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?
On Day 1, I will begin transforming the Attorney General's Office into one that fights corruption on par with the U.S. Attorneys' Offices throughout the state. This will not be mutually exclusive to other focuses, but given the office's past lack of emphasis on public corruption, it will take some effort to build up this capability. I plan to be a hands-on attorney general, not a figurehead who takes orders from machine politicians, special interests or lobbyists.
As someone with a depth of trial and investigative experience, I will actively participate in investigations and cases. Moreover, the best cases and investigations will be assigned to the best attorneys in the office and those most dedicated to pursuing the public's interest. This is how Patrick Fitzgerald ran the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago, and I saw the effectiveness of this leadership style.
Please explain in detail your legal experience and/or any areas of legal or policy expertise.
Since graduating from Northwestern University School of Law in 1998, I have continuously worked as a litigator. Most of my early years were spent at Sachnoff & Weaver, a law firm known for its commitment to consumer advocacy. Between 2003 and 2011, I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago. During that time, I successfully prosecuted corrupt public officials, including a Blagojevich friend and appointee, corporate criminals and sexual predators. I also worked to take illegal guns off of our streets. Moreover, I successfully first-chaired numerous federal jury trials, including public corruption trials.
I currently am a member of the federal trial bar in the Northern District of Illinois. Since leaving the U.S. Attorney's Office, I have divided my time between practicing law in the private sector, teaching trial advocacy as an adjunct law professor at Northwestern's law school and representing Illinois' 58th Legislative District as its State Representative. As a legislator, I have focused much of my effort to reforming Illinois' criminal justice system, implementing needed ethics reforms, advocating for a responsible budget and protecting children and adults from online dangers.
Have you ever tried a case? Civil or criminal? If so, how many?
Yes, I have tried approximately ten matters to verdict in front of juries. Some of those trials lasted over one month, including one that lasted seven weeks. The trials involved corrupt public corruption, complex corporate fraud and illegal guns, among other things. Additionally, I have presented witnesses and evidence at contested evidentiary hearings and arbitrations. Further, I have assisted others in preparing for trial where I was unable to try the actual case for scheduling reasons.
How would you prioritize the resources of the office?
As stated above, as Attorney General, I will devote resources to building up the office's public corruption-fighting capabilities. At the same time, I will devote substantial resources to fighting the state's gun violence and opioid epidemics while maintaining the office's consumer protection capabilities. During the time I worked at the U.S. Attorney's Office, there were significant budget constraints. Yet the office was able to accomplish much due to the motivation of its lawyers and staff and their belief in what they were working for. Thus, I am confident that I will be able to move forward with these priorities, despite Illinois' budget woes.
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.
The full scope of the Illinois Attorney General's current grand jury authority is unsettled. The constitution is vague about the attorney general's authority, merely stating it "shall have the duties and powers that may be prescribed by law." It is quite possible that this language currently grants the Illinois Attorney General broad grand jury powers. Further, under current law, the Illinois Attorney General can work with local state's attorneys to open up grand juries. To the extent the Illinois Attorney General cannot open a grand jury to prosecute public corruption, that must be changed. Since taking office as a state representative, I have introduced a law to provide for that expansion. As Attorney General, I will continue to advocate for such a law to remove any ambiguity in the constitution's language. There is no good reason for Illinois to outsource public corruption investigations to the federal government. There is enough of it to keep both state and federal prosecutors busy.
What do you view as the top three roles of the Illinois attorney general's office?
The Illinois Attorney General should: (1) protect the public from the evils of government abuse and corruption; (2) make sure that every person is treated fairly under the law; and (3) ensure consumers and working-class families are protected from corporations and special interests/political leaders seeking to harm them. By accomplishing these goals, Illinois will be able to make progress and bring about the real change needed to improve people's lives — like making sure adequate funding is available for its public schools and reforming its broken criminal justice system.
Deep down, everyone in Illinois knows that the ideals set forth above cannot be accomplished if we keep electing the same politicians who are unwilling to take on — or are a part of — the failed status quo. Somewhere along the line, it became about politicians serving themselves, instead of serving the people. As a result, people have lost faith in their government, and it's holding the state back from tackling the tough challenges it faces. Policies can't get enacted to strengthen communities and help families get ahead. Neighborhoods aren't as safe and schools aren't as strong. In order to achieve real progressive change that will make a difference in people's lives, it is necessary to take on the status quo and get back to a system that works for all people.
I want to clean up Illinois once and for all. I have fought this fight as a federal prosecutor and a state representative, and that is what I will do as Attorney General.
To which areas of focus would you devote the most resources?
As Attorney General, I would devote the necessary resources to each area of focus. This may shift over time depending on the pressing issues of the day. Because Illinois has gone so long without a statewide public corruption-fighting mechanism, I am committed to devoting the necessary resources to build-up this capability. This ultimately will pay for itself through the elimination of government waste built into public corruption.
What are the greatest challenges facing the next attorney general?
Illinois politicians do not want an attorney general who will zealously hunt down corrupt politicians, and they will do whatever they can to protect their cozy way of life. Thus, there will be strong efforts to prevent the attorney general's office from pursuing public corruption matters. This will not deter me. I have a history of standing up to the most powerful politicians in Illinois, and that won't change when I am the attorney general. I will follow the evidence wherever it leads. If evidence shows that the Speaker of the House has committed a crime, he will be prosecuted like everyone else. The same goes for the Senate President, the Governor or any local official.
Give us some examples of when you displayed independence from your party or staked out an unpopular position.
In January 2017, I became the first Democrat in three decades not to support Mike Madigan in his quest to become Speaker of the House. My vote aligned with the vast majority of Democrats in Illinois but was not popular with the political class who has grown dependent on him. Additionally, when machine politicians and union bosses wanted to take away workers' right to strike in order to preserve their power, I had the courage to say no. This should not have been a unique position in a Democratically-controlled state. But in Illinois, things can be upside down.
Further, I have called out Democratic leadership for not carrying-through on its progressive agenda, instead using our base as political pawns to preserve political power. As discussed above, in order for Illinois to move forward with progressive change, it has to ditch the status quo and the leaders who are tied to it. Indeed, the failed policies of these leaders directly led to the election of Bruce Rauner and helped elect Donald Trump.
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?
While I am a proud Democrat, during my time in the General Assembly, I have earned the reputation as being one of the most independent-minded Democrats in the House of Representatives. I began earning this reputation early on when, during my first campaign, I returned a $20,000 campaign contribution from Mike Madigan's campaign committee. I didn't want it. During the last election cycle when Speaker Madigan requested a high five-figure contribution from my campaign committee and — at the same time — discussed the possibility of previously stalled child-protection legislation of mine once again moving, I told him no. Disgusted by the juxtaposition of the two topics, I followed that up by not voting for him for Speaker of the House.
I am running for attorney general to clean up Illinois. The only way to do that is to make sure the office is fiercely independent. Based on my past actions, the public can rest assured that partisan-politics will play no role in the direction of the 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 should use the office's platform to advocate on behalf Illinois residents with respect to important issues. Thus, the Attorney General should be a leader in the efforts to end gun violence. Necessary to this effort is to advocate for more equitable education funding. Similarly, the Attorney General should be looking for ways to make Illinois government more honest. This includes requiring the General Assembly to enact constitutionally-permissible budgets, make actuarially-sound pension payments and stop corruption wherever it exists. I have repeatedly heard during this election that the "attorney general can't do this or that." I disagree. There is a difference between what the attorney general has not done, and what it can do.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
In college, I interned at the Public Defender's Office in Washington, D.C. It was there that I learned the importance of a fair justice system and the important roles that defense attorneys and prosecutors play in that system.
What distinguishes you from your opponents?
Several things distinguish me from the others running in this race. I am the only candidate in the race with experience prosecuting public corruption and working in the General Assembly. Thus, on day 1, I can take an active role in pursuing the Attorney General's courtroom duties and legislative duties. Additionally, while I am a lifelong Democrat and progressive, I truly am running an independent campaign, in that I have not courted, nor will I receive, support from the political machine that has run our state for too long. This is important. As a federal prosecutor, I learned that in the organized crime world, it is well known that the best way to operate without government hindrance is to install a "friendly" mayor and police chief. The same applies to Illinois government. If powerful political interests install an attorney general who is "friendly" to them, they can operate without fear of State oversight. I am concerned that there are candidates in this race who have connections to these powerful interests, have turned to them for help getting elected or have done favors for them in the past. That some of these candidates claim to be ethics champions or on the side of the public is disgusting. For instance, Kwame Raoul and Nancy Rotering are running with the assistance of Mike Madigan, and Pat Quinn was Madigan's patronage pal during his time in office.