Two qualified, commanding, and articulate individuals are currently vying for the job of Illinois Attorney General (ILAG), the highest legal officer in Illinois. On October 5, 2018, nonpartisan advocacy group Reform for Illinois hosted the two candidates in a rigorous and spirited debate moderated by Amanda Vinicky of Chicago Tonight and WTTW.
The current Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan, sent shockwaves through Illinois politics by announcing she was not running for re-election in September 2017. A crowded field of Democrats fought tooth and nail for the nomination: former state senator Kwame Raoul won the bid. Before representing the Hyde Park/Kenwood area in a senate seat held previously by Barack Obama, Raoul was a prosecutor in the Cook County Attorney’s office.
Erika Harold is the Republican nominee. She is a graduate of the University of Illinois and Harvard Law School, as well as winner of the 2003 Miss America beauty pageant. Harold has worked as an attorney for prestigious litigation groups including Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. as well as Sidley Austin LLP.
Vinicky began the forum by reminding the audience that the race for ILAG is “high money and high stakes”—the nominees for governor, J.B. Pritzker and incumbent Bruce Rauner, are each incredibly wealthy and flushing their respective political campaigns with cash for what will be one of the most expensive governor’s races in US history. In the words of Raoul, the race is high stakes because the “shoe is on the other foot”: Illinois cannot rely on the US Attorney General (USAG) to step in and enforce laws, as precedent dictates, due to the radically conservative political leanings of the current federal administration.
The first question Vinicky posed to the candidates was on the recent tragedy at the Quincy Veterans Home in Quincy, IL, where thirteen veterans died due to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a form of water-borne pneumonia that infects old pipes. Madigan opened a criminal probe into the Rauner administration's handling of the outbreak, and the candidates were asked to comment on the investigation. Harold said she would be unable to comment without knowing the specific evidence and laws. Raoul echoed her sentiments about the necessity for reviewing all the evidence, while noting that there was evidence of criminal activity—i.e., the deaths and a blatant attempt by the administration to cover up how the situation was handled.
Since both candidates are running with their respective political parties, they had to answer to how they would remove political motivation from their cases. Harold said she would seek outside ethics training from the National Association of Attorneys General and utilize a fresh approach, while adhering to clearly defined rules and regulations, the Illinois Constitution, and the Attorney General Act. Raoul emphasized the importance of staffing the ILAG’s office with professional prosecutors with a background in upholding the law and not in politics, while ensuring transparency between the office and the people of Illinois.
Harold and Raoul also talked about what they would do to address corruption in Illinois government, a hot button issue for the state’s voting population. Raoul said that if elected, he would work proactively with local governments to ensure that all Freedom of Information Act open meeting requests were honored. Harold said that she would advocate for a public access officer and giving more guidance to public opinions, as well as calling a statewide jury.
The candidates were asked for their thoughts on Madigan’s approach to combating corruption. Raoul succinctly said he thought she had done a good job, while Harold said she was disappointed that Madigan did not investigate a potential hiring misconduct in Governor Quinn’s administration in 2014.
Both candidates said they support consent decrees: agreements between two parties to settle, without any admission of guilt. Their answers were relevant because the City of Chicago and the ILAG have filed a consent decree in federal court regarding reforming the Chicago Police Department. Raoul emphasized that when the USAG steps away from law enforcement reform, as Jeff Sessions has, the ILAG has an obligation to step up.
Throughout the forum, Harold was prodded to explicitly state a pro-life standpoint, which she did not. Throughout her campaign, she has been avoiding the subject. When asked about what role personal discretion would play in upholding the law, she stated that the job of the ILAG is to enforce the laws passed by the Illinois General Assembly and follow the “law of the land,” implying that she would uphold existing legislature. She emphasized that the ILAG is an employee of the people of Illinois. On the discretion question, Raoul said that the ILAG has an “obligation to use discretion in the interest of justice.”
Due to Illinois’ dire fiscal situation, including $7.5 billion worth of unpaid bills, a $137 billion unfunded pension liability, and the inability to even pass a budget in 2016, the candidates were asked questions about budgeting and tax laws by the audience. Regarding pension costs, Raoul said he thought the the Illinois Supreme Court made an appropriate ruling that benefits should not be restructured. He added that appropriate payments needed to be made to the pension system by the ILAG. Harold then accused her opponent for voting to skip pensions payments as a state senator—voting for any state budget that does not fully fund pensions is technically skipping pension payments—and said it was the responsibility of the ILAG to budget for payments.
When asked about her thoughts on the proposal for graduated income tax in Illinois, Harold explicitly stated she would not support it because it is against the Illinois State Constitution, which mandates a flat tax. Her answer prompted applause from the audience members seated in the front of the room. Raoul, on the other hand, said it was definitely time for Illinois to embrace a progressive income tax. He pointed out that most states have a progressive income tax and that Illinois has used tax credits for years to circumvent the mandate in the Illinois constitution for a flat tax. His response prompted a significantly louder applause, and some hollers.
This forum was held prior to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Raoul was not in favor of his appointment. Harold said she wanted to maintain the integrity of Illinois’ Supreme Court, and that she supported Kavanaugh. The majority of the audience groaned and booed her answer.
Also notably, when Raoul was asked about how he would maintain independence from Mike Madigan, the incredibly powerful and unpopular speaker of the Illinois house and head of the Illinois Democratic party. He is also the stepfather of current ILAG Lisa Madigan. Raoul said he did not have the support of Mike Madigan in the primary and won anyway, demonstrating he can operate independently of Mike Madigan’s influence.
Prompted by an audience question, the candidates committed to moving forward and not retroactively prosecute for hiring misconduct in previous administrations. The audience also heard some fun facts from the ILAG candidates: Raoul’s favorite justice is Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice. He admires him for his work in civil rights and on the Supreme Court. Harold’s favorite justice is Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman, whom she admires for her ability to gain respect from both sides of the aisle. Both Raoul and Harold said they would attend a same sex wedding.
The forum convened fifteen minutes before the verdict of the Laquan Mcdonald case was released, so neither of the candidates could comment on the verdict. As Chicago prepared for the McDonald verdict, the need for justice was felt profoundly by not just a city, but the entire state.
Sarah Wasik is a fourth-year double majoring in Public Policy and Philosophy. She has spent her summers working campaigns and interning at both the state and federal levels of government. When she isn’t writing, reading, or learning more about policy and politics, she is probably running up and down the lakefront path or spending time with friends.