While he waits to formally declare his less-than-guarded intentions to seek a second full term, Gov. Pat Quinn came to Chicago’s Westside Saturday to pay homage to one of the most crucial voting blocs he needs to stay “in” the state’s top job in Springfield. And though no one will equate his oratory with the Chicagoan now occupying the White House, several hearty applauses punctuated his brief appearance.
During an hour-long session replete with hugs, handshakes and picture taking at the Greater Open Doors Baptist Church at 1301 S. Sawyer St. the governor addressed more than 300 black Chicagoans in a town hall-styled meeting hosted by freshman Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (D-5th). Representing a variety of churches and non-profit community groups, the audience had come to question Quinn on issues ranging from education to incarceration, with jobs and respect for their votes also pushing for attention.
Paying homage to Dr. Martin Luther King, Harold Washington and Jackie Robinson during a nearly half hour speech, Quinn spoke of the need for better education, more training programs and more jobs for African Americans in Chicago and the state.
“The most powerful force in a democracy, the most important way to equal opportunity and the best way to insure that everybody gets treated fairly starts from birth with a good education,” Quinn began. Speaking on the heels of his earlier participation Saturday morning in the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s annual walk at Soldier Field, the governor said he had managed to squeeze a “$46 million dollar investment” in early childhood education out of the recent state budget, adding it was the first time ever in the history of state money had been appropriated for that purpose. “We have to do more,” he said. Early childhood educators also have to be well-paid if the state’s efforts in that area are to succeed.
Quoting from the Bible’s book of Amos, Quinn went on to express support for raising the minimum wage to address poverty and enrolling participants in the federal Obamacare healthcare initiative beginning in the fall. Mentioning he is a former community college teacher, the governor also said education should include sports, arts and other extracurricular activities for students.
Quinn additionally touted a program to encourage the hiring of local works in construction contracts and said the state is “going back to the future” to lure the movie making industry to Illinois. He then recognized the work of newly installed state Assistant Labor Director Tumia Romero, former deputy chief of staff for U.S Cong. Danny Davis.
The governor, who abolished Illinois’s death penalty and has granted clemency to hundreds during his administration, went on to highlight his efforts to give ex-offenders “a second chance,” mentioning also the need to assist the children of those incarcerated.
In the end, most in the audience seemed glad to have heard from and be seen with the state’s chief executive, even if he did not completely meet their demands for outlining a plan, then and there, that would deliver the resources and revenues to meet the needs of local black communities ravaged by school closings, crime and depressed economies. The governor got a warm welcome and left to smiling faces clamoring to get into camera phone photographs.
In between, he heard the voices of their concerns, beginning with Van Pelt’s, who, after lauding Quinn for his work on education, human services, jobs and facilitating a “strong African American presence” in state contracts, in told the audience that they must continue to “push” the governor and the state to do more for prisoner re-integration. “That may not be popular politically,” she said after Quinn spoke, “but they were saying the same thing about gay rights five years ago,” she said. “Once, you could go to jail for being gay; now if you say something about somebody being gay, you’ll go to jail.”
“We have to continue to amplify our voices until they hear nothing but prisoner re-integration.”
Before Quinn took to the podium, he also heard from Safe Cities’ Director Cheryl Phillips about the need for more state assistance for education, and Reggie Berry, the leader of the Save Our Sons non-profit that targets ex-offender re-integration, also challenged the governor to do more on that issue. More than 60 youthful ex-offenders accompanied Berry—a former gang member, drug dealer and convict who served more than a decade behind bars before turning to helping others avoid his fate—filling nearly a third of the church.
In a brief interview after the meeting, Quinn acknowledged the importance of black Chicagoans to his re-election aspirations while emphasizing that his primary efforts aimed at the Windy City right now involve public safety and addressing the violence that claimed 500 lives in Chicago last year. Stating his opposition to more and more lethal weapons in the hands of Illinoisans, Quinn also said he will be directing a “laser focus on protecting people” this week in regard to the current concealed carry legislation awaiting his approval signature or veto. Calling gun safety the “biggest issue” concerning the state at the moment, he repeated the disapproval he voiced in his speech, about the NRA-backed, Virginia-based origin of the bill. “We don’t need outsiders from the NRA and in Virginia writing laws for the people of Illinois.”
When asked about his concern about the prospect of facing potential challengers (Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former Obama Chief of Staff John Daley) from within his own party for the Democrat nomination next year, the governor was nonplussed.
“You know, it’s a free country; I’m sure there’ll be folks considering running for governor. But I am the governor; I’m doing that job every day. I’m in the arena, and as I said yesterday in Grant Park…, “When Quinn, you all win.”