Democratic candidate for Attorney General
Responses to our questions
Please explain how you would hit the ground running. On Day 1, what would your primary focus for the office be? How would you reorganize, if at all, the direction of the attorneys who report to you?
The Illinois Attorney General has jurisdiction over a wide range of issues, and it is impossible to predict precisely the issues that will be at the top of the agenda in January of 2019. I mean, who would have predicted at this time last year that the Attorney General's office would be taking action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to keep Illinois' air safe to breathe, or that attorneys general from across the country would be banding together to challenge the Department of Justice's efforts to cut off federal funds for public safety?
But there's one thing I can tell you for certain: On my first day, I will propose legislation to give the Attorney General's office greater power to investigate and prosecute public corruption. We need to make sure that all of our elected officials know that the Attorney General is keeping an eye on them — and has the power to take action if they stray outside the law. As Attorney General, I will work with the General Assembly to solve this problem and to give my office the tools we need to investigate public corruption, at every level.
Please explain in detail your legal experience and/or any areas of legal or policy expertise.
In my work as an attorney, I counsel my clients on all types of business transactions, including mergers and acquisitions, venture capital and private equity investments. I also advise public and privately-held companies and entrepreneurs on strategic initiatives and transactions. In addition, I serve as the relationship partner for several major firm clients, which means that I manage and supervise all aspects of the firm's legal services, including commercial litigation, class-action litigation, intellectual property, real estate, health law counseling, environmental issues, real estate, labor and employment, and regulatory matters. I've also been involved in firm management, serving as vice chair of the firm's corporate and securities group, co-chair of the diversity committee, and a member of the firm's strategic planning committee, pro bono committee and client service committee.
I've been recognized for my commitment to pro bono legal service by Chicago Volunteer Legal Services. I co-founded our firm's legal clinic and have consistently provided pro bono legal services to clients who could not otherwise obtain legal services. I have assisted pro bono clients in obtaining an expungement of their criminal record, asylum status, drafted end of life documents for seniors, and helped a Dreamer obtain deferred action under DACA. I have also counseled pro bono clients with tenant's rights issues, and wage theft issues. I have provided pro bono legal services to many nonprofit organizations, such as Erie Neighborhood House, Get in Chicago and the Metropolitan Planning Council. I also incorporated and obtained tax-exempt status for the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus Foundation and SocialWorks, Chance the Rapper's charity that is supporting Chicago Public Schools. My breadth of experience across all types of legal work, and my commitment to pro bono legal services, make me uniquely qualified to lead the Attorney General's office, which is often described as the largest public interest law firm in the state, and is responsible for providing legal oversight covering a broad range of issues.
I also have been an advocate for public education throughout my career, which has given me deep insights into educational policy. I served over four years as Vice President of the Chicago Board of Education, and in 2015 I stepped in to become Interim CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest school district. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appointed me to serve on the U.S. Department of Education Equity and Excellence Commission, a post I held for two years.
Previously, I served nearly seven years as Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). As the head of ISBE, I took prompt action when a school district refused to enroll an undocumented student, in violation of federal law. In an unprecedented action, I led ISBE to cut off the school district's state funding. The very next day, the school district backed down, and the student was allowed to go to school. I also led the successful effort to make Illinois the first state in the nation to provide bilingual education to preschoolers.
Have you ever tried a case? Civil or criminal? If so, how many?
I have represented various pro bono clients in court. I tried one case in Cook County Circuit Court, in which I successfully sued the Illinois Department of Public Health on behalf of an undocumented woman who was seeking to change her name on her child's birth certificate (she originally used an assumed name on the birth certificate, and Illinois requires a court order to change a name on a birth certificate). I successfully represented a woman in a child support action against her former spouse in Family Court. I also have sought asylum status for a pro bono client in Immigration Court (this matter is pending).
While a student at the University of Chicago Law School, I worked in the Employment Discrimination Clinic at the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and represented clients in employment discrimination cases before the Illinois Human Rights Commission and in US District Court. Although I am not a litigation partner at the firm, I have represented a large public company client in City of Chicago Administrative hearings relating to city ordinance violations. I also have represented a client in an inspector general investigation and have counseled clients in other government regulatory matters.
As Interim CEO of Chicago Public Schools, the General Counsel of Chicago Public Schools reported directly to me and we worked closely together on several litigation matters. In addition, I have supervised the work of talented litigators at my law firm as they have gone to court to advocate for our clients' interests. I also have led negotiations for many, many contracts and legal settlements on my clients' behalf. This experience is directly relevant to the work of the Attorney General's office, which regularly uses the settlement process to protect the interests of Illinois taxpayers. As Attorney General, one of my top priorities will be to create economic opportunities through the settlement process, when corporate wrongdoers admit their fault and negotiate a settlement with the Attorney General's office. I will make sure these settlements include binding agreements to hire personnel and establish new sites in Illinois neighborhoods and communities that have not received their fair share of corporate investment.
How would you prioritize the resources of the office?
I believe that Attorney General Lisa Madigan has done a good and honorable job during her tenure. She has made her office, in essence, the state's largest public interest law firm, and I will commit myself to expanding the good work that she has begun.
However, it is clear that the Attorney General's office will need to expand its work (and its workforce) over the next few years to stand up to the Trump Administration's continuing assaults on our fundamental rights. We will need to increase the resources available to our office to make sure that we have the strength and expertise to keep on pushing back against these unconscionable actions. Those resources will come from the average $1 billion in revenues collected by the Illinois Attorney General's office each year, through settlements, fines and penalties. I will make sure that an appropriate share of those collections is set aside to fund our expanded advocacy on behalf of Illinoisans targeted by the Trump Administration.
As past president of the Chicago Bar Foundation and past chairman of the Foundation's Investing in Justice campaign, I also will enlist the help and support of the many pro bono and low-cost legal service providers in Illinois to collectively further the mission of the Attorney General's office and bring access to justice to all Illinoisans — especially to those who cannot afford legal representation.
Should the attorney general's grand jury authority be expanded to intensify the role of the AG in fighting corruption? Or is that a more suitable role for federal prosecutors? Please explain your answer.
Frankly, I am sick and tired of hearing my home state used as the punchline of jokes about corrupt politicians making sleazy deals and lining their own pockets with taxpayers' money. Especially under the current Administration, the people of Illinois should not be dependent on federal prosecutors to keep an eye on our elected officials. Other states have passed laws that empower their Attorney General to act as a government watchdog, with the ability to step in when state or local officials violate their oath of office. We need that same level of protection here in Illinois.
It is an unfortunate fact that, in most cases, state law restricts the Illinois attorney general's office from pursuing criminal cases — including prosecution of public corruption — without the consent of county state's attorneys. Because state's attorneys have primary jurisdiction in these cases, the Attorney General does not have authority to empanel a grand jury; absent this authority, the AG's office cannot conduct a full criminal investigation and bring charges against a corrupt public official. Thus far, the General Assembly has refused to give the Attorney General's office broader authority, such as enhanced grand jury powers, to investigate public corruption. As Attorney General, I will advocate for changes in state law to ensure that our office has the power to act as a watchdog on our elected and appointed officials.
What do you view as the top three roles of the Illinois attorney general's office?
- Fighting public corruption
- Fighting for criminal justice reform
- Fighting against the Trump agenda of rolling back our civil and workplace rights, immigration policy and environmental regulations
To which areas of focus would you devote the most resources?
As I mentioned above, the Attorney General's office is facing a wide range of new challenges as the Trump Administration continues to target our fundamental rights as Americans. As Attorney General, my top priority will be to bring the power of government back to the people of Illinois and to back whenever our government tries to go too far.
What are the greatest challenges facing the next attorney general?
The rights of Americans are under unprecedented attack by the Trump Administration. In response, we are seeing state Attorneys General taking aggressive action to block the overreaches of this anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-woman, anti-Muslim administration. As Illinois Attorney General, I will join — and lead — similar challenges to the Trump Administration's discriminatory and unconstitutional actions across a wide range of issues, including:
Reproductive Rights. The Trump Administration's rollback of the ACA's contraception mandate is clearly discriminatory. The women of Illinois have the right to equal access to preventive medicine. I am hopeful that the current lawsuits focused on these issues will prevail within the coming year. If they do not, I will be proud to fight in the courts to protect reproductive health rights in Illinois.
Student Loan Protections. I believe that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos violated federal law when she rescinded the possibility of loan forgiveness for students who were misled or defrauded by abusive for-profit colleges that have cheated students — and taxpayers — out of billions of dollars in federal loans. Attorney General Madigan already has filed suit on behalf of Illinois students who were defrauded by now-defunct for-profit schools; I will continue that fight when I take office.
Healthcare Access. Access to affordable healthcare is under constant attack by this White House, but Attorneys General nationwide are standing up on behalf of their constituents. Attorney General Madigan is part of a coalition that has moved to intervene in a lawsuit to end cost-sharing subsidies that are a cornerstone of the ACA. The Trump Administration is not planning to defend against the lawsuit, which was filed by House Republicans. It is very appropriate for state Attorneys General to take up this fight, because the end of the subsidies will disrupt the states' health insurance markets and will increase the number of uninsured people, raising states' Medicaid costs.
Environmental Protections. Protecting the environment is one of the Attorney General's core responsibilities. This role has become even more important as Trump has moved to eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency. I am outraged by Trump's continuing attempts to put polluters in charge of the U.S. EPA. The loss of federal environmental protections is especially crucial in Cook County, where polluters have often chosen to target low-income communities that have not had the political clout to protect their health and the health of their children. As Attorney General, I will take action to stop polluters who threaten the quality of our air and our water — especially our beautiful Lake Michigan.
Give us some examples of when you displayed independence from your party or staked out an unpopular position.
My record demonstrates my willingness to stand up and take on political insiders. In 2015, in the wake of a bribery scandal, I stepped in to become Interim CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest school district. That experience really underscored the importance of transparency in government. During my brief tenure, I created a requirement that all requests for single- and sole-source contracts be posted on the CPS web site, well in advance of any vote. Now the Chicago Public Schools have a system in place to make sure that the Board and the public have a chance to weigh in before those types of contracts go up for a vote.
In a December 2015 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, I also called for CPS briefings to be held in public meetings (although, unfortunately, such briefings are still held in private). Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Advocating for open and transparent government is one of the Attorney General's core responsibilities, and I will do everything I can to make sure the people of Illinois get the full picture of what their government is up to.
I also spoke out when Forrest Claypool committed ethics infractions as the head of CPS. From day one, I blew the whistle on the conflicts of interest that led to the Inspector General's investigation. I also voted against the hiring of Ron Marmer as CPS General Counsel. Forrest Claypool's actions in misleading the Inspector General were unacceptable, especially at a time when trust in our government is at an all-time low. The people of Chicago have the right to expect our leaders to set an example of integrity. When Forrest Claypool failed this test, I immediately called on him to resign.
What steps have you taken, or would you take, to maintain the independence of the office from the influence of a governor, legislative leaders or members of your political party?
I was deeply disturbed to learn that one of my opponents, Kwame Raoul has accepted $100,000 in campaign donations from ten companies controlled by a single tobacco mogul — even though that mogul's company is currently in direct conflict with the Illinois Attorney General through a multimillion-dollar tobacco arbitration. His campaign attempt to explain this lapse with the excuse that 'Raoul is not Attorney General yet' demonstrates a profound ethical indifference incompatible with the responsibilities of the Illinois Attorney General. When candidates take huge amounts of money from contributors who have a very obvious financial interest in the outcome of an election and a pending case, it undermines public trust in our democratic system of government. The last thing Illinois needs is an ethically-challenged Attorney General.
Every campaign donation I receive is scrutinized to make sure that the donor is not involved in any ongoing cases with the Attorney General's office, to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest or quid pro quo. I believe every candidate for this office has the responsibility to promote public trust in our elected officials, so I call on Kwame Raoul to do the right and ethical thing and return the $100,000 in tobacco money. If he fails to do so, this should disqualify him for this office.
The Illinois Constitution is vague about the role of the attorney general. How proactive should the attorney general be in injecting himself or herself into issues of education, pensions, state finances, corruption or other issues that don't fall directly under the role of legal adviser?
The Attorney General is the people's lawyer. There is no issue that is not directly connected to our system of laws and our constitutional rights. I believe that it is incorrect to say that the Attorney General "injects" himself or herself into issues; rather, the Attorney General has a duty to represent Illinoisans' interests in education, fiscal policy, public corruption, and all of the other aspects of state governance. In that role, I will speak out whenever the people's rights are in danger, whether Illinoisans are being victimized by unfair employers, unscrupulous lenders, greedy corporations, corporate polluters, scam artists, and identity thieves — or the White House itself.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
I first met Barack Obama when I was in law school, and he was recruiting students for his seminar class on racism and the law. His commitment to public service was incredibly inspiring, and I became one of his earliest political supporters. During his first campaign for public office, I spent a memorable day on the South Side of Chicago walking a precinct with him, knocking on doors, talking to people, and watching him connect with voters.
What distinguishes you from your opponents?
I am the proud son of Mexican immigrants. My father was recruited to come to the United States in 1943 as part of a program that brought migrant workers here to pick crops to help put food on American tables during World War II. After working across this country for four years, he lived in Chicago as an undocumented resident until 1955, when he returned to Mexico to arrange for legal U.S. residency. While in Mexico, he met my mother. They married, came to Chicago, and settled in the Roseland neighborhood on the far South Side, where my mom still lives today.
When I was growing up, my father worked the evening shift at a big commercial bakery, which was organized by the Teamsters. In his best year he earned about $19,000, but our family had access to decent healthcare, and my father's pension made it possible for him and my mother to grow old in dignity. While my father was working those long shifts, my mother was setting an extraordinary example of giving back to the community, volunteering with our Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops and Little League teams, and helping out at church events. I've tried to follow her example of community service throughout my life.
My father only had a third-grade education, and he and my mother saw education as the path to the American Dream. To pay my way through college, I worked many different jobs, including stints as a sales clerk, a machine operator, a meter reader, and a handyman. In those jobs, I worked side-by-side with people from all different backgrounds — but they all shared a common determination to create a better future for themselves and their families. I know how hard those men and women worked for every dollar; as Attorney General, I will fight to protect them from unscrupulous corporations and consumer fraud.
After graduation, I worked in the steel industry for a few years. Then I had the good fortune of attending the University of Chicago Law School, where I studied under the guidance of future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and future President Barack Obama. Soon after getting my law degree, I got a job at a Chicago law firm — and I've been working at the same firm ever since. At the time, I felt extremely anxious about paying off my law school loans, which added up to some $90,000. Now, when I hear about students talking about their huge six-figure student loans, I can't imagine how it must feel to be a young person starting out under the burden of that kind of debt. That's why, as Attorney General, I will make battling unscrupulous student loan companies one of my top priorities. For me, being an advocate for ordinary people is not a talking point; it's about honoring my parents for their sacrifices on my behalf and giving back to my community and my country, in return for all that I have received throughout my life.