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Interview: Mark Pera, Congressional Candidate

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jan 30, 2008 7:22PM

2008_1_mark_pera.jpgIn a political season that has been marked by the theme of change, Illinois's 3rd Congressional District has become one of the battle grounds over what the Democratic Party might look like going forward in 2008. Critics of the incumbent, Dan Lipinski, are unhappy with his opposition to abortion rights and stem cell research, and his siding with moderate Republicans on the war in Iraq and domestic spying. Besides his voting record, they also don't like how he came to congress: If you don't remember the 2004 general election, the elder Lipinski won renomination in the primary, withdrew during the campaign year, and then led the process to pick his replacement on the November ballot - his son Dan, a political science professor from Tennessee. Although Dan won handily in 2004, angry challenges in 2006 held him at only 54% in the primary, with the opposition split between two opponents.

As a supervisor in the Environment and Energy Division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, Mark Pera has led teams that have prosecuted polluters in the area. After taking a leave of absence in August to run against Dan Lipinski in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional District seat, his campaign has garnered much attention, both locally and nationally. Chicagoist sat down with the candidate last week to talk about the changing face of the 3rd Congressional District, Machine politics on the Southwest Side, and mainstream Democratic values.

Chicagoist: Tell us a little about yourself.

Mark Pera: Well… I grew up in Gary Indiana. Graduated from high school early, January 31, 1973. On February 4 I was working in the steel mills of East Chicago. Worked in the mills almost a year and half, and every summer all through college and law school. I went to Indiana University, graduated in 1978 with degrees in history and economics. Came to Chicago, went to law school, and graduated from DePaul in 1981. Married 25 years, four kid, ages 16 to 22. I’ve been Assistant State’s Attorney now it’s been almost 11 years. Most recently I ran the unit that does environmental crime prosecution and public utility regulation. I was part of a team that helped to shut down the Clark oil refinery plant in Blue Island. Now it’s called Premcor.

C: Can you tell us a little about that?
MP: Well, there was a situation out there where there were serious violations of the Environmental Protection Act. There was a team of lawyers, not just from the State’s Attorney’s office but also from the Attorney General’s office that filed a civil lawsuit in order to stop the violations. We did the same thing with the Allied Asphalt plant in Hillside. It was also violating air pollution laws, and they were shut down. I also did public utility regulations. So we represented the citizens of Cook County before the Illinois Commerce Commission, and we would fight against rate hikes and so-forth from the public utilities that operate within Cook County. Predominantly Nicor, People’s Gas, ComEd. Also had a part with telephones as well. They’re kind of regulated. Several years ago we were able to get over $124 million in refunds for consumers from AT&T. That was a pretty big case. I’m also the President of the Board of Education at Lyons Township High School and have been since 2001. I’ve been on the board since 1997. It is the largest public body in Lyons Township. People from 11 different communities send their children to LT to be educated. There are 4000 kids, two buildings, one million square feet under one roof. That’s a pretty big job.

C: What inspired you to run for congress in the 3rd Congressional District?
MP: There were a couple of reasons, really. One I did not think that Dan Lipinski was accurately representing the views of the voters in the 3rd Congressional District. I think that on many issues that are important to voters he has voted with George Bush and the Republicans. Now I want to clarify: I’m not saying all and I’m not saying every. But I am saying many. It’s indisputable. That’s one aspect of it. Another is that I think voters out here, like voters across the country want to see a change in direction in Washington. We have a great opportunity to change the face of Democratic politics in Cook County and send an independent voice to Washington, someone who’s not beholden to lobbyists and special interests. I think that people are very interested in change. I’ve been making that case for months, and I’m glad to see that Hillary and Barack have finally caught on to my message. .

C: You say that Dan Lipinski’s not accurately representing the political viewpoints of the 3rd Congressional District. One of the things that gets discussed when the 3rd comes up, when Southwest Side wards come up, people say “well you know, they’re Democrats, but their economically liberal, but they’re socially conservative. How is what he’s representing in Congress different from the opinions and viewpoints of people in the 3rd?
MP: The district has changed a lot over years. I like to say that the reality of the district in 1996 is really the folklore of today. It voted for John Kerry 59-41, voted for Gore 55-45. It’s not just the 3rd, but I think its common knowledge that Illinois has changed substantially as well. There was a point in time when Illinois was considered a swing state; now it’s as Democrat as any other state in the country. The demographics of the district have changed dramatically as well. It’s now heavily Hispanic, there’s a very large Muslim population. That’s what this election is all about. Because finally the voters of the 3rd Congressional District have a clear choice between two candidates, in terms of what direction they want this District to go. Underlying it all as well is the nepotism and friends and family issues. It’s not just how he got the seat

Obviously Bill Lipinski is Dan Lipinski’s father. And Bill Lipinski is going to do whatever he has to do for his son. If my father were alive, he’d be helping me as well. But my dad was not a federal lobbyist. And Bill Lipinski is. The relationship between the federal lobbyist father and the congressman son disturbs a lot of people. Bill Lipinski’s office is in the same location as Dan Lipinski’s campaign office. Bill Lipinski is a paid federal lobbyist, who lobbies on behalf of companies like United Airlines and Burlington Northern. Those entities contribute substantially to Dan Lipinski’s political campaign, and Dan Lipinski pays his father a consulting fee. Bill Lipinski has paid and continues to pay Dan Lipinski’s Chief of Staff consulting fees. Those are things that would be a violation of US Senate rules, and Dan Lipinski refuses to put a wall of separation between him and his father in regard to this lobbying situation. It’s just indicative of what is so upsetting to so many Americans across the country. They believe, voters believe, citizens believe that corporate lobbyists have a stranglehold on Washington DC. The issues that matter to most Americans aren’t even on the agenda, and what’s going on between Bill Lipinski and Dan Lipinski is a microcosm of that.

C: How would your tenure as a congressman would differ from Dan Lipinski’s tenure as a congressman.
MP: Well, I’m not really sure what you’re asking me. I’m not going to be sharing any office space with a federal lobbyist, that’s for sure! I mean our personalities are different, the way I approach things is different. I think voters are looking to their congressman to provide leadership. Communicate effectively with them, to interact with them comfortable. And I think there will be a dramatic change in atmosphere.

C: Your favorite expression is “Dan Lipinski is a Bush Dog Democrat” -
MP: Actually I don’t think I’ve ever said that!
C: No?
MP: No. Uh uh. Other people can characterize it as they want to. I say what I intend to say, which is that on many issues important to Democrats, Dan Lipinski votes with George Bush and the Republicans. Now, I can’t control how someone chooses to characterize that.

C: Can you commit to voters now that if you’re elected that you’re going to vote with the Democratic Party in Congress? Would you support Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership in Congress? And if so, how different, really will that be from how Dan Lipinski has been voting in congress now?
MP: That’s a multi-faceted question. I’m going to vote in ways that I think best reflect the values of the 3rd Congressional District, and reflect what my beliefs are. To the extant that those two views are aligned with others in Washington, then I will be voting with them, and to the extant that they are not, then I won’t be. I think that, for example, voters sent a clear message in 2006 that they wanted the war in Iraq to end. They expected congress to do something about it, and congress has not succeeded in doing that. And I think in part that’s because of people like Dan Lipinski who will not stand up to this president. Who argues that to end this war there needs to be a bi-partisan effort with Republicans. I’m all in favor of bi-partisanship, but the fact is that John McCain is saying that we’re going to be in Iraq for a hundred years. There is no objective reason to believe that the Republicans are going to support the Democrats in our efforts to end this war. The Democrats are going to have to stand up and do it. And it hasn’t happened. You know, it sometimes is difficult with Dan Lipinski to know where he is at on any issue. For example, he voted with Bush and Cheney on the 2005 energy bill. It provided for massive tax cuts to big oil and their interests, as well as oil drilling in Alaska. Now he’s trying to change his tune. He voted to uphold Bush’s veto of the embryonic stem cell research bill. He was one of only 14 Democrats to do that. On the environmental side, he claims to be a big environmentalist, but he votes against $130 million to clean up Superfund sites. There are just so many issues where he takes a very Republican view. And you know, we are not arguing about nuance, about splitting hairs. The differences are pretty stark between he and I. And I believe firmly that I am within the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the positions I have taken are very closely aligned with those taken by people such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. He is the one outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party, not me. I don’t think that it’s outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party to be pro-choice. I don’t think to take the position that we should criminalize choice even in cases of rape and incest is within any parameter of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. You can’t continuously run from your record.

2008_1_pera_in_the_community.jpgC: You mentioned that there’s been a lot of change in the shape and face of the 3rd in the last ten years. What does that mean for your campaign on a local level?
MP: I am getting great support from leadership in the Hispanic and Muslim community. Dan Lipinski has refused to listen to them. Dan Lipinski has made a big deal about his intervening in the case of a French woman subject to deportation. And I applaud his effort. But the fact is there are millions of people in a similar situation. The fact is he voted for the Sensenbrenner bill that would have made this woman a felon. The fact is that it’s convenient and easy to do what he did for purposes of grabbing a headline. But when it comes to the hard work and the need for leadership on the issue of immigration, he is nowhere to be found. And he has taken a very harsh view towards the immigrant community.

C: As a congressman representing a district with a large immigrant community, how would you represent them differently in Washington?
MP: I would be much more open and much more humane than he is. I support comprehensive immigration reform.

C: What does that mean, “comprehensive immigration reform”?
MP: That I think there is a clear consensus that we need to close our borders and our ports, that it’s an issue of national security. That we do need to crack down on employers that are hiring undocumented workers. And we need to do that maybe for reasons that people don’t talk about. I think we need to do it because these employers are taking terrible advantage of these workers. I think we need to do it because it’s driving down the cost of labor. It is a hidden tax on the working class and the middle class. Because their wages aren’t as high as they otherwise would be. But we also need to recognize that there are 12 million people here, and we don’t know who they are, where they are, or what they’re doing. And we are great risk of creating an underclass in this society. We can’t have a situation where a woman who is a victim of rape or domestic violence is afraid to report the crime to the police for fear of deportation. We can’t have a situation where the parents of a child who is hurt are reluctant to take that child to the emergency room for fear of deportation. We’re a better country than that. Now I’m not talking about a blanket amnesty. There have to be consequences. They have to learn English, pay a fine, and play but the rules. And Dan Lipinski has shown absolutely no leadership on the issue. And has said publicly that is opposed to any path to citizenship. So what’s the solution?

C: Nationally, your campaign has attracted a lot of support in the “blogosphere”, and you’ve raised a tremendous amount of money on the internet. Has that attention has helped fuel the viability of your campaign?
MP: Without question. The internet is an extraordinarily powerful tool.

C: On the other hand, probably many the people that are blogging about your campaign don’t live in the district, and probably can’t come out and vote for you on February 5. Cognizant that you’re running against almost the full force and weight of Chicago’s political Machine -
MP: Oh yeah? What does that mean?
C: Well -
MP: I’m serious. What are you saying? What’s the “full force and weight of the Chicago political Machine” mean?
C: Look, the 3rd District goes through Bridgeport, Clearing, Garfield Ridge, big pieces of the Southwest Side, right?
2008_1_pera_claypool.jpgMP: We have eight wards in the district. Four of which are substantial wards. The 23rd ward, just for your information, is becoming more and more Hispanic. The 13th Ward is becoming more and more Hispanic. We have two campaign offices, one in the city, one in the suburbs. We have a lot of volunteers that are working very hard, phone banking, boots on the ground, to help us. We have had a great commitment from three DFA groups, including Oak Park DFA and Loop DFA, who have canvassed every weekend in the 11th Ward and are getting a great reception. I have walked many many precincts in the 19th Ward, which is the Beverly-Mt. Greenwood-Morgan Park area. And getting a tremendous response from people. I’m not minimizing the “Machine”. But this isn’t 1996, either. We all know that you can’t be giving out jobs in exchange for precinct captain work. So we’ll see. That’s what elections are all about.

We’ve gotten great support inside the district, within the Chicago area, and across the country. My average contribution in the campaign is $70. A substantial part of Dan Lipinski’s money has come from lobbyists and other special interest groups. And I think his average contribution is over $1000. I’ve had 463 contributions from within the district. I think he’s and about 10 over six months. So who’s got the greater depth of support in the district?