FROM LEFT: Director of the Illinois Department of Insurance Michael McRaith, Director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights Rocco Claps and spokesperson Justin DeJong.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has accomplished plenty for the GLBT community in his initial term. However, as he runs for re-election on Nov. 7, he is against a Republican opponent [ current State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka ] who is also popular with some of the gay demographic. Windy City Times recently sat down with three openly gay individuals with links to Blagojevich—Director of the Illinois Department of Insurance Michael McRaith, Director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights Rocco Claps and spokesperson Justin DeJong—to discuss the incumbent and his opponent. [ Note: The talk took place the day after Blagojevich and Topinka debated at Millikin University in Decatur. ]
Windy City Times: So what did you all think of the debate last night?
Michael McRaith: I thought it was an excellent opportunity for [ Blagojevich ] to talk about some of the programs that he's developed that have made a difference to all of the people in the state. It's really important for people to hear what the candidates have to say. I was really disappointed with [ Topinka's ] responses because she had little to say that was creative or original. She got off some clever quips and tried to attack the governor, but there was no substance at all.
Rocco Claps: What's really mind-boggling to me is that when the governor talks about what he's done in three and a half years, it's an amazing record and it's amazing that it's happened in so short a time. He's brought out alternatives to problems that people deal with on an everyday basis. I thought the governor got his message out there.
Justin DeJong: Last night was a great opportunity for both candidates to highlight accomplishments and vision. We know that Gov. Blagojevich has had incredible accomplishments but he also has a vision for Illinois moving forward. Frankly, I'm disappointed with both Treasurer Topinka's accomplishments and vision.
WCT: What about Topinka's claims regarding controversies with that $1,500 check [ that the governor's family received from a friend whose wife had just been given a state job ] and his assessments [ rising one percent while his neighbors' increases averaged 36.7 percent ] ? And what about the fact that Blagojevich's administration is being investigated by the FBI?
MM: I don't think any of us knows [ everything ] about those transactions. The property tax assessments ... the county assessor has offered his reply. [ A spokesperson for Democratic Cook County Assessor James Houlihan has said that the governor's assessment was 'much higher than his neighbors during the last reassessment in 2003'. ] It's also a point of reference for Topinka because she can't demean his legislative achievements. There's an investigation because they don't know what the facts are.
RC: I used to be the deputy assessor for Cook County. If you understand the assessment process at all, it's done through studies. It would be next to impossible for someone to pick one particular property and say that it's going to be a [ certain amount ] .
JD: The reality is that, in the governor's first year of office, he passed sweeping and comprehensive ethics reform and established the independent executive inspector general, which is a rigorous process that is working. Some of the things that have been brought to the public's attention have been a result of that process—which shows that it's working like it's supposed to.
WCT: Here's a potentially icky hypothetical for you: Let's say that the governor is guilty of some sort of hiring fraud. How would that affect your view of him and his legacy?
MM: From my perspective, it's not a complicated issue. There are 57,000 employees within the control of the executive. There are going to be some people who are going to be liars or be [ dishonest ] . He can't be held personally held responsible for every individual.
Having said that, he's accomplished a lot in one term. He's a progressive Democrat. There's not one other governor in this country who's pushed for legislation that makes it unlawful to discriminate against gays and lesbians. He's extended domestic-partnership benefits as well as expanded screening and treatment for breast and cervical cancer. He also supports ADAP ( AIDS Drug Assistance Program ) , All Kids, veterans' care ... no other governor in history has pushed for all that. His legacy will not be tainted, no matter what happens.
RC: And he's done it without raising taxes. It's so important to see what this government has done for gays and lesbians. The gay-rights bill ... it [ helped ] having a governor who said that he was going to sign this bill and it was something he was committed to for years. This governor cares for all people and, specifically, the gay and lesbian community. This is why I'm proud to work for him. We need to come together as a community and work for him. He doesn't walk through a parade and deny his workers domestic-partnership benefits [ a reference to Topinka ] .
MM: She's the only constitutional officer in the state who did not extend domestic-partnership benefits.
RC: She reminds me a lot of Jane Byrne. You'd see her in a parade and think that she's cool. She likeable and she's supportive—but then, on the parts that matter, you think about things like supporting George Bush and denying the benefits ...
JD: Treasurer Topinka has declined to extend the benefits, citing financial reasons. However, at the same she made that announcement, she also talked about adding employees to the state payroll and pay raises for state employees as well as adding [ workers ] to her very own office. What she did was very disappointing.
MM: She didn't agree to run for governor until after she went to Washington, D.C., and met with Karl Rove. The papers reported that. The referenda that we had to fight in 2004 were from ... Karl Rove. As much as we want to believe that she's sympathetic, it's what you do—not what you say.
WCT: How do you explain her popularity with the GLBT community?
RC: I think she comes across as a nice person and she's friendly. She's been well known in the Latino, African-American and GLBT communities. However, friendly and outgoing only go so far. Her people are enemies of the community.
MM: Remember that her running mate is [ Joe ] Birkett. He's from DuPage County and is extremely conservative, which is why he's running all over the state catering to the far right. There really is no mixed message here.
You can vote for someone because they're nice or know someone who's gay. Dick Cheney has a gay daughter, for Christ's sake. Are we going to vote for him?
WCT: Well, more than 20 percent of gays [ allegedly ] voted for Bush—both times.
MM: I know—and that's still an embarrassment.
WCT: I went to Blagojevich's Web site [ www.rodforillinois.com ] . I noticed that under 'Accomplishments,' he has various demographics listed, including immigrants, minorities, women and even farmers. However, there is no specific section for the GLBT community. With everything that he's done for gays and lesbians, it seems like a bit of an oversight. [ Windy City Times showed a copy of the page to the interviewees as verification. ]
MM: You would expect to see something. [ However, ] he definitely has a track record. It is a good [ point ] , though.
JD: That's probably one for the campaign people. [ Note: The gay-rights bill was listed under the 'Minorities' page as Windy City Times went to press. ]
WCT: Blagojevich is for civil unions but is against gay marriage. How does that sit with you all?
RC: It's not something I agree with but, as an elected official, he's the one who has to advocate from his heart. This is something that doesn't concern me, but I disagree with him about it.
JD: Progress is incremental. Passing the gay-rights bill was an amazing step for our community—and I think progress can continue during [ the governor's ] second term.
RC: When the human-rights bill amendment was passed, it was in the middle of a strong [ period ] concerning marriage. In so many ways, it was so important for that support to be there for that bill, because it has far-reaching ramifications. [ The topics ] covered by the bill were much more critical at the time than gay marriage, which has so many routes to go before it passes.
MM: There are two points. He supports civil unions, and I haven't heard Topinka say that. Also, we can think about getting married up here [ in Chicago ] , but places like Marion [ are much more conservative ] . Now, people in places like Marion, Carbondale and Effingham have protections concerning housing and employment.
WCT: Let's say Blagojevich is re-elected. Is there anything specific you'd like to see him do during his next term?
RC: I think that there will be a continuing battle with those who want to take the rights of gay people away. This community has to look at what you want to have different but, in so many ways, we need to protect what we've got as well. That's one thing I'm sure about with him. I'm not sure what someone else may try to do.
MM: As I listen to Rocco, I appreciate how our jobs are so different because Gov. Blagojevich has tried to solve health care problems in ways that actually matter. I think health care is the biggest issue this country faces today. [ For example, ] the costs of medication for HIV-positive people is mind-boggling and the expanding programs for screening and treatment of cervical and breast cancer have real benefits for the women of our community. Also, if it weren't for the governor, the Center on Halsted would not have received $5 million that was pledged to it before the money was in the bank. [ Topinka has also contributed to the Center on Halsted project. Robbin Burr, the organization's CEO, thanked Topinka ( among other officials ) for her support at a ground-breaking ceremony in June 2005. In 2002, Topinka announced her support for the center by awarding a $10 million link deposit to assist the organization with its funding efforts. ]
So he's also focused on mental health issues—and you know that I'm all over the mental health issues, for various reasons. I look for more leadership on those issues in the next few years.
JD: I think, again, that progress is incremental. I believe that Gov. Blagojevich will make more progress for our community—more so than Treasurer Topinka.
MM: We now have a chance to fight for someone who's actually done something that no governor has done before. That's why I'm pretty passionate about getting Governor Blagojevich re-elected.
RC: Mike and I are the first openly gay directors ever appointed in the state's history and I think that's an enormous thing. [ Blagojevich ] believes that including people is important. For me, [ supporting him ] is a no-brainer.