PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday September 22nd, 2014, 12:33pm

Young Illinoisans Weigh In On The Governor's Race

Young Illinois Democrats and Republicans say a lot is at stake for them in the November gubernatorial election. Progress Illinois chats with younger Illinoisans about the governor's race and several policy issues on their radar.

Young Illinois Democrats and Republicans say a lot is at stake for them in the November gubernatorial election.

And the differences between incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and GOP challenger Bruce Rauner on issues ranging from the state's income tax and the economy to marriage equality and the minimum wage have gained their attention.

"Students are turned off by Bruce Rauner's messages on decreasing or getting rid of the minimum wage," said Brexton Isaacs, 22, president of the College Democrats of Illinois and the Illinois Wesleyan College Democrats. "They're not happy with his stance on equality. He's said (in the past) that if he were governor, he would have vetoed the [marriage] equality bill. That's just not where students are at right now.

"I think students largely really appreciate and respect the governor," he continued. "Governor Quinn has been a consistent advocate for MAP grants and a consistent advocate for college affordability. Not only is he advocating for issues that students are about like that, he signed the marriage equality bill, which is a value that many students and young people hold."

Zachery Yeakel, 21, president of the Eastern Illinois University College Republicans, said he is concerned about jobs and the state's economy more than anything else.

The state's unemployment rate did inch down from 6.8 percent in July to 6.7 percent in August — its lowest level in six years, the Illinois Department of Employment Security announced last week. Illinois also currently has 46,000 more jobs than one year ago, the department noted.

Still, Yeakel said the state's economy is far from where it needs to be.

"Pat Quinn has had his chance to fix our economy, to make our economy better, and I don't know about you, but I am not better off than I was when he assumed office," he said. "I believe it's time for change and for career politicians to step back and let someone else have their chance."

Young Republicans said they view Rauner as an "outsider" and a reformer who would whip the state into shape.

"I think under Rauner, we'd have more businesses moving in, and we'd get a lot more tax revenue from them," said Matt Lamb, 20, a member of the Loyola University Chicago College Republicans. "I also think under Rauner we'd have school choice, so we'd actually be able to spend our education dollars better than we're spending them now."

But young Democrats say Rauner's reform plans are so unspecific, it's "sad."

"I don't know how you can make the claim that a Rauner administration is going to bring jobs back to Illinois, when we have no idea what Bruce Rauner is going to do," said Joe Carlasare, 28, president of the Young Democrats of Illinois and an associate in the Chicago law firm of SmithAmundsen LLC. "I would wager that he's probably put out the least when it comes to policy specifics of any campaign that I've ever heard of.

"It's kind of sad," he continued. "If you're going to spend $30 million on a campaign like Bruce Rauner is, you should probably tell the people — (who) you're asking to vote for you — what you plan to do if you get elected ... I think that if he actually came out and said, 'Here's what I plan to do,' people would be in shock and awe of his proposals, and they won't vote for him, and he wouldn't be governor. His plan is to sort of lie low and hope that nobody really asks these kinds of questions."

Youth Vote

Carlasare said young people are frustrated with the nasty politics in the governor's race.

"From all the younger people that I've spoke with, young Democrats in particular, they care about the issues. That's what gets them animated. That's what gets them excited," he explained. "What doesn't excite them is the nonstop mudslinging and juvenile ads that come out, particularly those that are coming out of Bruce Rauner's campaign."

Nonetheless, young Illinoisans on both sides of the political spectrum remain optimistic that their peers will head to the polls in November.  

"Midterm elections are always tough for turnout, but College Dems of Illinois is fighting to make sure we don't feel that impact as much this year," Isaacs said. "In 2012, we registered less than 5,000 people to vote on college campuses across the state. This year, we have already registered 8,000 students to vote on college campuses."

Although it will take a lot of "initiative to get younger people out on a non-presidential election," Yeakel believes "it is something that we will be able to do." He noted that the Rauner campaign has "pinpointed a lot of (voter outreach) efforts" on college campuses.

But Isaacs pointed out that part of the Republican get-out-the-vote push on local college campuses has involved distributing "beer pong supplies" to students.

"While the college Republicans are handing out beer pong supplies, the college Democrats were registering voters, and registering really thousands of voters during those days," Isaacs said. "I think it's interesting the tactics that each side is using. It shows and it's indicative that Democrats take students seriously and value them as voters, where Republicans think, 'Oh, we'll just hand them beer pong supplies and hope a couple of them turn out to vote for us.' But they don't see us as a viable or important voting block. And they're not registering students to vote, because they know students won't turn out to vote for them because of where they stand on the policies."

Yeakel said college Republicans have handed out ping pong balls to students. But he stressed that they are also registering people to vote, speaking in classes and helping students obtain absentee ballots, among other efforts.

"As Republicans, we play hard, and we also work very hard for what we believe in and what we're wanting to accomplish," he said. "We also know how to relate to young Americans who want to be successful and who are patriotic."

Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said turnout among young voters in the 18 to 29 age range tends to drop in midterm elections. As such, he expects "there may be fewer younger voters in terms of the total number of voters in 2014, and that works marginally against Democratic candidates." That's because young people typically lean Democratic, he noted.

"If this is an election that ends up being incredibly close, that certainly can make a difference if the young voters stay home [and] don't participate at somewhat near the expected level. That's going to cause problems for Democrats in general — Quinn in particular," Redfield explained. "On the other hand, if you can get a spike in the youth vote compared to what you might expect just looking at the historical trends, that will be a big plus for Governor Quinn in an election that is likely to be pretty close."

State efforts designed to make it easier for people to register to vote and cast a ballot have been implemented ahead of this election, which could increase youth participation, Redfield said.

"When you reduce the cost of voting ... that tends to increase voting," he said. "If you favor same-day registration, if you favor making voter registration easy, if you do early voting — those are the kinds of things that make it more likely that younger voters vote, and we have done some of those things in Illinois."

State Income Tax

Like Quinn and Rauner, young Democrats and Republicans disagree on what should happen to the state's 2011 temporary income tax hike, which is scheduled to expire in January. 

If the state's temporary income tax increase sunsets as planned next year, the personal income tax will change from its current 5 percent to 3.75 percent, and the corporate income tax will drop from 7 percent to 5.25 percent.

Quinn, who wants to keep the higher tax rates in place, has warned that "extreme and radical cuts will be imposed on education and critical public services" if the tax hike rolls back.

Rauner wants to let the tax lapse and has said the revenue hole could be filled in part by slashing the budget in other areas and broadening the sales tax on services. 

"There's plenty of other places we could cut, and we could still cut taxes," Lamb argued. "If you had a lower [income] tax, you'd encourage people to move here and you'd have more tax revenue coming in, and then you'd actually be able to fund the social services you want."

But Isaacs said the few service taxes Rauner has floated are "very minimal at best," and beyond that the GOP candidate hasn't thoroughly spelled out what cuts he would make.

"I think education would definitely be on the chopping block in a Rauner administration," Isaacs stressed. "I'm wanting to see what would happen to research funding, what would happen to MAP grants and things like that, that students rely on, not just in higher education but in K-12 education."

Minimum Wage

The minimum wage has been another key topic in the governor's race.

Illinois' current minimum wage is $8.25, a dollar higher than the federal government's.

Quinn is in favor of raising it to at least $10 an hour. The governor first called for a $10 hourly minimum wage during his 2013 State of the State address and has been promoting the idea as part of his 2014 re-election campaign.

Rauner, meanwhile, has tried to walk back past comments he made in support of eliminating or reducing the state's minimum wage. The GOP candidate, according to his campaign, currently "supports a federal minimum wage increase that would raise Illinois’ minimum wage" as well as "raising the state minimum wage in conjunction with pro-business reforms."

Young Democrats and Republicans are divided on the issue.

Isaacs said raising the minimum wage is especially important for students because many of them hold low-wage jobs to help pay for their education.

"Even if students don't work minimum wage jobs, they recognize that this is a value ... that if you work a full-time job you should not have to live in poverty," he said. "That's just a value that young people share."

Yeakel and Lamb both believe a minimum wage bump would hurt workers. They said younger people, specifically those without a college degree, would have a harder time finding a job if the minimum wage increases.

"It sounds like a wonderful idea to raise it up," Yeakel said. "But in the big picture, raising the minimum wage more or less leads to less jobs, and people who still have those jobs doing (the) jobs of two or three other people. And that's not really a partisan view, that's just an economic view that anyone who's had the basic macroeconomics in college knows."

Carlasare pushed back on the assertion that a minimum wage hike would result in job losses.

"That sort of logic ... ignores the bulk of history and the examples that we have of times when the minimum wage in real terms, adjusted for inflation, was much, much higher than it is today," he said. "(In) those periods of time, the minimum wage wasn't leading to mass layoffs. It wasn't leading to a huge exodus of jobs ... It actually was a hedge against income inequality, which is really, I think, the underpinning issue that more people are concerned about, even more so than the minimum wage."

Environment 

Although the environment has not been discussed much in the governor's race, it is an issue that young Democrats in particular said they are concerned about.

Quinn, who was endorsed on Saturday by the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, has a strong record on the environment, the young Democrats said. 

On the other hand, the environment is not among Rauner's top campaign issues.

"I haven't heard Bruce Rauner take a stance on the environment, which I think, again, makes people uncomfortable," Isaacs said. "What is he going to do if he gets elected if he hasn't really given us an agenda on this item?"

Carlasare said he is "always suspicious when you have someone who has strictly a business career background behind them, and they talk about how they're going to promote jobs."

"I've heard statements where (Rauner has) said that (job creation is) his only priority," Carlasare explained. "If you have no priority on key environmental issues, that's not part of having broad-based growth and having fair growth and having growth that's going to take into account, 'OK we don't want to cut off our nose despite our face and destroy the environment just so we can have a couple extra jobs.' It's a delicate balance."

Lamb said he thinks Rauner would be effective at bridging the divide between business and environmental interests. 

"He definitely has ties to the business community, but I think he's someone who will be better able to sit down with people on the environmental side who have serious concerns and people on the business side who also have serious concerns" and reach a compromise, he said.

Carlasare countered that Quinn is the candidate who "has fought his entire career for increased environmental protections."

"If you want to talk about a record on the environment, I think it's not even a contest," he stressed.

Image: AP Photo/Scott Sommerdorf

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