Candidate forum held at Edgebrook Library
by KEVIN GROSS
Candidates running in the 8th Illinois Senate District in the March 20 primary election discussed their campaign platforms at a Feb. 26 forum sponsored by the Edgebrook Community Association at the Edgebrook Library, 5331 W. Devon Ave.
Incumbent Ira Silverstein is facing challengers Caroline McAteer-Fournier, Ram Villivalam and David Zulkey.
Some candidates addressed allegations by a victim’s rights advocate that Silverstein had flirted with and sexually harassed her. The Illinois Inspector General’s office ruled that the senator "behaved in a manner unbecoming of a legislator" and violated the Illinois Ethics Act, but that his communication with the woman was not deemed to be "sexual harassment."
"When I heard the news about Senator Silverstein, with all due respect, at the end of October I was angry," McAteer-Fournier said. "This isn’t something that we should just handle lightly."
Villivalam said that Silverstein has been in office for too long and that he had violated the state ethics rules.
Zulkey in a separate interview said he didn’t want to use attack politics in his campaign. "One thing I want to stress is that I did not run out of the incumbent’s vulnerability. Some of those other candidates jumped in because (Silverstein’s) lead broke and they said ‘someone is vulnerable.’ They’re opportunistic," he said. "My platform is common sense and common courtesy."
Silverstein said that he hopes citizens will vote for him based on his nearly 19 years of legislative record.
"I’m going to tell you, I admit my fault…I made a big mistake, I’m moving on. It’s said that a righteous person falls seven times, and each time they pick themselves up and move forward, and that’s what I’m doing," Silverstein said.
Despite the surrounding controversy over the allegations, most of the forum revolved around policy issues, as each candidate presented their methods or solutions to addressing Illinois’ problems.
Villivalam, a legislative coordinator and lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, a board member of the Gun Violence Prevention Political Action Committee, president of the Indo-American Democratic Organization and past political aide for Congressman Brad Schneider, said he would commit to a graduated income tax that focuses on rate increases for earnings above $750,000 and the closure of various corporate loopholes, which combined would create "about $5 billion of revenue that can really go towards our fiscal challenges" of paying pension debt and reducing the state deficit.
"In our state, one third of corporations don’t pay any income tax. That’s not fair to working people, that’s not fair to middle class families," he said.
Villivalam said that he does not believe in service cuts to balance budgets and that services and infrastructure are crucial to attracting high tech manufacturing companies to Illinois.
In addition to agreeing to a graduated income tax and closing corporate loopholes, McAteer-Fournier proposed a "LaSalle Street tax" on financial transactions and said that she would not support most service cuts.
Silverstein said that he agreed that a graduated income tax would help balance the budget, and said that that idea is "gaining steam" in Springfield.
"If you make more, you pay more. That’s the way it should be," Silverstein said. However, Silverstein expressed concern about over-taxation, citing property taxes as a primary reason for employers moving out of state.
Zulkey, an attorney and member of the Board of Directors of the Sauganash Community Association, said that some candidates may be making false promises about complex issues.
"To tell you that a progressive income tax is the way to go, implying it will be there at the snap of the fingers, that’s not the right answer. First off, a constitutional amendment is required," Zulkey said. "Secondly, we still need to change the psychology of Springfield…We still have a spending issue, a huge deficit."
To seek savings, he proposed consolidating management of pension funds and the possible elimination of townships as a unit of government.
The candidates also said that they supported legalizing, regulating and taxing recreational marijuana.
Most candidates additionally came out in favor of a higher minimum wage, with Silverstein having sponsored a bill proposing the idea. Zulkey by contrast said, "The state has enough problems as it is to be increasing the burden on small businesses, to mandate a minimum wage that’s almost double the federal wage."
Although all candidates supported investments in education, McAteer-Fournier highlighted her own experience in higher education. In addition to serving as a board member for the Illinois Comprehensive Health Insurance Program and Personal PAC for women’s reproductive rights, she has worked as a director for DePaul University’s career and internship programs and represented DePaul for 12 years in the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce.
"What can we do to prevent families from leaving Illinois? It’s investing in our public education," McAteer-Fournier said. "We have Northeastern Illinois (University) in our district, and they’ve really suffered and seen the brunt of the budget crisis."
McAteer-Fournier also stressed the need for more elected women in office to pursue a more progressive agenda. "If we want to change the culture in Springfield, we need to start having more women elected, sitting around the table when decisions are made that impact our families," she said.
McAteer-Fournier and Villivalam each highlighted their history of advocating for affordable health care. Villivalam said, "The biggest quality that I have is my ability to be effective and proactive on day one. I have advocacy experience in the legislative process, I know how it works, I understand how to collaborate and come together…Although I am a first time political candidate, I’m someone that has government service experience."
Silverstein touted his record of bringing funds to local schools and said he was the only democrat to vote against former Governor Pat Quinn’s tax increase in 2014, which caused him to lose a committee seat. He also stressed that the other candidates are either too inexperienced or not independent.
"(Villivalam’s) an advocate, but what he won’t tell you is that he’s a lobbyist for SEIU. He always dodges that point, but they’ve given him a lot of money," Silverstein said. "The difference between myself and everyone else here is that they say ‘I will do, I will do.’ I have done. I am one of the only senators that will reach across the aisle…I’ll work with you. I’m independent, not tied to any one union or any one boss."
"The senator will say ‘I’ve done, everyone will,’ but frankly I think he’s done enough. I think he’s been there for almost 20 years, he’s violated the ethics act," Villivalam said. "We need to move on."