In a few short months, the primaries will be over. When the dust settles, State Senator and former Mathematics professor Daniel Biss hopes to be the Democratic nominee for governor of Illinois. Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with him and discuss his plan for the future of Illinois and the Democratic party, what he thinks of Trump's latest racist comments, and why, in a field of billionaires and presidential relatives, he's the best candidate to lead Illinois.
Smile Politely: I've always admired people that choose to run for office, and sort of been in awe of people that choose to do it because it's a notoriously thankless job, and campaigning is notoriously exhausting. What keeps you in the fight both mentally and physically? Do you ever have moments of doubt, or ask yourself why you chose this path?
Daniel Biss: So let me start here. There's hard parts about campaigning, it's hard work. I lose sleep, and I've also got a family, I've got a 7- and 9-year-old at home and I really, really miss my family a lot. However, everything else about campaigning, while it's difficult, is awesome. You meet tons of people, you learn all kinds of interesting things, you see places you wouldn't otherwise see. You get to understand things that you wouldn't otherwise get to understand. You are obligated to try really hard to see the world from all kinds of different points of view, and that's the best empathetic education there is. So, I don't spend a lot of time focusing on the downside. I snatch hold of whatever family time I can possibly grab and try to get everything out of it I possibly can. I feel sad about the fact that there isn't more of that, but besides that I just feel lucky to be in this wacky position where I get to travel the state and get in front of people and learn from them. So do I have doubts? I don't. Is it sometimes frustrating? Yes. Am I upset sometimes? For sure, but I just feel like this stuff matters. I feel like if we get these decisions right, you really change lives, and I was motivated to get into politics at a time where it felt like things were totally out of control and it was on us to do it ourselves. There was nobody that was going to come in from somewhere else and fix problems for us. Turns out that was child's play compared to where we are now. So it's motivating. I feel profoundly motivated because of what's at stake.
SP: You've sort of touched on it already, but you're running for governor at a pretty tumultuous time, to say the least, in American History. The divides between left and right feel sometimes insurmountable. So, how do you intend to build a coalition that can bridge those divides and work to affect change that will benefit both groups?
Biss: There's no doubt that in some cultural respects, it feels like the divide between left and right is between two different worlds almost. What I think is the fundamental fact in modern America is that there is a concentration of wealth that is incredible. There is a concentration of power that is incredible. A tiny number of people are finding it easier, and easier, and easier to get wealthier, and wealthier, and wealthier, and most of the rest of us are left behind. That is fact that Democrats and Republicans see. That is a fact that liberals and conservatives see. Now, I'll be the first to admit that Donald Trump got elected president "allegedly" playing to that issue, and obviously what he calls solutions are beyond unacceptable. I think that fact of "whoa, most of us are just finding it harder and harder, and there's a tremendous amount of money at the top that isn't helping anybody else" is a unifying fact in America today. I think that if we can name that and start to solve it we can actually build extraordinary new, powerful, and durable coalitions to enact real change.
SP: One of the hurdles that you may face is this feeling among a significant portion of the electorate that it doesn't really matter who you vote for, both parties are the same, the system is rigged. There's this belief that politicians aren't working in the best interest of the people they're supposed to be representing, and haven't been for some time. How do you counter that apathy and disillusionment and work to rebuild trust in the system?
Biss: That phenomenon is why it's dangerous for Democrats to just lurch towards whoever is willing to pay the most money for the campaign. It justifies people's cynicism and it reinforces people's cynicism. I'm trying to run a different campaign. I ask people, “Do we want to have an election or do we want to have an auction.?” People know I'm not going to outspend the various billionaires I'm running against, so if I win it's not going to be me winning, it's going to be us winning. It's going to be a community of people coming together. If you can do that, it's very motivating and then, when you win, you have to actually enact the policies you've campaigned on. Then when people's lives get better you start to actually build real durable trust.
SP: Speaking of trust, the Democratic party is often criticized for taking the votes of POC for granted, and not doing enough to earn those votes when in office. How would you create an administration that is diverse and provides a seat at the table for everybody?
Biss: I've pledged that my cabinet would look like the state of Illinois. It would be representative of the majority, full of a diversity of women, African Americans, Latinos, members of the LGBTQ community, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. We need to have a government that looks like the state of Illinois if it's going to know how to serve the whole state of Illinois. So that's part of it. Another part is, I think the statement is literally true that the Democratic party takes people of color for granted and doesn't campaign aggressively in communities of color. I think we can't behave that way. People who feel taken for granted have no incentive to participate and then you have a downward spiral of lack of participation, lack of support, and disinvestment. We don't take anyone for granted in this campaign. We campaign everywhere. We listen everywhere. I try to be as many places as possible, and we try to incorporate and lift up voices of people from marginalized communities so that I, a White guy, am not just saying, "Hey, don't worry, I'll speak for you, I'll solve your problems for you," but instead I'm using my campaign as a tool to lift up other voices and allow people from marginalized communities to speak for themselves.
SP: In looking towards the future of Illinois, you can't really have a conversation about that future if you leave out the role that today's children are going to play in it. I imagine that you would agree with the idea that access to a high-quality affordable education is an essential component to whatever future we wish for them to have. How do you plan to deliver on that?
Biss: Well, we have to start by acknowledging that we have the most inequitable school funding system of any state in the union, and that it’s more property tax reliant and more unjust. So if you're going to fix that you have to fix where the money comes from and where it goes. We have to fix our regressive tax system and repeal the flat tax provision of the constitution (one of only 4 [other] state constitutions that exists in this country) that has made it impossible for us to tax wealthy appropriately, and that has put more and more of a burden on the middle class and the working poor. If you got that right, you'd be able to actually fund schools properly, and not just in a few corners of Illinois but in every single zipcode. Then, in having done so, you can bring down property taxes significantly as well. If you get that whole package done, you've fundamentally transformed educational opportunity and tax fairness in the State of Illinois. That's what we should be fighting for.
SP: If we're going to be making these sorts of investments in our children, how can we create an Illinois that, once they're older and trying to decide where they're going to potentially start a family, how do we ensure that Illinois is enticing enough economically to keep them here?
Biss: Part of that is about the aggregate Illinois economy and part of that is about the lifestyle that we offer to people here. So when it comes to the economy we need a stable budget and a stable budget that gives people the ability to invest in IL with confidence. We need an Illinois, to your previous question, with a highly educated workforce and with high-quality infrastructure. We need to make the public investments, and we need to create those basic backdrops for driving an economy. We also need an IL that people want to live in. That means tax fairness so that people can't cross a border to another state and have lower property taxes and better-funded schools. The tax fairness question is about making IL a place that middle-class families want to live in [and] a place that entrepreneurs want to start a small business. Right now, what we have is a system that is completely biased in favor of very wealthy individuals and very large corporations, which basically sends everybody else out. Finally, IL should be a place where you can work and raise a family and have a healthy family and life at the same time. Unless we provide universal access to childcare, that becomes impossible. Unless we provide universal access to paid family leave, that becomes impossible. So we've proposed a bold plan, the LIFE plan (Let Illinois Families Excel). It ensures that people have access to the kind of supports that allow someone to be a working person AND raise a family at the same time.
SP: You've said [before] that now is the time for an aspirational progressive agenda. There are some who have said that what you're trying to do is unrealistic, particularly in reference to your calls for a progressive income tax. As you've said, the state constitution mandates a flat tax. How do you respond to those claims, and those that say some of these problems are too big to solve?
Biss: I think we have a fundamental choice to make. Is the job of a political leader to tell people what's politically impossible or is a political leader to work with people to change what's politically possible? If we look at IL government now and say it's a train wreck, and if we assume that we can only do what we've done before, then we are sentencing ourselves of the future of Illinois government being a train wreck. I just think that's unacceptable. I think that's the question that's really on the ballot this primary. Are we going to accept the past as a limit on what we can achieve or are we going to be willing to shoot for an aspirational agenda? Now, when it comes to a progressive income tax, don't be fooled. It's not a fantasy. It's a necessity. In 2013 and 2014 when we tried to do this, we were a few votes shy. We were not that far away. If you combine that nearly successful effort years ago, with a governor who is fully committed as his first priority to getting it done I believe it's doable.
SP: Let's fast forward a little bit. You've beaten out your primary opponents. You overcame the tens of million Rauner spent to try and beat you, and you've just been elected governor of Illinois. What's your day 1 task? What does the first 100 days of a Daniel Biss administration look like?
Biss: To me, day one doesn't start when I'm inaugurated. On November 6th, we'll win the election and we can have a very nice party that night. Then we'll clean up all the confetti and then November 7 is day one as far as I'm concerned. That means sitting down with legislative leaders and saying we need a progressive income tax, and we need 71 votes in the house, 36 votes in the Senate. I'm prepared to give and take, but we need to figure out a way to find those votes. That's got to be job number one because there's going to be an enthusiasm around this newly elected governor, and that's going to be the time to do something. We need to use that tool to stabilize the budget and fund schools properly and having funded schools properly we can both decrease property taxes and while we're doing it make our property tax assessment system fair, and functional, and modern, and transparent. These changes I’m talking about, they're significant, they'll change lives, but they should be doable. Other states get this right already, we should not lag behind.
SP: One issue that's on a lot of people's minds revolves around the erosion of and attack on voting rights across the country. As you know, Kris Kobach's commission to investigate voter fraud disbanded after they found no evidence to support Trump's claims [of millions of illegal votes]. However, that hasn't stopped an onslaught of new legislation across the country centered around solving this non-existent problem. How would you like to see Illinois safeguard and expand voting rights going forward, and what, if any changes would you direct the State Board of Elections (SBE) to make?
Biss: Illinois has pretty good laws. We now have AVR, that's great. We have same day registration. We don't have voter ID laws, thank god. We have pretty good early voting now. Pretty decent campus voting. We have vote by mail. So all those are good things we have to preserve and in some cases expand. One [other] thing we have in IL that's good is that, unlike some states, we allow returned citizens who have been incarcerated to vote. Yet, we don't allow people who are currently incarcerated to vote. They're still human. They're still citizens. I think that's really wrong. There's only a few states that allow people that are currently incarcerated to vote, but I think it's an important change that we ought to make. We had a huge fight with the SBE about Crosscheck. We didn't win. I find that to be unconscionable. Certainly the SBE I'll appoint will not be willing to participate in anything like that or any form of voter suppression.
SP: What, if any, role do you see Illinois playing in the resistance to Donald Trump and his agenda. California has been in the news for taking the lead in that fight. Do you feel Illinois has a responsibility to do the same, and if so, what does that look like if you're governor?
Biss: I think we lost a lot of opportunities with Rauner as governor. Some things that other Republican governors have been willing to do regarding health care. Governors of Nevada and Ohio, Republican governors, spoke out against these awful Obamacare and so-called replace bills. Bruce Rauner was silent. When Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, there were governors from both parties that said our states are still going to participate. Bruce Rauner was silent. When they passed this tax scam law that really goes after blue states, Bruce Rauner was completely silent until it was too late. Now he's said a few things, and has not been very clear about what he means or what he wants to do about it. IL has an opportunity to be at the forefront of the resistance but instead, we've lagged because of Rauner.
I passed a bill out of the Senate that says you can't appear on the ballot for President unless you've released five years of tax returns. We should pass that bill into law. That's an important part of the resistance to Trump. We should make sure that Illinois not only agrees that it will achieve the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Accord, but that we'll have a 100-percent clean energy target. We should make the Illinois government stand strong in fighting these destructive healthcare changes. The Illinois government should be looking for creative ways to get around the attacks on blue states that were contained in this tax scam bill. The Illinois government should do everything it possibly can to stand with immigrants regardless of documentation status and refugees. We passed the TRUST Act into law. Bruce Rauner signed that. That's a really good start, and it's better than nothing, but it was watered down to get it passed and there's more that we can do to make our state truly welcoming to all immigrants which is the humane and moral thing to do. It's in the best interests of all people in IL because after all, we want people to be coming here. There's a lot we can do, and we could be a beacon for other states and change the whole country if we get this right. It's a tremendous lost opportunity for the resistance movement to have this Republican governor blocking our efforts in Illinois.
SP: You touched on immigration there, so I've got to ask; what do you make of Trump's recent comments as reported in the Washington Post about "shithole" countries and the people that come here from there?
Biss: Well, it's easy to make jokes about it but I'll be honest, I was shocked. I've heard this saying that with Trump it's okay to be shocked but you should never be surprised. That sounds about right. The dude is just really, profoundly, racist. Like, on a visceral level. Not when he's thinking of his demagogic campaign speeches, or designing his strategy to get certain types of votes, but just when he's speaking from the gut. He is profoundly racist. It's a stain on our country that we're not going to get over fast. We're going to want to pretend this is a bad dream when we wake up in January of 2021, but it's going to have a long-term impact. It's immoral. It's a violation of our core founding values as a country. It's a profound backsliding on the most important evolution in American history, which is the evolution from being a nation that was founded upon the acceptance of the idea that some human beings (based on the color of their skin) could be property, to a country that is supposed to be trying it's best (with some success) to have justice for all. I don't know, it's ... it's really, really dangerous. It's another "Where is Rodney Davis question, right?"
SP: Well [laughs], Davis recently came out and said that "both sides are at fault for the rhetoric surrounding the discussion on immigration," so that's where he's at.
Biss: I like to think that if a Democratic president talked like this, I would be leading the parade of criticism. There's a lot that's gone well in 2017 when it comes to the resistance. Some important political wins and some important policy wins, and obviously some tough losses like the tax bill. I think the real disappointment of 2017 is that the Republican party went from "I dunno this guy seems kind of problematic, maybe we'll stand up to him" to lockstep. As he got more dangerous, they fell in line more. What is that? I'm giving you a rambling answer because I'm emotional about this, but I feel like if our president is going to talk like that, people who want to be seen as leaders of our country need to be completely universal in their condemnation. I think it's going to take the Republican party a very long time to rebuild themselves from the way that they've failed to be a check on, not on the policies I disagree with, but on the race behavior, on the unethical behavior, on the kleptocracy that the Trump family is creating in the U.S. Government.
Photo Credit: Nick Owens