As the newly elected Senate Chair of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus (ILBC), State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) says he is looking forward to pushing forward the group’s program in the new year while dealing with a potentially painful budget crisis.
“I think my number one priority is just to be helpful to everyone in the caucus and try to be sort of a lead organizer within the caucus,” he said in an interview with the Herald. “Legislatively, it’s playing the best and most active role I can in terms of the Black Caucus agenda — as we head into the new year that’s something we can shepherd forward.”
In September, the ILBC unveiled its ambitious anti-racism agenda: a set of “sweeping reforms” to combat systemic racism that include education, economic development and healthcare. It also includes comprehensive legislation on criminal justice, police accountability and anti-violence measures that Peters put forward alongside Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s policy guidelines on those issues in October.
“I feel particularly good that we can really get something transformative done,” Peters said, going on to paraphrase President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous opening to his 1933 inaugural address. “He said we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We shouldn’t operate from a place of fear. When we do that we make things worse. We should operate from a place of hope and struggle to get what we need.”
It was announced yesterday that Peters’ counterpart in the Illinois House will be Rep. Kambium Buckner (D-26th), who represents Hyde Park west of Ellis Avenue and southern Kenwood west of Woodlawn Avenue. The ILBC’s newly elected Joint Caucus chair is Rep. Sonya Harper (D-6th); her district includes large parts of Englewood and Back of the Yards.
“I have a good relationship with Representative Buckner, we’re in the same area,” Peters said. “We’re gonna work together after what’s been a difficult 2020 and what’s going to be a difficult 2021. It’s also a year of opportunity. I’m really excited about what this could bring.”
One of the state legislature’s first big tasks will be tackling the state’s budget deficit, which Pritzker has said will be around $3.9 billion for the fiscal year ending next summer, and is projected to continue to expand after that. The governor announced $711 million in spending cuts yesterday.
Earlier today, Peters and a group of other state legislators called for the closure of corporate tax loopholes to help balance the budget. “There are people who have been making money hand over fist. Housing and healthcare and education, let’s try to protect that,” he said. “Most of us have had a very troubled and difficult pandemic in 2020, but there are a few folks who have done well for themselves.”
Peters cited a recent report from the political advocacy group Americans for Tax Fairness showing that the net worth of billionaires across the country has increased by $1.06 trillion since pandemic-related shutdowns this spring.
“If they sent a $3,000 check to everyone they would be at the same level of wealth they were at before,” he said. “I think let’s look at everything.”
Peters and other state legislators will also have to contend with a looming eviction crisis. The Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing released a new report today predicting that more than 21,000 evictions could be filed in the city once Pritzker’s moratorium ends.
Activists have criticized the most recent extension of the moratorium for weakening protections for renters. The new order requires tenants to fill out a declaration form stating that they have been affected by COVID-19 and make no more than $99,000, among other criteria.
On his end, Peters said that many of his efforts around housing are in the “protection space.”
“We really advocated to make sure this declaration form is clear for people so they don’t get bamboozled,” he said. “But we need help from the federal government …. We need aid, we need financial support so we can give people what they need.”
Peters said that he was also looking at other protections for renters, such as sealing of eviction records, part of legislation pushed by West Side state Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-4th) since 2018.
“We can do that to help slow down the pain,” he said.
He also reflected on his quick rise in the state legislature since taking his seat a little under two years ago — first as a central player in Pritzker’s criminal justice reform agenda and now as a leader in one of Springfield’s most influential caucuses.
“When I was a kid I was told I was never gonna get out of eighth grade. That was something that was told to me,” he said. “Someone told my parents, ‘This kid is never getting anywhere,’ and I remember my dad getting so upset.
“I’m very honored and privileged to be here. I’m grateful to people who looked out for me when it felt like nobody did. I’m grateful to my dad who told me it wasn’t about whether I succeeded but just to try,” he continued. “I just want to do really good work here, I want to organize here. I want to be different, take people who don’t normally think they can be in the halls of power and say, ‘If I can be here you can be here, because I was told I could never be here and that’s bullshit.’
“I don’t want to be a savior person or anything like that, I just want to do as much good as possible while I can.”