The upcoming U.S. House election in Illinois’s second congressional district represents a steep challenge for Republicans; the district gave 90 percent of its vote to Barack Obama in 2008 and was until recently represented by Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr., who managed to easily win reelection in 2012 even though he was under criminal investigation and on medical leave.
But Jackson announced his resignation on November 21, and now a special election will occur on April 9, with turnout expected to be much lower. While the district scores a D+32 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index, it does have some less heavily Democratic sections, stretching from 53rd Street on the city’s South Side through the south suburbs of Chicago, all the way to Kankakee County.
Five Republicans have filed papers to run for the seat; the best known is probably Lenny McAllister, a former local radio host and syndicated radio commentator.
“Who am I? I think first I would define myself as a child of God,” McAllister begins. “Somebody that is a leader, that doesn’t follow conventional politics. I am a Republican, but I am definitely not of the current stereotype. I am a Republican who embraces conservative principles and understands where conservative principles can apply to urban and suburban voting populations in a way that the Republican party has not been successful in engaging those voting blocs over the past 30 years. Yet at the same time, I am a Republican not afraid to talk about issues of race, issues of social economics, not afraid to talk about issues that have been impacting the youth, the poor, and the working classes of America.”
McAllister contends he’s uniquely qualified as messenger for the GOP, citing his past work hosting a radio show on WVON and writing op-eds for the Chicago Defender, and his current appearances on American Urban Radio Network, a group of about 400 African-American and urban radio stations across the country.
“To be able to have a platform that talks to different segments of America, there’s a unique opportunity for Republicans to be able to show folks that our values can be effective in an urban district, particularly one that’s been suffering for so long,” McAllister says. “It’s been so gerrymandered, there hasn’t even been legitimate Republican competition in this district in some time. No offense to any of the [past] candidates, that’s just numbers. We have an opportunity in 2013 to change that, to change the tone within the Republican party and to change the attention that both sides of the aisle give to districts like this one, and to start working better together.”
When asked about former representative Jackson, McAllister says he sees a personal tragedy and a political tragedy. “My prayers are with him and his family. I have worked with his older sister Santita, at WVON, I have worked with his brother Jonathan at Chicago State University. I have grown fond of that family. I may not agree with every single issue that they stand for, but there a human tragedy to this and a political tragedy to this. There are children involved with this, so that is where my focus is with that.”
“Regards to the political tragedy, you have a gerrymandered district where there is no political competition. The power of incumbency entrenches people so deeply, that it’s hard to get them out in a primary, and there’s no competition in the general election. These become small kingdoms. Once you’re in, people expect to stay in.”
The results of gerrymandering and the culture of “small kingdoms” spurred McAllister’s enthusiasm for term limits.
“I know that there is a representative in New York who is trying to repeal the presidential term limits. We need to do the exact opposite,” he says. “What we need to term-limit the House to no more than six consecutive terms and the Senate to no more than two consecutive terms. Nobody needs to be in either chamber for more than 12 years. If we can transition the political acumen in power in the president of the United States once every eight years, why can’t we do the same to the House of Representatives and the Senate every twelve years?”
On the recent strike by Chicago’s school teachers, McAllister expresses frustration at how the interests of the students was lost in a high-stakes contract fight.
“One of the questions I asked was, which many thought was a rather bold one to ask was, ‘In a summer when were shootings and a high rate of violence, where black youth gunned down in their neighborhoods, sometimes in broad daylight, where were the African-American leaders within the teachers’ union to say, “this could be deadly for our kids to keep them out of school longer?”’” he laments. “I understand the need for unions in the 21st century. I feel like unions can still have a proper role in places of business in the 21st century. But I think that unions such as teachers’ unions need to understand the model is different, and the expectations must be different.” He said he is intrigued by a recent proposal by the American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten for a type of “bar exam” for teachers to set standards for teacher quality.
Asked about the performance of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, McAllister sees a mixed record so far. “I think he understands that we’re going to have to do things differently in how we spend money, how we negotiate contracts, and in regards in how we prepare the workforce. There’s an initiative [of his] that was just announced today in the Sun-Times that’s similar to an initiative I’ve had, which is that we have to prepare more minorities for tech positions so they can get good jobs and be part of the resurgence of America and our economy. We’re talking about apprenticeships that target specific workers, whether it’s minority workers, minority students coming out of high school, or generally people who have not had the opportunity to transition to new work, to prepare them to get back into the workforce.”
But McAllister finds Emanuel’s time as mayor disappointing in its response to high crime rates, particularly shootings and violent crime. “I would like to see an increase in response to the violence we’ve had for the past year plus. I think he and Police Chief [Garry] McCarthy – the work that’s been put in place, it is well-intended, [but there's] more that could be done so that the violence stops. Not just adding police on the ground, but also going after economic policy so that kids at 12 and 13 see alternatives to violence so they’re not picking up guns at [ages] 16, 17, and 18. I’d like to see that effort ramped up more.”
Finally, McAllister sees a great need to take the abstract debate about the debt and put it into tangible terms for Americans who are focused on their immediate economic anxieties.
“When we start talking about spending, we have to bend back the curve, but as we’re doing that, we have to talk about jobs. It has to be tied together. Because if we’re going to bend back the spending, if we’re going to increase the ages for Social Security or Medicare, we have to make sure that there is an incentive for Generation X and Generation Y to want to work longer at a job that is going to be rewarding. . . . My candidacy is specifically designed and focused upon reintroducing the poor and the working poor of this district to the American Dream.”
He offers a simple argument against the current rate of government spending: Look closely at the results we see around us today.
“Spending is not bringing the jobs right now,” he says. “Spending has continued to increase during the course of Obama’s presidency, and the unemployment rate, starting in 2008, has boomed, to the point where we’re all starting to feel good about 7.8 percent unemployment, even as people continue to jump out of the workforce. Six percent unemployment was [considered] a problem just five years ago! We need smart spending policies in place, that allow employers to feel good to create jobs, and to feel that those jobs will still be there three, four, five, ten years from now and they won’t be in bankruptcy court.”