State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th, left) and challenger Ken Thomas at a March 2 Indivisible South Side forum at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave.

Illinois Senate candidate Ken Thomas again attacked incumbent Robert Peters (D-13th) for his January 2019 appointment by local Democratic Party officials  and for accepting corporate and "big money" campaign donations at a March 2 forum sponsored by progressive group Indivisible South Side.

Sen. Peters countered that substantial support from labor unions is not a bad thing and that his successful record passing bills in Springfield means voters should give him more time.

"I think about the kind of world we live in, and I think about the fact that so many people are going through so much pain, and I always felt like it was my fault," the senator said. "I think what's important here is that we come together and have rooms like this, and if we can put pressure on those who are powerful and truly change the world."

Peters said local frustration with his appointment — done in accordance with state law, albeit with a decision reached in a closed-door meeting of Democratic committee people after applicants made public speeches — in part pushed him to pass 13 bills in Springfield. "The most for any freshman senator elected or appointed," he claimed, including four bills focused on the Department of Children and Family Services and three around criminal justice (one of which banned private detention centers).

But he said this is not enough, especially now that Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) has come out in favor of ending cash bonds. He said his chairmanship of the new Senate Special Committee on Public Safety will also aid the effort for "a completely different conversation on what it means to have safety and justice in our world" — one based around social workers in schools, housing access, grocery stores in neighborhoods and the freedom to live as you choose.

Thomas, an attorney, recalled his financially challenged upbringing by a single mother in the south suburbs, saying she instilled within him a focus on hard work and education. He said those values helped him overcome poverty and led him to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago, followed by the University of Chicago Law School. 

"When I began my law practice," he said, "I never forgot where I came from. I never forgot who I was growing up and the resources that I have." He frequently performs pro bono work for defendants in eviction court — 80% of whom do not have an attorney, he said — and for asylum seekers and victims of gun violence.

"I saw injustice all across my life, and I tried to fix it," Thomas said. "And I saw injustice again. When we saw the appointment process happen, we saw a backroom deal done where the heads of the Democratic Party got to pick who got to be our state senator. That's an injustice."

He attacked Peters as a politician who has taken "thousands of dollars" from corporations, energy and telecommunications companies, and "big-dollar donations," alleging that two-thirds of Peters' money comes from "large-dollar contributions."

Corporations, energy companies and telecommunications companies, or political actions committees representing them, have collectively given around $15,000 to Peters’ campaign, according to data from Illinois Sunshine. About two-thirds of the $372,000 Peters has raised comes from contributions over $5,000. Almost all of that money comes from organized labor: the Chicago Laborers’ District Council is his biggest contributor, giving the state senator $60,300.

Peters appointment, Thomas said, is the result of a "political system (controlled) by special interests and insiders and corporations." 

A man identifying himself as Wendell Thomas, the father of Charles Thomas, who survived being shot by a University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officer during a mental health crisis in April 2018, asked Peters about his proposal to add mental health services to the list of emergency responders who can be summoned through 9-1-1. Peters filed Senate Bill 3449 on Valentine's Day, and it was assigned to the Public Health Committee on Feb. 25. 

Thomas suggested that the UCPD should be made more transparent by state action; currently, the department is not subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. "It's absolutely ridiculous that we have a police force that is allowed to operate in private and doesn't have the same disclosure requirements mandated by law as do other public police forces," he said.

Asked what he has learned since taking office, Peters said that people do not have enough power at the capitol, praising efforts to organize locally for progressive causes. He said that "more people up in the district need to see what's happening in Springfield and see it," promising that his downstate office is open to constituents and bemoaning the decline of the capital press corps.

If elected, Thomas said he wants to ban civil asset forfeiture and seal notices of eviction proceedings until such evictions occur, which he said would reduce housing discrimination. He said Illinois should move towards publicly financed campaigns, saying there is "no wider difference" between himself and Peters than their acceptance of big money donations.

Peters replied that three-quarters of his support comes from organized labor and that his first organizing work was on publicly financed elections for Reclaim Chicago, Common Cause and the liberal think tank DEMOS; he said he supports a system where candidates get $6 in public funds for every privately donated dollar.

On pensions, Thomas reiterated his charge that the state should "front-load" the backlog in order to improve its credit rating. Peter said corporate tax loopholes should be closed in order to fund pensions and education.

Asked about the Fitch Ratings report that the governor's plan to pass a graduated, progressive income tax and use $200 million to fund pensions is a continuation of "the practice laid out in current law of under-funding the systems relative to actuarial determinations," Peters said he supports Pritzker.

Peters said he would be against committing additional state funds for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and related projects in Jackson Park, saying that "$200 million plus a capital bill" is enough for infrastructural efforts. He said he understands the importance of Cornell Drive as "one of the more beautiful roads on the South Side" and a rare way to avoid traffic on Stony Island Avenue. He said he will meet with constituents about that and other topics. 

"I support the Obama Center," Peters said. "I just think it's important as an organizer that we bring the community, get that involvement in." He voiced support both for Ald. Jeanette Taylor's (20th) community benefits agreement ordinance and the city's Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance.

Thomas said he would evaluate the OPC, and all district development, on whether it will increase public safety, the local housing stock and benefit the environment. "I'm concerned about what I've seen in various areas," he said, endorsing the CBA ordinance and development without displacement of longtime residents.

Both called for increased government attention to the eroding Chicago lakefront, and both endorsed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which Peters said would address infrastructural needs in Illinois and address climate justice (the legislation aims to make the state carbon-neutral by 2050).

Asked about public land policy, Thomas stressed the need for public accessibility. Peters echoed him, additionally recalling his "joy" when Hollywood filmmaker George Lucas did not build his art museum in Chicago. While Thomas said he regretted that the capital bill did not address lead in the city's water supply, Peters said legislation about lead in public parks' water supply was at least being considered in the legislature.

Both candidates support lifting Illinois' ban on municipalities enacting rent control legislation. Thomas said the state should have statewide rent control "that keeps landlords in certain buildings with a certain number of units from raising rents a certain percentage every year," suggesting the percentage be linked to inflation. He also attacked Peters for taking $300 from a realtors' political action committee.

Peters recalled endorsements from Jane Addams Senior Action, United Working Families, the People's Lobby — all of which, like him, support lifting the ban; he also proposed letting individual municipalities decide what rent control to have. He endorsed a homes guarantee, recalling foreclosures or evictions at the height of the Great Recession: "What we see is that rents are now used to subsidize so much of the financial sector, and so what we need to do is remove that financial sector and make sure that people have a roof over their heads."

On the novel coronavirus epidemic, Peters lauded collaboration between Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot and noted Cook County's robust public hospital system while decrying the resurgence of anti-East Asian racism accompanying the disease. Thomas also lauded city-state collaboration while expressing concern about the effectiveness of the federal government's reaction, led by Vice President Mike Pence.

Staff writer Christian Belanger contributed.

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