Jhatayn “Jay” Travis, a community organizer who is challenging incumbent state Rep. Christian Mitchell in the 26th District Democratic primary, took jabs Monday at her opponent during a press conference with members of the Chicago Teachers Union and a few elected officials.
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (7th) joined Chicago Alds. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd) at the press conference, held at the Billy Goat Tavern on Michigan Avenue, to tout their support of Travis, who made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Mitchell in 2014.
Travis’ campaign is calling Mitchell a “Rauner Democrat,” because the incumbent allegedly shares “elite donors and a political agenda” with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“He receives over $200,000 from the very same interests he claims to be fighting against, and these are also the very same interests that back a governor who has held the needs of families and the services that they need hostage in this indefensible budget impasse,” said Travis, former executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). “So I would say to you, it’s time that we have representation in the 26th District that stands with the people and not with corporate interests.”
Mitchell called Travis’ campaign finance-related comments “laughable.”
He pointed to a Hyde Park Herald analysis from last election cycle showing that donations from his top five donors represented 25 percent of his total campaign funds. The review showed nearly 75 percent of Travis’ campaign funds came from her top donors.
“I think the residents of my district know that my job is, and I fulfilled it, to be thoughtful, to listen to all sides of an issue and to make a decision that’s in the best interest of my constituents, even if that decision is difficult,” he said.
Travis also criticized Mitchell in part over his response to community concerns about the future of Dyett High School.
“Unfortunately we have a situation in the 26th District where the incumbent, who is bankrolled by the very billionaires who support our governor, tends to hear their voices and not the voices of the people,” she said. “When parents and students from Dyett High School cried out — even went on a 34-day hunger strike to save their last open-enrollment high school — they did so after being ignored by the incumbent state rep for three years. They asked for his help for three years, and they were ignored.”
Over the summer, a group of education activists, including KOCO members, participated in the 34-day hunger strike in an effort to win a long-proposed, community-developed plan to reopen Dyett into a Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. The high school, located in Washington Park on the city’s South Side, was closed in June after being slated for phaseout in 2012.
During the hunger strike, which began on August 17, the school district announced that Dyett will reopen in the 2016-2017 academic year as a district-operated neighborhood high school with an arts focus and an “innovation technology lab.”
“Dyett’s gonna be an open-enrollment, neighborhood high school. It’s gonna be high-quality,” Mitchell said. “That’s where I always stood on the issue, and that’s a victory for the community, including KOCO.”
The 26th District runs just parallel to Lake Michigan and stretches from the far South Side of Chicago to the near North Side.
Reilly’s downtown 42nd Ward is located in the district. The alderman, who supported Mitchell in the 2014 race, said the incumbent’s leadership over the past two years has “disappointed” him.
“We don’t see much of him downtown, and the 42nd Ward is, frankly, a large chunk of the constituent population of the 26th District. And I think being accessible to your constituents is your first priority and responsibility as an elected official,” Reilly said. “So that’s been disappointing, and I know Jay will be here often and accessible and available, and I want a partner I can work with in Springfield.”
Mitchell said he has been in the downtown area “quite a bit” and has gone to events with local groups such as the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents and Gold Coast Neighbors Association. As for Reilly’s endorsement decision in the 26th District Democratic primary race, Mitchell said, “Obviously that is his right, and I respect it even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. That’s obviously his choice who he wants to endorse in a political campaign.”
The Mitchell campaign also pushed back on the incumbent being called a “Rauner Democrat,” providing Progress Illinois with a nine-point factsheet about his “history of fighting against Bruce Rauner.” Among the items on the list, Mitchell has voted against the governor 95 percent of the time and voted to override Rauner’s vetoes 100 percent of the time. Mitchell, the document adds, has received endorsements from labor groups such as AFSCME Council 31, the Illinois Education Association and the SEIU* Illinois Council, among others, “because of Mitchell’s fight against Governor Rauner’s anti-worker agenda.”
Additionally, “IllinoisGO, a Super PAC aligned with Gov. Rauner, sent several negative mailers against Mitchell this past summer because he has been such an outspoken opponent of the governor,” his campaign said.
Travis, meanwhile, took another swipe at Mitchell over a state audit into KOCO’s use of taxpayer money. As Progress Illinois has reported, Mitchell was among the cosponsors of the legislation last year calling for KOCO’s audit. The legislation claims KOCO received “funds from the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative and Illinois Violence Prevention Authority.”
KOCO denies ever having received funding as part of NRI, the state’s scandal-plagued anti-violence program that is no longer in operation. KOCO has, however, received grant funding in the past as part of the now-discontinued Safety Net Works (SNW) program, another state anti-violence initiative that focused on youth programming. SNW’s expansion was considered to be “an integral part of NRI,” according to a 2014 state NRI audit.
Travis said the state audit of KOCO is currently underway.
“Unfortunately, we consider that to be a huge abuse of a legislator’s authority and an abuse of tax dollars, because the premise that they called for this audit on was that KOCO had NRI money, and KOCO did not,” Travis said. “And so it turns out to be just a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, and it was an attempt to keep me out the race that didn’t work.”
Asked about his cosponsorship of the KOCO audit measure, Mitchell said it boils down to an issue of transparency.
“I am always willing to support transparency and making sure that organizations, especially in an age where resources are so scarce, are living up to the charter of what they said they were gonna do with state dollars, and that’s all that frankly happened here” with his cosponsorship of the audit measure.
CTU President Karen Lewis was expected to appear at Travis’ press conference but had a scheduling conflict related to the union’s contract talks with the school district, organizers said. The union and Chicago Public Schools are in contract talks as the district grapples with a $480 million budget hole this year.
Speaking about the financial issues facing the school district, Travis stressed the need for “sustainable, long-term solutions to addressing the funding crisis that exists at CPS.” She mentioned options such as progressive revenue solutions, tax increment financing (TIF) reform and closing corporate loopholes.
“I think the solutions are here and do not require bankruptcy, because what happens often with bankruptcy is you just open up the system for more privatization,” Travis said, who stated her opposition to a proposed state takeover of CPS as well as the idea of allowing the school district to declare bankruptcy.
The same day CTU members stood in support of Travis, the Mitchell campaign announced the incumbent’s endorsement by the Illinois Education Association.
“I think it speaks to the great work that I’ve done on education. It speaks to my continued effort to change the education funding formula to get more money for poor kids and poor school districts around the state and my dedication to making sure that the state has the revenue that it needs to pay for them via the progressive income tax, which I’m the chief sponsor of, as well as my support for the millionaires tax,” Mitchell said of the IEA’s endorsement. “I’m honored by the IEA support and I think it’s reflective of how we fought together this year against Governor Rauner’s efforts to strip down unions and continue to underfund our schools.”
*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.