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Interview: Rich Whitney, Green Party Candidate for Illinois Governor

By Kevin Robinson in Miscellaneous on Nov 1, 2006 3:00PM

Often derided as spoilers, third-party candidates and their movements hold an important place in American political history; Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was just such an example when he became the 16th President of the US, presiding over the Civil War, and forever changing the national political landscape. In this year's polarized political atmosphere, the Green Party sees an opportunity to build a third-party movement in the state. With the Democratic Party poised to retake Congress, Democrats in Illinois have been met with scandal and sagging approval ratings. The state GOP, meanwhile, has remained fractured and divided, partially from the George Ryan scandal. Rich Whitney, a Downstate Illinois civil rights attorney running for Governor on the Green Party ticket, is hoping he can pull people together in a movement for positive change.

richwhitney.jpgChicagoist caught up with Whitney between campaign stops. His campaign has taken a decidedly grassroots tack, building more on the work of volunteers and the strength of activist communities than on an organized party apparatus. He comes off as smart, coherent and intelligent. There is a sense of urgency when he talks, and a palpable feeling of passion for the issues he is discussing.

Chicagoist: Who are you? What qualifies you to govern, and why should anyone vote for you?

Rich Whitney: Because I’m standing up for them. I’ve got the best ideas and proposals to serve the public interest; the best ideas for education funding in the state budget; the best ideas for clean energy, clean government, universal healthcare here in Illinois, and quality economic ideas for everyone in this state.

C: Do you really think you can win?

W: Yes. I’m not predicting I will win. I’m a long shot, but the odds are getting better every day. We’re at a unique point in history -- the other two candidates are widely disliked, even by those in their own party. We’re seeing a level of disgust and discontent that hasn’t been seen in this state, in this nation, in many, many years. I am a viable protest vote, but there are also so many good reasons to vote for me. I have the best proposals, the best platform. The Green Party is a positive alternative, but also from a majoritarian viewpoint. I represent real property tax relief, not balancing the budget on the backs of working families, and not on expanding gambling or Keno in the state.

C: You’ve never held elected office. What qualifies you to be Governor of Illinois?

W: It’s true that I’ve never held elected office here in Illinois. I have no experience awarding no-bid contracts to my friends, no experience accepting corporate donations. But I am qualified. I’m an attorney. I have the strength of the principals of the Green Party. And I’ve been a long-time public-interest activist in the labor, environmental, civil rights, women's and anti-war movements.

C: You’ve been in the news a lot lately for moving into the double digits in polling. Why do you think so many people are considering voting for you?

W: There is massive discontent with what the other two candidates, the other two parties are offering -- more of the same: negative campaign ads, no new ideas or proposals.

C: You’re going up against two well-organized, well-funded political organizations. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have precinct committees, ward committees, as well as massive amounts of money. How does your campaign plan to get out the vote? Can your campaign compete against something that big?

W: Yes. While it’s true that we only have precinct organizations in 3 districts [Ed. note: there are 115 districts state-wide], we’re not starting from scratch. This has been 7 years of building our party, building our organization, and we get bigger and stronger every year. We may not have a formal precinct organization, but we have locals in many parts of the state, and we are getting stronger every day. We have virtual precincts; we do have an organization that operates very effectively. We now have a full-time volunteer coordinator on our campaign staff.

C: If you are elected Governor, what would be your top three priorities for the State?

W: First, Budgetary and Education reform. Passing House Bill 750, including the Tax Swap. I’m the only candidate that is talking about fully funding education in a real way, a way that works for people.

Second, changing the rules of campaign finance. Ending pay-to-play, ending corporate donations. If you want to do business with the state, you can’t be involved in politics. If you want to be involved in politics, you can’t do business with the state.

Third, clean energy and sustainable transportation. Solar power, wind power, ending nuclear power in Illinois. I think this state is one of the largest producers and consumers of nuclear power. That must end. I would put a strong emphasis on smart urban planning, building cities that work for other forms of transportation, and putting a strong emphasis on public transit that works, that is affordable, and is sensible in the long-term.


C: If you win a permanent ballot line in November, how will that affect the Green Party’s future and its strategies?

W: It means a tremendous potential to grow. But it also means that we will have a tremendous challenge.

The potential to grow is in the level playing field on ballot access. We will be running candidates in all of the districts, running for office on all levels in the state, and fielding real and viable candidates in races that matter.

The challenge will be in holding a Green Party primary. State law requires that we hold a primary, and in that lies the challenge to preserve the integrity of the party. Someone may run without being a true Green. The struggle will be to maintain the purity of what it means to be Green. We are already planning for this, and I am considering a legal challenge to the primary system. Why can’t we hold our own, internal primary? If you’re a dues-paying member of the party, you can come and vote. But we don’t want people to wake up on the day of the primary and decide that they are going to be Green that day. The problem with the primary law is that it says that a voluntary association is forced to use that system. I think we have a strong challenge on both 1st Amendment and 14th Amendment grounds. We want to be able to vet our own candidates, and let dues-paying members vote in their own process. This is something we will be looking at after the election.

C: Affordable housing is always an issue in Chicago; at least it has been in the last 20 years. What would you do to ensure that everyone can afford to live in their community in this city?

W: First of all, affordable housing, this issue, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So I want to tackle the real economic issues behind it. By fighting for a living wage, for real wages that elevate standards of living in communities, we can make the progress that means people can afford to live, not just take whatever is readily available. Ensuring that contractors with the State of Illinois pay a living wage, by enacting things like the Big Box Ordinance, but at a state level, and working to elevate living standards. Secondly, eliminating poverty, which is the real solution, by providing quality affordable housing stock. So much of public housing is privatized. We hand Section 8 vouchers over to private developers and expect them to do the right thing, instead of the economic thing. There are limits to what the state can do, but through public sector revitalization of public housing, which is legitimate and can work, we can begin to address these issues. We can re-establish public housing and work to increase the stock of quality public housing that is available.

I’m not a big spender, but housing, clean energy, sustainable transit, and school construction are all worth spending money on. Right now there is $6.4 billion in outstanding school construction that needs to happen. I will work for a $5 billion bond issue to get that done. These are the kinds of things that make communities affordable.

C: You are neither Democrat nor Republican. Considering that you will have only a handful of Greens in the legislature, at best, how will you go about moving your agenda forward?

W: First, you have to understand that if I am elected, a political revolution of sorts will have taken place. I will tell the State Legislature that the people have spoken, that I have a political mandate to move the people’s agenda, and that I will do the work to do it. I will say come with me. Let me take the blame for raising taxes, but give me the credit for getting the job done. Let’s work in a cooperative fashion for the good of the state.

If I am met with obstruction, I will use the strength of the party — that is, uniting the movement that elected me — to pressure the politicians that are obstacles to moving the people’s agenda. I will use the power of the movement to pressure the forward movement of the people’s agenda in the State of Illinois.

And I will make it clear that the rules have changed. We will run candidates in all districts. I will use my power to let the public know who is blocking the people’s agenda. We will put them on notice that we will put you out of office if you try to block us.

C: Illinois has a huge Latino population; Chicago has the second largest Latin population outside of Los Angeles. What will you do about illegal immigration in the State of Illinois?

W: Unfortunately at the state level we are limited in what we can really do. The real cause of the problem is one that nobody is talking about -- US foreign policy and agri-business’ effect on Latin America’s economy. So many people flee Mexico and Central America because NAFTA and CAFTA have destroyed farming for Latin America. So I will use the power of the Governor’s Office as a bully pulpit to bring those issues into the debate.

I don’t think it is appropriate to become a police state to crack down on undocumented workers. I will not use licensing bureaus, teachers and educators, or sheriffs and police departments to screen who may or may not be a citizen. That’s the wrong way to go. We cannot become a national security state — that noose will hang us as well.

I want to focus not on the immigrant, but on employers who are violating wage and labor statutes. I want to use state agencies proactively, to raise living standards across the state, for all workers, white, black and Latino, not to drive a wedge between them. Let’s work to raise wage standards in the state. If we police labor standards, if we work with the unions that represent workers in the packing houses, the construction industries, in the home service industries, we can create a work environment that is good for everyone. Let’s police the employers, so they pay better. I want to fight for more jobs, better jobs, so that immigrants are not competing with us, but working with us to improve the economy for everyone, and so we are raising labor standards.

C: Thank you for your time, Mr. Whitney

W: Thank you.

For information on Whitney's campaign, you can check out his Web site. To learn about his Lt. Governor, check out her Web site.