On Jan. 17, businessman Chris Kennedy appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. We asked him why he’s running for the Democratic nomination for Illinois Governor in the March 2018 primary:
I’m Chris Kennedy. I’m running for governor. I moved to Illinois in 1986 to Decatur to work for Archer Daniels Midland so I could learn how food is distributed in the United States, so I could go into the anti-hunger world. I chaired the Board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and today my wife Sheila and I run Top Box Foods. I used to run the Merchandise Mart. I was chairman of the board of the University of Illinois. I was chairman of the board of the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau and I’ve dedicated my whole life to trying to make our state a better place.
The most important thing is to restart our economy. When I graduated from high school and college, I moved to where the jobs were. That’s not the way the American economy works today. The jobs move to where the highly educated young people are. If we give the world highly educated young people, the world will give us its jobs. We need to fix the way we fund our schools. Today, we rely on property taxes, and that’s not going to work. It gives us very bad and unequal outcomes. We rely on property taxes because a handful of elected officials in both parties have outside jobs as property tax appeals lawyers. They’re making money on a system that’s damning the next generation of kids in our state to a life of economic servitude because they don’t have the education that they would get if they lived in another state.
The Chicago Sun-Times sent the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor a list of questions to find out their views on a range of important issues facing the state of Illinois. Kennedy submitted the following answers to our questionnaire:
TOPIC: Key challenges
QUESTION: What are the two biggest problems facing Illinois and what would you do about them?
ANSWER: The first is economic development. There is no greater challenge than growing our economy, linking our education system to new jobs, and attracting new employers to Illinois. Our state government can and must do more to drive job creation and economic development throughout Illinois. As governor, I will drive an aggressive strategy to keep businesses in Illinois, grow those businesses, and attract new investments to keep and create more jobs.
A key driver for developing, attracting, and retaining jobs in Illinois is having a robust university system. Universities must play a significant role in job growth, creating new companies, and spawning entirely new industries, which can contribute to the economic rebirth of our state and region.
Universities are often home to critical research operations. Places like Boston, Silicon Valley, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina among other locations have research universities that feed into the local economy. These institutions invest in basic research that is developed into applied research, which spurs new ideas and products that attract additional investment. Those new ideas and products can then turn into companies or organizations that employ people who pay taxes, which help fund our schools – all of which fuels a virtuous economic cycle. The alumni of MIT alone have founded over 30,000 companies. I will create this cycle of opportunity in Illinois by bringing together political, business, and academic leaders to work in concert with one another to operate robust research operations and attract local investments.
The second is funding public education. We have an obligation to give every child in Illinois a quality public education and we are failing that standard every day. Many in Illinois have their local schools underfunded because we are over-reliant on local property taxes for funding. In wealthy communities, schools are funded at a higher rate than poorer communities. That needs to change. By reforming our property tax system and enacting an immediate progressive income tax through earned income tax credits to low-to-middle residents, we can fund schools at proper levels and achieve equal educational outcomes for every community in Illinois.
Running for: Democratic nomination for Illinois Governor
Political/civic background: Chris and his wife Sheila run Top Box Foods, a hunger-relief non-profit they founded to deliver high-quality, healthy, affordable foods to underserved neighborhoods. Previously, he served as Chairman of the Board of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the nation’s leading non-profit food distribution and training center, which provides food to more than 600,000 adults and children each year. From 2009 through 2015, Chris served as chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. At U of I, Chris oversaw a $5.5 billion budget, 78,000 students and more than 23,000 faculty and staff. He has also served in many civic-related board and committees, including the Board for the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, the Board of Trustees for the Catholic Theological Union, the City of Chicago’s Green Ribbon Committee, as Chair of the Cook County Sustainability Advisory Council, and also taught an honors course at Dominican University on the effects of government and community policies on organizations that champion social justice.
Occupation: Chris is Chairman of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises, Inc., which is the investment firm of the Kennedy Family, and he is a building developer who is currently leading the real estate development in downtown Chicago known as Wolf Point. Wolf Point is a massive construction project backed by more than $1 billion in private financing that is bringing 2,000 construction and permanent jobs to Illinois.
Education: BA Boston College, MBA Northwestern University
Campaign website: kennedyforillinois.com
TOPIC: Red ink and taxes
QUESTION: Even after raising the personal state income tax rate to 4.95 percent, Illinois has $9 billion in unpaid bills. The state also must pay billions of dollars over the next 12 years to service the debt on $6 billion borrowed to cover previous unpaid bills. That’s a problem. What’s your solution? Under what circumstances, if any, would you support a higher income tax?
ANSWER: Illinois has engaged in a practice of borrowing money to pay operating expenses. That is unsustainable and irresponsible. As Governor, I will not sign a budget that uses our credit card to fund the basic functions of government. We must reduce the size of state government and reform our tax code to make it fairer and more progressive. I would pursue a progressive income tax immediately through an approach Illinois should borrow from Massachusetts where we provide tax relief to low-income and middle income residents while raising the income tax on the wealthy. Illinois is also an extreme welfare state. Our state ranks at the bottom for per capita federal fiscal spending; in 2013, we received $8,188 per capita, compared to the national average of $9,961 per capita. If Illinois raised our per capita allotment to the national average, we could raise the amount of federal support we receive from $105 billion to $128 billion. We need to operate with a robust coalition working at the state level among local, state and federal leaders to seek out and secure significantly greater federal and philanthropic resources in a coordinated fashion. I will bring that to Illinois.
RELATED ARTICLES: Chris Kennedy
TOPIC: Underfunded pensions
QUESTION: Illinois has $130 billion of unfunded pension liability. Do you support re-amortizing this debt? Do you support a constitutional amendment that would reduce the liability? Please explain.
ANSWER: Any changes to our pensions system must happen at the bargaining table. I would oppose any statutory or constitutional change outside of collective bargaining.
There are four steps we have to take. Infuse the pension system with an upfront investment either through refinancing our debt, tax reform, or both; stretch out our repayment timeline; lower our payments to a manageable size so we aren’t creating more debt or being a deadbeat when it comes to paying down our debt, and then, most importantly, never taking another pension holiday again. There’s no way around it. Increasing our debt payments does nothing to solve our pension crisis.
As Governor, I will not sign any budget that defers any pension payment and I will be a good faith partner to our unions in working toward possible structural reforms. We need to collectively bargain with representative unions about our rate of return as well as restructuring our debt payments to make them more affordable over time.
TOPIC: Gun laws
QUESTION: Do you support a state ban on gun silencers? Should all gun dealers in Illinois be licensed by the state? Should family members be empowered to petition the courts for the temporary confiscation of guns from mentally or emotionally disturbed people who may be a danger to themselves or others?
ANSWER: Yes, I support all of those reasonable reforms to our state’s gun laws and they are all components within my eight-point plan to address gun violence. I believe we need to combat violence in three overarching ways: addressing violence as a public health issue by providing trauma treatment and mental health services; curbing illegal gun access; and revitalizing schools and communities impacted by gun violence.
I have called for an eight-point plan to combat gun violence in Illinois. I will strengthen oversight of illegal gun access and unlawful gun use by licensing gun dealers, cracking down on “gun trains” and creating a gun tracing program, among other measures. I will divert at-risk youth away from violence through support for community-based diversion programs; fund and expand proven programs and techniques that reduce violence; and expand trauma and mental health care in communities and for individuals impacted by violence. I will further support a full return to community policing with a concentrated effort to recruit future candidates from the communities officers intend to serve; and pursue criminal justice reform that supports perpetrators in becoming productive citizens. Not least of all, I will heavily invest in public education, job training, and economic development communities where violence is rampant. Too many members of our community turn to violence out of desperation and necessity. The cost of which is already showing up in unproductive ways, in the form of lost potential of children and families within affected communities, and strains to our law enforcement, our schools, and our hospitals. When it comes to violence, it is an appropriate role for government to intervene in a comprehensive manner.
QUESTION: As governor, how would you ensure the long-term viability of the state’s Medicaid program? Do you support continued Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act? Should the state continue on a path toward managed care for Medicaid beneficiaries? Should everyone be permitted to buy into Medicaid?
ANSWER: Every Illinois family should have access to affordable, quality health care. Health care is a basic right in this country and should be treated as such. To guarantee everyone health care the United States should proactively move toward a single-payer system and Illinois should be proactively leading that effort.
To move our state toward universal health care, I will seek a true state-level public option that can help drive down costs in our health care marketplace. For those who are uninsured, the public option would be a state-provided, state-backed plan that would offer the coverage families need at a competitive price. I would also work to organize large-scale employers to transfer insurance costs to this option in order to work around dominant insurance agencies and accelerate the option’s expansion. Establishing a public option will force private insurers to compete on price and quality in our healthcare marketplace. As a former large-scale employer in Illinois, I believe this is one of the most realistic paths toward creating a single payer system in our state.
I will also work to lower healthcare costs for everyone by increasing competition through consumer choice; stamping out waste, fraud and abuse; reducing pharmaceutical costs through a shift to more generic drugs; and by better managing hospital costs with state support and technical assistance.
The state’s effort toward managed care can be helpful in reducing cost, but that’s not what Governor Rauner has done. He has not run an opened and honest process to help our Medicaid system. We need to look to hold down costs of our Medicaid system through managed care but it should be for the benefit of those in the system. I do support expanding Medicaid to its maximum capacity and allowing anyone to buy into Medicaid. However, these reforms will require federal support from the Trump administration, which will be incredibly challenging. That’s why it’s important to have our own plan to pursue a sustainable state health care option while also working with local, state, and federal leaders to push the federal government to allow us the regulations and leeway to provide every person in Illinois with affordable health care.
TOPIC: Affordable Care Act
QUESTION: Under the ACA, 650,000 Illinoisans gained health insurance coverage. If the program is abolished or diminished by Congress, what action would you take, if any, to maintain health insurance coverage for these Illinoisans? Where would you find the money?
ANSWER: Donald Trump and the Republican Congress have been unable to repeal the ACA and the federal subsidies for state exchanges. As Governor, I will work with every local, state, or federal leader possible both in Illinois and across the country to advocate to protect the ACA. The most important thing the state could do is support our health exchange and expand Medicaid as a public option.
TOPIC: College student exodus
QUESTION: Illinois is one of the largest exporters of college students in the country. What would you do to encourage the best and brightest young people in Illinois to attend college here at home? Does Illinois have too many state universities, as some have argued?
ANSWER: The best way to encourage the best and brightest to go to school in Illinois and stay here is to connect our university system with our economy. Universities are often home to critical research operations. Places like Boston, Silicon Valley, and the Research Triangle in North Carolina among other locations have research universities that feed into the local economy. If students feel like they can get their education in Illinois, start their career in Illinois, stay here and raise their family, we will retain more of our young people. The answer isn’t reducing our state universities but use them as economic drivers for local communities. Our university system must go hand in hand with our economic strategy. It has worked in other states, it can work in Illinois.
TOPIC: University oversight
QUESTION: Failed or fired public university presidents have received big payouts. Do you have any plans to consolidate or otherwise reorganize governance of the state’s university system?
ANSWER: I am supportive reorganizing our university system, particularly by learning from best examples across the country or even world. Prior to its own economic crisis and the nationwide recession, California’s university system, notably its community colleges, was well-known for its effective governance structure to maximize dollars invested into institutions and students over administration. I would seek to replicate a similar approach without dismantling the institutions that have real potential to help our state’s economy.
TOPIC: Clean air regulations
QUESTION: The Rauner administration has proposed scrapping limits on the rate of air pollution from a fleet of eight coal plants in central and southern Illinois owned by Dynegy Inc. Instead, the state would impose annual caps on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emitted by the fleet. Do you support this softening of emissions standards? If not, are you concerned coal plants could be closed and union workers could lose their jobs? Also, how would you support the adoption of clean energy, such as wind and solar, and energy conservation?
ANSWER: I do not support the softening of clean energy standards. Illinois must not retreat into the past. We must be leaders of the new energy future. Sustainability will promote economic growth. Sustainability in Illinois will not only help our environment, it will also attract more businesses to relocate here and cut costs for state government and for companies. When companies expand to Illinois or within our state, they want to know that they will find clean water and fresh air. As governor, I will work with public and private stakeholders to establish a long-term sustainability plan for our state, including transition to 100% renewable energy in our own state government within 10 years. If Illinois does not act as a leader in protecting the environment and pursuing clean energy policy, we will damage our competitiveness, and ultimately we will have to follow the models of other states rather than lead. A diverse group of stakeholders, including our coal companies, know Illinois needs to be a leader in sustainability. I will hold Illinois accountable for fulfilling the promises in the Future Energy Jobs Act, while also working with a coalition of labor, advocates, and political leaders to upgrade our infrastructure to provide a just transition for communities that have long relied on coal.
TOPIC: School funding
QUESTION: Under the state’s new school-funding model, Illinois will need $6.2 billion more to fully fund K-12 schools. Will you commit to full funding? Where will you get the money?
ANSWER: I will fully fund our schools by immediately enacting a progressive income tax and reducing our reliance on property tax system that benefits the wealthy and politically connected at the expense of our public schools.
TOPIC: Wage equality
QUESTION: What is your position on the vetoed Illinois Wage Equity Act?
ANSWER: I would sign that legislation.
TOPIC: Roads and bridges
QUESTION: How do you plan to address Illinois’ huge backlog of infrastructure construction and repair needs, including for roads, bridges, waterways and mass transit? Do you support an increased gas tax — and/or other taxes and fees — to finance infrastructure improvements, including public transit?
ANSWER: Illinois is at the center of our nation’s infrastructure, which is a key reason why so many businesses choose to locate here. Illinois should continue to be a leader in trade, transportation, and logistics jobs for years to come. But that will only happen if we invest in our infrastructure. The federal government has signaled an upcoming 2018 infrastructure investment that will be broad and significant in funding. I will work quickly with legislators to fund a capital bill that capitalizes on this opportunity to attract significant federal resources, puts people to work improving our infrastructure so we modernize our aging roads, bridges, train lines, waterways and transmission lines to bring renewable energy to market while also expanding our state’s broadband access. I will dedicate a set-aside portion of this plan to our under-resourced communities across the state.
We have to have an honest conversation about funding this capital bill. As cars become more fuel efficient, the gas tax is becoming a less reliable source of revenue for transportation. We need a bipartisan commission to explore ways to fund a new capital bill that is sustainable for decades to come but we also need to recognize that a federal investment would allow Illinois to inject something like $2 for $1 we spend on infrastructure investment, which will lead to economic growth that pays off in the long run.
TOPIC: Displaced workers
QUESTION: Jobs in Illinois are being lost to high-tech automation and artificial intelligence. It won’t even be long before cars drive themselves. Meanwhile, many other jobs, notably in the retail sector, are being lost to online alternatives. Do you have a plan to help guide displaced workers into new careers?
ANSWER: We need to partner with our community college system to encourage worker retraining that can lead to new employment opportunities. We also can partner with current apprenticeship programs to allow workers to find new trades and careers that involve digital competencies.
TOPIC: Manufacturing jobs
QUESTION: Since the recession ended in 2009, neighboring states have added tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs while Illinois has not. What will you do to spur Illinois manufacturing?
ANSWER: Many states have employed a manufacturing tax credit to encourage startup businesses to manufacture their products in state. I would support legislation that would give tax incentives for home grown businesses to manufacture and create jobs in Illinois.
TOPIC: Election funding
QUESTION: Record amounts of money are pouring into top judicial races in Illinois and across the country. Is this a problem? Do you favor the public financing of judicial races?
ANSWER: Yes, I favor campaign finance reform in Illinois through, and that includes public financing for judicial races.
TOPIC: Opioid crisis
QUESTION: What role does a governor’s power to commute sentences play in the overall effort to improve the quality of criminal justice in Illinois? Do you believe sentencing may have been overly harsh — or not tough enough — during the earlier years of the so-called “war on drugs.” And we now face a renewed war on drugs — this time opioids. Is the greatly increased use of opioids a criminal crisis or public health crisis?
ANSWER: The opioid crisis is a public health care crisis as was the “war on drugs” in the 1980s and 1990s. We wrongly treated drug abuse as a crime instead of a public health problem. Unless you have committed a violent crime, drug use should be treated as an addiction that needs treatment. I will use my office as Governor to make Illinois a national leader on criminal justice reform, and seek out the best most promising ideas across the country that are emerging such as the restorative justice practice of Buffalo’s court system in sentencing offenders who are addicts and instituting a public health program that addresses addiction more effectively such as Vermont’s hub and spoke model, which was set up, in part, through an expansion of Medicaid. We should make our state a society of reform not permanent punishment.
TOPIC: A model gov
QUESTION: Which past governor of Illinois do you most admire and why? Which governor from any state would you most like to emulate?
ANSWER: I admire Gov. Jim Edgar for his ability to balance the budget and leave the state with a surplus, while working with both Parties in the Legislature. I admire Governor Pat Brown of California, who signed the California Master Plan for Higher Education, and I consider that model one of the leading higher education models of any state in the country. I also admire Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo for her pension and governmental corruption reform efforts.
Our profiles on other candidates in this race: