Thomas attacks Sen. Peters as symbol of broken system;  incumbent stresses legislative accomplishments

Moderator Jane Ruby reads a question during a League of Women Voters’ Candidate Forum featuring 13th District State Sen. Robert Peters (left) and Ken Thomas, his opponent in the March 17 Democratic Party primary election. 

In opening remarks at a League of Women Voters of Chicago forum on Feb. 22, Illinois Senate candidate Ken Thomas called the 2019 appointment of Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) "a backroom deal" and said Peters "lied about where he lived and didn't meet the qualifications to be in that office."

"This is not how our government officials should be picked," he said of the appointment process mandated by state law. "They should be chosen by you, the voters, not in a process by party officials."

Questions about Peters' residency status at the time of his Jan. 7, 2019, appointment have been raised since that meeting of Democratic committeemen. Illinois law requires two years of residency within a district before assuming office; Peters said he was living with his girlfriend in the 13th District from January 2017, though he did not change his voter registration until the following May. The legality of Peters' appointment has never been challenged in court.

"I praise the senator's work on some of the bills he's done, but this election's going to be about values," Thomas said. "It's going to be about who's going to bring this district forward, who's going to fix a broken political system, who's going to cut out corruption and backroom deals and the kind of policies that actually hurt residents. Corruption isn't just bad because it looks bad when people reward their friends with jobs and political positions. It's bad because it hurts residents."

Peters avoided a tit-for-tat with Thomas' attacks until late in the 50-minute debate, when he accused his challenger of "not having much to say in terms of values and issues."

Thomas countered that the election is about "how endemic to our system corruption is." Earlier in the debate, he said corporate money should be banned from state politics and said Peters' donations, like all corporate dollars to politicians, inevitably lead to those interests getting undue access in policy making. 

The vast majority of Peters' donations have come from organized labor; his two largest contributors, donating $56,500 and $17,500, are political action committees affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Service Employees International Union, respectively. But in an interview following the forum, he called the corporate donations from Verizon ($500), Sprint ($500) and T-Mobile ($250) "small amounts of money."

"I understand that people are skeptical of our political system, but what I can tell people is that I'm very progressive," he said in the interview. "Most of my focus has been on grassroots donors."

Rather than his appointment being a symptom of broken politics, Peters said the "consensus" of American politics since President Ronald Reagan's administration is broken and requires new blood for meaningful reform.

"I think the main thing is that people can look at my record. Thirteen bills: four around DCFS (the Department of Children and Family Services), three around the criminal justice system, the first-ever ban on private immigrant detention centers," he said. "March 17 is a date for folks. Hopefully I earn their votes when they can decide on who they want as their state senator, and I hope I've done it."

In opening remarks, Peters observed that he has passed more legislation than any other Springfield freshman but said there more work to be done. He was appointed chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Public Safety early this month and said he wants to end cash bond in the state.

Thomas, an attorney who has done pro bono legal work with defendants facing eviction, said he is the candidate who would root out corruption in Illinois if elected, referencing in his opening statement the ongoing scandal involving a county official's alleged bribing of an Oak Lawn trustee's relative to install red light cameras in the southwest suburb.

Policy-wise, however, both candidates expressed similar sentiments. Both support lifting Illinois' ban on municipalities enacting rent control policies. Both expressed a desire to end cash bail. Thomas said incarceration should focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment and should work to connect released citizens with jobs; in Springfield, Peters sponsored a law that requires the departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice to teach soon-to-be-released prisoners civics education. 

Both support an elected Chicago Public Schools Board and state-funded, universal preschool. Peters said the state funding formula should transfer money directly to struggling schools. Thomas said school funding should move from local property taxes to "the state taking more of the burden."

Both support Gov. J.B. Pritzker's (D) signature "Fair Tax" proposal for a graduated, progressive state income tax. Asked about how to improve economic investment in the district, Thomas observed that the East Side neighborhood, at the southern end of the district and on the Indiana border, cannot compete with Indiana's lower taxes and stressed the need for incentives to spur new local businesses through state policy. He also said the state should prioritize paying down the unfunded pension liability in order to improve Illinois' credit rating and access to lower-interest borrowing.

Regarding economic investment, Peters said the 2019-passed capital bill will directly benefit the 13th District through infrastructural projects and jobs, though Thomas attacked it for not addressing the problem of lead pipes in Chicago. Peters referenced legislation that would test for lead in park water supplies and cited the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which aims to make Illinois carbon-neutral by 2050 and is before the General Assembly, as a jobs creator. Both suggested work to buttress the eroding Chicago lakefront could also create jobs. 

On pensions, Peters suggested closing corporate tax loopholes and approving the Fair Tax rather than overly relying on property and sales taxes. Both candidates said tipped workers should be paid the same minimum wage, due to rise to $15 an hour by 2025, as other workers, and both support requiring public employees to pay union dues regardless of union membership.

Asked about taxing retirement incomes — the event was held at Montgomery Place, 5550 S. Shore Drive — Thomas said there should be a progressive tax for those earning $1 million in yearly income. Peters disagreed, saying such a proposal, if passed, would open Pandora's box towards regressive taxation. There was also disagreement about judicial elections, with Peters supporting and Thomas opposing. Both, however, expressed support for anti-gerrymandering efforts.

Neither supports term limits, though Peters suggested them for legislative leadership. Thomas said that the General Assembly should call a convention to reform the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would require corresponding action with 33 other state legislatures. Peters referenced his co-sponsorship of a bill that would tax bullets to pay for mental health services in schools and another that would add mental health responders to emergency services summonable through 9-1-1. 

Both are in favor of abortion rights; Peters referenced his sponsorship of the 2019-passed Reproductive Health Act and said the legislature could move to revoke parental notification laws this year.

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