This is the second installment in our “Meet the Candidates” series, in which we interview candidates running for office in the upcoming local, Countywide and Statewide elections.
By Michael Romain
I sat down with Antoinette Gray, the Maywood businesswoman and former college administrator who is challenging incumbent State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch’s 7th District seat in the Illinois General Assembly. For someone so seemingly innocent to the mechanisms of political power, Gray’s organizing approach is pretty astute.
Her platform is simple. Technically, her message stands on the four pillars of public safety, housing, economic development, and education. But the spirit of her campaign is populist. She wants to put the big ‘P’—the people—back into politics in the 7th District, something she thinks her opponent hasn’t done very well. She wants to be open and transparent with voters about her past. She feels she has nothing to hide—personally, financially or otherwise. She wants to govern as an everyday human being (as a single mother, a small business owner and consumer) rather than as a party apparatchik (governing with entrenched interests in mind). She sees herself as a transformational leader who wants to radically upend business-as-usual Proviso Township politicking.
Cynics will say that Gray is rehashing the arguments of every political neophyte and challenger whose come before her—and they may be right. The burden of proof is on Gray and that she may very well know, which is why she spent so much time in our interview trying to prove the cynics wrong.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
Maywood is my home. I graduated from Garfield Elementary and Proviso East High School. I went off to Olivet College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, where I obtained a bachelor’s degree in communication and psychology. I earned my Juris Doctorate from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michigan. I began working on my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership in 2004 at Western Michigan University. I’m in the process of finishing up my dissertation.
Does your dissertation have any relevance to your campaign?
[Some laughter] No, not necessarily. It focuses on higher education administration. However, in my dissertation I do focus on leadership within education; and institutions of higher learning, like the 7th legislative district, represent very diverse communities where people have to work together for the common good. And leadership, as you know, is crucial to the development and success of a scholarly community. So, actually, I could say my dissertation is relevant to my campaign!
You have a professional background in administration, right?
Yes. I’ve worked in higher education as an educator. I’ve taught everything from criminal justice to business administration to composition. I was director of the criminal justice program at Olivet College, my alma mater. I also served in many administrative capacities at both Olivet and Adrian Colleges. Adrian is another small liberal arts college in Michigan.
Education is a priority, it’s pivotal. It’s actually one of the major reasons why I became involved with Proviso East when I came back to Illinois. The value of education is priceless. I want to make sure that our students are getting what they need in order to be competitive globally.
When I moved back here in December 2010, the first thing I did was organize my class reunion for 2011. In doing that, the organizing committee decided to create a scholarship fund. We worked with Proviso East teachers and the administration to create that fund. I interacted with teachers and students, heard their concerns and was personally disappointed with the academic readiness of our students. So, in the first year of opening Farmers Insurance, we created a junior marketing program for high school juniors and seniors who were looking to explore the career of an insurance agent and learn the details and intricacies.
Was the program successful?
The program wasn’t too successful, but the reality is the students that were involved saw that insurance isn’t an easy industry to be in. It requires hard work and dedication, because it is a very competitive industry that requires excellent communication and negotiation skills. It also requires good interpersonal skills. However, it was a great experience for them and they still keep in touch.
What made you move your business into Maywood?
At the end of the day, this is home for me. I went to college, met my husband and we lived in Michigan. We were married for nearly twelve years. When I divorced, I moved back home. Home is where the heart is. But when I moved back, I saw there was a great need for economic development and I wanted to create jobs within our community.
As a small business owner in Maywood, what’s your perspective on the Village’s economic development environment?
I’d like to see other businesses come to the community. It hasn’t happened to the extent that I’d like to see it happen. However, two things: The way I see it, although Maywood has been hit hard by the foreclosure epidemic, it, nevertheless, represents a new beginning. Perhaps we can attract young, vibrant, financially stable professionals into the village who want beautiful affordable, and maybe even historic, housing near a worldclass city. Secondly, with proper planning, the many vacant lots can be transformed into the commercial, and maybe even the industrial development that Maywoodians have long coveted.
See, at one time, our high taxes in Maywood were justified because we had very high performing schools and families wanted to be here. However families aren’t gravitating to our communities anymore, because of those very same high taxes and because of the downturn the schools have taken. Public safety is another concern. We have to address those issues if we’re going to have a larger, more stable population, and if we want to give businesses reasons to move back in.
Why are you running for State Representative?
I’m running for what I believe in. From a housing, economic development and public safety standpoint, we can do better. Our educational system has to improve. With my skill set, my educational background, past employment experiences, and my passion and love for the western suburbs, I believe we can be a stronger district. I feel that I’m qualified and able to work with all of our mayors in the district, and I can help empower our constituents to move in the right direction so we can be the strongest district in the state of Illinois.
After all, my campaign slogan is: “Changing for better, growing together, working for you.” Throughout my campaign, and when I’m fortunate enough to earn the majority vote and the people send me to Springfield, I plan on implementing what I call an Ambassadors Program. This board of Ambassadors in each community that I represent will consist of people who are passionate about their communities and have facts about what’s going on.
We’ll sit down with these ambassadors, listen to their wants, needs, and concerns. My staff will be in regular contact with the ambassadors so that we are always aware of what’s going on. I don’t ever want a crisis to erupt like the closing of the Maywood Public Library while I’m in leadership. If anyone is interested in serving as an ambassador, they can call my office at (708) 223-8007.
Are there any specific policy measures or governing ideas that you’re advocating?
There are four pillars of this campaign—public safety, housing, economic development, and education. They’re all part of a system and they impact one another. Without one, the system is broken and ultimately our youth and our school system are impacted the most. If we can’t get families to stay, that’s ultimately going to impact housing. Foreclosures compromise our tax base and that affects economic development, because a declining population is not conducive to business development. Overall, that takes away from our educational dollars. Education is a very big priority for me.
According to the Illinois State Report Card, only about 5 percent of Proviso East students are college-ready. At Proviso West, that number is about 14 percent. At PMSA, it’s about 60-65 percent. I know our rich history, and the quality of student that we’ve produced in years past, so those statistics are heartbreaking to me. Many of our students in District 209 aren’t learning the basics, nor are they learning how to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, or how to analyze information. This isn’t necessarily because of teachers. It is because administrative decisions and politics have plagued that district at the expense of our smart and talented children’s education, and they deserve better. Their best interests aren’t being served or taken into account.
As you may know, there was a recent proposal to build a charter school in District 89. What are your thoughts on a charter school in the district?
Charters schools are really big in areas where schools are under-performing, so it’s not shocking to me that someone’s proposed to open a charter school in District 89. But I don’t feel it’s necessary to have charter schools in our district. I think we should address the challenges we’re having in our existing schools. The research actually shows that many charter schools do not perform better, and some perform worse, so why should we divert resources from our existing schools.
In Springfield, I’m going to work directly with our school boards to address those challenges with a comprehensive plan to effectively improve the quality of education. I’m going to make sure that I’m working to bring back funding for our schools. Based on our preliminary research we’ve conducted so far, I haven’t seen the dollars coming back to our school districts. In addition, I’m going to make sure that No Child Left Behind [which forces schools to rely on standardized testing as a way to evaluate teacher effectiveness and school success] doesn’t hamper our schools.
You’re running against an incumbent who, quite frankly, has some momentum. Rep. Welch has been very visible with the money he’s been able to identify for the 7th district. He was also a key element in reopening the Maywood Public Library after it closed in October. That’s a rather formidable record. How do you plan on countering Welch’s record?
First, his leadership and service in District 209 as president of the school board precedes him. Yes, Proviso Math and Science academy was opened under his leadership; however, that was a very controversial decision in the community. But more importantly, the academic performance speaks for itself.
For ten years, District 209 was under the leadership of Chris Welch. Are we willing to allow some of those same leadership traits to transfer over to our state legislature? He’s had some job fairs and sponsored some bills, but how many of those bills that he’s sponsored have been backed by dollars that he’s brought back to this district. We know that many of the checks that he’s presented were applied for before he took office. I also want to say it is my understanding that the money behind those checks has not arrived from Springfield. For all we know, I will be the one who ultimately brings the money home.
Second, a leader, in my opinion, is someone who surrounds herself with people who are strong where she is weak, who has great influence on a group of individuals and can get them to change from one direction to another. A great leader is proactive, not reactive. My opponent knew what kind of financial restraints the library was under as early as September of this year. Had he taken a more proactive approach, the library might not have closed.
I have nothing personal against him at all, but I just want to see to it that our constituents have a public servant and not a politician representing them in Springfield. I don’t believe that he uses his position to serve the bests interests of all of his constituents.
Of course, Rep. Welch is serving his first term. He’s a relatively weak incumbent, judging by last election’s results. If anybody were going to challenge him, it would be now. What do you say to people who think that your campaign is no more self-serving than the ‘politician’ you’re running against? Or who see you as a political opportunist?
I’m not running just because Welch is a freshman legislator. That’s the last thing that crossed my mind, although from a strategic standpoint that makes a lot of sense. I’m running because I don’t believe he represents the best interests of our constituents and I do believe that I am the best candidate to represent this district.
I consider myself a transformational leader, which means I’m going to collaborate with the necessary individuals and other leaders in the community to really address our needs and concerns. If you were to call my phone and get my voicemail, you’d hear this message: “Working to be the best district in the State of Illinois.” That is my ultimate goal. I’m representing the people. I’m not representing a political faction. Yes, I’m a democrat, but I want the people to know that, in the words of former congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, I’m “unbought and unbossed.” I will work for you.
You’re in the insurance business. You also own two other businesses—a cleaning company and a real estate development company. How will you assure voters that your financial interests won’t dictate your legislative activity in Springfield?
If anything, I’m making it very clear what my interests and pillars are. If I touch anything downstate regarding insurance, it’s going to be about protecting consumers — making sure there’s no red-lining going on, for example. My personal interest in insurance and real estate is based right here in Maywood, too. The same holds true for my cleaning company. If any laws are sponsored or co-sponsored by me, they’re going to be about and in the best interest of my constituents.
My opponent did not do a great job at distinguishing his personal interests from his business interests on the school board. I will keep my personal endeavors and the interests of the constituents totally separate. The people can rest assured that the people’s business will not be compromised by any personal business interest that I have.
How do you address those other claims that may exist about you—that you’re an interloper who’s running for office after only being back here for only three years; that you’re divorced; that your children go to school in another district, etc.
Three years ago, my intention was not to run for office. When I came back home, I went to my alma mater [Proviso East] to get involved and to see how students were progressing. Immediately, I decided I had to do something. I began volunteering and working with teachers and guidance counselors. I served on a couple of boards. I wanted to volunteer to assure that our students had the best educational experience they could possibly have.
When I saw that all of the decisions about the main issues were being made at a higher level, that’s when I realized that, in order to really have a serious impact, you have to get into that arena. That’s why I’m running for state representative. I feel that I can best represent our constituents on a broad range of issues.
To those who may have questions about my personal life, I say let them ask. I’ll answer. I have nothing to hide. My kids go to school in DuPage County. That was a decision based upon what was best for them emotionally. It was a decision that my ex-husband and I felt was right based on the family’s changing circumstances. They’ll enroll in a district school next year, however.
As far as my divorce goes, I fought very, very hard for my marriage. Unfortunately, we arrived at a point where it was irreconcilable. But I don’t think that should invalidate my candidacy, because my cause is just whether I’m married or not.
You’ve talked a lot about some of the challenges going on in Maywood in particular, but the 7th District is very diverse. How will your campaign address the diversity of interests in this district?
Well, we talked about the Ambassadors Program. That’s going to be very important in helping me to identify the needs of the constituents in the different municipalities. Also, I have a lot of experience reaching out across different constituencies. I worked as a housing director for a nonprofit in Michigan that was located in an area that was very diverse socioeconomically. Interestingly, according to the US Census Bureau, I worked in the poorest zip code in Michigan. However, in a four block radius, for example, one block may have had four to five vacant lots and homes, but two blocks over, you were wowed by homes in a historic district called Boston Edison where Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, once lived.
So, I had to work closely with local governments for funding opportunities to help restore vacant and abandoned homes and to develop vacant lots into beautiful green spaces. The long and short of it is that I’ve experienced serving areas high in poverty that are rich in culture and history, as well as communities that have a number of resources. In other words, I have the wherewithal to address diverse interests and needs and to do it very effectively.
How’s funding for the campaign so far?
We are deliberately running a grassroots campaign because we are interested in getting our message out, too. This is not going to be a situation where well-monied people overpower the needs and wants of the constituency. I want the people to meet me, hear my message and contribute to the campaign because they believe in the vision and they subscribe to our message and they demand better government. The winner of this race should not be the one with the biggest donors. That said, we also hope to raise more than enough to do what we need to do. I am realistic about the fact that it takes money to run a successful campaign. Last year, Rep. Welch’s opponent, Rory Hoskins, raised about $35,000, so we have a benchmark. We’re trying to go as far beyond that number as possible, because we’re really pushing to educate our citizens on the issues and that will take time and money.
We have at least 50 volunteers right now. Our finance committee is coming together. We have a lot of politically astute individuals who believe in the vision and who are supporting this campaign. We have a field director, volunteer coordinators, a scheduler, a consultant, a strategist, and a fundraising coordinator. We have a comprehensive team that’s growing everyday.
We are in the process of mobilizing surrogates for our campaign to go out and speak and meet with individuals on my behalf to share with them our four pillars. We have to make sure that families know me and know what I represent and stand for. That will happen through meeting with them and having conversations with them. I want to earn their vote, I don’t want them to just give it to me.
How have people been responding to your campaign so far?
People have been very, very receptive. I’ve been out in the community meeting families and talking to individuals and they’re excited about the prospect of change. There are late night conversations happening over the phone, lots of meetings, people are walking in everyday to express their support for me and people are learning about ways they can help and contribute to the campaign.
Finally, what do you say to people who simply believe that regardless of how innocent or idealistic candidates are before they get elected, they always change when get into office. Being a challenger is one thing, being an incumbent is another. And a lot of people just think that politicians will be politicians. How do you pierce through the cynicism?
I know that people feel that way, and, quite frankly, I don’t blame them. That’s why I’m running. I, too, am tired of “business as usual.” There is no reason why this great republic that was conceived of so long ago can’t work the way the framers of the constitution intended it to work.
This is the one promise I stand on—I will work for my constituents. I will be a state representative who works for the people. If I’m elected, I will work hard, I will stay abreast of the issues, I will bring all my knowledge, experience and skills to bear on the issues, I will be transparent, and I will stay connected to the people of district. I will keep the people informed. If the people give me the opportunity to represent them, I want them to judge me on that. And if I become one of the “business as usual” types — beholden to the powers that be and self-interested — then the people will be justified in replacing me. VFP