A Conversation With Richard Boykin, Candidate For Cook County Board of Commissioners (1st District)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014 , OAK PARK || By Michael Romain

Last week, I sat down with Richard Boykin, a candidate running for the Cook County Board of Commissioners, 1st District, at his Oak Park campaign headquarters. Boykins, 45, is a partner at Barnes & Thornburg, LLP and Rep. Danny K. Davis’s former legislative director and Chief-of-Staff. With deep experience, expansive connections, an extensive war chest and a slew of prominent endorsements, it’s safe to call him the front-runner, the establishment choice, the safe bet. But there’s also the other side of that coin–the implications that those deep connections and interests may have on Mr. Boykin’s seat on the Board, should he get elected. To twist an old Biblical phrase, ‘To whom much is given, much is suspected.” 

On the ground, Richard Boykin–an ordained minister, registered lobbyist, media personality, legislative aid and attorney–presents a rather intriguing case study in public perception.  To the average would-be voter, Boykin can appeal to your highest moral strivings (you should hear him preach a sermon) or your most earthly professional aspirations (the man is a partner). He can represent your deepest anxieties (there’s that lobbyist thing) or the epitome of what you might expect in an elected official (his connections and resources signify that he can at least get things done). In other words, Boykin is something of a walking Rorschach Test, which makes the minister/partner/politician one of the most complex figures in this race.

Richard Boykin Announces Candidacy
Richard Boykin announcing candidacy in front of the Cook County Jail.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in the Englewood community. My father raised the four of us. I had an opportunity to go to Chicago Vocational High School and to Central State University. I played football at both institutions. But it was an unlikely transition, because I wasn’t expected to go to college.

After I graduated, I came back to Chicago and taught public schools for four years before going off to Dayton University for law school. During law school, I had the opportunity to do an internship with Bobby Rush, who had just been elected to his first term in Congress. I was among his first group of interns.

When I finished law school, I knew I wanted to return to Washington. So I applied for an LBJ Fellowship, which allowed me the opportunity to work for Senator Carol Moseley Braun. That fellowship really gave me the opportunity to work for all the residents of the state. I passed the Illinois bar back in 1994. After working for Sen. Moseley Braun, I then took a contract legal position with the department of justice. I worked for some senior attorneys in the federal torts claims branch of the justice department. I was working on some major cases, but it wasn’t as excited and fascinating as I thought it would be. I still had the desire and thirst for public service and I still wanted to go back to Capitol Hill.

When Congressman Davis was elected, I reached out to him and said I wanted to run his D.C. office. He asked me to come to Chicago. I met with the Congressman from 9am to about 7pm that night. It was the longest interview I ever had. We went to every church meeting, every community meeting you could think of, then we grabbed a bite to eat. Over a Burger King meal, the Congressman told me he was going to be in D.C. in September for the Congressional Black Caucus and he wanted to meet me then. Well, September comes around and I missed the meeting we were supposed to have. I thought I’d blown the opportunity.

Now, let me tell how good God is. I get a call from someone who works for Bobby Rush and he told me that Davis was looking for a legislative assistant. I told him I wanted the top job, not the second job. Eventually, I applied to be his legislative director. Well, I meet with the Congressman and he said, ‘Rich, where have you been? The job is yours.’ Not long afterward, Davis’s Chief-of-Staff left the position and I had the opportunity to get promoted up. So, God will give you the desires of your heart.

With Davis, we did some great things. For instance, we passed a legislative amendment increasing funding for an access to jobs program [Job Access and Reverse Commute Program]. It was earmarked by President Clinton for certain communities to get people in central cities to jobs in the suburbs. A lot of transportation companies, as well job-seekers, benefited from that program. And we did it with Republican support and votes.

We also brought a lot of money back to many entities in the 7th District, including Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

Overall, I think that the 13 years I spent in Washington working, creating relationships and understanding how to get results and get things done for people and entities….I think that will all benefit the residents of Proviso Township and the First District, because we have the relationships and we can leverage them on behalf of the First District.

Why are you running for Cook County Commissioner?

I’m running, because there is a sense of hopelessness, a sense that people have lost faith in government and lost hope in the future. There are too many people,  especially young people, dying our streets. Dreams are being dashed and hopes are being wiped out. And so we hope to inspire young people, inspire working class people, inspire poor people to hope again, to dream again, to believe in the greatness of this country. I’m also running so that we can bring the resources necessary to stem the tide of violence in our community.

I had a chance to visit the employment services center in Maywood and I asked them what the unemployment rate here in Maywood was. They said they didn’t drill down that deep. They just looked at the national numbers. I told them we need to drill down deep. We need to take training dollars and put them in communities with high unemployment and focus like a laser on these communities. It is vitally important.

But the faith-based community has to step up as well, because it takes a village to raise a child. A child can’t be what a child can’t see. We’ve sort of lost that mentality of nurturing we had years ago. Nowadays, people are afraid to speak to a young person when they see them going astray. Well, God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

We also need to provide people with the skills necessary to help them raise their children. There are too many single parent homes and people are struggling in those homes.

These are all great ambitions, but a lot of people have heard similar grand plans from politicians running for office that often end up getting shelved once that politician gets elected. You talked about people not having faith in government. Part of that lack of faith may be attributed to this disconnect between what politicians promise and what they deliver when they get the votes. And quite frankly, a lot of what office-seekers promise on the campaign trail goes beyond what they can deliver when they get into office. So, how do you connect those lofty goals to concrete policy ideas that will bring them about? In what concrete ways, for instance, will you help restore people’s faith in government?

Cook County government is the second largest county in the country, nearly six million people. There are lots of resources at our disposal.  We’ve got a three billion dollar budget, but we’re spending way too much of that budget on public safety and locking people up. 40-45 percent is public safety, 35 percent is health care. People have to lend their voices to this discussion and debate. A lot of people we’re talking about have been left out of the debate and the discussion.

The State, since 2009, has cut $200 million in mental health services. They’ve also closed facilities in Chicago and throughout Illinois. What is the largest mental health institution in the country? Is it a nursing home or a senior citizen home? No, it’s the cook county jail, where more than 10,000 people are housed. I toured that facility with Sheriff Tom Dart and he said, fully a third of the people in Cook County Jail should not be there. They commit crimes so that they can get their medical treatment in jail. The nation is determined by how well we treat those who are sick and struggling among us. Cook County and the nation are failing in that regard. And the reason is because folk who are mentally ill don’t have an advocate at the table when the budget is being discussed, but that will change. I want to be that advocate for them among Republicans and Democrats. I will hold town hall meetings on a regular basis. I will have task force committees where I will ask people to get engaged in the governing process.

To alleviate the crime rate, we need to raise the minimum wage. I’ve long been a proponent of this. Right now, people can’t make it on $8.25 an hour. I’ve met people who are on public assistance and still work a minimum wage job. I think we need to work with the business community to bring them along and do something thoughtful.

I want to turn to the elephant in the china shop–your lobbying career. How do you address the concerns about the appropriateness of a lobbyist running for office? Will your professional relationships affect the decisions you make on your constituencies’ behalf?

I am a minister. I’m a member of the Rock of Ages Baptist Church in Maywood. Ultimately, I’m accountable to God for every decision and action I make. I taught in public schools for 13 years. I fully understand that if people don’t have an advocate they don’t have a seat at the table. I understand how to get things done. I’ve been getting things done for the last 21 years. I tell people, you’d be surprised to know that cancer organizations have lobbyists for cancer research. Surely, that’s a worthy goal. There are lobbyists for increased funding for research dollars.

Boykins Preaching at Rock of Ages Baptist Church
Richard Boykin preaching at Rock of Ages Baptist Church (North Lawndale Community News).

I’m proud of my lobbying engagements. I’ve represented Chicago State University and am proud of it. I’ve represented municipalities such as University Park and Cook County, where we’ve brought millions of dollars back to taxpayers and increased those governments’ visibility in Washington. I’ve represented the American Dietetic Association, the National Star Route Mail Contractors Association and my proudest representation has been on behalf of the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind or Visually Impaired. We collaborated with the Illinois Tollway and UIC to get more blind and visually impaired people employed in tollway booths. People who are visually impaired and blind have a 75 percent unemployment rate. So, I’m pleased to have worked with them in an integral way to make that a reality. That collaboration has already created 300-400 jobs.

I want to return to your ideas about mental health in Cook County. It does seem to be an epidemic and yet, in the name of ‘efficiency’, the very programs that can help alleviate the many social problems associated with mental health are meeting the chopping block. As you stated, both the State and the City of Chicago are cutting mental health facilities and resources. Are you in favor of utilizing other palliatives besides harsh program cuts, such as raising taxes, in order to raise revenue to help the disadvantaged?

I’m not for increasing the income tax. I’m not for an increase in taxes in Cook County or increasing property taxes or income taxes in the State. I’m not for that. We have to have a rational tax policy in the County, because we’re losing too many employers and jobs. Corporations are going to surrounding counties like DuPage and Lake, because the tax structure is more conducive to them in those places. People are already paying too much in taxes and in an economy such as this, to suggest we ought to raise people’s taxes is irresponsible. We ought to be talking about lowering people’s taxes. If you bring more corporations in and have a workforce ready to work, you’ll have more people on the tax rolls and more money coming into the system.

But the problem doesn’t necessarily appear to be that taxes are too high per se. They’re too high for the poor and the middle class, but they’re not high enough for the wealthiest among us and for corporations. There’s a lot of data demonstrating the drain that unconditional corporate tax breaks, various other subsidies and incentives, and corporate tax dodging have on local economies. When some of the country’s most profitable and productive companies don’t pay any taxes and then, on top of that, demand that state and local governments give them more money to move in–only to pack up and go someplace else where the taxes are even lower in a few years’ time–when that happens, government loses revenue. But it still has to pay for services and programs. So, the burden of taxation falls on the backs of the poor and the middle-class. How do you strike a balance? How do you make corporations pay their share of taxes while also maintaining a healthy, job-creating business climate and without increasing the already heavy tax burden that the poor and middle-class have to bear? After all, the revenue for services and programs has to come from somewhere.

My campaign is proud to have been endorsed by the Chicago Federation of Labor. Their endorsement suggests that we will stand up for working men and women and we will. We’ve fought against fast-track legislation in Congress that will devastate workers, for instance. I want to be clear that corporations have to be responsible to the community. I also want to make clear that communities can’t survive without jobs. I will focus like a laser on job creation. I’m for economic incentives for corporations to come in with the caveat that they have to be responsible and that this is a long-term deal, not two or three years. But we can’t just keep raising taxes to get revenue. We have to focus on the revenue we have. So, how do you get the other efficiencies? You look at every line item in the budget. You cut the fat out. If i’m asking people making $40,000 a year to live within their means, then the government ought to live within its means without raising taxes on people.

You know, some people have never seen a tax that they did not like and so they want more taxes. Well, I understand what it’s like to pay taxes and I understand that people think they’re paying too much in taxes.

Finally, I want to hear your ideas about the possibility of Cook County collaborating with local municipalities, like Maywood, that are budget-stressed and resource-strained.

Richard Boykin Speaking at Gala
Richard Boykin accepting the Judd R. Horowitz Service Award (Sharon Gaietto | Oak Park Oak Leaves).

We’ll have a real close relationship with all the municipalities and we’re pleased to have the endorsement of all seven mayors in Proviso Township. One of the things that’s important, for instance, is that there is a lot of flooding in the Proviso area. So we want to bring all the resources we have in Cook County so we can help the residents in that area.

We also want to make sure that the forest preserve land is kept pristine and not sold off to private interests. Eleven percent of the land mass in Cook County is forest preserve. The taxpayers and residents should be able to enjoy that land well into the future based on the decisions we make today.

In addition, often times Sheriff Tom Dart is called in whenever there’s a shortage of police. We think that’s good, but we’re also hopeful that our working with the village presidents and mayors, trustees, clerks and community activists will help to empower communities and we won’t see a need for Cook County to just swoop in and take over services.

One area where County government is so essential for the poor is health care. We have 250,000 of our fellow citizens in Cook County who aren’t signed up for health care. We’ve got to get them signed up. With the Health Care Act, there will be an infusion of resources in Cook County, so we have to get people signed up.

We owe the people of Cook County the best government possible–a responsive government and a government that thinks outside the box. That’s what we owe them and I want to give them that. VFP

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