By Michael Romain
Make an impression on then-Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn while still in high school — Check. Land an internship with Quinn while barely out of high school — Check. Volunteer on Quinn’s gubernatorial campaign — Check. Graduate from Princeton University with honors — Check. Serve as field coordinator for Quinn’s reelection campaign — Check. Do the same thing one year later for the mayoral campaign of a certain former White House Chief-of-Staff — Check. Get within a degree of separation of the current President of the United States — Check. Run for State Representative — Check. Graduate from the University of Chicago Law School — Check. Pass the bar — Check. Get appointed by Quinn to the Illinois Medical District Commission — Check. Land a job at a respected law firm — Check.
Blake Sercye, 27, is now embarking on what he believes to be the culmination of everything he’s ever done so far in his young life. He wants to replace outgoing Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins. I sat down with Sercye for a talk about why he’s running and learned at least two things. One, the check list above would probably induce a slight cringe in the remarkably grounded young politico. And two, (to repeat a mantra of Sercye’s) he may be young, but he’s not new. (Translate: ‘With all due humility, don’t get it twisted’).
Sercye is a life-long resident of the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. He was born to a single-mother who, with the help of scholarships, put him through St. John Lutheran Grammar School in Forest Park and Fenwick High School in Oak Park. According to the Austin Weekly News, “Sercye saw the disparity of living in his blighted West Side community and the promise afforded him as a student at Fenwick High School in Oak Park. That tale of two cities sparked his political ambitions.” Of course, there are thousands of young boys who grow up in communities such as Austin without Sercye’s strong sense of duty to the place he calls home. I asked him whether there’s a deeper source of his unique ambitions.
I was born and raised right off of Chicago and Laramie, in the 37th Ward, by a single-parent mother who emphasized [the importance] of community service and volunteering, which I’ve been doing since an early age. My mom and aunt still clean up the whole block. They go around picking up trash off the lawns. Theire feeling is, if [one] house is dirty, the whole block looks dirty. My family didn’t have lots of money, but I was blessed with a different kind of wealth. My family provided me with resources and love [and an appreciation for hard work].
At Fenwick, I would wipe down the lunch tables as a condition of my scholarship. My entire education was paid for in college, but I would work in the dining hall and in the library at Princeton to pay for books [and other necessities]. I’m not ashamed of any table I wiped or any dish I cleaned. I’m actually proud of that.
How many times have you been called the next Obama?
[Laughs] I have been called that before and people do make comparisons, but I just want to be the first me. I want to be someone who’s out here working hard for my community.
I asked you that jokingly, but also to get at a more serious reality. Our culture has the automatic tendency of commodifying every aspect of our lives. We tend to see everything through the prisms of personal ambition, power and profit, such that something as simple as community organizing, for instance, is too often considered merely a means to a more glorious end — that of being President or a corporate executive or a big shot administrator. We rarely appreciate the fact that building community should be the end in itself — it should be both the means and the end. Unfortunately, though, community-building pursuits like volunteering, attending school board meetings or picking up trash don’t inspire the same sort of grandiosity as, say, wanting to be the next Oprah or the next Obama or the next Kanye. What do you say to the unsung people who are working in the shadows and who often go unnoticed by the wider culture?
I would say, just do as much as you can for as many people as you can. [Just like my mom and aunt demonstrated] there’s nothing too small that you can do for your community […] it all matters. You don’t have to serve on a medical commission to serve. If all you do is drive someone else’s kid home from school […] little things like that are what it takes to build communities.
A lot of people in suburbs such as Maywood may not immediately draw a connection between county-wide governance and municipal governance, even though what happens at the county-level directly affects us in many different ways at the local level. Can you explain how we’re affected by what happens at the county level?
Sure. We have to make sure that we elect somebody who can see further than five inches in front of his or her face and is focused on trying to utilize every [resource] we can in our communities; someone who can see beyond the first 3-6 months in office. So, I’m advocating for policies that solve more than one problem. For instance, I’m a strong advocate of the Cook County Land Bank [which was recently awarded $6 million to fight home foreclosures].
The Land Bank acquires property, clears the back-taxes on the property, maintains the property and puts it back to use […] I want to advocate for the use of Land Bank funds in Maywood, which would allow us to handle several issues at the same time. Property is put back to use, people are employed, crime is reduced and the tax base is improved — in one program.
Another issue is sealing and expungement with respect to the criminal justice system. We all know about Cook County Jail [and the high costs of incarcerating people]. I’m happy with [Cook County Board of Commissioners President] Tony Preckwinkle’s actions to lower bond payments, but we also have to reduce the rate of recidivism [people going back to jail]. We want people taking advantage of the sealing and expungement policies available. While the laws governing sealing and expungement are state, not county, laws, I can bring in people I’ve worked with on in these issues in the past. For instance, I’m on the associate board of the Sergeant Shriver Center, [which has done important work in the area]. I also worked with the Chicago Legal Clinic and the main thing I did with them was sealing and expungment. These issues matter a whole lot. I would see guys who had been employed and excelling for several months at jobs where people aren’t expected to last more than a month or two. When they would come up for promotion, their past would kick in. Their promotion would be contingent on getting their record expunged. For many of the people I worked with, their record was the single thing keeping them from gaining employment and taking care of their families.
The Affordable Care Act is another matter that we deal with at the county level that affects people directly. County Care is basically the ACA implemented at the county-level and it’s available for people all across Cook County. The ACA gives people access to private insurance who did not have it before, but it also expands healthcare access for people who can’t afford private insurance. County healthcare is free. During the last 10-20 years, we’ve seen the population of people who utilize county healthcare spread to places way beyond [John Stroger, the central point in Chicago] where county healthcare is administered. So, I would advocate that we pour more resources into improving and upgrading our satellite facilities.
But whenever we have the opportunity, we need to make sure that people are being covered under private insurance, because the [healthcare provider] reimbursement rates of private insurance companies are higher than those of the county. Also, every private insurance dollar we get is one less dollar we have to pay as taxpayers to subsidize the system.
For those who may not understand, can you explain what a Cook County Commissioner does?
Absolutely. Commissioners have four main functions, which fall under the general areas of: public health (overseeing the countywide healthcare system), public safety (i.e., the Cook County Jail and Sheriff’s office), tax administration and county green space (i.e., Forest Preserve). A lot of these areas overlap with municipal-level functions.
In addition to helping ex-offenders have access to employment, I also want to change the way we use the Cook County Sheriff’s office. For instance, when Dixmoor, Illinois found themselves without police officers to work the night shift, Sheriffs officers came in and picked up the slack. I want to see that kind of local-countywide collaboration in places like Maywood and Austin. I want to see Sheriffs officers patrolling high-crime areas in neighborhoods and suburbs that are short on crime-fighting resources.
But talk about patrol is one thing; talk about prevention is another. The big long-term solution to crime reduction is education. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t think the County has a part to play in education. Of course, we are limited in what we can do, but there are nonetheless things we definitely can do.
I was talking to a woman in Oak Park a few weeks ago who said that she was going to ask me about education before she figured that the County has nothing to do with it. That’s not completely true. If we figure out ways to better-coordinate resources between Cook County and the local municipalities, we can make more money available to fund education.
Speaking of making money available for education — Illinois, like virtually every other state in the country, throws money at huge corporations under the illusion that this spurs economic growth and job-creation. However, growth and job-creation rarely happen as a result of subsidies. What happens is that money that could’ve been allocated toward things like education gets wasted. [There was a pretty comprehensive report published in The New York Times last year exploring this problem]. What’s your stance on corporate subsidies? And does the county have some influence in this area?
Yes, Cook County is part of that process. My point on subsidies is never say never, but we have to be cautious about the way we do it. We need to see more subsidies given out on the back-end…
Basically with strings attached.
Yes. Before we give them the money, they have to create the jobs. Let’s stop acting like we have to beg businesses to come here. We’re a thriving region in which to do business. We have leverage. So, we should restructure things that way. Only subsidize under circumstances that ensure job-creation [as opposed to simply hoping for it].
On education, I think we need to focus on long-term, structural solutions. For instance, I think we should change the way we fund schools. We need to go from funding out of local property taxes toward the State guaranteeing equal funding per pupil. We also need to increase the income tax. We need a progressive, not a flat, income tax in Illinois. And when we get that money, we need to make sure it goes toward education.
Going back to the campaign, what do you think of your chances?
The most interesting part about this race is that there’s no incumbent running and no presently elected official running. I know if I’m able to talk to voters and share my ideas, I’ll be competitive with any candidate. As long as I’m able to share my story, I can live with people not agreeing with me. I have no problem with that.
How has fundraising been going?
Before you even talk about money, you have to figure out how you can reach voters. You have to be somebody who’s accessible, who people can reach. So, that’s a major focus. But funding is going well. In the first quarter, we finished second in fundraising in a field of about seven or eight announced candidates. We feel that we’re going to be in the top two from now until election day and we’re doing this the grassroots way — our funding is coming from friends and families. We’re not getting $10,000 from big donors. We’ve been tapping people in the community.
I feel like I’m taking everything out of my pocket — everything I’ve done in life, every person I’ve met — and using what I have to see how I can help the first district. VFP
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