The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus in 2015. Below, Sen. Kimberly Lightford, the Caucus’s chairman since last January, says the group is the strongest it’s been in recent memory. | Photos provided
Illinois has gone without a FY 2016 budget for nearly a year. The legislative inaction has resulted in lost jobs, credit rating reductions for Chicago and the state, shuttered social service programs and general misery that’s disproportionately fallen on the state’s over 1.9 million African-Americans.
But as the budget standoff between the state’s Democratic supermajority and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner presses on into another, possibly budget-less, fiscal year, one group of lawmakers has found its voice and a much steadier footing than in years past, according to some of them who were recently interviewed.
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus has never been stronger say some of its members and, because of that strength, the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis, particularly for the Caucus’s millions of low-income and minority constituents, isn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
“I would say this is the strongest we’ve been in recent years,” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford (4th), a Maywood native and the Caucus’s chairman whose district spans a significant portion of Proviso Township.
“I think it’s more notable because we’re playing defense against Rauner,” said Lightford, a nearly 20-year veteran of the Senate who was elected Caucus chairman last January.
“In the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve had democratic governors, senate presidents and speakers and it was just one party, so you couldn’t see where the push and pull came in at,” Lightford said. “But now, you have a Republican governor who appears not to value the programs that are designed to assist those, like the elderly, the poor, the underemployed and college students, who aren’t as well off and who may need just a little support.”
State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (7th), who’s also a Maywood native and a Black Caucus member since assuming office in 2013, attributed the Caucus’s newfound solidarity to hard math.
“At the end of the day, our numbers are significant,” said Welch, whose district spans a large portion of Proviso Township. “We have 10 senators and 20 representatives who are members of the Black Caucus. In the Senate, you need 30 votes to pass legislation and in the House you need 60 votes. We’re one-third of what’s needed to pass any legislation.”
Welch also said that a change in the Caucus’s leadership has been instrumental in allowing the body to leverage those numbers by showing a unified front.
“When I first joined the General Assembly, our chairman was Ken Dunkin,” Welch said, referencing the 5th District lawmaker who infamously broke with the Democratic supermajority during key budget battles. Despite heavy funding by Rauner, Dunkin lost in the March Democratic Primary race to attorney Juliana Stratton, who was heavily funded by the powerful Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
“Ken was working with Rauner even before he became governor,” Welch said. “His interests weren’t aligned with ours. With him, you had division. Now, under Sen. Lightford, we’re coming back together. We meet now at least once a week to talk about issues that are important to us.”
“It’s great to see our members ban together,” said Larry Luster, the Black Caucus’s recently installed executive director. “They’re a tight-knit group and a family. They even go out to dinner with each other in the off-hours. It’s really excited to work with them.”
The Caucus’s fresh camaraderie and strength may have been the driving forces behind three key pieces of stopgap legislation that have passed within the last year to partially fund early childcare, higher education and social services payments that were held hostage in the budget negotiations.
“The higher education stopgap was the first piece of legislation we really stood together on,” Welch said, referencing the $600 million higher education emergency funding bill that was approved overwhelmingly by the General Assembly in April.
Twenty million dollars of that money went to the cash-strapped Chicago State University, which had sent lay-off notices to hundreds of employees because it couldn’t meet payroll.
“Chicago State is 90 percent African-American, so that university’s closing would have really impacted our communities,” Welch said.
Ironically, Chicago State University also happens to house nine boxes of Black Caucus archives, dating between 1979 and 2006. The Caucus was founded in 1969 “to ensure cooperation among black legislators and prevent the dilution of their voting strength through personal or ideological discord,” according to an administrative history on CSU’s library web page.
The Caucus evolved from a 1966 study group formed by then state Rep. Harold Washington (26th) and three other black lawmakers to “to discuss political issues and strategies of interest to the black community.”
According to Luster, Caucus members have hewed to that original mission during these recent budget negotiations, particularly in talks over the higher education funding bill.
“The Black Caucus really took the reins on that,” Luster said. “Sen. Donnie Trotter (17th) and Rep. Rita Mayfield (60th), both Caucus members, really took the lead on that. The legislation was about to be up for a vote and the Black Caucus pulled the bill back to make sure that it was a clean bill. The Caucus really stood their ground, which was really impressive to see.”
Lightford added that, logistically, her Caucus has leveraged its numbers to both pressure Rauner and to urge bipartisanship in certain areas. That has sometimes meant circumventing the conventional route to deal-making, which almost always entails meetings between legislators that are “sanctioned” by Speaker Madigan.
Lightford said she and other Caucus leaders, such as Trotter — an assistant majority leader and a leading budget expert among his peers — and Sen. Kwame Raoul (13th), met with the governor’s representatives to have unsanctioned conversations about “moving the ball” on the budget.
“That’s where all these ideas came from with respect to those funding bills that passed,” Lightford said. “We identified where the revenue could come from to pay for them. We had to move on. The [state’s legislative leaders] are fighting, but we’re on the grassroots fighting for our constituents. I think all rank-and-file members, both Republican and Democrat, feel that something has to change.”
For state Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th), however, the Black Caucus’s mission and organization hasn’t evolved much since he’s been in office.
“I’m under no allusion that the Caucus has the power to carry the social services and the budget on our own,” said Ford, a 10-year veteran of the House. “I think we continue to be on the right side of the fence on budget items, but we shouldn’t get sole credit for their having passed. I think we’ve always been unified. Rauner hasn’t done much to change that.”
Luster nonetheless said the Caucus’s recent maneuvering during the budget standoff has worked to help discredit the popular impression among African-Americans of their leaders as spineless and easily bought.
“I can truly say that we’ve stood strong on a lot of issues and have drawn a line in the sand on a lot of things,” he said. “That’s not just on budget issues, but it’s true of our dealings with interest groups and what we will or won’t accept as plausible and reasonable. It’s really impressive to see our black leaders tell people, ‘No, we won’t accept this.’” VFP