Chicago attorney James Garfield is one of four openly gay men taking part in the election to win the 12th District's state House representative seata position long held by state Sen. Sara Feigenholtz and for the moment is occupied by state Rep. Yoni Pizer, one of Garfield's opponents.
Garfield has centered state government reform as a key part of his platform. He has been very vocal in his opposition to Machine politics at the state level, and asserts that he won't be afraid to make decisions that could ordinarily cost an Illinois politician their career.
Windy City Times: Why did you become interested in running?
James Garfield: I've long been active in politics, but I've kept wanting to find more ways to be engaged and be involved, because I've gotten more and more frustrated in the direction that Springfield is going, especially in terms of corruption and ethics. We finally have a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature but we still can't have progressive reforms make their way through. When you ask why, the answer is that it's because money changed hands, lobbyists didn't want it to happen, Mike Madigan didn't rubber stamp it with his seal of approval. It's got to stop. I thought: "It's a short race and a hard fight, but it's worth it if we can make these changes happen and get this progress through."
WCT: Along those lines, your website said Springfield culture blocks reform. More specifically, how so and when?
JG: The Clean Energy Jobs Actthere's been discussions and rumors. It's for a healthy environment and provide new jobwhy is it a partisan issue? Why is it so hard to get through? It's because lobbyists from ComEd and coal and oil want to break it up. So instead of having one bill they have 15 little bills here and there that they can attach riders to and sneak things in. It's just sickening. We're watching the lakefront dissolve in front of us, and erode out from under our houses. We've got to get under environmental reforms now.
WCT: Speak about some specific reforms you'd like to see put into place.
JG: Certainly campaign finance. I think various election reforms, like automatic voter registration, which was passed then Rauner vetoed. Now it's gone through and the secretary of state is behind in getting it implemented. It's nonsensewe live in the 21st century, and we shouldn't have [those problems in implementation].
The legislative inspector general is supposed to be an independent position because they investigate legislators and hold them accountable. Except they answer to a panel of those legislators, to be told whether they are allowed to go forward or not with subpoenas or an investigation. So if you're a friend of someone on the panel…guess what? Your abuses aren't going to get reported.
WCT: Are you a believer in term limits?
JG: I don't like term limits. I don't think they're very democratic and I don't want to put myself out of a job. That said, Illinois has a ridiculously bad history at protecting incumbents, with gerrymandering, having such an early primary with all kinds of Machine politics to push people out. We have such a bad history of that, it becomes incumbent upon us, at least for a while, to force turnover in the system. So we don't have people for 30 or 40 years, forming a kind of aristocracy.
WCT: Were you to win, how would you see your term in continuity with Feigenholtz's?
JG: In terms of policy, we're pretty much on the same page. Between Sara, myself and many of the people in the race, we share a lot of the same policy [beliefs]environmental reforms, family protects, all kinds of healthcare issues. But the difference is that I'm "the nobody that nobody sent," and I'm fine with that. I'm happy to push programs that would stunt my own longevity and would prevent me from becoming more powerful. It's not about me, it's about the system. It's about the health of the Illinois government.
WCT: Beyond these reform issues, what are issues within the district that residents have told you they're concerned with and that you'd work on?
JG: Probably the number one problem that I've heard is property taxes. They're not wrongproperty taxes are huge. I just got men, and it's hefty. The thing is, simply saying, "I'm going to lower your property taxes" is disingenuous. No one policy and no one program stands alone. You want to fix property taxes? Great. Why are property taxes so high? To fund the schools? Why are they so high to fund the schools? Because the state isn't meeting its share of the burden, so local governments have to fund the schools.
So if we can pass the progressive income tax, get in our financial house in order at the state level, and fund our schools the way we're supposed tothat means the property taxes can stop increasing and then get some relief. It's not just the money issue, it's that the you have those property taxes going up, rents go up. That doesn't mean that people get raises, just that rents go up and then they have to eave our communities.
WCT: What do you think are the most pressing issues for LGBT residents of the 12th District?
JG: This brings in a somewhat national issue, with Donald Trump stoking homophobia, white nationalism and xenophobia. We have seen the attacks against LGBT people go up. We've seen less tolerance. We've seen more folks, especially trans women of color, being murdered just for being trans women of color. The petty harassment has been there a long time. Now it's, "It's okay to murder someone because they're different"that's what can we have to fight back against.
WCT: Where does a state rep fit in there?
JG: Some of it comes from really listening to where the violence comes from. Does it come from local chapters of hate groups? We can coordinate with local police to keep an eye on people. Is it from education and schools? Let's make sure that children are taught tolerance and acceptance early on, so that it doesn't become a big deal later in life. Coordination with local officials is importantstate reps don't have any direct control of police aldermen do. So work with aldermen to make sure that they can keep patrols higher in areas where those attacks happen.
WCT: In Lake View, there are sometimes problems when LGBT young folks go there to party, andoften on summer nightstensions arise between them and residents or business owners. This would be in your district, so how could you address that at the state rep's level?
JG: That would be tricky for a state rep. There is far less in terms of authority we would have to control something like that. Lord knows, we don't want rules like, "no alcohol after a certain time" because we're regulating businesses more, and we don't want to do that.
…Not to discourage people from coming in here and spending money, but if this was not the only major hub, the only "safe" place that LGBT youth could go, it would be good. My boyfriend comes in from the suburbs. He and his friends come in to go to Boystown, because there's nothing like that out there. If there were more spaces like that, throughout the city and further west, that might calm down the situation. I don't know if it would, but it might.
WCT: Have you done any activism work, beyond your campaign work, that you want to mention?
JG: It wasn't specifically for the LGBT community, but I do a lot of work with youth. I have participated in the Lawyers in the Classroom program, where you go in and teach fifth and sixth graders how to think like a lawyer. I'll be honest, they shock the hell out of me sometimes. We did the Three Little Pigs as a case, and they came up with ideas that none of the lawyers in the room have thought of. I'm also an alum and still work with Mikva Challenge; I'm very proud of that work.
WCT: What's been the biggest challenge in the race?
JG: Money. On one side, you had a candidate who raised a quarter-million dollars for Lori Lightfoot, and hundreds of thousands for other candidates, and miraculously they endorsed him. Another candidate loaned herself fifty thousand dollars up frontthat's five times what I've got in my bank account at any given timeand has pulled in lobbyists left and right, dumping money in there.
I know that I have the right message and the right ideas. But the people I'm calling are ones where I ask, "Hey man, can I have a hundred bucks?" I've had someone answer, "If I do that, I won't have groceries next week." I said, "Don't give it to me." The fact that money have been so pervasive and overwhelming, and that this has now become a proxy-war between the mayor [who endorsed Pizer] and the governor [who endorsed opponent Margaret Croke] means that people are losing sight of things besides the money. That's one reason we need campaign finance reformthe money drowns out the voices.
See JimmyGarfield.com .