Tarver lakefront

State Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th, center) at the South Shore lakefront with constituents

State Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (25th) is asking Democratic primary voters to nominate him for a third term in Springfield on the basis of his statehouse accomplishments and policy positions of local importance.

The North Kenwood resident and former plaintiff's attorney is a bit of a legislative maverick with a hotheaded streak. Tarver acknowledges this, saying the trait was good for advocating for the district and that his temperament has cooled a bit since taking office. In an interview with the Herald, he laid out his legislative track record, talked policy positions and his primary opponent, South Shore businessman Josef Michael Carr.

"My argument for reelection is that I've listened to the district, from 43rd Street all the way to the southern tip of it. And I've responded to what they've asked me to do, whether that is related to environmental justice, bringing home resources to the public schools, working to hold police accountable or working to increase transparency," Tarver said. "I've done all those things."

He said the evidence for that is not only in the bills he has "been able to pass and kill," but in his leadership role on committees as a sophomore legislator. He is vice-chair of the Civil Judiciary Committee (and chairs its Civil Procedure and Tort Liability Subcommittee). He also vice-chairs the Revenue and Finance and Redistricting committees. And he is proud of his Energy and Environment Committee membership, which he says brings dividends to the district.

Environmental protection means more than just the lakefront, he said. An environmental justice act, House Bill 4093, that would reform the zoning and permitting process for industrial facilities passed the House in March but did not come up for a vote in the Senate; Tarver said he wants it to pass the General Assembly because of its effect on "people who want to set up shop in the 10th Ward and South Chicago." 

Tarver stressed that he supports preserving Promontory Point's limestone steps and preventing lake waters from flooding over South Shore Drive. He voted to pass a state budget that includes $125 million for the lakefront, money that he said will go to the city and the Chicago Park District. But he stressed that Illinois does not have anywhere near enough money on its own to deal with the issue of lakefront erosion and flooding and therefore needs federal dollars to help.

"We're going to do our part and then lean on our congresspersons to help to ensure that infrastructure funds come from the federal government as well," he said. 

Regarding K-12 policy, Tarver pointed to his chief-sponsorship of Senate Bill 3986, the "Too Young to Test" bill, which Pritzker has signed into law, which will prevent the Illinois Board of Education from requiring kindergartners through 2nd graders take standardized tests, except for diagnostic or screening purposes. He voted for the bill to give Chicago Public Schools an elected school board, and his bill to have the school district reevaluate its schools' enrollment boundaries every five years has become law.

Tarver said that former House Speaker Michael Madigan had in 2014 proposed a 3% surcharge on Illinois millionaires to fund schools over the state's flat income tax rate. He said he might introduce a bill to that effect in the coming session. That would require the legislature to pass a constitutional amendment onto voters to consider; the last time Illinoisans considered a tax amendment, the so-called "Fair Tax" proposal that would have changed the flat income tax structure to a graduated one, it failed 55-45.

Regarding public safety, Tarver said the state is not reducing money going to law enforcement, though he would like to see it redirected to pay for the police officer body cameras the legislature has mandated but not funded. He thinks people do not feel safe because of the threat of crime as well as in their interactions with law enforcement. And he said his record demonstrates more attention to dealing with violent crimes, and violent criminals, than things like the organized retail theft bill he voted against this year.

"That prioritizes those individuals and those companies that have insurance companies anyway, when I have individuals who don't feel safe walking to their car," Tarver said. "If it was a bill I actually had time to properly vet and discuss with people in my district, I might have voted in favor of the bill."

Organized retail thefts are a local issue, though. "It's not a good look for Chicago. That's absolutely true," Tarver conceded. "But what I'm saying is, when I get phone calls or talk to people on the street, they're not talking about, on the whole, whether or not people commit a smash-and-grab. They're talking about being able to go to their car, safely, and go to work."

Tarver said money going to local nonprofit organizations through the Reimagine Public Safety Act, which creates an Office of Firearm Violence Prevention to coordinate violence prevention efforts and give grants to community organizations that know where intervention is needed, will keep kids off the street and send violence interrupters out to do peace treaties between different gangs. Fully funding education helps. Fully funding law enforcement helps. Providing access to mental health care and social services helps.

On economic development, Tarver said he fought for money in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's budget to incubate local businesses. In the 7th Ward, Tarver helped get $5 million in capital grant money to help a nonprofit refurbish a closed CPS school, which is going to become a neighborhood community center. He said the state should do the same to facilitate public-private partnerships with commercial components.

Tarver's shift of positions on rent control, from supporting its legalization in Illinois as a candidate in 2018 to voting against it in committee in 2019, has never gotten away from him. He still opposes legalizing it. He pointed out that the affirmative February 2019 advisory referendum on rent control only happened in North Side precincts, and said it's less of a concern for his constituents. 

He did say, however, that he supports expanded state protections for renters, nodding to the "deplorable" living conditions at the Ellis Lakeview Apartments, 4624 S. Ellis Ave. He pointed to legislation he passed in his first term that protects tenants against discrimination on the basis of criminal history. He has supported legislation to increase money going to the Illinois Affordable Housing Trust Fund and another to incentivize landlords to increase the number of affordable units they have by freezing property taxes.

"Everybody claims to be independent until they have to take tough votes," Tarver said. "Whether it's rent control or other things, I've taken tough votes.”

On June 16, watchdog blog The People's Fabric published public records claiming that Tarver has been taking improper homeowner exemptions on a house on the 11000 block of South Ashland Avenue he owns, as well as his home in North Kenwood, with $2,797 outstanding in back taxes.

Tarver said if there is any discrepancy between his homeowner's exemptions and his taxes that he will pay the balance immediately. He said he was unaware of any discrepancy — and that, if he has been taking an exemption on his North Kenwood house since 2012, years before becoming an elected official, it’s not a case of a politician skirting the law.

Temperament and campaign issues

Tarver has a long-demonstrated fiery personality. He has sparred constituents, reporters and other policymakers; he had a free-wheeling Twitter presence for much of his first term before deleting his account. His temperament has led to tense situations at town hall and committee meetings.

Asked why he has chosen not to debate Carr, his primary election opponent, Tarver dismissed Carr as "someone who made the ballot, not an opponent." Tarver also said that, as a legislator, the job voters elected him to do in 2020 takes up too much time to participate in a debate or forum.

"My time is spent primarily in being the state rep, and in addition to that, running for office," Tarver said.

Up until this month, Tarver's campaign website had not been updated since shortly after he won his 2018 primary election. He said he is taking this election seriously, saying, "For me, it's been much more of a focus about trying to be diligent about being at the doors, talking to people one-on-one."

Tarver accepted that he can be adversarial to the press and other public figures, and said of his candor: “I’m incredibly passionate about these issues. I'm a litigator by profession, and I am going to continue to fight at every single level.

"53rd Street is always going to be OK, but when you start to go to 63rd Street, 67th, 71st, 75th, 79th and all the way through — I don't have the time to sit around, play nice in the sandbox and pretend that I don't see . . .  that the North Side has received a ton of funds that the south lakefront hasn't got.” 

He missed the votes last October on the bill ending the requirement that doctors notify the parents of a minor seeking an abortion on purpose. He said the 2019 law that establishes abortion as a fundamental right in Illinois was "the vote that (mattered)." He said constituents in less-liberal parts of the district and especially Black and Latino constituents opposed to the parental notification law. He was concerned about the bill's ramifications for medical malpractice law, saying that no one explained who could sue for a minor should such a situation arise. If his vote was necessary to pass the bill, he said he told its sponsors he would have supported it.

Tarver said being a fairly new legislator means he does not have the same name recognition as his predecessor, former House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, who served 20 two-year terms. He said his district office calls hundreds of constituents a week to inquire about whether households are in need of state services, and he and his staff canvass neighborhoods for the same governmental ends. He said these conversations are also useful for gaining constituents' feedback about issues.

He does think his mindset has changed since he first ran for office in 2018. He said he stayed "in the mode of having to prove that" he deserved the seat for a long time. He was going through "a very tumultuous divorce," and has said publicly that seeing a therapist helps him.

"There was a lot there that overlapped with me coming into office that I had not dealt with," he said. "I'm in a better position now, and I hope to continue to grow, quite honestly."

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