Richard J. Durbin, U.S. Senate Democratic nominee profile
To boost the economy, he wants small businesses to have more access to capital and an infrastructure package “that will help put people back to work.”
Name: Dick Durbin
Running for: U.S. Senate
Political party affiliation: Democrat
Political/civic background: U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate
Occupation: U.S. Senator
Education: Georgetown University Undergraduate & Law
Campaign website: DurbinforSenate.com
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent the nominees for U.S. Senate a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois and the country. Dick Durbin submitted the following responses:
Are you satisfied with the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic? Why or why not? What grade would you give President Donald Trump for his handling of the pandemic, and why?
I would give President Trump an F grade for his handling of the pandemic. From the very beginning of this global health crisis, he has dismissed the severity of the virus, called it a hoax, shifted blame to other countries and entities, promised it would magically disappear, discouraged people from wearing masks, encouraged states to stay open or re-open when it wasn’t safe to do so, promoted dangerous and ineffective remedies, and generally contradicted the advice of our nation’s premier medical experts. Had the President taken this seriously from the beginning—as many of us encouraged him to do—we would have been able to save lives and save jobs.
While Congress passed four bipartisan bills since March to provide the tools necessary to address the pandemic (such as funding for testing, tracing, and frontline health care workers and providers) and to provide assistance for families, small businesses, and states and local communities who are struggling due to no fault of their own, there is so much more we can and should be doing. First, we must do more to shore up our nation’s COVID-19 testing and contact tracing efforts, which are key to safely re-opening our economy and our schools. Second, Congress must provide more resources to protect our health care and frontline workers, many of whom are still struggling to obtain vital personal protective equipment. Third, we need to do more to increase resources and better target resources to communities of color, which have been the hardest hit by this pandemic. Fourth, Congress should pass legislation immediately to help families meet basic needs: extend the enhanced unemployment insurance benefits, help laid-off and furloughed workers keep their health insurance plans, extend the protections from eviction, provide direct cash assistance, among other needed assistance. And finally, Congress must provide assistance for child care facilities and schools as they work to implement measures to keep both children and teachers safe during the upcoming school year. We all want to see schools open for in-person learning as soon as possible, but we should not force schools to choose between giving up desperately needed federal resources and putting their students and teachers at risk by requiring in-person learning, especially in areas where cases are on the rise and in-person learning is against the advice of public health experts.
What should the federal government do to stimulate economic recovery from the pandemic shutdowns?
We cannot reopen or stimulate the economy unless and until we get the virus under control in the United States—but getting the virus under control and stimulating the economy is not an either-or proposition. We must do both. We need to develop and implement a science-based, national strategy to contain the virus, including ramping up testing and the production of personal protective equipment. We must provide schools the resources they need to implement effective safety measures to ensure kids and teachers can return to school without danger. We need to provide assistance to state and local governments that are facing revenue shortfalls due to no fault of their own so they can avoid layoffs and furlough of police, fire, EMS, and other first responders, as well as teachers. We need to provide additional resources to health care and other workers as well as health care providers who are on the frontlines of fighting this virus. Congress should provide assistance to families for basic needs, which is why it’s so important to extend the enhanced unemployment insurance and ensure workers who have lost their jobs are able to keep their health insurance. We should also provide another direct cash payment for low- and middle-income families. And Congress must ensure small businesses, especially minority-, women-, and veteran-owned, have access to the capital needed to pay their employees and stay afloat.
Long-term, we need to pass an infrastructure package that will help put people back to work. We need investments in our highways and bridges, our airports, and our waterways. But we also need significant investments in affordable housing, like the bill I introduced with Senator Harris, S. 2951, Housing is Infrastructure, that would provide $70 billion to upgrade and maintain public housing from Chicago to East St. Louis to Cairo. In order to put people back to work and address climate change, we should invest in large-scale clean energy and carbon reducing projects. I have introduced a bill, America’s Clean Future Fund, that would create an agency based on the New Deal Finance Corporation, which would provide low-interest loans and grants for projects that help transition the U.S. to a clean energy economy. A delayed fee on carbon would help reach the goal of zero carbon emissions economy and fund projects once we are no longer in economic turmoil.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd, President Trump signed an executive order on police reform. It calls for the creation of a database to track police officers with multiple instances of misconduct, federal grants to encourage police departments to meet higher certification standards on use of force, and the greater involvement of social workers and mental health professionals when the police respond to calls dealing with homelessness, mental illness and addiction. The order also calls for police departments to ban the use of chokeholds except when an officer feels his or her life is endangered. Will this be enough to address concerns about police brutality? If not, what other steps should be taken?
The killing of George Floyd has transformed the conversation about justice in America, and we must take bold action to meet this historic moment. It is clearer than ever that we need meaningful change to eradicate the systemic racism in policing that has devastating impacts in communities of color and which destroys trust between communities and police. President Trump’s executive order is woefully insufficient. We must implement the 2015 recommendations, such as emphasizing de-escalation training, prohibiting racial profiling, and requiring better data collection on uses of force, from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, an effort which the Trump Administration shelved in 2017. The Senate should also pass the Justice in Policing Act.
Also in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the House passed the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban police departments from using chokeholds, develop a national standard for use of force, limit the transfer of military weapons to police departments, define lynching as a federal hate crime, establish a national police misconduct registry, and limit qualified immunity, which protects officers from lawsuits over alleged misconduct. Do you support this legislation? Why or why not? What other steps, if any, would you like to see the federal government take on police reform?
I am a cosponsor of the Senate version of the Justice in Policing Act because I believe we need a comprehensive approach to bring accountability to policing, change methods and practices, and build trust. But even that is not enough. Justice in America requires more than improving law enforcement. We cannot put racism behind us until we root out systemic racism in education, health care, housing, immigration, and other areas.
What’s your view on President Trump’s decision to commute the sentence of Roger Stone?
President Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s sentence was an outrage that fundamentally undermines public faith in our criminal justice system. We cannot have one system for the President’s criminal friends, and a separate one for everyone else.
Please tell us about your civic work in the last two years, whether it’s legislation you have sponsored or other paid or volunteer work to improve your community.
In Congress, I view every action I take through the lens of “how will this help the people of Illinois?” From fighting for criminal justice reform and protecting Dreamers to defending and improving the Affordable Care Act and holding for-profit colleges that defraud students accountable, my legislative agenda is focused on helping the most vulnerable among us.
I have made it a priority to use my campaign this year to help those most in need. When the COVID-19 virus struck Illinois, we quickly paused our political operations and used our campaign to raise funds for those who were most heavily impacted. Between directly donating and soliciting funds from our supporters, we contributed over $60,000 to COVID-19 related charity funds across the state.
What are your views on the decision by the U.S. House to impeach President Donald Trump? Was the impeachment process fair or not? How so? If, in your view, the president should not have been impeached, would you have supported censure? Please explain.
The idea of a president seeking out foreign interference in our elections would have horrified the founders of our great nation. They designed the Constitution to safeguard against foreign influence that might corrupt our democratic process. This president, however, has shown no hesitation in seeking out foreign election interference from Russia, China, and Ukraine—and that’s just what we know about from his own public statements. Despite this president’s unprecedented complete refusal to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry, we learned many details from patriotic Americans who stepped forward to tell Congress the truth about the President’s Ukraine scheme. Even though the President and Senate Republicans blocked the calling of any witnesses in the Senate trial, I believe the House managers presented a convincing case, and I voted to convict President Trump on two articles of impeachment.
How would you reduce the federal budget deficit, which now stands at about $1 trillion for 2020? What changes, if any, to the U.S. tax code do you support and why?
We must revise our tax code so it is fairer for working families. Congress should pass legislation that closes the inversions loophole, ensures that multinational corporations pay the same tax rate on profits earned abroad as they do on domestic profits, and ensures that millionaires pay at least a 30% effective tax rate (the so-called “Buffett Rule”). I also support repealing many of the tax breaks for large corporations and the wealthy included in the 2017 Republican tax bill, which cost Americans nearly $2 trillion. These policies will help to raise revenue by ensuring corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.
What changes would you like to see made to our nation’s healthcare system? Would you shore up the Affordable Care Act or work to repeal it in full? What’s your view on Medicare for All? And what should be done, if anything, to bring down the cost of prescription drugs?
My vote for the Affordable Care Act was one of the most important votes of my career. It cut our state’s uninsured rate in half, provided peace of mind to millions of Illinoisans with a pre-existing condition by ending discriminatory insurance practices, and helped seniors by lowering prescription drug costs and extending the solvency of Medicare. We should build upon its historic expansion of health care and protections for pre-existing conditions to ensure universal coverage and lower costs for all Americans. And while we should test strategies to further those gains—such as allowing more people to buy into Medicare or expanding a public insurance option—which may lead us toward a Medicare-for-all system, we must do everything within our power to defend the ACA, not tear it down as my Republican colleagues have been trying to do for the past ten years. That means improving federal assistance to help make health insurance more affordable for working families, expanding Medicaid in all states, allowing all individuals the option of purchasing a private or public health insurance plan, ensuring better availability of dental and mental health care, and reducing the cost of prescription drugs.
To reduce the high costs of health care, we must address high prescription drug costs. I have introduced legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices on behalf of the seniors they serve, cracking down on the abusive patent and monopoly practices used by the pharmaceutical industry to stifle competition, allowing the safe importation of cheaper drugs from countries like Canada, protecting patients from unreasonably high out-of-pocket costs, requiring drug companies to disclose the prices of their drugs to the public, including in their ads, and imposing stiff penalties on companies that unjustifiably and dramatically increase the price of their drugs year after year.
Do you support or oppose DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and why? Should a path to citizenship be created for the so-called DREAMers? Please explain.
I am the author and lead Democratic sponsor of the Dream Act, bipartisan legislation that would provide a path to citizenship to Dreamers, young immigrants who came to the United States as children. I co-authored comprehensive immigration reform legislation, including the Dream Act, which passed the Senate when Democrats were last in the majority. Unfortunately, Republican leadership in the House of Representatives blocked this bill. Last year, the House, now under Democratic leadership, passed the Dream and Promise Act, which includes the Dream Act, with a strong bipartisan vote. I have tried to pass this bill in the Senate, but Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly blocked it.
I joined with then-Republican Senator Dick Lugar, who was the lead Republican cosponsor of the Dream Act at that time, as the first members of Congress to call on President Obama to use his legal authority to protect Dreamers from deportation. President Obama responded by creating DACA, which provides temporary protection from deportation to Dreamers if they register with the government, pay a fee, and pass criminal and national security background checks. More than 800,000 Dreamers came forward and received DACA protection, including more than 200,000 essential workers and 41,000 health care workers who are the frontlines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, the Supreme Court held that President Trump’s effort to repeal DACA was illegal. However, the President has so far refused to comply with this ruling by reopening DACA for new applicants.
As long as I serve in the Senate, I will keep fighting to ensure that Dreamers, who have so much to contribute to our nation, are protected from deportation and have a path to becoming American citizens.
What are the three most important issues in your district on which the federal government can and should act?
- Ensuring families have access to quality, affordable health care has never been more important, especially as we face a once-in-a-century public health crisis and pandemic. We need to develop and implement a national strategy to increase testing, personal protective equipment, and contact tracing. We should target resources to those communities hardest hit by the pandemic, of which many are communities of color that were already feeling the impacts of health disparities due to systemic racism in our health care system. While the Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect, we must defend the law from Republican efforts to attack and weaken its protections, including protections for those with pre-existing conditions. But we also must build on the ACA by bringing down the cost of prescription drug prices and creating a public option to further reduce health care costs.
- Due to the pandemic, millions of families are struggling and economic experts tell us this recession is likely to have a long tail, meaning we should not expect a quick recovery. To avoid devastating consequences for millions of families we need to provide the financial assistance they need to put food on the table, keep a roof over their head, and access vital health care services. We must also support the millions of frontline health care and other essential workers who help keep us safe. That is why I’m fighting for an extension of enhanced unemployment benefits, an extension of the ban on evictions, another direct cash payment for families, hazard pay for frontline workers, and support for small businesses struggling to stay afloat.
- We can and must do something about gun violence. The best place to start is by immediately enacting commonsense gun safety laws that will save lives. More than 2,000 people have been shot in Chicago this year. The city is awash in guns from Northern Indiana. We need to expand background checks and to close the gun show loophole. And we must address the root caucus of gun violence by reversing the decades of underinvestment in the communities hardest hit by gun violence, poverty, and the lack of opportunity.
What is the biggest difference between you and your opponent(s)?
There are three issues where there are clear distinctions between myself and my two opponents: health care, COVID-19, and who should be President of the United States. When it comes to ensuring access to affordable, quality health care to everyone, I’ve been a clear defender of the Affordable Care Act as well as proposing new solutions to expand and improve on the legislation. When it comes to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19, I’ve fought to increase resources for personal protective equipment for frontline and health care workers, increase testing capacity, increase funding for hospitals and other health care providers, provide relief to families through stimulus payments and expanded unemployment insurance, provide assistance for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program, and provide funding for state and local governments struggling due to reduced tax revenue. In a clear distinction from my opponents, I have supported the State of Illinois’ pragmatic and responsible approach to protecting Illinoisians and safely reopening the state only when benchmarks based on science and public health guidance were met.
Mark Curran called for the reopening of the state back in May, and in March he even questioned whether the state and national response to the pandemic “had gone too far.” In May, Dr. Wilson said we should reopen churches immediately, one of the most irresponsible actions we could have taken at the time. Both opponents seemingly do not understand the gravity or seriousness of the situation we’re all facing.
And lastly, one of the clearest distinctions between myself and my opponents is I have not and do not support Donald Trump.
What action should Congress take, if any, to reduce gun violence?
I am a cosponsor of commonsense gun safety reform legislation that would reduce gun violence by closing gaps in the gun background check system, banning assault weapons from civilian use on our streets, cracking down on illicit gun trafficking and straw purchasing, ensuring that gun dealer inventories are secured against smash-and-grab burglaries, and supporting federal research into firearm-related violence. Reforms like these would help reduce deadly shootings and make our communities safer.
In addition, we must address the root causes of gun violence. In 2018, I convened the 10 largest hospitals serving Chicago. The result is the hospital-led, Chicago HEAL Initiative, which is a three-year project to make a measurable difference in the well-being of Chicago’s residents and specifically in 18 of Chicago’s neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence, poverty, and inequality. Recognizing their roles as the leading employers, the hospitals have made 16 tangible commitments on action—outside of their traditional health care roles—to uplift their communities, including through local hiring and procurement, job training and mentorship, housing, and mental health activities. I am proud to be part of this effort that has already made a real difference in these communities.
Is climate change real? Is it significantly man-made? Is it a threat to humankind? What if anything should Congress and the federal government do about it?
Climate change is real, it is significantly man-made, primarily due to the build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels. Unless we act soon, the entire world will experience dire effects from the changing climate, which will continue to hit vulnerable populations hardest. Congress and the federal government need to implement a significant, comprehensive clean electricity and transportation plan to reduce carbon emissions through a combination of regulations and investments to help transition the U.S. to a clean energy economy.
I have introduced legislation to establish an independent agency that would stimulate growth and create jobs by making significant investments in clean energy projects and projects that critically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The bill would also ensure a fair transition for those who work in fossil fuel sector jobs and those already facing the impacts of climate change. This bill would provide payments to low to middle-income American taxpayers to help with energy costs and to farmers and facilities that verifiably capture or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When the economy is no longer in economic turmoil, these investments would be funded by a carbon fee that will help us reach the goal of a zero carbon emission economy.
What should Congress do to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare?
The critical Social Security and Medicare programs reflect our values, the hard work of Americans, and are part of a commitment we make to protect seniors and the most vulnerable among us. For years, Republicans in Congress have sought to cut our safety net by gutting funding, limiting benefits, and constricting eligibility—and the most recent Republican tax cut and ACA repeal efforts targeted the solvency of Medicare. I am committed to ensuring that we meet the pledge we have made to generations of Americans. On Medicare, Congress should enact drug pricing reforms to address the egregious profiteering that drug companies make at the expense of seniors and taxpayers while continuing the transition toward a more value-based health care system, which will both improve outcomes and lower costs. The reality is that, without any action, Social Security will be unable to fulfill its promise to its beneficiaries in 14 years—and delaying action on these difficult decisions will only make changes more disruptive. I support a fair and comprehensive approach to improve the adequacy of benefits, especially for our most vulnerable, while ensuring the long-term stability of benefits for current and future retirees.
What should Congress do to address the student loan crisis? Would you use the word “crisis”?
Forty million Americans with a cumulative $1.5 trillion in student loan debt—more than cumulative credit card debt—is a crisis. It threatens the financial well-being of an entire generation and the future economic growth of our country. It’s past time for Congress to act. We can start by passing the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act to allow student loan borrowers to refinance their loans to take advantage of today’s low interest rates. Next, we should pass the Protect Student Borrowers Act to give colleges skin in the game when it comes to their students’ ability to repay their loans after graduating. In addition, we should pass the PROTECT Students Act to improve student consumer protections and hold schools accountable—especially for-profit colleges which enroll just 8% of all postsecondary students but account for 33% of all federal student loan defaults. And, we should pass the Student Borrower Bankruptcy Relief Act to give borrowers the ability—as a last resort—to have their student debt discharged in bankruptcy like almost every other privately held debt in America. Finally, Congress should take up the Student Loan Borrower Bill of Rights to improve student loan servicing and make the process of repaying student loans simpler and easier to navigate for borrowers.
What should our nation’s relationship be with Russia?
The United States has many shared concerns with Russia, including nuclear proliferation, climate change, extremist groups, and failed states. Where possible, we should try to work together on these common and often planetary needs. However, Russia’s malevolent activities against our democracy and that of our allies, as well as breaches of international norms, must not go unchallenged, including recent reports that it offered bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan and continues to try and interfere in our elections. Similarly, Russian meddling in other countries, including the military occupation of eastern Ukraine, and its own tragic domestic backsliding on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law must also be at the forefront of our relationship.
What’s your view on the use of tariffs in international commerce? Has President Trump imposed tariffs properly and effectively? Please explain.
I strongly support robust enforcement of U.S. trade laws, including countervailing duty and anti-dumping investigations, to protect domestic manufacturers. However, we must take a targeted, thoughtful approach with tariffs and work with our allies to address unfair trade practices from bad actors such as China. Unfortunately, the President has taken a haphazard, reckless approach that has raised prices on Americans and harmed Illinois farmers and businesses.
Does the United States have a responsibility to promote democracy in other countries? Please explain.
The support of democracy and human rights around the world has been a core value and source of international strength, respect and inspiration. While in the Senate, I have regularly advocated for the release of political prisoners in autocratic nations, and without fail, when given a chance to meet later, these brave people have mentioned the importance of America’s voice on these matters. As such, we should continue to make sure these core American values are at the forefront of our international diplomacy and actions. That the Trump administration has cozied up to some of the world’s worst autocrats has given them license to repress their own people further.
What should Congress do to limit the proliferation of nuclear arms?
We must continue to work with our key allies to halt and reverse the dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons, as the Obama administration successfully did with the Iran nuclear agreement (in which even Russia and China joined in the final agreement). We should also work to renew key nuclear treaties such as the New Start agreement, which will expire in the new year. North Korea continues to be another dangerous proliferator, and we must use all diplomatic and economic leverage to contain and reverse this dangerous nation’s nuclear ambitions.
Please list all relatives on public or campaign payrolls and their jobs on those payrolls.
I do not have any relatives on my public or campaign payrolls.
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 was fortunate enough to intern for Senator Paul Douglas, one of the greatest men ever to serve the State of Illinois in the United States Senate. I was an intern holding papers for Senator Douglas to sign. Along with being a World War II veteran and economist, he was famously known as the conscience of the Senate. He fought for transparency, ethics, and civil rights from the moment the people of Illinois sent him to Washington, D.C. He answered Hubert Humphrey’s call for civil rights as a senator, defying filibusters and the wrath of his colleagues in the 1950s and 1960s. Paul Douglas is the role model for being a senator. Today, it just makes sense that there’s an award for ethics in government named after Paul Douglas. In 2017, John Lewis was awarded it. The best people in government earn it. In times like these, all of us in government should want to be like Paul Douglas.
What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
All of Ken Burns’ documentaries with a tie between the Civil War and Baseball as my favorite. And of course, Seinfeld.
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