Running for: State Representative, 18th District
Political party affiliation: Democrat
Political/civic background: Early in my career, I participated in successful campaigns in the Chicago area fighting for equity in representation in government for Black and Latinx communities. Also, my participation in the women’s movement of the 1970’s and 80’s brought about an increase in equity in society and gave women more control over their own reproduction.
For over 20 years, I was the Executive Director of a health policy organization that brought together health organizations throughout the state to successfully influence policy and legislation to improve the health of women, children and families. I also served on the Board of the Illinois Campaign for Better Healthcare to increase access to healthcare for thousands of Illinois families.
For the past 10 years, I have been the Illinois State Representative for the 18th district passing legislation to improve the environment, healthcare and social services, the rights of women and juveniles, and voting protections for the people of Illinois.
Occupation: Full-time legislator
Education: B.A. - Beloit College; M.S.P.H - University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health; M.J. in Health Law - Loyola University Law School
Campaign website: robynforrep.com
Facebook: Robyn Gabel for State Representative
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. Robyn Gabel submitted the following responses:
1. 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.
The Governor presented his FY 21 budget in February but by May when we met to pass the budget, there was a 17% drop in revenue. As individuals and the economy were suffering a severe financial blow due to Covid-19, the General Assembly decided that it was not a time to cut the budget but rather keep it stable at last year’s levels. With the Fair Tax amendment on the ballot in November potentially bringing in another $3 billion annually and the federal government considering another stimulus for state governments, a decision was made to accept the offer by the Federal Reserve to be allowed to borrow up to $6 billion until the situation stabilized. At this time, the state has not had to borrow any of the funds.
I have worked very hard to repair the years of fiscal instability caused by the 2008 recession and exacerbated by the Rauner budget impasse. The best way to move our state forward fiscally is for those most able to pay to do so by passing the Fair Tax amendment this Fall.
2. 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?
Governor Pritzker deserves an A- for his stalwart leadership and insistence on following science and data during this pandemic. He appeared daily at press conferences for months and was willing to answer any and all questions posed to him, maintaining calm and control. Illinois was able to handle all the hospitalizations and did not run out of ICU beds or ventilators. I am particularly impressed with the staff that he has brought onto his team who help manage this crisis with him, from his Chief of Staff Anne Caprara to the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health Dr. Ngozi Ezike. Countless lives have been saved by their smart policies and willingness to make tough decisions.
My only complaint, and it is a serious one, is that the Illinois Department of Employment Security has failed too many of our constituents. While it is fair to note there has never in the history of the department been as acute a crisis as this, more attention could have been paid to the multiple problems faced by the Department and the people seeking the relief that should have been available to them. However, there were tens of thousands of people who were helped and received funds that allowed them to pay their rent and put food on the table. Hence, the A-.
3. 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?
Absolutely. The Illinois legislature must take up the issue of police reform. Illinois will only progress when we have a more fair and just criminal justice system which recognizes that systemic racism exists and that we have a responsibility to eradicate it for future generations. The changes will include updating our state’s body camera law, effectively spending police department resources and ensuring force is used by officers appropriately. I would also like it to include statewide standards for police accountability particularly for police with serious misconduct.
Over the past few years, I have carried legislation to end the pre-trial detention of children under the age of 13 years old, especially since it is already not allowed for children who are convicted. This year, it should be part of the criminal justice reform legislation.
Systemic racism affects not only our criminal justice system, it permeates our health care system and economic systems as has been illuminated by the inequity and disparities of the effect of COVID-19 on the Brown and Black people in our state.
The Legislative Black Caucus is providing leadership on addressing racial justice and will be introducing legislation related to four pillars: 1) criminal justice reform, violence reduction and police accountability, 2) health care and human services, 3) economic access, equity and opportunity, and 4) education and workforce development. I will be working with them to pass this important legislation.
4. Should the Legislature pass a law requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras? Why or why not?
In 2015, I voted for the Police and Community Relations Improvement Act, which made Illinois the largest state in the country, at the time, to have statewide protocols for body cameras. Then and now, the deployment of cameras is a matter of resources but the use of cameras could help to offset the costs departments are seeing by having to settle litigation involving law enforcement.
The use of body cameras not only deter police from violating protocols, it also may serve as an accurate depiction of what occurred during an altercation and avoid the spread of misinformation.
5. 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?
As a member of the Legislative Progressive Caucus, I put out a statement about this allegation. Here is the statement:
“On Friday, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois released the deferred prosecution agreement it has reached with ComEd. The behavior alleged in this document is an unacceptable breach of the public trust. If these allegations are true, Speaker Madigan and any other elected official involved in this scheme must resign from public service.
We founded the Progressive Caucus because we believe that government can be, and must be, a force for fairness and justice in people’s lives. This kind of behavior is exactly why so many Illinoisans have lost faith in that notion. We deserve better and we must demand better.”
6. 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.
Each year, constituents bring me important ideas and issues for legislation that I file and pass. Over the years, through legislation, I have improved the process for removing corrupt or incompetent medical doctors, passed a bill to increase trampoline court safety, protected seniors from financial fraud, created a fine for parking a non electric vehicle in an electric vehicle spot, began a pilot program for parenting education in high schools and initiated a firefighters apprenticeship program to increase minority participation.
As state funds became available through the capital bill, I brought back capital investments for projects in the district including funds for a new women’s homeless shelter, Northlight theater, Evanston/Northshore YWCA, Robert Crown Community Center, Evanston History Center and the Winnetka stormwater regional project.
7. 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 issue of utmost concern to almost everyone in the district is the need to address climate change and its effects on the environment. The reduction of carbon and the increase of renewable energy is of great importance to the district.
Being a lakefront community, erosion of our beaches is another specific concern to the district. We have seen a number of our beaches completely disappear over the last few years, including our beloved dog beach.
Institutional racism and its effect on the economic well-being of Black people is of concern in the district. The Evanston city council voted to provide reparations to Black families who were discriminated against through red lining and other policies that were in existence through the 1960’s. Initial funding will come from Cannabis sales but state policies could provide additional assistance.
8. What are your other top legislative priorities?
My top legislative priority is the Clean Energy Jobs Act or comprehensive energy policy legislation. If we do not act now on behalf of our climate we will not have a future to live in.
I have been working on juvenile justice reform for a number of years and it remains a primary issue. Ending pretrial incarceration of children under the age of 13 is a priority for me. One day in detention creates profound trauma and negative life long consequences for a child. The Governor intends to transform the Department of Juvenile Justice away from a prison based model towards a community based close-to-home model and I fully support him.
We need to prioritize women’s health, particularly Black maternal health in Illinois. The United States has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the developed world. It is the only developed country where the maternal mortality rate is rising. In Illinois, there are significant racial and ethnic disparities and there are a myriad of improvements in health care and social services that are needed to reduce the maternal/infant mortality rate in Illinois.
The effect of the decimation of our public health departments has been dramatically felt with the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Rebuilding this most vital sector is a top priority.
9. What is your position on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax? Please explain.
I support the constitutional amendment to allow for a graduated rate income tax. The flat tax that was part of the 1970 Illinois constitution came at a time when the country was experiencing a continual rise in income equity since the 1940’s. Little did they know that they were at the peak of income equality and since that time, the disparity has increased. From 1970 to 2010 in Chicago, census tracts for very low income families have increased from 17% to 46%, 53% of census tracts have declined in income greater than 20% and very high income tracts grew from 3% to 15%. More of the wealth in this state is going to fewer people, yet a flat tax treats all income brackets the same.
Seventy-five percent of states that have a state income tax have a graduated rate as does our federal tax structure. The proposed model will increase taxes for only 3% of the population who earn over $250,000 a year (97% will stay the same or see a decrease) and provide $3 billion in much needed revenue to the state.
10. 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?
The COVID-19 pandemic exasperated an already tenuous recovery of state finances. We must be vigilant regarding our state’s fiscal recovery plan. The Fair Tax is the most effective and reasonable way to help our state budget. Closing corporate loopholes could provide additional state dollars as well. Budget cuts were enacted over the last 10 years that decimated our schools of higher education and some social services. Illinois has one of the lowest ratios of state employees to population and we have seen how this has detrimentally affected our ability in the Department of Professional Regulation (long waiting times for licenses) and the Department of Employment Security (processing unemployment claims). Creating a tax structure that can grow with our economy is critical to the fiscal health of this state.
11. Should Illinois consider taxing the retirement incomes of its very wealthiest residents, as most states do? And your argument is?
Most retirees have incomes under $50,000 and have worked hard their entire lives. They need security and should be able to live their lives without fear of losing their income. At this time I do not support taxing retirement income.
12. What can Illinois do to improve its elementary and high schools?
We need to fairly and fully fund public education in Illinois. A healthy and equitable public school system will raise the social and economic fortune of our state as a whole. We made progress on this issue when we had a major reform of the school funding formula so that each year it improves the funding for our schools that have the highest need. Passing the Fair Tax ballot initiative, which voters will have their say on this November, is essential to meeting these evidence-based funding levels.
13. Mass shootings and gun violence plague America. What can or should the Legislature do, if anything, to address this problem in Illinois?
We must stand against gun violence, and we must continue to address it at a state level until national gun safety laws can be passed. New state laws require gun dealers to secure the identity of individuals purchasing guns to prevent people from buying them for known felons.
I am proud of the work I have done to pass Illinois’s red flag law, which allows the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves. I would like to see this law more consistently enforced, as I believe it can prevent a significant amount of the gun violence we see in Illinois. We also need to reform the FOID licensing process to make it more secure and efficient.
An often overlooked piece of the conversation around gun violence, and one I would like to advance, is protections and support for survivors. I have seen the trauma and devastation left in our community in the wake of gun violence and am working on important legislation to help minimize the fallout.
14. Do you favor or oppose term limits for any elected official in Illinois? Please explain.
I am in favor of term limits for leadership, such as Speaker of the House and Senate President to ensure that power can’t be consolidated into the hands of a few. Based on my review of the literature, I do not support term limits in general. Studies show that term limits for rank and file elected officials leaves too much power without transparency or accountability to staff and lobbyists. Term limits does not increase the elected official’s time spent with constituents nor does it reduce the time spent on fundraising. In the Illinois General Assembly, the average length of stay is 8 years. I believe that the best term limit is an election, if an elected official doesn’t represent the views and interests of a majority of their district they will not be re-elected.
15. 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 deeply and personally believe in assuring that every vote counts and every eligible person votes. Since the push for mail in voting in the 1980’s and deputy registrars to register people to vote in the community, I have been active on this issue. I have signed on to numerous “fair map” amendments during my time in Springfield and am encouraged by reports that name Illinois as a top tier example of equitable representation. Minority representation must be protected in any map. The most ideal scenario is that a non-partisan process is mandated at the federal level so it is consistent across all states.
16. 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 voted for the establishment of the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform. To assist them in their deliberations, I worked with a group of legislators to identify nine specific measures that will have an immediate impact on good government in Springfield. These are: a prohibition on legislators as lobbyists, stopping the legislator to lobbyist revolving door, a more accurate description of lobbying to include “consulting” or any other legal fiction, more full disclosure of outside income, establishing a censure process, strengthening the oversight of the Legislative Inspector General, ending the exemption of legislators in the Illinois Human Rights Act, establishing term limits for Legislative Leadership positions, and establishing a clear and consistent process for removing leadership and committee chairs for wrongdoing.
17. 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?
Illinois’s Biometric Information Privacy Act is one of the strongest data privacy statutes in the nation and I was proud to vote for it. The settlement with Facebook over facial recognition privacy violations is a recent example of its efficacy. This law can and should be used as a model for other states. We also passed a law last spring ensuring genetic information, such as that collected from testing kits such as 23 and Me, cannot be disclosed to insurance companies without consumer permission.
However, I am concerned about the pace of government regulation keeping up with developing technology, especially in terms of Big Data. I support legislation requiring notification to users when their geolocation is being tracked, as well as overseeing how “smart” devices are collecting and storing data. I also believe that we legislators should be forming task forces to examine cybersecurity issues and proactively enact further protective measures.
18. 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?
A renewed emphasis on our state-funded higher education system from the legislature will go a long way. We need to make sure that our state universities are doing boundary-pushing research and are attracting students with passion for their studies.
We have been working to widen the pool of applicants so that as many students as possible have opportunities for higher education. College should be accessible to first generation, lower income, and returning students.
19. What is your top legislative priority with respect to the environment?
We need a statewide comprehensive energy plan and we need to prioritize equity and environmental justice in all environmental legislation. The Clean Energy Jobs Act has developed goals that include: putting consumers and communities first, 100% renewable energy by 2050, carbon free electric sector by 2030, electrify the transportation sector and create high quality jobs in this new sector. Passing a comprehensive climate plan is my top legislative priority. The Governor is initiating working groups to identify legislation in different areas. I am a member of the electrification group.
As Chair of the Illinois Legislative Green Caucus I am proud to continue to work with colleagues to make our economy as green and healthy as it can be. Other areas of legislation include reducing plastic waste, protecting the waters from chemicals including pharmaceuticals, and protecting our wetlands, flora and fauna.
20. 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.
Because it is the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment passing I have been re-reading about the suffragist movement in Illinois. I have always admired Ida B. Wells for her work on civil rights and suffrage. Recently, I have drawn inspiration from Grace Wilbour Trout from Oak Park, IL. Grace, with Frances WIllard from Evanston, worked the legislature in an intentional and highly strategic way and was instrumental in passing the “Illinois Law’ to allow partial suffrage for women in local and national elections. I appreciate her strategic skills and perseverance. Illinois was the first state east of the Mississippi to pass suffrage for women thus igniting the final fight and culmination of victory in 1920.
21. What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
I spend an inordinate amount of time in front of a computer screen every day. To be honest, if I have free time I’d rather read the book I’m reading for my book club (currently, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and its Urgent Lessons for our Own”. For comic relief, I’ll watch old episodes of “Seinfeld”, a classic comedy of errors depicting everyday people in their everyday lives.