PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday February 20th, 2014, 1:35pm

Cook Co. Board Hopefuls Tout Endorsements At Candidate Forum; Boykin Fires Back At Residency Concerns

Candidates running in the crowded West Side Democratic primary race for Cook County commissioner had a chance to make their pitch to voters at a candidate forum Wednesday night. Progress Illinois provides some of the highlights from the event.

A former congressional staffer who is running in the crowded West Side Democratic primary race for Cook County commissioner pushed back against what he called "the politics of personal destruction" at a candidate forum Wednesday night. 

Richard Boykin, the former chief of staff and legislative director to U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL,7), came under fire this week by some of his rivals in the March 18 contest for the 1st District County Board seat over residency questions and property tax breaks he has collected. 

"We're 28 days out from an election, and it's what I term 'silly season,'" Boykin told about 40 people at the forum, hosted by Chicago Ald. Nicholas Sposato (36th) at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Elmwood Park. "If you're the frontrunner, they're going to throw everything they can at you."

Boykin owns two condos in Oak Park, located in Cook County's 1st District. He has owned one of the Oak Park properties since 2005, and the other he purchased late last year.

But he also owns a home in Bolingbrook, located in Will county. Since 2011, Boykin has collected a homestead exemption, a tax break only allowed on a primary residency, on both the Oak Park property he purchased  in 2005 and the Bolingbrook home. Records show that a homestead exemption is also listed for Boykin's newest Oak Park condo. 

Two of Boykin's opponents in the race, Blake Sercye and Ronald Lawless, have raised concerns about whether Boykin actually lives in the district, a requirement under state law for candidates running for a Cook County Board seat. Sercye has vowed to challenge Boykin's residency in court if the latter candidate wins the primary election. Boykin maintains that he lives in Oak Park.

At the forum, Boykin said he is separated from wife, with whom he has a 7-year-old son. He blasted his opponents who have made "attacks" on his family. 

"I bought the [Bolingbrook] house for her. I did that," Boykin said.  "So I own three properties, but to attack my family is beneath the dignity of them."

Boykin did not, however, address the issue of property tax breaks he has claimed.

Endorsements

Four out of the five Democratic candidates running for county commissioner in the 1st District attended Wednesday's forum, including Boykin, Sercye, Lawless and Isaac "Ike" Carothers. Candidate Brenda Smith, a West Side activist, was not in attendance. 

The 1st District includes Chicago’s far West Side as well as parts of the western suburbs including Forest Park, Maywood, Oak Park and others. Commissioner Earlean Collins, who is retiring, currently represents the 1st District.

Each candidate had 15 minutes total to make their pitch to the audience and take questions. The candidates had designated time slots to speak, and most of them talked with individual constituents outside of the building before and after it was their turn to address the crowd.

Nearly all of the candidates used part of their time on the floor to tout their endorsements.

Sercye, an attorney at Jenner & Block, has garnered endorsements from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Sercye served as Emanuel's political director during the 2011 mayoral campaign.

"What I want to do as Cook County commissioner is bring people to the table, and having both of their support, I think it shows that I'll be able to do that," Sercye said. 

But some audience member expressed skepticism about Emanuel's endorsement of Sercye, noting that the mayor supported the controversial decision to close 50 neighborhood schools last year and that he is "against unions."

Sercye said he opposed the school closings, adding that he participated in actions against the closures last year with the Chicago Teachers Union. As far as labor support, Sercye noted that he has been endorsed by a number of unions, including the Cement Workers Local 76, the Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 134 and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399. 

Regarding the pension crises faced by various levels of government in the state, Sercye said it is the politicians that "screwed up" and failed to do their part to pay into the public funds.

"Anybody who attacks it with the attitude of the public employees got too much, that they don't deserve it, drives me crazy," he said. "It's not that we have a pension problem. It's a revenue problem."

For Carothers' part, he said he has the support of West Side Chicago Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) as well as Barbara McGowan, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District vice president of commissioners and State Rep. Luis Arroyo (D-Chicago).

Carothers is Chicago's former 29th Ward alderman. He resigned in 2010 after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. Carothers' criminal history, namely accepting bribes, was not brought up at the forum.

Boykin trumpeted his endorsement by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the Independent Voters of Illinois-Illinois Precinct Organization and various labor groups, including the Chicago Federation of Labor and AFSCME.

Lawless, legislative director for the Illinois PTA, a statewide volunteer organization aimed at promoting parental involvement in public schools as well as equal opportunities and access to a quality education for students, proudly said no elected officials are backing him. Lawless, also the owner of an insurance and financial consulting firm, was unsuccessful in his previous bid for the 1st District commissioner seat in 2010.

"The mayor has the right to endorse anyone he wants, but like I said before, if someone endorses someone ... you're beholden to that individual. Look, this is Chicago, we know how it works. You endorse me, it's quid pro quo," Lawless said. "I will never ever take the mayor's support, because I couldn't look you in your eye ... I've been out here for 20 plus years. Never once has one elected official endorsed me. You know why? Because they can't control me. I speak my mind. I do what I want to do, and I take care of my own business, and that's what I'm going to do for you."

Criminal Justice Issues

Moving on to the issues, all of the candidates said they wanted to find ways to reduce the population at the Cook County Jail.

Specifically, Sercye said the Cook County Board needs to give President Preckwinkle the ability to hire "special judges to expedite the trial process." Another key issue, he said, is to keep formerly incarcerated individuals from re-entering prison. If elected, he will promote free criminal record sealing and expungement opportunities for ex-offenders so it is easier for them to land a job.

"If we reduce the recidivism rate, we'll lower the population at Cook County Jail, and that will mean taxpayers like you and I, our tax dollars won't go to subsidizing the inefficient jail system," Sercye said.

Lawless, if elected, also says he will focus on sealing and expungement programs for people with a criminal record who have won their court case or had their charges dropped.

"I believe that the municipality, in order to put them in check, needs to be responsible to pay for those individual's expungement for those people to get back on track," Lawless stressed. "They were falsely accused, therefore they should have an opportunity to get their life back on track without having to pay something that they wouldn't have to pay if they weren't falsely accused."

Boykin said he wants to see alternative sentencing for youth offenders. He also noted that too many youth are sent to the county's Juvenile Detention Center.

"The reality of it is, they're graduating from the Juvenile Detention Center to Cook County Jail," he said. "They're not being rehabilitated. We have to reform that system."

During his 15 minutes to speak, Carothers also made note of his desire to boost programs that connect people with criminal backgrounds to jobs.

Carothers' talk, however, mainly focused on the economic development he helped bring to the 29th Ward as alderman, including a labor force training center. He explained that he also helped set up up a residential tax increment financing (TIF) program in the ward, which allows residents to use TIF money for improvements to their homes.

"I thought if we're going to use TIF, let's also use them so you could fix your roof on your house," he said, adding that he wants to see this type of program used in other parts of the 1st District. "I would like to make sure that people see their tax dollars work for them."

If elected, Carothers added that he will advocate for increased funding for veteran-related matters. 

One forum attendee told Progress Illinois that he wished the candidates would have talked more about the issues rather than their endorsements.

“The worry right now is we have people who are naming dropping, saying they have these endorsements," West Side resident Christopher Robinson said after the forum. "Tell us more. Stop saying job training. Stop saying you're going to work for us …Tell us what you’re going to do." 

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