A Conversation with Ronald Lawless, Candidate for Cook County Commissioner, First District

February 25, 2014 || By Michael Romain

Ronald Lawless, educator and businessman, wants to be the Harold Washington of the 1st District, but he doesn’t believe that politicians should make grandiose promises they aren’t likely to fulfill. If you’re confused, you’re not alone. And its probably my fault for not asking the obvious follow-up to Mr. Lawless’s claim. Exactly what does being the Harold Washington of the 1st District entail? I’ve got a sense, however, that it may have brought us back to the beginning of our conversation. To understand Mr. Lawless–the renegade, the gadly,  the former Green Party member, the Abraham Lincoln-quoting, English-teaching wordsmith–you have to listen to him closely. You may still be confused, but you’ll also probably learn more than you did before the conversation started. Afterwards, you may even rethink your initial opinions on certain issues. So, perhaps Lawless is less confusing than a complex thinker. And complex answers don’t always go down smoothly. Hear him out and make an opinion for yourself–that’s what he’d say.

Ronald Lawless

Tell us about yourself.

I have a master’s degree in Education. I’ve taught English at City Colleges of Chicago and other universities. I’ve worked with immigrants and taught English as a Second Language (ESL). I have a massive background in advocacy and helping people. I’m the past president of the Austin Jaycees Educational Endowment Fund. As part of that organization, we put on a save the children weekend festival for two days. I helped them do that for 19 years. The point was to foster a safe community for children and everyone. The Austin community is a beautiful and wonderful community with beautiful and wonderful people that gets a lot of negativity because of a small percentage of things that happen there. But when you live there, you understand that it’s one of the best communities in which to live.

Currently, I’m an educational consultant with Lawless and Associates. I consult with educators, teachers and laymen on their financial futures. We do retirement planning, as well as guide them toward making the right financial decisions.

What attributes do you think make you the most qualified candidate in this race?

I’m the only candidate that knows the entire district in terms of the communities. I’m the only candidate that’s gotten votes from each community in which I’m running. I’m a fiber of the community–from Austin to Oak Park to West Garfield. I’ve advocated for saving St. Anne’s Hospital, worked with parents and CPS administrators to prevent school closings, and worked with residents in Oak Park to keep an open dialogue on diversity. For instance, one of Oak Park’s biggest cultural contributors is Percy Julian–from Maywood. I don’t know how many of the candidates would know that, but we need to talk about those kinds of things.

As you may know, since 2011, the county’s budget gap has decreased from $487 million in 2011 to a preliminary gap of $152.1 million in 2014. This significant deficit reduction is attributed by many to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidy. But once that subsidy runs out, the deficit is projected to increase to $521 million in 2018, wiping out the gains of the last three years. How does the Board of Commissioners deal with this budget problem without raising taxes or making cuts that will hurt the poor and middle-class?

Cook County hasn’t proposed a property tax increase in 20 years, but we’ve been increasing excise taxes (i.e., cigarette, liquor). President Preckwinkle is hoping to reduce that budget gap to by another $40-50 million. To keep on that track of deficit reduction, we have to do what I consider an audit of county government’s finances, as well as expenditures and determine where we can first cut waste and unnecessary expenses before we can talk about raising any kind of taxes. And if taxes have to be raised, the process has to be transparent. There needs to be public discussion. If services have to be cut, there needs to be open, public discussion. The public has to let us know the services they can live with and without. Those decisions shouldn’t be unilateral decisions made by 17 people.

What are your thoughts Medicaid expansion, or CountyCare? And what are some of the challenges that may accompany it?

With Obamacare now law, people can go anywhere. Cook County will tell you they’re in competition now for customers. They know that they’re competing for patients and their own existence is based on their ability to become more efficient. On January 22, I went to Cook County hospital and met with patients and doctors. Patients said they liked how the county is moving patients in and out. Doctors said they were pleased with improved services.

What are some possible areas of collaboration between the county and smaller suburbs, such as Maywood, that face many of the same problems as large cities (i.e., crime, high foreclosure rates, etc.), but with a fraction of the money and resources to properly confront those problems?

What is any of us running for this office going to do to substantially reduce crime over the long-term? If we want to be public servants, we don’t have to be elected to try to reduce crime. For instance, one of my opponents likes to say that he’ll work with Tom Dart to help reduce crime in our community. But that’s not Tom Dart’s job. The sheriff’s department does several things and they do them well. Primarily, they evict people and they protect unincorporated areas. How much more can they do beyond that to stem crime to an extent that really matters? Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘We ought not promise something we can’t deliver.’

Now, if we really want to reduce crime, here’s how: Tell the state to fund education at the level that is required to ensure every child in the state gets the same quality education wherever they live. Then you’ll see crime decrease.

But you just said that candidates shouldn’t promise what they can’t deliver. What does a commissioner have to do with state funding of education?

We don’t have to be elected to advocate for something works. We can advocate as citizens. We all should be advocating for quality education for every child in the state.

Again, in what general areas do you think the county and local municipalities such as Maywood (which are overwhelmed with problems and underwhelmed with the resources to solve them) can collaborate more closely for the sake of mutual interests?

First, remember the county’s role. It provides public health, public safety, maintaining roads that are county-owned, etc. It’s not the county’s responsibility to swoop in and save municipalities that may have mismanaged or abused their funds. Locals have to be more responsible in the people they elect and understand there are consequences when we don’t elect the people who serve our best interests. Government isn’t about making people rich, it’s about serving the public and we need to do a better job of weeding out the candidates who are in this to enrich themselves.

Ronald Lawless Visits Juvenile Center
Lawless visiting a juvenile detention facility (Photo by Brad/The Voice Newspapers).

But there are problems, such as the foreclosure crisis, that are common to larger municipalities, such as Cook County, and smaller municipalities, such as Maywood, that one could argue shouldn’t be approached from an ‘every municipality for itself’ perspective. Don’t you agree?

Sure. For instance, President Preckwinkle created a Land Bank commission to work with communities like maywood, Chicago and other areas to address the foreclosure crisis. The nice thing is that it also creates local employment for local residents, but we have to be careful. We have to have commissioners sitting at the table who have the interests of the residents in mind.

Another way for collaboration is a program that compensates suburban communities for plowing roads that are controlled by the county. I’m in favor of local entities taking the burden off the county and helping local communities with their revenue shortfall. That’s what I’m all about.

Some of your opponents, Mr. Sercye in particular, have advocated ramping up resource-sharing between the sheriff’s department and distressed local municipalities. Do you agree that more collaboration between sheriff’s department and local law enforcement is a way to help suburbs maintain a grip on their particular crime issues?

Yes. That’s already happening. Robbins is a good example of that.

As you probably know, Mayor Perkins was among several mayors in Proviso Township who endorsed your opponent, Richard Boykin. One of the reasons she gave was that she felt that he would put the interests of Proviso Township at the forefront, since she felt that Proviso Township often gets overlooked in county matters. How do you confront public officials in Proviso Township who share this sentiment?

First, I don’t know how Mayor Perkins can make that assessment when she hasn’t spoken to us. No disrespect to her, she has only been mayor for a year, but at the same time, she’s endorsing candidates that have no allegiance to the area.

I’ve worked with Maywood’s former village clerk, Eleanor Miller; former Maywood Mayor, Don Williams and others. I’ve worked with Eugene Moore and I’ve worked with them to address Proviso’s interests. I’m one vote. In the last election, Earlean Collins won Proviso Township. She was given four more years, but when she was campaigning she said that she wanted another term so she could get a full pension from county government. She made it obvious where her interests lay–with herself.

The bottom line is this. I’m oblivious to what’s going on in Proviso. I’m aware of the mayors’ concerns. Their issues will be at the forefront, as will those of other communities. I will work with them, support them and be a cheerleader for them. So when I do become commissioner, you can assure Mayor Perkins that she will have in Ronald Lawless what she thinks she has in Boykin.

What are some marquee issues–big, bumper-sticker issues–you’re trying to raise in your campaign?

There are a lot of issues that can be bumper sticker issues, but i don’t want to run a bumper sticker campaign. I want to run an issues-oriented campaign.

One that’s very close to me is that more than 60 percent of our 1st District residents have criminal records and that’s continuing to go up. More than 15,000 jobs have been lost on the West Side over the past twenty years. People talk about bringing jobs to the community, but how can you bring in jobs when more than 60 percent of people in the community can’t get the jobs that are already there?

Some of these individuals have been arrested unjustly, but they still have to have those records expunged. I’m proposing that Springfield mandate that all those municipalities that arrest individuals unjustly pay a monetary fine for this rogue policing. If individuals who’ve been wrongfully arrested win their cases in court and get their charges dropped, the municipalities should pay for their expungement.

I know firsthand the effects that rogue police can have on people’s lives. When i was 17, I was working for FW Woolworths. While I was on my lunch break, I was arrested. The police thought I’d stolen a bike, even though my boss vouched for me. He told them I couldn’t have stolen it, because I was working at the time. I was charged and prosecuted. I had to go to court, pay for an attorney. My case was eventually won, but it wasn’t over for me. I still had to get my arrest expunged. All of that, because of shoddy police work and institutionalized injustice.

How would you evaluate Board President Preckwinkle’s job performance?

She’ll get my vote. She’s done a good job. I approve of what she’s done. My working relationship with her will be cordial and professional. We have issues to address, but i won’t be a yes vote for the President. When there are differences, I’ll address those, but i will also give my solutions to the problem. I wont’ be indifferent to the problem-solving process.

You’ve been known to be something of a gadfly in this campaign, because of your relative candor about the inherent limits of the position of Cook County Commissioner. But how do you win an election to an office when you’re constantly advertising the inherent limits of that office? People want to know what you can do, not what you can’t do. And it seems that voters are more likely to elect someone who oversells himself and promises too much than one who promises too little. Don’t you think?

Lincoln once said, ‘You get the government you deserve.’ That used to be true, but people are hurting. They’re losing their jobs. No disrespect to the president, but he had a lot of grandiose ideas and a lot of people felt he couldn’t deliver them. People had hope back then, but a lot hasn’t changed. If people want grandiose ideas, they they ought to know that there is an empty pit when people promise you something that sounds too good. The old adage still holds–if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. People are more mature, more angry now. And they understand that it’s not about the sizzle, they want to some bacon with that sizzle. I bring someone who is capable, intellectual, effective and, most importantly, responsive.

At the end of the day, I want people to think about how they choose. They need to think about whose going to give them spiritual guidance. You pick that person because there’s something about that person that sparks you. I want to be that spiritual leader in the political arena. I am a protege of Harold Washington. He was my spark. He’s the reason I got in politics. He’s the reason I’m still in politics. If the people elect me, I can promise them I will be to the people of the 1st District of Cook County what Harold Washington was to the City of Chicago. VFP

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