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Talking With Rich Whitney

A Progressive Alternative in Illinois

by ADAM TURL

Hard times are getting harder in Illinois.

The recession’s wake has caused double-digit unemployment–10.4 percent statewide. According to the New York Times, Illinois is in the top 10 in the nation in home foreclosures. As ordinary people have been squeezed, the state government–which relies on a regressive tax system–has seen its finances thrown into chaos, causing yet more misery.

The state has over $5 billion in unpaid bills, which it owes to community and health centers, schools, universities and countless social services. Local school districts have laid off thousands of teachers. The Times even reports that Illinois has fallen behind on burial subsidies for the poor.

But the worst is yet to come–with a projected budget deficit of some $12 billion to come.

This is also an election year in Illinois. Among other offices, the governor’s mansion–currently occupied by Democrat Pat Quinn–is up for grabs. One might think that there would be at least some realistic or concrete proposals from Democrats and Republicans about confronting the state’s growing crisis. Instead, the Illinois campaigns are little more than a microcosm of all that is wrong with official U.S. politics nationally.

The Democrats–who are in control of the state house as well as governor’s mansion–seem utterly paralyzed by the scope and scale of the budget crisis. They are trapped between their fidelity to big business and their need for election-year votes from working-class Illinoisans.

In theory, Quinn favors budget cuts combined with some kind of tax increase (a regressive tax increase, that is). But Democrats are terrified of raising taxes in an election year. We’ve seen plenty of cuts–up to 25 percent in desperately needed social services in last year’s budget. And we’ve seen schools and social services turned upside down as much of the money that was allocated was simply not sent. But we haven’t seen any serious plan to increase revenue.

The Republicans and their gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Bill Brady, claim to be opposed to any tax increases and want draconian cuts to education and social services.

Brady–a real estate developer-turned-politician–combines his pro-corporate policies with faux Tea Party populism and other right-wing positions. He favors an amendment to the Illinois constitution banning equal marriage rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. He proposed at a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) meeting that Illinois should get rid of its minimum wage law.

In July, he told one group of Tea Party activists, "It’s time to return Illinois and America to John Wayne’s America." In other words, to the "good old days" before the civil rights movement, before McCarthyism was discredited, before the student movement against the Vietnam War, before the birth of the gay rights movement, etc.

* * *

LUCKILY, THERE is an alternative to Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Illinois’ 2010 election: Rich Whitney and the Green Party.

Instead of regressive taxes on working people or draconian cuts in education and social services, Whitney and the state Green Party call for taxing corporations and the rich. Instead of scapegoating LGBT people and undocumented immigrants, they favor equal rights and legalization. Instead of attacking public-sector unions, Whitney opposes cuts and favors increasing union rights in the private sector as well.

Whitney took the political stage in the 2006 election, riding a wave of disgust with both the "mainstream" parties in the state. With then-Republican Gov. George Ryan, who wasn’t running, clearly headed for jail, and the Democratic frontrunner to replace him, Rod Blagojevich, already seen–even before the Obama Senate seat scandal–as incompetent and corrupt, Whitney was able to get a much bigger hearing than is typical for a third-party candidate. Several mainstream newspapers even endorsed his campaign.

In the end, Whitney got more than 10 percent of the vote, making the Green Party an "official party" in terms of Illinois ballot access laws.

While Whitney isn’t running against the universally despised Blagojevich this time around, his progressive and pro-labor positions could be even more popular this year.

"While it’s true that Quinn and Brady are not as disliked personally as Blagojevich and [Judy Topinka, the Republican candidate in 2006]," Whitney conceded at the recent opening of his downstate campaign office, "the Democratic and Republican Parties as institutions are being looked at in far more unfavorable terms today than they were four years ago."

Whitney is already equaling the support he got in the last election. A survey by Public Policy Polling showed him polling 9 percent in the current race, compared to 34 percent for Brady and 30 percent for Quinn. Only 51 percent of registered Democrats said they planned to vote for Quinn in November. Nor are many of these self-described Democrats in "Blue State Illinois" likely to vote for right-wing Brady.

Part of Brady and Quinn’s unpopularity may be that many voters are tired of mainstream politicians shilling for the rich and powerful.

"The fundamental problem in American politics today is that it is so thoroughly dominated by corporate money and bank money," Whitney says. "The Center for Responsive Politics did a study a few years ago which found about 80 percent of all campaign contributions come from about 1 percent of the population. It’s no mystery who that 1 percent is. It’s the owners of the big corporations and banks, and it’s foolish to assume that [politicians] don’t owe them some favors."

The idea of progressive taxation is anathema to the leadership of both parties. For example, outside a downstate campaign stop last spring, students who asked Quinn about a progressive income tax were told to "get real."

"The corporate media frames this in terms of: you’re either for a tax increase or you’re not," Whitney said. "That’s not the issue. It’s how we tax. We have one of the most regressive tax systems in the United States right here in Illinois. We’re taxing the bottom 20 percent of income earners at triple the rate of the top 1 percent–and then we act baffled about why we are going broke."

Unfortunately, the Illinois constitution actually requires a flat income tax that hits workers and poor people harder than rich people and corporations.

To get around that, Whitney and the Greens–and a handful of progressive Democrats in the state house–have proposed legislation that would act as a back door to a progressive tax system by raising the overall tax rate and then creating a substantial "earned income tax credit" for "low- and middle-income earners" so that the increase would only fall on the top earners.

According to Whitney, such a progressive income tax would solve about two-thirds of the state’s $12 billion budget shortfall. To make up the final third, Whitney proposes a tax on financial speculation–on the very people who caused the financial crisis in 2008. As Whitney says:

“In 2008, the Board of Options Exchange in Chicago and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in one year traded over $1 quadrillion in notional value. That’s more than the gross domestic product of the entire planet.

“A miniscule tax–they wouldn’t even feel it, it wouldn’t even be a pinprick–of a thousandth of 1 percent–would raise millions of dollars for our state. Tax these obscenely rich people, paying something they won’t even feel, and that gets us another third out of our budget hole.”

* * *

AS THE state budget crisis has metastasized nationally, a common Republican talking point (too often echoed by Democrats) has been the "need" to take on "greedy" public-sector workers and their unions. Such talk has been used to justify thousands upon thousands of layoffs and deep cuts to social services desperately needed to help those who lost jobs in the recession.

But the politicians have their facts wrong. Take the Illinois state pension system. "By and large, our public-sector pensions are at the bottom 40 percent nationally," Whitney argued. "The General Assembly for 15 or 20 years has deliberately underfunded the pension system, and then they turned around in recent years and say we have the biggest unfunded pension liability in the United States because workers are getting too much. That’s not it at all. It’s the politicians’ own irresponsibility that’s the cause of the problem."

Instead of pitting private-sector workers against public workers, Whitney thinks they should make common cause. "The message to private sector workers is: don’t be jealous of what public sector workers have, we need to build strong unions in this country to fight back" in order to regain what private sector workers have lost," Whitney says.

While the budget crisis is clearly taking center stage in this year’s election, Whitney has a number of other important positions that should be a rallying point for progressives, organized labor, workers and the left.

He favors a well-funded Green Jobs Capital Bill (unlike the weakly funded and ill conceived Obama Green Jobs plan) to put people to work. "Modernizing our infrastructure," Whitney argued, "doesn’t mean widening more roads…We need a capital bill that represents a major shift in our infrastructure priorities, transportation and energy production."

Whitney also opposes the scapegoating of immigrants. "As governor, I will not go along with an Arizona-type law," he said. "I think it’s wrong philosophically, it’s wrong from a social justice point of view, a civil liberties point of view, and, frankly, from a purely pragmatic point of view. Our state workers have plenty to do without being turned into police agents."

"On immigration, it’s a sensitive issue because we are in hard economic times," Whitney argued. "But you have to look at the big picture. Our national policy is screwed up. We support and subsidize U.S. agribusiness to go into countries like Mexico and basically drive farmers off their land, and then we complain about the results when they can’t find work."

"The way you fight back is with solidarity, better labor organization," he continued, "to fight the substandard wages, to put pressure on the employers to do the right thing, and a unified fight for a living wage."

Whitney also opposes attacks on LGBT people and supports full equality. "My philosophy is very simple," he argued, "equal protection under the law, equal rights in society and we need to embrace diversity…That includes the right to marry. It means if somebody wants to take another boy to the senior prom, we don’t give them a hard time about it."

On criminal justice issues, Whitney supports the legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of most recreational drugs. He also calls for an independent statewide program to monitor the police and stop racial profiling. He opposes the death penalty.

* * *

THIS YEAR, working-class Illinoisans have a real choice.

One the Republican side, we have Bill Brady, an unabashedly pro-corporate, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-labor, pro-Tea Party, real estate developer.

Brady actually voted against unpaid family and medical leave. He sponsored legislation that would cut benefits for workers who are injured on the job and legislation to allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense emergency contraception to women. He wants to teach "intelligent design" in schools and not only opposes gay marriage, but civil unions as well.

On the Democrat side, we have Pat Quinn, the former lieutenant governor who took his place as Illinois’ chief executive when former Rod Blagojevich was impeached. Since coming to office, his biggest achievement has been slashing social services and education to the bone, and fiddling while the state entered a full-blown budget catastrophe.

Rich Whitney, on the other hand, has been an activist as well as a labor and civil rights lawyer for three decades. At one time, Whitney was even a socialist–although he no longer claims to be, favoring instead a "mixed economy."

Nevertheless, Whitney believes higher education should be free, he is pro-choice, pro-equal marriage, pro-immigrant and pro-labor, and he calls for taxing corporations and the rich.

"In the Green Party, we formed a political party based on core principles, including grassroots democracy, that includes the idea that we the people need to become the government," he said. "That’s what this is all about in a nutshell. That’s why I’m running."

Socialists and other radicals might not agree with Rich Whitney on every single thing. However, in the 2010 Illinois elections, Rich Whitney’s campaign is a big step forward–both in terms of the urgent political and economic issues facing working-class Illinoisans and the need for political independence from the twin-parties of corporate control.

ADAM TURL writes for the Socialist Worker, where this article originally appeared.

 

 

 

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