Kambium “Kam” Buckner is the Illinois State Representative for the 26th Legislative District. His constituency includes downtown Chicago, Bronzeville, Hyde Park, Kenwood, and Woodlawn communities, among others. Appointed in January of 2019 to fill the seat vacated by former State Representative Christian Mitchell, Buckner has served as the Executive Director of World Sport Chicago, a non-profit designed to promote youth access to and engagement with sports programs in the Chicago area. He sat down with The Gate to discuss his thoughts on public service and various policy reforms needed at the state level in Illinois.
The Gate: How did you decide to go into public service, and what values do you bring with you to Springfield?
Kam Buckner: Public service has always been something I've thought about. I've had the great fortune of working in politics as a young man for some very impressive public servants. I've learned so much about representing people and fighting for the things that are of the most importance. I believe that it is a privilege to be able to legislate and to work to bring resources to my constituents. I've always thought that your calling in life exists in that nuanced place where your skills, talents, and passions combine with the needs of others. Public service to me is the ability to do the things that will do the most good for the most people in the shortest amount of time. I bring all of these tenets, thoughts, and things that I've learned throughout life with me to the General Assembly and they serve as my true north.
Gate: You, along with State Representative Curtis Tarver (D-25th) and State Senator Robert Peters (D-13th), are the youngest freshman members of the Assembly, all representing the Hyde Park-Kenwood area. How do you envision the three of you collaborating to introduce fresh perspectives on policy reform?
KB: I am extremely impressed not just with the new members of the General Assembly that you named, but the entire Freshman class is remarkably impressive. These are young business owners, activists, and educators who have devoted their lives to others, and they bring that devotion with them to the legislature. I would also add [Representative] Lamont Robinson (D-5th) to that list of new members in a district adjacent to Hyde Park-Kenwood. I see great opportunity to work with these legislators in a collaborative and creative way. I think Senator Peters's experience in organizing and activism and Representative Tarver's experience as an attorney and business owner really contextualize a great deal of the issues we find ourselves dealing with legislatively. I think our youth is a strength, and I look forward to creating new solutions to age-old problems.
Gate: The State of Illinois has a new gubernatorial administration under Governor Pritzker, and Chicago has just elected a new mayor. What issues do you think the Governor and Chicago mayor should prioritize, and how will you help?
KB: Chicago and Illinois have twin-crises–violence and financial instability. There are a bunch of issues that flow from these problems, including a dwindling population. There is an opportunity with a new governor and a brand new mayor to approach these issues with new vigor and with eyes wide open. Although these issues are generational, it is all of our responsibility to properly address them. I think that there are many ways for the State to provide resources to the City of Chicago and similar cities across the state to really address issues of violence. Furthermore, I believe new approaches to our financial stability are not just possible but are necessary in order to move Illinois forward. Unfunded pension liabilities, misplaced priorities, and smarter spending have to all be addressed. I look forward to working with the Pritzker and Lightfoot administrations to do exactly that.
Gate: Your district includes the wealthiest parts of Chicago’s downtown, as well as many poorer neighborhoods on the South Side. How do you plan to help tackle the policy inequities that have given your downtown constituents millions more dollars in public investment than your constituents further south? Do you have a policy to address the management of the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program in the state of Illinois?
KB: The wealth and income gap, as well as the development and housing gap, is not as evident as anywhere else it is in the state as it is in our 26th District. I believe it is incumbent on me to make sure that the southern part of the district has the same opportunities to participate in the economy as the northern end of the district. This includes creating a climate that invests in workers and creates an advantageous atmosphere for business owners.
TIFs have been problematic since their inception. In recent years we have seen more and more of these taxpayer funds going to private development. It is not okay in my mind that these funds are not going to schools, libraries, and parks. Tax Increment Financing was initially created to serve blighted and under-resourced communities, but we have seen that the communities it was meant to serve still have not benefited from TIF dollars in most cases. As we look at the tenuous situation that CPS is in financially, it is apparent that we have to immediately address TIFs and other instruments to figure out how to fully fund our public schools.
Gate: There is an ongoing debate about how Chicago must address its epidemic of community violence. Some argue that building more police training academies is a necessity, while others want to tackle violence at the root with job training programs. Where do you stand?
KB: The answer to Chicago's violence is not more police academies. The answer to the violence lies in investment in communities and an intentional and aggressive approach to quality of life. We have asked many communities to rely on social services for much too long; we have to make a concerted effort to spur economic development in our neighborhoods. It is evident now that the War on Drugs was mainly a failed war on poverty and black and brown people. We need to use that same vigor to invest in our communities.
Gate: Marijuana legalization is likely on the horizon for the State of Illinois. How do you intend to ensure that this change will be safely regulated and accessible to those who would like to enter the industry?
KB: I think we have to be very methodical in terms of policy on adult-use recreational cannabis. Once these laws are passed, we won't be able to go back fix them in many ways, so we have to get it right the first time. We have to be strategic on the cultivation, distribution, and selling of marijuana as well as who can participate, when, and where. We have to be cognizant about what this means in our neighborhoods, including proximity to parks, churches, and schools. We need everyone who would be affected to have a voice in this legislation. We have to be mindful of unintended consequences and comprehensive to make sure that everyone is protected. We have to look at the failed policies of the past and be corrective and restorative in our efforts moving forward. I think there is a lot of opportunity for Illinois in the cannabis market, but we have to do the work to get it right.
Gate: What are your plans to tackle climate change at the state level in Illinois?
KB: Illinois has to address climate change in a meaningful way. One way to do this is to start analyzing how projects around the state will affect climate change and put in policy safeguards to address these issues. I am proud to be a co-sponsor on a piece of legislation that is currently making its way through the legislative process in Springfield. The Clean Energy Jobs Act mandates that the state shifts entirely to renewable energy by the year 2050. The legislation addresses energy storage and efficiency and even creates a vehicle electrification program. All of these things are aimed at reducing carbon emissions and pollution. It also creates energy empowerment zones with tax incentives.
Gate: Many activists have called for a community benefits agreement for the Obama Presidential Center, and Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has agreed to implement such a policy. Should there be a state-wide policy mandating community benefit requirements for major developers in Illinois?
KB: While I believe that CBAs have worked best when they have been controlled by city government, I think that there is opportunity at the state level to create policy for the largest cities in the state to make sure that developers are focused on what their presence means in a community and how to invest in the communities in which they develop. I am a proponent of a CBA for the OPC. The lack of a CBA can mean the difference between investment and displacement.
Gate: How should Illinois respond to the national debate regarding comprehensive immigration reform? How should the State Legislature weigh the concerns of undocumented immigrants and citizens for and against “sanctuary cities”?
KB: I really believe that the work for comprehensive immigration reform is most effective when done on the federal level. We need reform that has a path to citizenship. The President and Congress have to provide guidance on this issue and not just lip service. On the state level, we should empower folks like our law enforcement and the Attorney General to make sure that undocumented folks aren't arrested or detained based on their citizenship status unless there is a judicial warrant. The General Assembly has to make informed decisions to balance the concerns of immigrants and of citizens and create a climate that is beneficial to all citizens of Illinois.
Gate: In 2016, you taught a course at the University of Chicago in which students were instructed on how to use a variety of research methods to understand food insecurity in underserved communities. How was the experience, and what are your plans to address food insecurity as a legislator?
KB: My time teaching at the University of Chicago was an incredible experience. To engage with such bright young minds was empowering to me. In the Fall 2016 class, we took a deep look at food insolvency throughout Chicago and what it meant to the overall quality of life in many neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. Food insolvency is an issue throughout the state in both urban and rural communities. In 2016, my colleague Representative Sonya Harper filed a new state law that required Illinois to track food deserts—areas lacking fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods. I plan to work with her to further those efforts and make sure that we are acting on the information we have gathered in regards to food insolvency. We have to create connectivity and partnership between the Illinois Department of Public Health, the USDA, and other entities to provide actionable change.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.