Heather Benno may be up against politically connected lesbian candidate Deb Mell in her run for the open state representative seat for the 40th District, located on Chicago's Northwest Side, but that isn't stopping her.
Benno is an Iraqi-American activist and immigrant rights attorney who is running on the Green Party ticket, although she is a member of the Chicago Organizing Committee of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Benno, who is in her late 20s, is very supportive of LGBT rights and is also an anti-war activist ( she is a volunteer organizer of the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, or ANSWER, Coalition of Chicago ) .
Windy City Times: I understand you are really involved in the community as an activist and an immigrant rights attorney. Can you tell me more about your background and how you think your background prepares you for office.
Heather Benno: I've been living in the Chicago area for about seven years. I've been involved in a lot of stuff. I went to law school here. I pretty much came here after I graduated college ( I went to school in St. Louis ) . I was involved in a lot of pro-choice activity, working with a local health clinic and making sure women were safe going back and forth between—sort of like escorting them. When I moved to Chicago, I was living on the South Side for a while, and eventually moved to the Albany Park area. I got involved in the ANSWER Coalition in Chicago, which is actually a national organization. I was also involved in organizing immigrant rights issues and also self-determination issues for the people of the Middle East before I got involved with ANSWER. I've worked on a variety of different issues. We organize against racism and inequality, in general, so I've been involved with organizing with various different groups, participated in pro-marriage equality rallies in Chicago, rallies against hate crimes in Chicago, immigration rallies and demonstrations against the war, as well as demonstrations against police brutality and other forms of racism and aggression. So, that is my organizing work.
As for my career, I was practicing labor employment law for a while after I graduated law school. I practiced for the Illinois Human Rights Commission. I actually representing small plaintiffs and then moved to a law firm, where I work on immigration law. I've been doing that for about a year. I my current position, ... I represent immigrants in deportation proceedings in immigration court. Also, I help organize them so they know their rights and do a lot of immigrant rights presentations. I'm not staffed on this project, but we do have a few special projects in my office. The ones we do have are asylum and immigration representation for HIV. People with HIV and survivors of aggression based on sexual orientation—there is a special program for that. We work with a lot of groups in the area to make sure that immigrants who were persecuted based on their sexual orientation are getting representation here, which is really hard with the federal laws the way they are.
WCT: Why did you decide to run?
HB: The reason I decided to run in Albany Park, in particular, is we just want to make sure— First of all, it was going to be an uncontested election, as you know. They engineered this to be an unopposed election in this area. My thought was that is not a good policy, in general, where people are just, in a way, appointed to a certain office, and it is expected that they are going to be the best person for the job, when really the constituents aren't involved in the process and aren't choosing who is actually going to be representing them. We decided to intervene in the election and organize an independent mass movement for equality in all of these areas in Albany Park. That is why I decided to run in the general election.
WCT: So, you are running against the daughter of a Democratic Party heavyweight who everybody knows. Given your background and experience, what can you bring to the table that your opponent cannot?
HB: There are a lot of things that I can bring to the table, but most importantly, it is an independent experience with organizing and independent movement. That is the real reason why I am even running. It's because we want to be able to tell people, especially the immigrants in the neighborhood and working-class families that are living there, that there are people in the streets fighting for them, and those people are not necessarily in Springfield. The reason why it is important to run in these election is when people are going to vote, they should at least have the option of voting for the person that they see fighting for them on a day-to-day basis. That is what I can bring to the table: a working-class orientation. I'm not pandering to Machine politics in Chicago. I'm not pandering to the Democratic Party. In Chicago, the two party system is pretty much a joke. But there are community needs being not met by the Democratic Party. Really, what that party has been is a party for the corporate interests in Chicago. It's not to say that they don't grant rights in some form every once in a while, but the only reason those reforms do get granted is because there are independent mass movements in the streets on those issues. That's what I think I bring.
It's not that I want to run against Deb Mell, in particular. It's really just against the Machine. What we are doing is taking a stand. We do not need to just grin and bear these types of politicians running their neighborhoods. Because I come from outside of that, and because I organize from outside of that with a lot of different groups from around the city, I think that is something I can bring to the table.
WCT: Albany Park and your district is a very diverse area with, I'm sure, many different needs that residents have. What are the main needs you've identified in your district, and what are some needs prior leadership has ignored in this district?
HB: A lot has been ignored. One of the reasons we have the needs that we have is they have been ignored by other people in the past. I think that's the best demonstration of how much responsiveness and dedication to the needs of working families is needed is my neighborhood is the flood response to the flooding of Albany Park. There were almost 350 people who were evacuated and had to leave their homes because their houses were flooded. Dozens of people were hoping to get out of their houses by boat, and there was literally almost no response by the city and no planning to make sure things happened and no efficient relief effort to make sure the damage was minimized after the flooding had started. The most shocking thing about all of that was that was totally predictable that it would be flooding in Albany Park. There had two very large floods that devastated the neighborhood in the '80s. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the rivers in the area flood their banks about once or twice each decade. The fact that there hasn't been a retaining wall built in that neighborhood is an abomination. The residents have been demanding that for decades, especially after the devastation in '86 and '87. That just shows the unresponsiveness and the lack, not only of planning, but also of concern of the residents of my community. The reason why there is that lack of concern in my neighborhood is because it is predominately an immigrant community that is predominately working-class. ...It's a crime in my eyes. You need the infrastructure.
You also need to check the law enforcement in the neighborhood, who are brutalizing people in our community. There have been immigration raids and in the streets, people are scared to walk around with their families and scared to go to work. Immigration agents have also been known to be waiting outside of schools, knowing people will be coming to pick up their kids. So, immigration concerns, police brutality concerns and obviously, equality concerns, by and large. I haven't been living there my entire life, but over two and a half years, so it's not like I know every single community there. But I do know that there are a lot of working families that come from a lot of countries around the world. In addition to the struggles that they face on a day-to-day basis, which I am sure is based on their immigration status and their race, I'm sure there are other struggles they face, such as heterosexism on a day-to-day basis, which is just a factor of how government is operated. These are all needs of everyone in the city, but particularly the people of Albany Park. People, in general, need to have a government that is responsive to their concerns. The only way they are going to get that is organizing and demanding it in the streets.
WCT: Do you think you best represent the people in your district?
HB: I do. The reason why I best represent the people in my district is because ... I am a worker. It's not that I've come from a family of politicians. I have a job, just like everybody else. I'm not saying my opponent doesn't, but I'm facing a lot of the same concerns my neighbors do. Like when my neighborhood flooded, I ran over to my neighbor's house to make sure he was okay because his first floor was flooded. That was a concern of mine. I also come from an immigrant family, myself. My father is from Iraq. We've seen the way this war has taken a murderous toll on the Iraqi people, but it's also taking a toll on workers in the United States and people recruited to join the military because they can't afford to live. That's why I think I do represent their needs, because those are needs that I'm living with, too. It definitely should be that the people who are representing people in government understand the needs of their communities and are actually organizing for those needs, as opposed to just talking about them.
...It's not just being in office that brings about change. It's being involved with the people who are not in office who help bring about change. Those are the people that the representatives have pledged to serve. The only way we are actually going to be able to have that service in effect is by having representatives be organizers themselves. Also, realizing that change is really going to come from the streets, and using their office as a way of advocating for people in their neighborhood, as opposed to just governing them.
WCT: What are some statewide issues that, if elected to office, that you would like to focus on?
HB: There are a lot. A lot of the issues are coming to a head in the presidential election. There are issues that are unique to Illinois, but what we are seeing around the country are working families suffering because of the policies of the politicians who are in office. It is not just in Illinois that these concerns are growing. Obviously, in Illinois, there are major concerns. One of them is education. Education and housing, in my view and the view of the people in my party, are rights, and these are rights the people should have and they don't, under a system where corporate politicians are governing based on the whims of their corporate constituents. They are not actually recognizing the rights of their family constituents. The reason why education is so underfunded in poorer areas or areas of color, not just in Chicago, but all around the state, is because this has not been a priority. We totally supported the school boycotts on the first day of school. We came out to the street rallies and passed out materials in support of those demonstrations. I know the only way education is going to be reformed is by mass movement. That is one of the issues, definitely. Healthcare and housing are all in abysmal states, even though the governor has reformed certain aspects of the healthcare system. It's not universal healthcare, and healthcare is not yet treated as a right. It needs to be an unconditional right that all workers have access to healthcare. We all need to have access. This country is the richest company in the world. ...There is no reason why people should be dying of treatable illnesses or HIV. People living with HIV should have access to the treatments they need. That is a particular concern.
The constitutional convention is also on the ballot in Illinois, and I do support having a constitutional convention. This is a statewide issues, because in Illinois, we've seen that under the present system politicians are able to govern while they are wildly unpopular. There is no mechanism, really, until the next election, to recall them. There is also—although Illinois does have progressive laws for equality against sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace—those laws aren't strong enough, in my opinion. I think a constitutional convention is always wise because people should be able to have input into the laws and people governing them. I support that and the right to recall politicians.
WCT: Let's talk about LGBT rights. I saw an article that mentioned that you participated in the Pride Parade and that you counterprotested anti-gays who showed up.
HB: Right, there were so many [ bigots ] this year. We brought a huge sign to cover them up, so you couldn't even see them. They were shouting from behind the sign. The contingent we were in prepared for it, and brought the biggest banner I had ever seen. We were able to go around the street corner and cover them. ...They were vicious. They were saying what they want to say, I guess, but we thought it was violent speech.
WCT: What are some LGBT issues that still need to be addressed in Illinois?
HB: I think one that really needs to be addressed and is not being addressed by the Democratic Party, at all, is the issue of marriage equality. Hands down, this is an issue that people have been organizing around. There is no reason why the people of California and Massachusetts should have access, for example, to equal marriage rights, and the people of Illinois cannot. That is something that needs to be in the forefront. We need progressive politicians campaigning for it. It's not just a right to marriage. This is about equality. It's not that marriage is a bad institution that they are denying the people of Illinois the right to marry. It's because they are homophobic and they are bigots. I've heard that some people are opposing the constitutional convention because they are afraid some of the special interest groups will want to get the definition of marriage placed into the Illinois Constitution. That would be crazy, but it shows that, regardless of whether or not we have a constitutional convention, those people are still going to be there. That's a target issue I'm organizing on and we are organizing on.
WCT: Because there is legislation moving through for civil unions, how do you feel about civil unions vs. marriage.
HB: I obviously support any measure that grants greater rights to LGBT people or any oppressed people than they currently have, but that is not equality. When you are going to bat on an issue, it's never wise to say—and I'm not criticizing the activists involved in that circle because, obviously, any type of reform that brings relief to the LGBT community would be very welcome. But I'm never going to say that we should accept anything less than full equality, because that is what we will get. The LGBT community does not deserve that, and in fact, has a long history of fighting against that. I understand why civil unions are preferred over what we have now, which is nothing, but, at the same time, as somebody who has been giving a podium and platform to speak on behalf of the members of the community, they should not have to say that we will accept anything less than full equality. And when those reforms happen, we can celebrate the fact that those reforms came because of our struggles.
WCT: Is there any other issue you would like to tough on or anything else you'd like to add?
HB: One thing I want to convey is that I am not running in this election because I oppose Deb Mell, for example. I don't have any problem with Deb Mell as a person, and I respect the activism that she has been involved in, but she is part of something and she is running as part of something that works against the interests of LGBT people, of Iraqi people, of immigrants, the African American community and the people of Albany Park. There should have been an out lesbian in the state legislature years ago. We shouldn't be talking about whether or not we should be having a lesbian in the state legislature now. The state legislature should be run by out lesbians! [ Laughs ] . Unfortunately, there should have been a Black president years ago. But because of the oppression in this country—discrimination and homophobia in this country—we are constantly fighting and struggling for rights as workers and members of various communities on a day-to-day basis. Part of that struggle is fighting against the two main parties. They are the primary criminals when it comes to homophobia, racism and sexism. That's really why I am running. I am running as an organizer of people and not against somebody who should have had the right to govern a long time ago.