taxpayer funded programs.
What can Illinois do to improve its elementary and high schools?
Public school made me. I attended public school from kindergarten through high school, and attended a public university.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is from my first day of school. Our school bus stopped at the end of our driveway, and when the doors opened, I was greeted with the booming voice of the most inspiring person I had ever met. My school bus driver, Gary, was larger than life. He exuded warmth and laughter, and for the following several years, he made every morning feel safe and happy.
Many of the most influential and inspiring people in my life have been school staff, teachers, and professors. We love our teachers here in Illinois, and I’m going to use my energies at the statehouse to fight for our schools, teachers and school staff, and children so others can benefit from our school system the way I have.
Schools in my district are under the jurisdiction of the city, rather than the state. But at the state level, we can make more funds available for programs like special education, bilingual education, pipeline programs for first generation college students, and a wide variety of other programs to help children succeed. A great number of children throughout the state are food insecure, and investing in nutrition programs so kids don’t have to be hungry goes a long way to supporting their education.
While we’re at it, we need to strengthen Automatic Voter Registration. Eighteen is a terrible age to register to vote for the first time. That time often coincides with major life changes, and the additional burden of registering is often a deterrent to developing the habit of voting early and often. I support pre-registration starting at age 16, and that process should be rolled out to every state agency in order to touch as many children as possible. Investing in civic education programming is key as well.
Putting choices in the hands of voters is important. The proposal of lowering the voting age to 16 is starting to gain steam in certain parts of the country, and I would be very supportive of such an endeavor in Illinois. At the age of 16, Illinois residents can take an active role in our economy; they are not limited in the hours they work, and they pay taxes. They are directly impacted by legislation, and they should be allowed to vote for their representatives.
Mass shootings and gun violence plague America. What can or should the Legislature do, if anything, to address this problem in Illinois?
Like most issues that affect Illinoisans, the issue of gun violence intersects with the influence of dark money and special interests, poverty, and social and economic injustice.
The majority of guns in Illinois come from other states, so until the federal government passes good sense policies to curb gun violence and mass shootings, we will continue to struggle with gun violence in Illinois.
But there are actions the state legislature could take that would make a real difference. Illinois gun sellers have aggressively lobbied state legislatures to move the conversation away from gun dealers and manufacturers and towards punishments for people who buy guns illegally.
The National Rifle Association and the Illinois State Rifle Association, for example, have 501(c)(4) designation - this means that they are not required to disclose donors, they face no limits on fundraising or expenditures, and are only required to disclose money that is expressly used to defeat or elect a candidate. Despite the fact that gun violence is a political issue, they are classified as advocacy groups, and are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission. These kinds of expenditures have been classified as “dark money.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, of course, defined such independent expenditures as free speech, and completely changed the landscape of American politics. Big money in politics will remain an issue until Citizens United is overturned, but in the meantime Illinois can consider legislation curbing its effects by offering transparency. One campaign to take inspiration from is the Outlaw Dirty Money campaign in Arizona - the proposed amendment establishes that voters have a right to know who is influencing their elections, and empowers a clean elections commission as the regulatory body to ensure this right.
Such reform wouldn’t fix the problem of big money’s influence, but transparency may aid the public in knowing who is influencing whom in Springfield so public pressure can be applied appropriately.
Political forces across the country are pushing policies to criminalize poverty and illegal gun ownership and shift the responsibility away from gun dealers. If the conversation continues this way, it will deeply inhibit our ability to make meaningful change. We need to consider measures to prevent people from acquiring guns in the first place - forty percent of the guns in Illinois are bought in state, and gun dealers should be required to make the number of guns, clips and bullets sold available to the public. Guns will continue to come in from other states, but until the federal government steps up to the plate, or other states pass reforms, we’ll continue to battle this issue.
While we do this, it’s important not to give in to political pressure to criminalize gun ownership. Increasing penalties for unlicensed or unregistered guns does not act as an effective deterrent for people who are desperate enough to buy guns. Such penalties would disproportionately affect communities of color and contribute to the mass incarceration that is plaguing this country.
We need to address the causes of why Illinois residents feel they need to buy guns to protect themselves in the first place. It’s worth mentioning here that I myself have been shot by an illegally obtained gun - a stray bullet grazed my shoulder while walking down a Chicago street about ten years ago. The source? A 12 year old boy who was practicing how to use a gun in his backyard because he wanted to be prepared when his mother’s abusive boyfriend escalated his violence.
The gun violence problem in Illinois is rooted in poverty and economic disparity. We need to invest in our schools, teachers, and healthcare to make quality healthcare and education accessible to all. We need resources and capital in struggling communities, and we need to come down hard on corporations and banks that engage in predatory practices that target the poor. We need to create a safety net so no mother ever again has to stay with an abusive partner just so she can get food on the table for her family.
Investing in Illinois children will go much farther to curb gun violence than punishing children with guns ever will.
Do you favor or oppose term limits for any elected official in Illinois? Please explain.
I support term limits, but it’s important to think about term limits as part of an ethics package that curbs lobbying and special interests and fixes our democracy.
The past 30 years or so has seen many states enact term limits in state legislatures, but those term limits also coincided with increased presence of corporate influence and special interests in state capitals. As a result, many state legislators failed to get past their initial learning curve and often relied on lobbyists and other influencers in state capitols to support their work.
Term limits are a great step, but if we really want to make elections more competitive, ending gerrymandering, regulating lobbying, and instituting mechanisms to prevent conflicts of interest will help a lot more than term limits.
I support a 16 year combined term limit in the legislature (8 years each), and a 4-8 year term limit for executive positions.
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?
Instead of voters choosing their elected officials, it’s the other way around - politicians are choosing their voters. They do it by gerrymandering their voting districts to guarantee their own election. This is an abomination of our electoral system and at the core of how corruption takes place. Gerrymandering is a weapon against voters.
Illinois is a leading example of the harm gerrymandering is doing to our democracy. Gerrymandering creates career politicians and governmental deadlock. Elected officials fear displeasing party leadership, because lack of compliance can lead to their districts being redrawn.
Illinois is gerrymandered to protect incumbents, and both parties do it to instill party cohesion and discourage challengers. Proportional representation would still result in more Democratic seats in Illinois and yield solid blue districts, but would increase the number of highly competitive elections and make elected officials accountable to voters, instead of party leadership.
I support an independent redistricting commission that is demographically, politically, and geographically representative of our state to draw our congressional and Illinois General Assembly maps. This commission would 1. protect the constitutional right of communities of color to elect a representative of their choosing, 2. be required to have complete transparency by releasing all communications and data used to create all maps, and 3. Have at least 30 public hearings on the maps before a final vote.
We need to empower citizens to enact the future they want, and removing politicians and sitting legislators from drawing their own districts is an important step in the process of fixing our democracy.
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?
This bill is an excellent first response to the series of recent scandals plaguing entrenched lawmakers in Springfield.
It establishes additional reporting requirements for lobbyists and their sub registrants, as well as more disclosure for lobbyists who have ever been elected or appointed as public officials. It also directs the Illinois Secretary of State to create a publicly accessible database of disclosure forms from lobbyists and state officials.
The bill falls short of banning cross-lobbying all together, in contrast to the ordinance passed by Chicago’s City Council in December.
When it’s not politically feasible to pass the reforms necessary to check powerful stakeholders, transparency is often the next best thing. It doesn’t address the issue of undue influence from powerful stakeholders, but transparency aids the public in knowing who is influencing whom in Springfield so public pressure can be applied appropriately - and hopefully, more robust anti-corruption legislation can be passed in the future.
There’s a lot more to be done though. Illinois has an additional loophole that allows lawmakers to lobby while they are in office as long as it’s for another branch of government. Absurdly, this isn’t even an example of a revolving door policy. There is no door, in fact.
Chicago recently banned cross-lobbying, which is a great step in curbing Chicago’s quid pro quo political culture. We need to extend it and completely ban state lawmakers from lobbying local governments. State lawmakers grant authority to local governments, and local officials should not feel pressure from state officials who have some power over their local authority.
Ultimately, we need to close the revolving door between the lobbying industry and government. The government-to-lobbyist revolving door threatens the integrity of government.
One reason is that public officials may be influenced by the explicit or implicit promise of a position in the private sector with entities seeking to shape policy or gain contracts.
Lobbyists who were previously public officials have access to lawmakers that is not available to others, and that access can be sold to the highest bidder. This means that wealthy interests can afford to hire such revolvers and be granted access that’s not available to the general public.
It’s also worth noting that there are still a lot of conflicts of interest that aren’t necessarily lobbying. We should add a provision to the Illinois Governmental Ethics Act to restrict lawmakers from having direct or indirect financial interests in companies whose interests conflict with the state’s interests.
Strengthen lawmakers’ financial disclosures so they must be required to disclose the sources of all of their income (including the income of their spouse), clients they work with who have contracts by the state or are regulated by the state, and all real estate interests.
Empower the Office of the Legislative Inspector General. I support giving the Office of the Legislative Inspector General full independent authority to complete its duties and be required to publish all results of investigations without interference from lawmakers. This includes being able to initiate an investigation without getting prior approval from the Legislative Ethics Commission.
Open up the Legislative Ethics Commission to to include unelected members of the public.
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?
Though Illinois has a patchwork of preliminary, incomplete legislation for regulating the use of data, we need to enact a policy that grants Illinois residents basic privacy protections. Consumers deserve the right to 1. Know what personal data is being collected from them, 2. Know whether their data is being sold or disclosed, and to whom, 3. Opt out of this data collection (or even better, the choice to opt-in if they want to) 4. Access their personal data from these companies, and 5. Request a business to delete any information collected about them.
The Data Transparency and Privacy Act, Illinois’ attempt at passing privacy legislation, passed the House in 2019. Despite a generous list of business exemptions, it didn’t quite make it to the finish line. A primary goal of mine is to pass reforms to curb the influence of business in Springfield politics, which might make the next attempt more fruitful.
While the current debate on surveillance rightfully centers on private companies, I’m also considering it in terms of restorative justice and the role government surveillance has played in the historical and current oppression of vulnerable people.
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?
I support increased funding for the Monetary Award program, which allocates more support for our most needy students, and more funding for education overall to alleviate the student debt crisis.
This year a phenomenon that garnered publicity were several cases of Illinois parents relinquishing guardianship of their college bound children so that they could qualify for financial aid. We need to seriously think about the policies we have in place that put families in the position of having to make choices like these to avoid burdening their children with staggering student debt.
I support free college education for all, and until the federal government steps up, the state of Illinois must do what it can to lower tuition costs, cap student loan rates, and end equity gaps in higher education attainment.
We also need to invest in pipeline programs that support first generation college students so they have the support to succeed.
Eliminating the gang databases used by law enforcement, which is rife with racial bias and factual errors, would also prevent incoming students from being at risk for losing their financial aid or offers of admission due to an unfair process.
What is your top legislative priority with respect to the environment?
My top priority with respect to the environment is to support the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which supports power plant communities and reduces emissions by phasing out fossil fuels.
I’m driven to run because the influence of moneyed interests in governance and policy poses an existential threat. This threat risks an irreversible disenfranchisement of most of the world’s inhabitants, and we see that right here at home in Illinois.
Nothing exemplifies this more than climate change. The people who profit the most from say, burning fossil fuels, are the ones who are most insulated from its effects, while the people who contributed the least are the ones who will suffer the most.
For this reason, to be truly effective, environmental policy must be rooted in equity and social justice. The fact that Illinois now has a majority pro-environment legislature and a committed governor presents an incredible opportunity to pass an aggressive environmental policy that enriches the lives of Illinoisans and engages them in the new clean energy economy.
As the Green New Deal gains momentum at a national level, Illinois could pass a comprehensive clean energy policy that is much more progressive and restorative that what might be feasible at the national level.
I will fight for this bill and will prioritize the restorative justice aspects of it.
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 love to look at an author’s entire body of work and pay attention to the way their writing has changed over their lifetime. I love the vulnerability, honesty, and attention to the particular in her early work. Later on we saw more experimentation, and after that her work became more academic and disciplined.
When you focus on her later work, you can see how her style gave way to the political urgency of the 1960s. In many ways we can see her re-education in her later years.
Her transformation is deeply relatable, especially when you can sense how she had to “unlearn” the lessons and perspectives of higher education and take on a tone more centered on political tensions.
I’m inspired by the process of unlearning what we’ve been taught in order to make change.
What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
I’m torn between Broad City and Black Mirror.
Broad City embodies so much joy and hilarity. It demystifies the female body, and normalize social politics in a way that’s so deeply loving and accessible. I love the feminism of the show.
Black Mirror captures the precariousness, hope, and impending doom of this time in a way that resonates with me. I like that it’s not suitable for a binge, too.