In a race to represent a State House district that spans from 73rd Street in Chicago more than 50 miles south to small-town Momence in Kankakee County, you might expect the five candidates to represent a cross-section of Illinois.
Not so in the 34th District Democratic primary. Four of the candidates are longtime neighbors in Chicago’s tight-knit 6th Ward, living in Chatham or Chesterfield, neighborhoods that have struggled recently but long have been synonymous with Chicago’s black middle class. Three of them also work for the Chicago Police Department.
The fifth candidate, Kyle Kasperek, is a 24-year-old financial auditor from Calumet City, the largest city in the southern end of a district that grew after redistricting last fall.
The winner will replace retiring Rep. Connie Howard, also from Chatham, who was first elected in 1994. No Republicans are running.
Elgie Sims Jr., 41, is leading the pack, earning nearly every endorsement out so far. He’s got Rep. Howard, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Secretary of State Jesse White, most aldermen in the district, including the 6th Ward, the Chicago Heights mayor and a long list of south suburban trustees.
Sims also has sewn up most major union endorsements, as well as those from progressive groups such as Planned Parenthood and IVI-IPO.
Sims is running on his nearly 20-year career in Springfield, first as budget director for former Senate President Emil Jones and the Senate Democrats, and since 2003 as a lobbyist and lawyer. He has a master’s in public administration.
“I learned how it works,” Sims, who is active in several Chatham organizations, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I want to put 20 years of experience to work for the people of Illinois.”
Richard Wooten, a police office and 10-year Army veteran who also owns a security and investigations firm, names public safety – including protecting pensions of police and firefighters – and support for veterans as his top two priorities. He is endorsed by five Kankakee aldermen, one in Calumet City, two former Kankakee County mayors and a handful of other public officials in the suburbs, a half dozen ministers and a black business group.
Wooten, a 46-year-old associate pastor who lost in a race for alderman last year and is now running for ward committeeman, also has worked with the homeless and at-risk youth. He was the toughest on his opponents during a Sun-Times interview. But so far these neighbors have mostly been civil, even to the outsider from the suburbs.
Paul Steven Gregoire, 51, is the second police officer in the race. He works as a CAPS sergeant in the Englewood district. A lifelong Chatham resident, his top priority is to bring after-school programs back to the district. He said his life experiences, including a long career in law enforcement and as a Chicago Public Schools parent, make him uniquely qualified to be a state rep.
The final police employee in the race is Sandra Wortham, a 28-year-old lawyer and deputy director of the CAPS program. She is the sister of Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV, who was murdered in 2010.
She’s endorsed by Dorothy Brown, clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, and “recommended” by the Fraternal Order of Police.
Wortham tells the Sun-Times she’s running “because we deserve an advocate . . . and I know what it means to be an advocate.”
Sims and Kasperek have the greatest depth on the issues. Wortham and Gregoire offered superficial answers on the state’s finances, talking generically about more revenue and budget cuts. Wooten showed greater command but also offered few specifics.
Kasperek, who is endorsed by a Will County board member, says he’s running because “I can count. From what I can see this has not been a strong suit of legislators for the past 20 years, which has brought the state to the verge of bankruptcy.”
Kasperek, who says he has knocked on 8,000 doors in the district so far, is the most conservative on the matter of state finances, saying he sees no alternative but to reduce pension benefits for public employees.
The other candidates reject that, with Sims saying it’s unconstitutional, though he said he’s open to negotiating with the unions.
Kasperek is also the only candidate opposed to a progressive income tax.
Sims, Gregoire and Wortham support gay marriage; Wooten and Kasperek are only willing to go as far as civil unions.