Not since bell-bottoms were in fashion, the Bee Gees were rolling out hit after hit, and Susan B. Anthony first graced the frontside of an American coin have residents of Illinois’s 25th Legislative District had a competitive race for state representative. For forty years, Barbara Flynn Currie has held that office, rising to Majority Leader and shepherding landmark legislation through the state House. Now, seven candidates, most of whom were not yet born when Currie was first sent to Springfield, are racing to the finish line to fill her seat.
The collection of progressive and independent Democrats vying to represent southeastern Chicago in Springfield will no doubt face representational challenges brought on by the district’s diversity. The 25th is roughly half African American, a quarter Hispanic, a fifth white, and just over 4% Asian. Encompassing five wards as it snakes down the coast of Lake Michigan, the district includes eight different neighborhoods (from north to south): Kenwood, Hyde Park, Woodlawn, Jackson Park Highlands, South Shore, South Chicago, Calumet Heights, and East Side. Its median income is $35,700, making it the third poorest district in the state, but its concentration of millionaires in the northern end of the district makes it one of the wealthiest on the South Side. Owing to the University’s important presence as an employer, the district also contains one of the highest concentrations of post-secondary degrees in Illinois while also ranking near the bottom in terms of high school degree attainment. Although its regions are neighboring, they are clearly deeply segmented.
Meet the candidates (clockwise from top left): William Calloway, Grace Chan McKibben, Angelique Collins, Adrienne Irmer, Anne Marie Miles, Flynn Rush, and Curtis Tarver II. All photos retrieved from candidates’ websites.
Hyde Park and Kenwood care about property taxes. Woodlawn and Jackson Park Highlands are concerned about the Obama Presidential Center. South Shore is focused retail and new businesses. South Chicago and Calumet Heights want a safer city. East Side is looking forward to better environmental regulation. And almost everyone wants an elected school board and better employment. The district has many various desires, but only seven candidates are offering answers. It will take a nuanced approach from the state legislator to balance these concerns and guarantee that each neighborhood in the district is well-serviced.
“I bring a perspective of what a community should look like and what a community could look like in the future with a very dedicated representative to make sure that we're stewarding the kinds of resources that will bring parity and equity across the district,” Adrienne Irmer, a Hyde Park native who lives in South Shore, tells Gate reporters. With at least 24 representatives retiring this session, Irmer wants to make this “an opportunity to really start changing some of the dialogue in Springfield and bring equity and humanity back into the equation.”
An MIT graduate and self-described “big ol’ nerd,” Irmer believes her 15 years of nonprofit and government sector experience—which included direct legislative exposure—position her well to deliver on behalf of the district. Asked to characterize her message, she explains that she is “somebody who can really bridge the connection between these communities and start to create consistency in the feel of communities as we go further south in the district.”
Most recently, she was on the legislative staff for the Cook County Bureau of Asset Management, but stepped aside to run for office in a district where “folks that watched her grow up and folks that she considers her lifelong neighbors” still live. Several years ago, she served on staff for state Senator Kwame Raoul and built relationships in Springfield that she believes will allow her to “move legislation as a freshman legislator.” Her legislative plan includes increasing safety and security in the neighborhoods, advocating for affordable and efficient mass transportation, pushing Illinois to be greener, protecting DACA rights, and creating walkable communities on the South Side.
But Irmer is not alone in highlighting her manifold collection of career experiences as a way to better understand the district’s diversity. Grace Chan McKibben, a Hyde Park resident who graduated from the University in 1998, has worked in state government, nonprofits, and as the Associate Dean of Students at UChicago, which, she believes, makes her uniquely qualified to continue Currie’s legacy. “I was Development Director at the Indo-American Center which is an immigrant services agency and Chief of Staff for the Illinois Department of Employment Security. It would be rare to find another person who could combine those two jobs, but I was able to because of my personal history.”
An immigrant herself from Hong Kong, McKibben oversaw census collection and distribution for the Chinese American Service League and was elected as the Illinois representative to the national ACLU in “recognition that I would be able to work with different kinds of people as well as my commitment to civil liberties.” Adequate funding for public school education is a hallmark of her campaign along with a commitment to building “a better future for our student population.” This includes addressing the student loan crisis, paying down the state’s debt, and “making sure that government works for our next generation.”
In addition, she is proud of her endorsements from the IVI-IPO and Chicago Southside Democracy for America. She believes these are “votes of confidence in how her candidacy is based on progressive grassroots for a progressive platform and not necessarily aligned with established government officials.” McKibben is an upstart candidate, who believes her bona fide lack of exposure to politics in the city keeps her honest and focused on serving the needs of the voters of 25th District.
Registration is fairly uniform across the district but turnout is highest in the northern region
However, Chan McKibben’s political debut story and diverse set of experiences does not make her entirely unique in this election. “I've grown up on the north side. I've grown up on the south side. And I've grown up on the west side too. I know what it's like to see an area where everything is thriving and I know what it's like to see a poor community where everything is on the up and up,” Angelique Collins, whose mother Annazette’s career as an Illinois state legislator took her across the city, mentions. Collins, 30, thinks the district’s next representative needs to be a millennial who can see beyond the engrained dichotomies of the past. “This is my time. Anytime you've been somewhere for so long, you're jaded. You just think that this area is how it's supposed to look, but I've been on the outside looking in. So, I'm ready to fight for the 25th District so that we can look like the north side.”
Four years ago, Collins, a Howard University graduate who went on to lobby in Springfield, opened the first African-American owned beauty supply store on the west side. Employing teens during the summer months through the Boys and Girls Club as well as After School Matters, she was motivated to seek public office after recognizing how community-owned small businesses can turn an area around. “When you have a business that is owned by someone who lives in the community and employs people from the community, people are able to feed their families. So, in turn, violence is cut down on,” she explains. “If people can shop, live, and be employed in the district, the money circulates. We’ll have a community that's thriving because the money is constantly being moved throughout the district on all levels.”
Collins describes herself as the “happy medium” candidate in the race, focusing on stimulating economic development and addressing drugs in the district. Another pillar of her platform is access to equitable education opportunities. She wants to ensure that “community schools and neighborhood schools are just as up to par as the selective-enrollment schools” because not everyone can test-in. Gentrification into the district concerns her as well. “People are afraid that homes they've lived in their entire lives are going to be in jeopardy of property tax increases and rent increases. We can't have a district full of people who have been here for so long and just kick them out.”
Another small-business owner in the running, Curtis Tarver II is an attorney as well with experience working in Mayor Daley’s Office. He has hired formerly incarcerated people to work in his South Loop brewery, the first African American owned and licensed in Illinois, and done pro bono work with Cabrini Green Legal Aid, offering his services in civil rights and personal injury suits. The only candidate from Kenwood and the fourth ward, Tarver highlights his “very unique experience working with every single ward in the district” as a member of the Mayor’s administration. “I am somebody that actually has private and public experience. I've created jobs. I'm the person who's actually done the things that we all now talk about.”
To bind the district together, Tarver emphasizes his commitment to “really understand what the issues are and hear both sides of it” while also campaigning on issues he believes anyone can support like good schools, safe neighborhoods, and an increase in the minimum wage. Once in office, he believes his business acumen will help him build coalitions throughout the state and find ways to “incentivize businesses to set up shop in areas that are more blighted in the 25th District.” Attracting companies like Amazon is important, but Tarver says small businesses are his primary focus. However, he is cautious about too much development in the area and wants to arrive at a formula that “can draw people into these neighborhoods without a mass exodus of the people who are already there.” Ultimately, reintegrating ex-felons back into society is his mission and he believes his time in office will help these individuals reach their fullest potential.
If elected, Tarver plans to hit the ground running by “learning as much as possible” from Rep. Currie and waste no time between March 20 and January 2019 when he is sworn in. “I'm a litigator by training,” he summarizes. “I'm somebody who the voters can trust to go to Springfield to negotiate and get things done. But if things go awry and negotiations break down, then I'm somebody who's gonna fight and champion the causes that I campaigned on.”
Headquarters of Curtis J. Tarver II for State Representative on Hyde Park Boulevard and Harper
Nevertheless, another lawyer, whose streak of independence is typified by her two previous bids for Fifth Ward alderwoman, has been running on the issue of criminal justice reform for years. Anne Marie Miles, a South Shore resident with deep ties to the community, heard from her neighbors that criminal records were dooming their future job prospects. Detailing the all too often predicament, she explains, “Having pleaded guilty to a felony charge, they are essentially ruining their lives because they won't be able to get the same amount of government student aid. They cannot live with family members in Section 8 even when they are older. They won't be able to live in subsidized senior housing. There are licenses that they can't get. So, they are really changing the course of their lives.”
In the state House, she would work on getting legislation passed to sunset non-violent felony convictions ten years after your sentence expires so that “it would not follow you forever.” Miles is also thinking of the future when it comes to expanding transportation in South Shore and South Chicago. Specifically, the area may soon see South Works, a 12,000-housing unit multi-use development project that could kickstart the South Side’s economy. To ease congestion on the narrow streets of South Shore, Miles is “urging everyone to think about a ferry service to downtown” because she “wants to see that the people from South Works are integrated into the entire city of Chicago.”
Miles also wants to legalize marijuana to end “the discriminatory practices and prosecutions for possession,” address the environmental hazards of petroleum coke and manganese leaks that are shown to have poisoned children in East Side, and encourage the University to “provide transportation from the Woodlawn and South Shore areas” in order to allow faculty and staff to commute and “ease some of the price pressures on housing near the University.” She is also fluent in Spanish and has a long history of advocating for the rights of the elderly and LGBTQ community, but Miles wants voters to know first and foremost that she is independent of the establishment. “I am the only one who has run in a race before and I challenged a sitting incumbent, who is—despite all the claims of how progressive she is and every so often voting against the mayor—clearly part of the Democratic machine.”
Miles is certainly a maverick, but she isn’t this election’s only renegade. William Calloway’s unconventional candidacy is largely influenced by his roots in activism. Calloway, 28, has worked all across Chicago in CPS but his life would change when, as part of a documentary he was producing in college, he met the brother of Rekia Boyd. Boyd was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer in 2012 and the marches that resulted from her death and the officer’s non-conviction were a monumental fixture of Calloway’s personal story. With the help of a legal team, he later spearheaded the release of the Laquan McDonald tape through the avenues of government bureaucracy and obfuscation. “Laquan was a waking up moment for a lot of people. But for me, names like Rekia Boyd, Dakota Bright, Flint Farmer, Ronnie Johnson. That's my Laquan McDonald. Rekia was my Laquan McDonald.”
Now, Calloway has his sights set on Springfield. “It’s important that we take our fight as activists from the grassroots to the legislature,” he notes. “It'd be way easier to have decision makers in power than to get thousands of people blocking traffic and being disruptive. We want to see change that we can see instantaneously.”
Calloway believes his activist background will help him bridge the divides found in the district because many people with different ideologies gather for a movement, but they all share a common purpose. And he is confident in his ability to identify that purpose for his community. Whether it be curbing violence, social justice, or marijuana legalization, Calloway thinks the community has his back because he’s “been speaking truth to power for years, calling out politicians for years, and speaking out against corruption for years.” But most importantly, Calloway knows he is a different kind of candidate. “I got into activism to change the culture of the Chicago Police Department in the community,” he states. “I'm gonna go down there in Springfield and change the culture.”
A flier for William Calloway rests on a napkin dispenser in Valois
Calloway does not hold back in naming those who he believes have failed South Shore. “Even as Democrats, the black elected officials have let our communities down. They're not fighting for resources to get to our community. They're not being strong and true advocates of what's going on here. And it's time for some fresh blood, some fresh voices, and some innovative, fearless leaders to go down there and speak truth to power in Springfield on the legislative level.”
Even the incumbent of the office he is currently seeking lost his confidence years ago. Imitating a conversation with Rep. Currie he once had, he retells, “Barb, come to the neighborhood so people know who you are. Don't nobody know who you are over here. I know you're the Majority Leader of the House so I know you're busy, but like my God you've got to come over here so people know who you are.”
Sitting in front of a plastic folding table with inspirational Post-it Notes tacked onto it, Calloway acknowledges that his campaign is “sort of late in the game,” having opened its headquarters in early March (a tactic his communication director likened to “getting our Michael face on” in the late fourth quarter). But Calloway is confident that his community will come through for him. “They like, ‘Oh, I didn't know you was running.’ And then they find out that I'm running. They're now supporting me over anybody else.”
One issue that divides the seven but will be a critical development within the 25th District is the arrival of the Obama Presidential Center. Every candidate agrees that the Center will bring jobs, economic development, and tourism in the area, but they differ on how they plan to ensure that growth stays within the community and current residents aren’t displaced.
“It will have a very positive effect. I'm thrilled that the Obamas selected the southeast end of Chicago which would be on the border area between Woodlawn and South Shore,” Irmer beams with a wide smile. “The job creation, tourism, and commerce that it will bring to the corridor is fantastic, but also some of the public dollars that are now going to invest in some of the infrastructure in an area that has been long overdue for some TLC. The southern end of the 25th District needs an injection of something fun and exciting and historic.”
“The Obama Library can have a very positive effect on the district. Certainly, it'll attract some new tourism and that won't just be the people coming from out of state, people will come from around the world and that's great. I think drawing people from even the other side of the city into the Library will hopefully give us more retail and jobs and spur economic development.” Tarver says, echoing Irmer’s optimism. “But, at the same time, I think that positive effect is going to be diminished if the community is not completely involved in the process.”
A pro-Obama Presidential Center stand displayed outside of Hyde Park Academy
And it is that worry that has most of the candidates filled with trepidation. “My primary concern for the people in South Shore, especially renters, is that there will be significant upward pressure on rents,” Miles cautions, describing the issue more. But, she already has a plan to rectify things. “I would hope to see the state legislature repeal the 1997 law which said that no municipality could enact rent control.” In addition, she acknowledges that much of the ink has dried on the plans for the Center, but would like to see the fight continue and have it be “more about more community services, ensuring that local residents are hired, and ensuring that unions start local journeymen programs so that even when construction of the OPC is over, there are still local residents in the pipeline in these unions to be moving up into the well-paying jobs.”
“There will be a lot of interest in seeing whether it really does attract tourism or that it really does stimulate economic activity,” McKibben demurs. She would be “very insistent” on having the neighborhood sign a community benefits agreement with the Obama Foundation to guarantee that the development hires local community members. Ultimately, she is in favor of the project because “it will be a visible reminder to people that this is where President Obama comes from and it's important just to have that legacy.” But again, “It does have an environmental impact even though we don't know exactly what it is yet. It does have an impact on traffic and travel patterns and it's going to fundamentally transform the way people travel to and from Jackson Park.”
“If people are included, the Obama Center is going to be a great asset to this community. But we definitely have to figure out how to include the community in it every step of the way,” Collins says. “I think that a CBA is a good idea to keep everybody happy and keep the district and the residents on the safe side of things. People want to make sure that they're going to be getting hired for these jobs and for these positions. Although I would have liked for [Rep. Currie] to be a little bit more vocal in how it will affect the 25th District. Make a little bit more noise on that issue.”
“When I am elected, I pledge that I will diligently fight for a CBA,” Calloway declares. “All construction and all building for the Barack Obama Library should be halted until we get a CBA. That's where the activism should come into play because we need to protest and make sure that nothing is being built upon or no construction is going forth unless we have a community benefits agreement. No construction, no build-out, no anything until the CBA is in place.”
In this dyed in the wool blue district, the Democratic Party is keeping its hands off. “Most of us as candidates clearly are talking about the same issues,” Miles admits. And while every candidate is campaigning on their record and the issues, efforts to differentiate themselves from the crowd have sometimes led the race into heated territory. With only Election Day to go, $298,392.86 has been raised in a primary race that is shaping up to be more like a general election as no Republican will contest the seat in November.
At times, the result has been a brutal and personal battle. One candidate characterized Chicago politics as a “blood sport,” and this race has been no exception. The fact that candidates filed 10 ballot challenges against each other early on in the campaign gives an indication of the election’s ferocity. Tarver, who has outraised his competitors with almost $100,000 in his coffers, has been accused of taking money from donors of Rahm Emanuel. Irmer, whose mother Perri (the President of the DuSable Museum) has helped her accrue a number of high level endorsements, has been accused of being too cozy with elected officials. Flynn Rush, whose father Bobby Rush is the area’s longtime Congressional representative, has had the same complaint lodged against him. Each candidate has denied these allegations but then accused the other of being out of touch with their future constituents.
A flier for Grace Chan McKibben fixed to a voter’s door frame
Many of the candidates, particularly Irmer, are proud of the connections they’ve built in Springfield and throughout the community. They believe their endorsements speak to the merits of their own campaign and the confidence of tenured lawmakers in their abilities. Other candidates disagree:
“One of them is taking money from donors that donate to Rahm Emanuel and that's very problematic for me. Another one is being backed by Leslie Hairston, which my community is not a supporter of at all,” Calloway objects. “Three of them will be beholden to people. And when I say people, I mean THE people. I mean elected officials and certain unions and that's absolutely wrong.”
“The Democratic Party bosses are split between two candidates: Flynn and Irmer. There's two factions of the Democratic Party that are fighting it out,” Miles explains. “[Adrienne’s] mother has been fierce in protecting her daughter's campaign.”
“If you're asking why folks are lining up behind Adrienne, it's because people like her mother quite frankly,” Tarver discloses.
On endorsements, “[Irmer’s] been raking them up,” Collins says. “Her mom is the President of the DuSable Museum so she's been helping her a lot. I honestly believe that whenever you're pushed and backed by machine politicians, you are indebted to them and you owe them somewhere down the line.”
The race for the 25th District has also never been this flush with cash and many accusations are flying around about the origins of this money. Some have suggested that Tarver, the frontrunner by dollars raised, has called in the donations from sources nefarious to many in the community. Tarver vociferously denies these claims, pointing out:
“As far as outside money, there's no outside money in my race because I've never taken a dollar from anybody I don't know personally. Nobody's backing me so I'm not going to return the favor. Adrienne has made up a narrative that somehow, I've received $15,000 from Rahm Emanuel which is not true at all. I just happen to have a really strong network of people who believe in me and believe in what I can accomplish. The reality of it is is when you have somebody who suggested that they were gonna run against Barbara Flynn Currie at least a year ago and then they end up in third place in fundraising—they've been outraised almost 2:1 by me—then it becomes important to create some kind of a narrative. Something to demonstrate that there's a reason why they're behind.”
Signs for Anne Marie Miles and Flynn Rush dot Stony Island Avenue along Jackson Park
But this has not stopped the conversation from continuing. Irmer responds with a more nuanced claim:
“When you take a look at some of the donors that have given to Mr. Tarver, their donor history indicates a leaning toward some interests and entities that may not necessarily have the best interests of all of the people of the 25th district at heart. It does give cause to pause and take a second look to see where some of that money is coming from. The Hyde Park and South Shore area has enjoyed leadership that has independence—that represents the liberal and progressive arm of the Democratic Party. Having those interests mixed in and those agendas intersecting with a candidate in this race does give a little bit of an unsettling feeling because I really appreciated our leadership in this area being independent of major political interests and members.”
“It's problematic for any candidate to take money from donors who have donated to Rahm Emanuel,” Calloway makes clear. “They should not be elected, and they should not be representing no community because Rahm Emanuel does not have any community's best interests at heart. And people that donate to see Rahm in office or in power don't have anybody's best interests at heart.”
Upon review of Tarver’s financial filings, a few of his larger donors were found to have donated to campaign committees like “Chicago for Rahm Emanuel” and “Friends of Anita Alvarez” in 2015. One donor in particular gave Mayor Emanuel’s reelection campaign a $20,000 check.
Lastly, one of the most common complaints candidates lobbed at each other is one another’s supposed unfamiliarity with the area and its inhabitants.
“It's about who the community knows and you just can't pop up. Even if you ran for office before, you have to be consistent,” Calloway says. “‘Where were you at before the election? What were you doing before you was running? Is this an opportunity for you because you felt that Barb was leaving office and now you want to get involved?’ This is just an opportunity for a lot of them, and they don’t have the community's best interests at heart.”
“As you go south in the more urban and inner-city areas,” Collins begins, “there's not much to relate to with some of my other candidates” In particular, she singles out Tarver who she claims to never see out in the community and calls “a behind the scenes Facebook campaigner.”
Nevertheless, Miles believes that her two prior candidacies make her the odds on favorite to win Hyde Park because other than her, “many of the candidates are not well-known in the community.”
Mudslinging, shady dealing, and Chicago politics are typically said in the same breath, but that kind of atmosphere seems to have especially clouded this campaign. Nevertheless, Grace Chan McKibben, who has stayed largely outside the fray, believes her opponents should not make enemies of fellow Democrats. The true opposition will come when they get to Springfield. “What we need to focus on the Democratic side is finding someone that can unify the voice of the party and be a strong leader that can bring people together and will stand firm in our values because we cannot afford to have a Republican governor for another term. They just have a devastating impact on the issues that we care the most about: education, social services, and being responsive to the communities.”
Moreover, several candidates confided in me that they would be perfectly happy if one of their competitors was ultimately successful in this race, a sentiment unfamiliar to the oftentimes vicious world of political campaigns. As the dust settles over the 25th District tomorrow, the winner will have to disconnect from the automatism of ruthlessness inherent to campaign mode and prime him or herself on the issues that matter to the district while being as responsive to the community as possible. He or she has big shoes to fill.
Flynn Rush declined an interview for this story. All images featured in this article are courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted.
Brett Barbin is a fourth-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. This summer, he worked in the investigative division of the Public Defender Service for DC and previously served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s re-election campaign. On campus, Brett is the president of College Republicans, the vice president of the Political Union, and a College Council representative. He enjoys walking Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.