On Jan. 11, Jesse Ruiz appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for the Democratic nomination for Illinois attorney general in the March 2018 primary:
Jesse Ruiz. Candidate for Illinois attorney general. I’ve been honored to serve in a variety of public service roles always as a volunteer. Starting with the Desegregation Monitoring Commission of the Chicago Public Schools. Then chairman of the State Board of Education for almost seven years. In that time I also served on the U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission. Then I was vice president of Chicago Board of Education. Interim CEO of Chicago Public Schools. I’m currently president of the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners and previously also served as commissioner on the Illinois Board of Admissions Bar, Character and Fitness Committee. I’m also very involved civically. Past president of the Chicago Bar Foundation. Immediate past chair of the Investing in Justice campaign. Second vice president of the Chicago Bar Association. On the board of trustees of Rush University Medical Center, the Museum of Science and Industry, Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago Legal Clinic and several other nonprofit boards.
My cause as attorney general would be to protect the American dream, it’s under attack. It’s under attack by Bruce Rauner, Donald Trump and we need to level the playing field for working families in Illinois. So I’ve been blessed as a son of Mexican immigrants, my dad came here with a third grade education as a migrant farm worker and because of his and my mother’s hard work and sacrifices I was able to go to the University of Illinois, go to the University of Chicago, have great professors like Elena Kagan, now on the U.S. Supreme Court and Barack Obama. So I’m blessed that I had a chance at the American dream and I worry that future generations of Illinoisans won’t have that same chance. So I want to make sure that we work to level playing field by going after unscrupulous lenders who would overburden students with unfair loans, make sure we fight for access to healthcare, make sure we fight for a clean environment, especially in a climate where the US EPA is being systematically dismantled by Donald Trump. Make sure we have open, honest and transparent government, root out corruption, where ever it may be, it’s something that Illinoisans deserve. We have to ensure its integrity and make sure we have criminal justice reform and make sure that we are served and protected by officers with integrity every single day and that every Illinoisian has fair and equal access to justice. I want to be the advocate for the people. I want to be their champion. This is why I want to be their attorney general.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates seeking nominations for Illinois attorney general a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois. Jesse Ruiz submitted the following answers to our questionnaire:
QUESTION: The Illinois attorney general has broad discretion in choosing the office’s priorities. What specific cause or causes would you pursue? Please avoid a generic topic or general category in your answer.
ANSWER: Fighting public corruption
Fighting for criminal justice reform
Fighting against the Trump agenda of rolling back our civil and workplace rights, immigration policy and environmental regulations
Running for: Democratic nomination for Illinois Attorney General
Political/civic background: Appointed and served as:
Commissioner, Chicago Public Schools Desegregation Monitoring Commission (1999-2004)
Commissioner, Illinois Supreme Court Character and Fitness Committee (1999-2004)
Chairman, Illinois State Board of Education (2004-2011)
Commissioner, U.S. Department of Education Equality and Excellence Commission (2011-2013)
Fellow, Leadership Greater Chicago (2014)
Vice-President, Chicago Board of Education (2011 – 2016)
Interim CEO, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for (April – July, 2015)
President, Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners (2016 – present)
Commissioner, Public Building Commission (2016 – present)
2nd Vice President, Chicago Bar Association
Member, Board of Directors: Metropolitan Planning Council; Rush University Medical Center; Museum of Science and Industry; Chicago Legal Clinic
Member, the Commercial Club of Chicago and the Economic Club of Chicago
Education: B.A. in economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, J.D., University of Chicago Law School
Campaign website: jesse4IL.com
QUESTION: What would you do as attorney general to identify and combat public corruption at the state, county and local levels?
ANSWER: As Attorney General, I will seek expanded powers to investigate and prosecute government corruption at every level. Frankly, I am sick and tired of hearing my home state used as the punchline of jokes about corrupt politicians making sleazy deals and lining their own pockets with taxpayers’ money. Especially under the current Administration, the people of Illinois should not be dependent on federal prosecutors to keep an eye on our elected officials. Other states have passed laws that empower their Attorney General to act as a government watchdog, with the ability to step in when state or local officials violate their oath of office. We need that same level of protection here in Illinois.
My own record demonstrates my willingness to stand up and take on political insiders. In 2015, in the wake of a bribery scandal, I stepped in to become Interim CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest school district. That experience really underscored the importance of transparency in government. During my brief tenure, I created a requirement that all requests for single- and sole-source contracts be posted on our website, well in advance of any vote. Now the Chicago Public Schools have a system in place to make sure that the Board and the public have a chance to weigh in before those types of contracts go up for a vote. In a December 2015 interview with the Sun-Times, I also called for CPS briefings to be held in public meetings (although, unfortunately, such briefings are still held in private). Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Advocating for open and transparent government is one of the Attorney General’s core responsibilities, and I will do everything I can to make sure the people of Illinois get the full picture of what their government is up to.
I also spoke out when Forrest Claypool committed ethics infractions as the head of CPS. From day one, I blew the whistle on the conflicts of interest that led to the Inspector General’s investigation. Forrest Claypool’s actions in misleading the Inspector General were unacceptable, especially at a time when trust in our government is at an all-time low. The people of Chicago have the right to expect our leaders to set an example of integrity. When Forrest Claypool failed this test, I immediately called on him to step down.
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QUESTION: Why have the people of Illinois had to rely solely on federal prosecutors, with little or no contribution from the state attorney general’s office, to do the job of rooting out local public corruption? Or do you disagree with this assessment?
ANSWER: This assessment is absolutely correct. It is an unfortunate fact that, in most cases, state law restricts the Illinois attorney general’s office from pursuing criminal cases – including prosecution of public corruption –without the consent of county state’s attorneys. Because state’s attorneys have primary jurisdiction in these cases, the Attorney General does not have authority to impanel a grand jury; absent this authority, the AG’s office cannot conduct a full criminal investigation and bring charges against a corrupt public official.
Thus far, the General Assembly has refused to give the Attorney General’s office broader authority, such as enhanced grand jury powers, to investigate public corruption. As Attorney General, I will advocate for changes in state law to ensure that our office has the power to act as a watchdog on our elected and appointed officials.
QUESTION: What is the responsibility of the attorney general’s office in supporting and enforcing federal laws and the policies of the Trump administration? Please be specific in identifying any laws or policies you believe should or should not be rigorously enforced.
ANSWER: All across the country, we are seeing state Attorneys General taking aggressive action to block the overreaches of this anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-woman, anti-Muslim administration. I will join – and lead – similar challenges to the Trump Administration’s discriminatory and unconstitutional actions across a wide range of issues. These will include:
The Trump Administration’s rollback of the ACA’s contraception mandate is clearly discriminatory. The women of Illinois have the right to equal access to preventive medicine. I am hopeful that the current lawsuits focused on these issues will prevail within the coming year. If they do not, I will be proud to fight in the courts to protect reproductive health rights in Illinois.
Student Loan Protections
I believe that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos violated federal law when she rescinded the possibility of loan forgiveness for students who were misled or defrauded by abusive for-profit colleges that have cheated students – and taxpayers – out of billions of dollars in federal loans. Attorney General Madigan already has filed suit on behalf of Illinois students who were defrauded by now-defunct for-profit schools; I will continue that fight when I take office.
Access to affordable healthcare is under constant attack by this White House, but Attorneys General nationwide are standing up on behalf of their constituents. Attorney General Madigan is part of a coalition that has moved to intervene in a lawsuit to end cost-sharing subsidies that are a cornerstone of the ACA. The Trump Administration is not planning to defend against the lawsuit, which was filed by House Republicans. It is very appropriate for state Attorneys General to take up this fight, because the end of the subsidies will disrupt the states’ health insurance markets and will increase the number of uninsured people, raising states’ Medicaid costs.
Protecting the environment is one of the Attorney General’s core responsibilities. This role has become even more important as Trump has moved to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency. I am outraged by Trump’s continuing attempts to put polluters in charge of the U.S. EPA. The loss of federal environmental protections is especially crucial in Cook County, where polluters have often chosen to target low-income communities that have not had the political clout to protect their health and the health of their children. As Attorney General, I will take action to stop polluters who threaten the quality of our air and our water – especially our beautiful Lake Michigan.
Immigration and DACA
Trump built his campaign on jingoistic opposition to immigration. His decision to abolish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) isn’t just morally repugnant; it also is economically foolish to try to deport nearly 800,000 young people who are beginning their careers – and who are paying taxes and making contributions to our nation’s economy. I am hopeful that the negotiations now under way in Washington will result in a new DREAM act that will make it possible for these promising young people to continue to live, work, and go to school here in the United States. If no agreement is reached, however, I will join Attorneys General across the country in battling Trump’s peremptory action on the grounds that it violates the Constitutional right to due process.
I commend Attorney General Madigan’s participation in the multi-state lawsuit challenging the FCC’s vote to dismantle net neutrality. When Donald Trump chose Ajit Pai – a former Verizon executive – as the FCC chair, he was putting a fox in charge of the henhouse. The FCC’s wrongheaded decision will have enormous consequences for all of us. Students will lose access to educational materials, and small businesses and start-ups won’t be able to reach their customers – all while big telecommunications companies rake in record profits. Again, I hope this problem will be solved in the next year. If not, I will continue to stand up for Illinois consumers and the freedom of the internet.
QUESTION: Attorney General Madigan joined an amicus brief in a federal suit opposing the Trump administration’s efforts to cut off federal public safety grants to “sanctuary” cities. Would you have done the same? Madigan also has called on Gov. Rauner to reject any request by the Trump administration to use local law enforcement officers as “immigration officials.” What would you have done?
ANSWER: I absolutely would have joined the amicus brief in the lawsuit opposing Trump’s action to cut off federal dollars to sanctuary cities. In fact, I enlisted colleagues at my law firm to prepare and file an amicus brief in this case on behalf of our longtime pro bono client, Erie Neighborhood House. The Administration’s actions targeting immigrants are wrong, and the White House has no authority to cut off these grants over a political issue. Those grants represent tax dollars paid by the people of Illinois, and we have a right to those funds.
I also support Attorney General Madigan’s call to reject the Trump Administration’s attempts to make local law enforcement officers a de facto branch of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We need to increase public confidence in our law enforcement officers and encourage people to report crimes without fear, regardless of their immigration status. Illinois’ law enforcement community should focus on its core mission of keeping all of us safe from crime.
QUESTION: What would you do to address the problem of gun violence? And if you say you would “take on” the NRA, how exactly would you do that?
ANSWER: This is a painfully difficult problem, given that so many of the weapons being used by criminals are brought in from other states with lax gun laws. To protect the people of Illinois, I will continue Attorney General Madigan’s work in collaborating with county state’s attorneys across Illinois to crack down on illegal gun sales. I also will speak out against the National Rifle Association’s efforts to halt and roll back sensible gun laws that are intended to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and abusers.
QUESTION: Everybody running for this office promises to be an advocate for ordinary people. What, in concrete terms, does that mean?
ANSWER: I believe that, as someone who grew up working-class and who has had the great good fortune to achieve the American Dream, I have a special responsibility to speak out on behalf of people whose voices are not being heard today.
I am the proud son of Mexican immigrants. My father was recruited to come to the United States in 1943 as part of the Bracero program, which brought Mexican migrant workers to this country to put food on American tables during World War II. After picking crops across this country for four years, he found his way to Chicago and remained here as an undocumented resident from 1947 to 1955. He returned to Mexico in 1955 to arrange for legal U.S. residency. While he was there, he met and married my mother. They immigrated to Chicago in 1956 and ultimately settled in the Roseland neighborhood on the far South Side, where my mom and my sisters still make their homes today.
When I was growing up, my father worked the evening shift at a big commercial bakery, where his union – the Teamsters – made sure he was paid a living wage. He never earned more than $19,000 a year, but our family had access to decent healthcare, and my father’s pension made it possible for him to grow old in dignity. So I know firsthand the importance of organized labor in protecting workers’ rights and building the middle class.
While my father was working those long shifts, my mother was setting an extraordinary example of giving back to the community. She was a tireless volunteer – volunteering with our Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops and Little League teams, helping out at church events, and teaching my sisters and me a lifelong lesson: “If you have enough to eat, you have enough to share.” So I have tried to follow her example in serving my community throughout my life.
My father always told me, “Your education is your inheritance.” He came to this country with a third-grade education, and he and my mother saw education as the path to the American Dream. My parents expected all of us to study as hard as we could (and then a little bit harder.) Thanks to their support and their high expectations, I got a scholarship to study at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. To pay my way through college, I worked a number of different jobs, including stints as a sales clerk, a machine operator, a meter reader, and a handyman. In those jobs, I worked side-by-side with people from all different backgrounds – but they all shared a common determination to move up the ladder and create a better future for themselves and their families. I know how hard those men and women worked for every dollar, and as Attorney General, I will fight to protect them from unscrupulous corporations and consumer fraud.
After graduation, I spent a few years working in the steel industry. Then I had the good fortune of attending the University of Chicago Law School, where I studied under the guidance of future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and future President Barack Obama. After law school, I got a job at a Chicago law firm – and I’ve been working at the same firm ever since. (After a merger, it’s now known as Drinker Biddle & Reath.) At the time, I felt extremely anxious about paying off my law school loans, which added up to some $90,000. Now, when I hear about students talking about their six-figure student loans, I can’t imagine how it must feel to be a young person starting out under the burden of that kind of debt. That’s why, as Attorney General, I will make battling unscrupulous student loan companies one of my top priorities.
For me, being an advocate for ordinary people is not a talking point; it’s my responsibility to give back to my community and my country, in return for all that I have received throughout my life.
QUESTION: How in general would you follow or depart from the approach to the job taken by Lisa Madigan?
ANSWER: I believe that Attorney General Lisa Madigan has done a good and honorable job during her tenure. She has made her office, in essence, the state’s largest public interest law firm, and I will commit myself to expanding the good work that she has begun. However, it is clear that the Attorney General’s office will need to expand its work (and its workforce) over the next few years to stand up to the Trump Administration’s continuing assaults on our fundamental rights.
We will need to increase the resources available to our office to make sure that we have the strength and expertise to keep on pushing back against these unconscionable actions. Those resources will come from the average $1 billion in revenues collected by the Illinois Attorney General’s office each year, through settlements, fines and penalties. I will make sure that an appropriate share of those collections is set aside to fund our expanded advocacy on behalf of Illinoisans targeted by the Trump Administration.
As past president of the Chicago Bar Foundation and past chairman of the Foundation’s Investing in Justice campaign, I also will enlist the help and support of the many pro bono and low-cost legal service providers in Illinois to collectively further the mission of the Attorney General’s office and bring access to justice to all Illinoisans – especially to those who cannot afford legal representation.
Check out our profiles on other candidates in this race: