Running for: State Representative, 17th District
Political party affiliation: Democratic
Political/civic background: Previous to the General Assembly – Director of the Immigration Law Practice, North Suburban Legal Aid Clinic; Board Member, Heartland Alliance; Pro Bono Attorney, National Immigrant Justice Center; Founding member, Co-Chair Illinois Unaccompanied Children’s Task Force; Board Member, Glenview Education Foundation.
Occupation: Full-time legislator, State Representative, 17th District
Education: LLM, Masters with Honors in International Human Rights Law, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law; JD, Law Degree with Honors, Loyola University Chicago School of Law; BA in Journalism, Indiana University
Campaign website: jenggforrep.com
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent nominees 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. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz submitted the following responses:
The COVID-19 pandemic has hammered the finances of Illinois. The state is staring at a $6.2 billion budget shortfall in this fiscal year. What should be done? Please be specific.
Illinois has a structural deficit that has perpetuated financial crisis management for decades. Prior to FY20, for the previous two decades, ILGA has cut spending for higher education by 52%, health care by 23.2%, human services by 25.9% and public safety by 25.8%. This decimated our higher education system, a major engine of our economy, and underfunded K-12 education which led to ever-increasing property taxes. Cuts to state agencies and human services meant eliminating programs like Meals on Wheels for seniors. This further destabilized our state finances and quality of life for Illinoisans. By contrast, states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, who possess graduated income tax structures, recovered from the Great Recession much more quickly without an outmigration.
I support utilizing any additional revenue from a graduated tax to do two things: (1) decrease unfunded pension liability that is a perpetual drain on the state budget, (2) increase K-12 education funding.
We also need to look at closing corporate loopholes that allow companies with sophisticated accountants and tax attorneys to avoid paying their fair share.
I support closing two corporate tax loopholes that would generate nearly $450 million in new revenue annually for Illinois. This is approximately 22% of the $1.9 billion deficit.
I co-sponsored two bills filed in 2019 session to close corporate tax loopholes. SB 1115/HB 2085, Closing Offshore Tax Loopholes, and SB 1132/ HB 2079, Retailers Discount. The first bill would tax profits held in offshore tax havens. The second bill would cap the amount of sales tax retailers can keep when collecting sales tax for the state. Senate Bill 1115/HB 2085 cracks down on corporations shifting their profits to offshore tax havens. This legislation allows businesses to continue using the current reporting requirements but eliminates their ability to deduct 100 percent of their dividends from foreign subsidiaries.
What grade — “A” to “F” — would you give Gov. J.B. Pritzker for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic? Please explain. What, if anything, should he have done differently?
I’d give Governor Pritzker an A. In the face of a complete lack of leadership and inept support from the federal government, the Governor has done an admirable job communicating with constituents and elected officials, taking necessary but sometimes unpopular steps to stem transmission of the virus, and working with small business to mitigate economic damage as much as possible. Illinois was the only state to meet CDC benchmarks to safely reopen and has based its response on science, not politics.
In the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, legislatures in some states have taken up the issue of police reform. Should Illinois do the same? If so, what would that look like?
Simply, but emphatically: YES. I stand with my colleagues in the Black Caucus to address systemic racism and anti-blackness in Illinois. This includes demanding greater police accountability, which is why I support HB 4999, which would make any police officer convicted of a felony ineligible to receive future pension benefits. I also support HB 3926, which would require a special prosecutor whenever there is a death involving law enforcement.
I also support ending qualified immunity for police officers and giving the Attorney General authority to investigate police misconduct.
Should the Legislature pass a law requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras? Why or why not?
Currently, the Illinois Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Body Camera Act imposes guidelines for local law enforcement bodies regarding body cameras. I would support legislation strengthening those guidelines into requirements. In Chicago, police are already required to wear body cameras as part of the consent decree.
Body cameras provide a host of benefits, including providing impartial evidence to settle disputes, allegations of misconduct, and other issues. It increases accountability and transparency for both the officer and the residents they interact with.
However, body cameras are not a panacea for all policing issues. Increased training on de-escalation, increased resources for mental health professionals and others to respond to situations in which an armed law enforcement officer may not be the best solution to resolve an issue.
Federal prosecutors have revealed a comprehensive scheme of bribery, ghost jobs and favoritism in subcontracting by ComEd to influence the actions of House Speaker Michael Madigan. Who’s to blame? What ethics reforms should follow? Should Madigan resign?
It has become painfully clear that it is time for new leadership in both the Illinois General Assembly and the Democratic Party of Illinois. I have publicly called on Speaker Madigan to step down from his position as Speaker of the House and Chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois.
Criminal investigations documenting corruption at the highest levels have created a crisis of confidence and undermined the integrity and public trust that leadership demands. If we are to move our state forward, Speaker Madigan must not continue to serve in the role of Speaker of the House or as Chair of the Illinois Democratic Party.
I understand and agree with many of my colleagues’ concerns about due process. I fully support due process for Speaker Madigan and anyone else with respect to ongoing criminal investigations. However, whether someone should retain leadership positions in the General Assembly and the Illinois Democratic Party is a question of moral, ethical, and personal judgement, not criminal process. Leadership is a privilege, and we must hold our leaders to a higher standard.
We are confronting one of the most consequential moments of our time. In the months ahead, we must address unprecedented challenges to public health and our economy amid a pandemic that has exposed systemic inequalities and a dangerously shallow safety net. We face a climate crisis with no time to waste. In this moment, we cannot afford distractions, doubt or distrust to hang over our work in the General Assembly.
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.
I am proud of the accomplishments of the 101st General Assembly. We fought for, and passed, the Reproductive Health Act, Equal Pay – No Salary History, Tobacco 21, an increased minimum wage, and important capital infrastructure bills. I introduced and passed three bills, HB836, HB1553 and SB1429, that are now laws providing humanitarian protections for immigrant children and access to justice for all immigrants residing in Illinois.
In addition, I have spent a great deal of time assisting constituents suffering from the economic and health impacts of the COVID pandemic, linking small business owners with loan options, helping seniors and low-income families access health care, and assisting with accessing unemployment benefits.
We also participated in the Good Neighbor Program, wherein my staff and volunteers made thousands of phone calls to at-risk constituents to check in and make them aware of services and programs available to them, including food and prescription drug options.
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. Rising Healthcare Costs:
o I co-sponsored legislation to create rate review to crack down on insurance companies overcharging consumers. We have seen an astronomical increase in calls from constituents losing healthcare due to lost jobs as the result of the COVID pandemic. This highlights the need to provide greater protections for consumers and patients, especially during these dire times.
2. Quality, Affordable Childcare:
o The COVID pandemic has highlighted the need for affordable, high-quality childcare for working parents. I serve on the House Democratic Women’s Caucus working group on childcare to craft legislation geared towards providing increased access to paid family/medical leave and increased access to unpaid leave. I strongly support the Childcare Restoration Grant program.
3. Lack of Affordable Housing:
o I support proposals including establishing a new property tax incentive for affordable rental homes that will encourage investment in residential rental properties in higher- and lower-cost markets. Eligible buildings would have seven or more units that are new construction or would undertake qualifying rehabilitation and keep a portion of the rental units affordable.
o I also support Illinois joining nearly two dozen other states in establishing a state Low Income Housing Tax Credit. The existing federal version of the credit is very successful and extremely oversubscribed. A supplemental state credit would enable Illinois to build thousands more homes each year, providing housing to vulnerable populations, stimulating millions of dollars in private investment, and sustaining thousands of jobs in the construction trades.
What are your other top legislative priorities?
As an immigration attorney, I have seen firsthand the struggles and hardships that so many face trying to build a life in the United States. In a time where asylum-seekers are detained in cages, when immigrants from all walks of life are demonized, and federal agents are dispatched en masse to seek out and detain undocumented families, our state needs to step forward and protect immigrants—our neighbors, our coworkers, and our families.
I also see a dire need to address the impacts of systemic racism in our communities. This includes police and criminal justice reform, bail reform, and real investments in disproportionately impacted communities—in the form of education, community development, and other needed programs.
What is your position on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax? Please explain.
I voted to put it on the ballot because I believe that Illinoisans deserve a voice in Illinois’ income tax structure. Our current flat tax has been in place since Illinois instituted a state income tax in 1969, and I believe voters should make the final decision about whether or not to modernize our tax code.
Illinois continues to struggle financially, with a backlog of unpaid bills. 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 outlined above, taking a comprehensive look at current corporate tax loopholes and closing as many as possible is a positive first step. In addition, we need to take a look at the function of state government itself—Central Management Services, for example, is a largely redundant department that costs taxpayers a great deal of money.
Should Illinois consider taxing the retirement incomes of its very wealthiest residents, as most states do? And your argument is?
I oppose taxing retirement income on most retirees, considering the overwhelming majority do not receive lavish benefits and worked hard to earn what they do receive.
What can Illinois do to improve its elementary and high schools?
Students’ zip codes shouldn’t determine the quality of their education. Equitable and adequate school funding are mechanisms for helping to close achievement gaps between low-income students and their wealthier peers and for helping all students reach their potential. Illinois enacted a new funding formula in 2017 (EBF), but due to pandemic revenue loss, we held education funding flat to FY20 leaving no additional money to flow through tiers.
As a state, we must commit to fully funding EBF with any additional revenue from graduated income tax, other sources of new revenue like cannabis, or cost savings from increased efficiency.
Unfortunately, we already face a teacher shortage in Illinois. To recruit and retain talent in teaching, we must support teachers’ success through professional development and professional salaries and benefits. That’s why I supported a $40k minimum teacher’s salary in Illinois.
To further combat this, we must strengthen educator preparation programs, create evaluation systems that provide actionable feedback, provide more targeted professional development, and consider rewarding top educators with leadership opportunities and other incentives, including tuition assistance for college students committed to teaching in Illinois public schools.
Mass shootings and gun violence plague America. What can or should the Legislature do, if anything, to address this problem in Illinois?
I support legislation that would decrease guns on our streets, including the Fix the FOID Act, as well as a piece of legislation I introduced last year that would require firearm owners to carry liability insurance, similar to the way drivers are required to carry liability insurance. This not only creates a pool of funds from which victims can draw, but also creates market-based incentives for responsible firearm ownership and storage.
We also must close the gun show loophole that allows unlicensed dealers to sell firearms without a background check.
Do you favor or oppose term limits for any elected official in Illinois? Please explain.
I oppose term limits for legislative seats themselves because I believe that voters should be able to choose the elected official they wish. However, I favor term limits for legislative leadership. These positions are not voted on directly by the people of Illinois, but by politicians. It creates a dangerous situation in which one individual can amass an obscene amount of power and control, which is bad for democracy and for our state.
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?
I support redistricting reform, both in Illinois and at the federal level. In terms of federal representation, any change should happen on a nationwide level to equalize the playing field for all parties.
In Illinois, I believe we need redistricting reform at the state level as well. Since my first race, I have always been a staunch supporter of the idea that a voter should choose their elected officials, not the other way around.
There are several competing proposals to accomplish this. Some have already proven unconstitutional, and I believe more work needs to be done to ensure a truly nonpartisan process, rather than simply shift the responsibility to a committee appointed by politicians.
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 support much more stringent ethics laws than currently exist. First, I believe that there needs to be a clear separation between party leadership and legislative leadership, and support legislation that would require those positions not be held by the same person. Second, I believe that the legislature needs to be held to far stricter legal oversight and investigative authority by nonpartisan bodies. The corruption being investigated is already illegal, but we lack effective investigative and enforcement mechanisms to prevent and punish this sort of behavior.
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?
The sheer scale and scope of data being collected on individuals is staggering, and the vast majority of consumers are unaware of the actual impact. Unfortunately, the federal government has not acted effectively on this issue, so it falls on states to create safeguards for consumers.
I support legislation including the Geolocation Privacy Act, the Protecting Household Privacy Act, and will fight to protect and maintain the Biometric Information Privacy Act, which is among the strongest in the nation.
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?
This is largely a funding issue. During the Rauner administration, cuts in MAP grants and other sources of higher education funding for students were devastating. Higher education also serves as an economic driver in Illinois. Most students will build a life for themselves in the same area they attend college and our students going out-of-state creates a damaging “brain drain.” While I support an increase in MAP and RISE grants, we struggled to keep funding flat this year. After two decades of cuts, flat funding is a small win, but we need to do better.
What is your top legislative priority with respect to the environment?
It’s hard to specify just one—there are so many pieces of important environmental legislation proposed, all of which would have a major positive impact on Illinois’ environmental health. I support legislation that would reduce single use plastics, ban dangerous chemicals including polystyrene, and introduced HB4888, the Drug Take-Back Act, which would reduce the amount of prescription drugs in our water supply and on the black market. I am also a co-sponsor 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.
Jane Addams 1860 – 1935. Born in Cedarville, Illinois in 1860, Jane Addams founded Hull-House on Chicago’s Near West Side in 1889. Addams was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her groundbreaking work as a social reformer, peace activist and feminist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hull-House provided social services for the immigrant and poor population living in the Chicago area and launched a powerful reform movement that helped establish the Immigrants’ Protective League, the Juvenile Protective Association, the first juvenile court in the nation, and a Juvenile Psychopathic Clinic (later called the Institute for Juvenile Research).
Through her efforts along with a cohort of trailblazing women, the Illinois Legislature enacted protective legislation for women and children in 1893. Jane Addams personified courage. She challenged the traditional expectations and boundaries established for women of her time paving the way for the next generation to achieve our full potential. I continue to be inspired by her life and the bar that she set for what it means to make a difference.
What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
Schitt’s Creek. On its face, the show is about a formerly ultraweathly, fish-out-of-water family living in a small town. At first, the Roses appear devoid of substance but are nonetheless accidently charming and hilarious in their aversion to sentiment and disdain for regularity. Season after season, the layers are peeled back revealing pain, vulnerability and substance. We watch the characters evolve, fall in love and become almost comfortable with public displays of affection and empathy. By the final season, we know them.
Schitt’s Creek is a reminder that people are complex and almost never as they seem at first glance. It is also a reminder that, underneath it all, what we all desire most is to be loved and accepted for who we are. The show also highlights the necessity for empathy.