Running for: State Senate, 11th District
Political party affiliation: Democrat
Political/civic background: Former State Representative of the 21st District, former immigrant rights organizer that worked to pass significant pieces of legislation to protect immigrant communities as well having worked to pass legislation to modernize our democracy including Online Voter Registration, Same Day/Election Day Registration and Automatic Voter Registration.
Occupation: Current State Senator of the 11th District
Education: B.A. Latina/o Studies - University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2008
Campaign website: celinavillanueva.com
The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board sent nominees for the Illinois Senate a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois and their districts. Celina Villanueva 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.
I am committed to exploring all available options to address the budget shortfall in this fiscal year. Firstly, we need Congress to work on passing a relief bill package that not only provides additional stimulus support for people but includes relief for state and local governments. This pandemic has affected everyone regardless of political party, Illinois is not the only state in this situation which is why we need Congress to pass a relief package as soon as possible.
Additionally, we need new revenue streams in the state to help bridge the shortfall not just for this fiscal year but for the future. The Fair Tax is one stream that would bring much needed revenue and would do so by ensuring that millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share. I am looking forward to working with my colleagues to explore other revenue streams that take the burden off of working and middle class families.
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?
My district encompasses 4 out of the top 5 highest COVID positive zipcodes in the state, and it is a distinction that breaks my heart. Even before the data confirmed this trend I was working closely with the Governor and his team to address the dynamics of the pandemic in my district by securing testing centers, support, and resources to communities in need. I have been sounding the alarm because I represent parts of the Southwest side of the city of Chicago and suburbs that have a high concentration of service workers, people who work in hospitals, hotels, cleaning crews, grocery stores, etc. A large portion of these workers are essential and tend to be minimum wage earners who live in multigenerational households that cannot do their jobs from home. While there is always more work to do, the Governor and his team have led nationally by working hard to get our numbers down, to keep everyone safe and to support the communities hardest hit by the pandemic. I give him a B.
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?
It is the responsibility of the General Assembly to deal with matters of the law, so when issues with those who are charged with the enforcement of the laws are brought to the forefront it is imperative for the legislature to act. The Legislative Black Caucus has been hard at work crafting a legislative agenda to combat systemic racism and I am supportive of their efforts because we unfortunately live in a city and state that has a history of discrimination and abuse of power at the hands of law enforcement and has failed to make the systemic and institutional changes to rebuild trust between communities and police. The issue of police reform and accountability is complex and while there is not just one area that needs to be addressed we have to take time to look at the need for meaningful oversight and change to the training and practices of law enforcement. Additionally, we have to address the need to have clear and comprehensive definitions of use of force that are used by all law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, we have to develop better psychological metrics and identification of bias for law enforcement prospects and for those currently in law enforcement. Lastly, community based solutions to crime and violence are essential to addressing the problem of crime holistically. We need to bring diverse stakeholders together to address this issue. There are many steps that need to be taken in order to address these issues but ultimately our goal is for everyone to live in and have safe communities.
4. Should the Legislature pass a law requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras? Why or why not?
Yes, but this is not enough. We should not assume that one piece of legislation will ever fix an issue as complex as police reform and accountability. This issue goes further than just having the ability to record interactions by law enforcement. We have to work on addressing the cultural, economic, and racial root causes of the larger issue.
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?
I think it is important that everyone has the right to due process and at this time no charges have been filed. Since I am a member of the State Senate, I vote on the Senate President and do not have a vote on the Speakership of the House. The House has begun their own investigation of the matter and House members will be able to take action based on their own conclusions.
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.
List of events (look at document)
Prior to becoming a State Representative in July of 2018, my work focused on empowering immigrant communities in civic participation through advocacy, voter registration, and voting. I helped to get important pieces of legislation like Online Voter Registration, Same Day/Election Day Registration and Automatic Voter Registration passed prior to joining the General Assembly. It’s been my life’s work to amplify the voices often not heard in the chambers of power, which is part of why I take my role as a legislator so very seriously.
As a public servant, I’ve continued my civic work be leading on key legislation including the Cannabis bill, the Keep Immigrant Families Together Act (a law that prohibits law enforcement agencies from entering into 287g contracts with ICE and deputizing them as ICE agents) and the RISE Act, (a law to raise in the minimum wage), among other numerous other bills.
To increase constituent awareness, I have hosted town halls to engage residents in my district on important pieces of legislation and services available like property tax appeal workshops.. Beside town halls, I have also partnered with community organizations, union leaders, and immigrant organizers across the district and externally to lead trainings on ‘Know Your Rights,’ organizing, leadership development, and youth engagement. To meet community needs, over the last two years I have also hosted resource fairs and several Back to School events providing thousands of backpacks and school supplies. During the pandemic, I coordinated numerous events to provide tens of thousands of masks, hand sanitizer bottles, food boxes, and other basic needs. I continuously collaborate with local organizations and stakeholders in the district because I genuinely believe that working together gets us further.
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.
COVID: The COVID pandemic has brought to light the healthcare, economic, and workforce disparities that have existed in our communities and has further severely impacted my district. I represent four out of the top five zip codes in the state with COVID, and know there is no coincidence we are seeing the largest impact in Latino, working-class areas. The cases continue to increase as countless essential workers do not have the option to work from home and also tend to live in intergenerational households. Many of these same workers and their families have expressed fear in seeking testing due to their immigration status or because they’re unable to afford treatment.
Every day, I connect with constituents that have lost jobs as well as families unsure of how to pay bills or keep a roof over their heads. They share their uncertainty about being unable to pay rent or mortgages, and living in constant fear of being evicted, while property taxes have risen for others. The need is so great, that during the events where we have passed out boxes of food or PPE we run out of materials in less than 30 minutes.
The impact of COVID will be felt for years, and we have the responsibility and moral obligation to close the gap in access to affordable healthcare, good jobs, and economic opportunity. First, we need additional testing sites as well as continued community education about COVID across all sectors. As we increase access to information, we also need to ensure that people who have contracted COVID are not afraid of astronomical medical bills while seeking treatment. This time is also crucial for expanding opportunities to get people back on their feet through the creation of good paying, stable jobs and strengthening workforce protections. Knowing how economic and housing stability are interconnected, it will also be a prime time to continue funding programs that help people pay their rent or mortgage. We must also continue to include support for our small businesses that are the lifeblood of our communities, provide thousands of jobs, and contribute to our overall economic development of our thriving neighborhoods. I will continue to rectify these issues and emphasize that as long as employment is tied to healthcare access, we will be unable to address health, economic, and workforce disparities. I have fought for and continue to fight for additional resources for my communities because I understand it is a matter of life or death.
Immigration issues - I represent the Illinois Senate district with the largest share of Latino constituents, many who are also immigrant and mixed-status. From COVID to census and immigration policy, the Latino community has been continuously targeted and impacted. These attacks do not only impact immigrant families and individuals, but have lasting effects on our entire communities. I have witnessed first hand how entire commercial corridors shut down with threats of ICE raids. In turn, small-businesses and thriving economic corridors, which are the lifeblood of our communities, are also negatively impacted through rise in immigration enforcement activity or threat of activity. As a result of these attacks, U.S. born children of immigrants and spouses of immigrants have to also confront greater health, economic and legal barriers.
I have been a strong advocate for immigrant integration and inclusion and have previously worked on bills to prohibit law enforcement from coordinating with ICE and, more specifically, from being deputized as ICE agents. In a time when immigrants and mixed-status families are constantly under attack from federal, state, and local levels, I plan to continue advocating for legislation that focuses on providing support and protection for immigrant communities.
Gun violence and violent crime - Poverty, the lack of resources, generational trauma and many other factors have created a devastating cycle that traps our most vulnerable and prevents educational, economic and societal advancement. We need a holistic approach to the violence plaguing our communities. While the goal is to create safer communities as a whole, we cannot omit that our focus also needs to include the creation of thriving communities that have the necessary resources needed to fund schools, intervention and prevention programs, to have thriving economies, affordable housing, and good paying jobs. All of these factor into the reduction of violence. I have fought for programs like the Restore, Reinvest and Renew programs that were part of the Cannabis bill because it was important to find new revenue streams that would help with the funding of investment in communities ravaged by drugs and violence. I also pushed for the funding from the taxation of the sale of cannabis to go towards mental health programming, because there are deep rooted issues in mental health that play a significant role in the cycles of violence and we need to do more to address the trauma. I have witnessed firsthand the impact that street intervention teams have on being able to deescalate mounting tensions in our communities which is why I also believe that it is important to fund programs that work to keep the peace and interrupt violence on our streets. Ultimately, our goal needs to be the investment of our communities for the long term because it will take all of this and more to address the issues plaguing our communities.
8. What are your other top legislative priorities?
Although COVID has further highlighted disparities that were already impacting residents in my district, I intend to continue bringing policy solutions, programs, and services that bring greater economic, educational, workforce, and health opportunities to the diverse communities I represent. I understand we cannot address access to quality and affordable health care and education without addressing job creation and housing stability. It is also important for me to provide holistic policy solutions to address gun violence and police brutality that include mental health support and cultural bias training. As someone who grew up just blocks from one of the leading economic corridors in Chicago, I value the role small-businesses play for economic development of families and neighborhoods. That is why I plan to push for additional programs and assistance to small-businesses as well as strengthening the opportunities of minority and women-owned businesses. Moveover, as a former immigration organizer and daughter of immigrants, my commitment to advance legislation to protect mixed-status families and to limit immigration enforcement will continue to be a top priority. Overall, my legislative priorities are largely influenced by issues that impact working and middle class families in the district as well as the organizations, schools, and educators that work day after day to improve the lives of our families and children.
9. What is your position on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax? Please explain.
I have been a supporter of a graduated income tax for years, even prior to joining the General Assembly. In the House, I was a Co-Sponsor of SJRCA 1 and that is because I do not believe that the burden should continue to fall on working and middle class families. It is not fair that working and middle-class families continue to bear the brunt of the burden for taxes in Illinois. Families across the state and in my district have to decide whether to put away funds for retirement, send their kids to college, take care of aging parents, pay their mortgage or property taxes, or pay for medical bills or expensive prescription drugs. It is time for millionaires and billionaires to stop taking advantage and start paying their fair share.
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?
I am committed to exploring all available options to meet our debts and obligations because we have a responsibility as a state to meet our pension obligations. However, I firmly believe it is time for millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share, and that money coming from revenue streams like a graduated income tax should go to helping to solve the problem. This is also why I was a chief co-sponsor on the recreational cannabis law which, besides working towards an equitable bill, would also generate tax revenue that would help with some major issues in the state. I also supported other bills like the gaming/sports betting bill as another revenue generator. Spending cuts, especially to programs that help under-resourced communities, children, youth or retirees is not the answer. That will have a negative ripple effect and we cannot rely on regressive revenue streams. We have to get creative and we have to get honest about what the world we want to live in looks like and start making more of these revenue streams into reality.
11. Should Illinois consider taxing the retirement incomes of its very wealthiest residents, as most states do? And your argument is?
I would have to see a proposal before I can take a position on this. While there are some individuals that are wealthy that take advantage of the system, I cannot in good faith take an opinion on a matter that might harm retirees that are not in the same financial position. The Fair tax is still the best option we have to a new revenue stream that will help the financial situation of the state and the residents of Illinois.
12. What can Illinois do to improve its elementary and high schools?
The General Assembly took a good step in the right direction with the Evidence-Based Funding formula but in order for it to work as intended we have to continue to increase funding through the budget process. Additionally, we need to fund programs and pipelines that allow for a holistic approach to education including making sure that bilingual education students and diverse learners with exceptional needs continue to be appropriately served.
Besides funding, we must address the shortages of diverse educators in our K-12 pipeline. We have to focus on the recruitment and training of educators coming from the same communities as their students like the Grow Your Own Program, including incentivizing bilingual paraprofessionals and DACA candidates to become teachers such as through tuition reimbursement. We have to fund programs, like the Parent Mentor Program, which brings parents into the classroom to provide additional support to students; in many cases, these parents can be also recruited to enter the teaching profession. To keep up with cost of living conditions and barriers for teachers, we must explore innovative models and best practices to incentivize educators, such as student debt or housing stipends. Furthermore, our education system needs to include ways of identifying stellar educators in the classroom that are interested in transitioning to administrative roles — the creation of a school to leadership pipeline will help ensure experienced and trusted leaders come from our communities.
I await the recommendations of the Governor’s Early Childhood Funding Commission regarding how the state can better fund early childhood programs, essential programming especially for the linguistically and culturally diverse communities that are represented in my district.
Currently, one of the concerns that has grown during the pandemic is the socio-emotional support for children and families. Countless students deal with food and housing insecurity as well as abuse at home, and schools are a refuge for them. As our state and most of our schools shift to e-learning we will need to place close attention to how we continue to provide mental health resources and wrap-around services.
This pandemic has also unveiled the current digital divide - - which goes beyond just lack of computers. Many of the schools’ infrastructure and wiring is not adequate to sustain a full digital transition. Our educators, parents, and students alike are all doing their best to be prepared, but additional resources are also needed to compensate for the additional time teachers and paraprofessionals need to take through e-learning. I recognize the role education serves for the families and children in my district, and believe it is our shared responsibility to prevent any student from being overlooked or falling behind.
13. Mass shootings and gun violence plague America. What can or should the Legislature do, if anything, to address this problem in Illinois?
I remember life before metal detectors were mandatory in high schools, I still vividly remember Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglass and so many others. For many of us, our lives have been impacted by gun violence, and I am no different. Growing up in Chicago, gun violence is a reality and I believe the General Assembly should work on addressing this issue in a holistic manner. This includes addressing the root causes of mass violence and gun violence, addressing mental health, addressing hate and racism, and working on creating strong policies that really get to the heart of the matter. Investing in programs that work with our youth to prevent gun violence before it happens is also imperative. There are other legislative avenues like the need to Fix the FOID that address issues in the system that allows for loopholes, and addressing the amount of illegal guns on our streets.
14. Do you favor or oppose term limits for any elected official in Illinois? Please explain.
I think it is important to really understand the larger structure of campaigns as a whole. From the influence of lobbyists to campaign finance reform and the amount of money in politics, down to the balance of power on the legislative and executive branches and the power of voters. Ultimately, I believe that this is a larger conversation than just term limits, because it is important for us to also understand the importance of civics in our lives. Voters are the ones who ultimately decide who wins an election and their voices are important because they get to choose who represents them.
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?
There is a difference between gerrymandering and voting rights districts. As someone who represents a predominantly Latino district, I have a unique perspective on this issue. For a truly representative democracy, it is important that as communities grow in numbers, representation is also reflected across government levels. Had it not been for Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), former Senator Miguel Del Valle, and countless other stakeholders we would not have a voting rights district like mine. It took MALDEF and community leaders filing suit to create a Latino majority district several decades ago and setting a precedent. This process required bipartisan approaches to ensure a transparent process. It has taken historical pieces of legislation, like the Voting Rights Act, to be able to make headway on representation, but it has also taken a coalition of people to continue to do this work so that we get maps that actually provide representation for underrepresented communities. While I am open to exploring options to address gerrymandering and redistricting reform, I will continuously fight for a process that works for the people and their representation.
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?
This was a step in the right direction but there is a lot of work that needs to be done on ethics reform. I believe that closing the loopholes and having a clear definition on who is a lobbyist, what constitutes lobbying and a clear definition on conflicts of interest for those in public office is necessary in order to minimize the threat of corruption and the misuse of our public offices for personal gain. Enhancing the penalties of those in public office who commit crimes and use their offices for personal gain is paramount. I am also saying this as someone who was appointed to replace a former legislator that used his position for personal gain and betrayed the public trust. I take this topic very seriously and am looking forward to working with my colleagues in the senate to address ethics reform as a whole.
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?
For the confidentiality and safety of my constituents, I think it is important to explore the bounds and limits of data access and sharing. As someone who has had their identity stolen due to a data breach this is a big priority for me. Given how digitally connected our children and youth are, I am also concerned about the information they may be inadvertently providing to access certain platforms or tools. I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to the residents of the state of Illinois to prevent their information and data from being misused. As a legislator I think it is important to work with my colleagues to hold those accountable with the misuse of sensitive consumer information.
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?
I think in order to find the answer to questions like this we have to find out who is leaving and why they are leaving because that will help us to determine the causes and give us potential avenues for solutions. If students and families feel like they are getting a better bargain at an out of state school as opposed to staying and going to an Illinois institution of higher education then we need to look at that and make some serious decisions about how me make our schools and institutions the place where our students want to go to and not be in debt the rest of their lives. There are various factors that play a role in students leaving the state, the cost of higher education in Illinois is a factor, but so are the demographics of the students who are leaving. The recruitment and retention of low income, students from communities of color and many others also form part of this conversation and should be looked at more closely. Additionally, we have to look at the pipelines we have and whether they are providing students with opportunities for professional success once they complete their studies.
19. What is your top legislative priority with respect to the environment?
The Clean Energy Jobs Act would be my top priority for two particular reasons. First, it would help put people back to work, particularly people of color by ensuring equitable representation in Illinois’ clean energy workforce. In a time when my communities have been hit hard by COVID and also environmental justice issues, it is imperative for me to ensure that I am advocating for good quality union jobs. In addition, CEJA also strives to make Illinois reach 100% renewable energy by 2050. As someone who lives in and represents a district that is cut in half by a major highway and surrounded by industrial areas my work is to improve the quality of life for the residents of my district which includes air quality and pollution reduction.
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.
Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. Harold Washington died when I was 2 years old, but he has had a significant impact on my life due to the large coalition of people he brought together during his Mayoral campaign and during his tenure in city hall. His ability to bring people together and to understand the different experiences of people from different walks of life is something that I continuously strive for. Many of my political mentors are people who worked closely with him and oftentimes they will share the wisdom he imparted on them, but most importantly they all vividly remember how empowered he made them feel by working together towards a common goal.
21. What’s your favorite TV, streaming or web-based show of all time. Why?
The West Wing, I have been a fan of the West Wing since it was originally on TV. From the Walk and Talk to the insight that it provided of people working in the highest office of the land, it gave me hope that even though we might be imperfect people living in tumultuous times, that we still have the power to create change.