A Conversation With Rep. Kathleen Willis (D-77th)

Willis

Monday, March 17, 2014 || By Michael Romain 

When told that Maywood has not one, but two state representatives, most residents here react with surprise. Most residents live within the 7th district, currently represented by Emanuel “Chris” Welch, a Democrat running unopposed. The 77th district, represented in the General Assembly by Kathleen Willis, only covers a slice of the Village’s north side, well past Lake Street. That sliver, however, holds about 900 residents.

Rep. Willis’s challenger during this election cycle, recent John Marshal Law School grad and Melrose Park resident, Antonio “Tony” Favela, 31, has pushed hard on her Democratic legitimacy and her legislative independence. He posits that Mrs. Willis symbolizes a looming problem in state and national politics.

In 2012, Mrs. Willis defeated 20-year incumbent Skip Saviano, a Republican, after Mr. Saviano’s district was redrawn, putting his once safe GOP territory into Democratic contention. That election, if measured by Mrs. Willis’s campaign contributions that year, cost nearly $600,000. It was her first electoral victory and the basis for Mr. Favela’s oft-repeated claim that the first time the Representative, a former Republican, voted Democratic was for herself. He says that today’s political culture is less ethical, more money-driven and more dictated by acts of technical comeuppance, such as gerrymandering, than ever before.

If Mrs. Willis is worried about her younger challenger, she hasn’t shown any signs. In fact, insofar as local elections are driven on narrative and framing, she hasn’t pushed back too hard on Mr. Favela’s characterization of her as a political opportunist unwilling to seem too out of sync with the Madigan machine who put her in office–even when the tactics of Madigan’s campaign operatives would seem beyond the pale of anyone with decency (no matter how many levels of plausible deniability by which one is protected).

Last year, after reports surfaced that men identifying themselves as state election officials were visiting the homes of those who had signed Mr. Favela’s campaign petitions and bullying them into retracting their signatures, Mrs. Willis simply denied that she knew the men. She didn’t condemn the reprehensible behavior. And this month, her campaign mailed out three palm cards that–if not quite matching the psychological terror those men (likely affiliated more closely with Speaker Madigan than Rep. Willis) inflicted–were every bit as distasteful and ethically egregious.

All three mailers claim that Mr. Favela is connected with a developer “that wants to build a Las Vegas-style strip club next to a convent in our community–despite heavy opposition from local residents.” 

The only basis for this claim, which Rep. Willis herself acknowledged, are the campaign disclosures of Jesse Martinez, who ran for mayor in Melrose Park last year. Mr. Favela was on Mr. Martinez’s ticket as a candidate for clerk. That’s the ‘connection’. That’s it. From this connection, the card concludes that Mr. Favela “does not represent our values and will not protect our families.”

Another mailer depicts Mrs. Willis wholesomely surrounded by a group of schoolchildren as she points down at a book. Inserted beneath this scene is this non sequitur: “Sex offenders were abusing a loophole in the law to stalk children at private playgrounds. Kathleen Willis passed a new law closing this loophole to crack down on these dangerous predators and protect our families.”

FavelaFavela III

Favela II

When asked to respond to the allegations in the mailers, Mr. Favela said that the reality is actually opposite what they claim.

“These attack ads do not have a shred of truth to them. They are 100 percent false,” he said.

“First, I encourage everyone to look through my campaign disclosures. I have not received a single penny from any strip club owners. Second, this ad is obviously referring to the strip club that has already opened in Stone Park. How can they claim I am allied with someone who wants to build something that is already built? The truth is that one of my lifelong friends, Roberto Hernandez, was one of the people who led the fight against the opening of the strip club. He is whom I am proud to say I am allied with.

“Third, not only is Willis telling big fat lies, but she conveniently fails to acknowledge that she has done nothing about this strip club or any other similar establishment. In fact, she is being supported and endorsed by [Melrose Park Mayor Ronald Serpico] who has regularly accepted donations from similar types of adult entertainment establishments. He’s gotten $6,200 from Bobby’s bar.”

Last week, I sat down with Rep. Willis to discuss her thoughts on the palm cards, her legislative record and her response to some of her challenger’s claims, among other issues. 

Are those palm cards from your campaign? And if so, how do you justify their subtle intent, which, when I look at them, seem to be to elicit a certain kind of response among a certain group of likely voters. They call that dog whistle politics. It’s racially and ethnically insensitive and it plays on people’s fears and prejudices. What’s your reaction to the mailers? 

I approved all the cards that went out. Those cards that have gone out, they all have quotes where the sources came from. There’s no denying that Favela was part of Jessie Martinez’s ticket in the past and all that came from his finances.

But is that fair?

I hate negative campaigns, but unfortunately we know that they work. Campaign strategists know what works best. That’s all I have to say about that.

Willis II
Rep. Willis seated beside Sen. Don Harmon (right).

Of course, you were once a Republican. Your opponent has used that part of your past to frame his characterization of you as a politician who was simply bought by the highest bidder. He questions your independence. How do you respond to his attacks on your record?

I never ran on a ballot as a Republican. I have friends that are Republicans, but I live in Du Page [a heavily Republican county]. I have pulled Republican primary ballots in the past. But my mentality and the way I think have always been much more Democratic than Republican. I believe in social services, I’m pro-union and pro-choice. I’m community-minded. I think it’s the person more than the party that people support.

As for my independence. When you’re a democrat, you take everything that comes with being a Democrat. I try very hard to make my votes on what is necessary for the 77th. When I represent the 77th, I represent not just the Democrats, but the Republicans, the Independents, even the nonvoters.

As you know, the Maywood Public Library has been through a rough period lately. It had to close for a few weeks before reopening. Your colleague in the General Assembly, Rep. Welch, held a series of press conferences and convened a temporary advisory committee to work on solutions for the library. Your opponent has said that your absence spoke to a larger pattern of absenteeism on issues in the 77th district and neighboring districts. I will say that I was quite impressed when I called your office some months ago and you answered personally, saying you were in the middle of signing constituent birthday cards. But how do you address Mr. Favela’s claims?

First off, I happen to have a Master’s degree in Library Science. Libraries are very improtant to me. I was in constant contact with Rep. Welch when the library closed. When he had that press conference, I was running a resource fair with over 40 vendors and 300 people that day. But I was very concerned.

Libraries always need more funding. I’m in very close contact with the Illinois Association of Libraries on a regular basis. Libraries need more resources all the time, especially during downturns. They have a lot of great programming free of charge. My husband sits on the library board in Addison.

But libraries also always need to be careful with the way they spend their funding. Maywood Library is its own [taxing] district. And there’s a lot we can’t control. They have to take that responsibility themselves. It’s truly important to keep libraries open. In fact i talked to Mayor Perkins not long ago on this issue.

On the larger issue of my accessibility, in the 23 months I’ve been in office, my goal was to be extremely accessible to the community and I think we’ve done that.  I make myself available, because I am constantly out and talking to people in the community. When I’m back in the community now, I’ve probably been to each home 2-3 times in the last 13 months. That’s the job I’ve done well and I want to continue doing that.

The vote for pension reform was a bipartisan effort, but it was also pretty controversial. The unions didn’t like it too much. Can you explain your vote and explain why it may have been necessary?

We had done many, many discussion over the course  of the year. Pension reform was one of the top issues in the state. I didnt take a state pension, because I felt it was an issue we needed to deal with. I did what we could to save the state pension. This was a bill that was agreed upon bipartisanly to make that step to be able to save the pension system and not do additional cuts in vital services.

Are you for raising revenue via raising taxes?

I’m not for raising taxes that’s for sure. I’m open to looking for new revenue sources.

Will you consider raising taxes on corporations?

We’d have to look at that. VFP

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