By Tom Holmes
Friday evening it was standing room only as about a hundred people squeezed into the Old School Tavern to hear Christopher Kennedy explain why they should support him in his run to become the next governor of Illinois.
Kennedy began his stump speech with a short biography: one of 11 children born to Robert and Ethel Kennedy; working on his Uncle Ted Kennedy's campaign; learning about agriculture while working for Archer Daniels Midland; encountering poverty and hunger as the founder of Top Box; working with the business community as president of the Merchandise Mart; and becoming familiar with issues in education as chairman of the University of Illinois board.
Frequent rounds of applause indicated that the majority of the crowd was with him. Kennedy's responses to questions after his stump speech gave some insight on what he would try to do if elected.
One audience member asked where he stands on school vouchers. He said the Illinois State Constitution prohibits the use of public funds to support religious or private schools and he is not in favor of amending the constitution to say otherwise. "I'm a public school guy," he declared.
He added one of his major themes: We should stop funding public education through property taxes. He argued that obtaining funding through property taxes instead of through the state leads to a kind of social gentrification, i.e. wealthy communities generate more dollars through property taxes and therefore have the means to pay for better schools.
In some of his other campaign speeches he railed at the corruption the property tax system breeds by pointing out that many politicians in Illinois are tax lawyers, whom the poor cannot afford, and who make a lot of money appealing the taxes on the rich — in other words, they have no incentive to reform the system.
Kennedy responded to a question regarding the escalating cost of higher education by saying the formula for granting public aid discriminates against the poor. Families in Illinois whose household incomes exceed $65,000 no longer qualify for most need-based scholarships. If both adults in a family are making $15/hour, their combined annual income will be $60,000. And if they make a little money from overtime, they exceed the cutoff.
"How many people making $15 an hour," he asked, "would say that they don't have a need for financial help to give their children a college education?"
He said the majority of merit based scholarships go to students who score between 33 and 36 on the ACT exam, but research shows that students who score high on college entrance exams are mostly from wealthy families, so merit scholarships amount to welfare for the wealthy.
To a question about abortion, Kennedy said he is in favor of Illinois House Bill 40 which continues Medicaid payments for abortions.
When asked about the legalization of marijuana, he said the rules regulating the availability of marijuana for medical purposes in Illinois are way too strict. He thinks the University of Illinois should conduct studies on the use of marijuana and let scientists and doctors tell us what is appropriate.
Kennedy is also for term limits and campaign finance reform.
Afterward, Naoto Hasegawa said, "He had a lot of good things about education in general, and hopefully he can deliver on his promises if he gets elected."
Mary Win Connor, who is the chair of the D91 board, said, "I like the idea that he is talking about public school funding not coming from property taxes. That is something unique to Illinois, and it is wrong. Tying school funding to your property taxes creates poor schools in poor neighborhoods."
Referring to Kennedy's statement that he and his wife co-founded Top Box Foods, a community-based nonprofit that provides healthy food at affordable prices to the poor, Ned Wagner said, "I'm really impressed. I didn't realize he had such a long not-for-profit background and everything he said rang true."
When asked about his stance on immigration, Kennedy laughed and cited a classic story of how immigrants are good for America and can achieve the American dream: the Kennedy family. Claudia Medina felt that statement personally and said, "He shows himself to be a true Kennedy. I believe in him. I think his own experience, together with that of his family makes him look out for the well-being of others."
Hasegawa pointed out that Kennedy seems to be "running against the whole machine in Illinois. He has a lot of obstacles to overcome. I am cautiously optimistic."
Connie Brown resonated with Kennedy precisely for not being part of the machine and noted that although a millionaire himself, he is nowhere near as wealthy as JB Pritzker. "I felt like he cut through a lot of the political rhetoric. He listens very well. I haven't heard much about him. You get a Pritzker mailing every five minutes."
Many in attendance liked what they heard in their first encounter with the son of Bobby Kennedy, calling him a nice guy, but remained uncommitted. Joel Foster, the current president of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, spoke for many when he said, "I was impressed. I will definitely follow him. This event was a great opportunity. I'm glad I was able to come out and hear what he had to say, but I haven't made up my mind."
Rory Hoskins explained why he is backing Chris Kennedy and why he planned and organized the meet-and-greet.
"In June I attended two Kennedy for Illinois events and was impressed with the candidate at both. I agreed with his positions and what I think is his vision for Illinois."
Hoskins was impressed enough to propose to Kennedy's campaign staff an appearance in Proviso Township, got the "go ahead" from the staff, put the word out and the event became a reality.
Ted Hosty, who owns the Old School Tavern, said the Kennedy campaign paid nothing for the event, that he closed his business on what is usually a busy Friday night to provide space for the meet-and-greet and that Jon Kubricht paid for the cost of the appetizer.