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Elections Mon Nov 01 2010

Who Cares About a State Representative's Race?

As you may have heard, some people (but probably not very many) are going to be voting on some stuff tomorrow. It's been a wild campaign season locally and nationally, and both will probably see some shakeups. But unlike the fights for governor or senator, there's one tight race that isn't between a Republican and a Democrat and most Chicagoans (particularly those outside of the Northwest Side) know little about: the fight for state representative in the 39th district.

State rep races usually fly well below the media's radar, overshadowed by races for higher offices. This year has been no exception: much attention has been paid to Quinn vs. Brady and Kirk vs. Giannoulias. But the fight in the 39th district between eight-year incumbent Democrat Toni Berrios and insurgent Green Party candidate Jeremy Karpen should be worth watching tomorrow. While the winner will not be the most powerful politician in Illinois, an incumbent loss would result in the only Green Party politician in any state house in the country.

Like most races, there are a number of competing narratives at play: scrappy, long-shot candidate with no money but plenty of heart takes on the daughter of a classic Chicago machine politician with a tall stack of campaign contributions and friends in high places. Might make good fodder for the big screen.


Or, if more moral complexity is your thing: young white social worker joins the cascade of hipsters descending on a historically Latino neighborhood for its cheap rents, opening breweries and record stores, and gradually pushing out longtime residents. He wants to do what's right, fight for the people, help the downtrodden. But the neighborhood sees it as part of a bigger push by the fixed gear-riding, bad haircut-sporting crowd to snatch up everything in sight in the neighborhood. First they stole the two-flats, now they want to toss out the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the state House of Representatives after three terms!


I'm sure if you poked around the race a bit more, you could finaggle some other angles. But mix together the two storylines above and we could have a compelling 90 minutes.

Whenever the Green Party runs a candidate, it's not solely about that race, but bigger issues of the ties between money, politics, and democracy, and Karpen admits as much.

"Ideally what this will show is that someone who isn't handpicked and independently wealthy can run for office in Chicago and win," he said.

He referenced Toni Berrios's recent loan from her campaign coffers to her father's, saying it is indicative of her machine background.

Berrios said she loaned her father the money because his opponent, Forrest Claypool, has received large contributions from very wealthy donors.

"My father's opponent is financed by billionaires. My father is not," she said. "If you can't turn to your family in a time of need, who can you turn to?"

In other interviews, however, Ms. Berrios has attempted to distance herself from her father.

"He has nothing to do with my district. Some people might use that against me, but I'm the legislator," she said in a recent Huffington Post article. "I'm the one who goes down to Springfield and votes. It's not him. People need to learn to separate that."

Neither Karpen nor Berrios mentioned many specific policy plans when I talked to them, but both emphasized the residents in the district.

"I've been working for eight years for the 39th district," Berrios said. "The people of that district are what is important to me, not my political affiliations."

"The current representative isn't fighting for the people in the district," Karpen stated. "We need to replace them with someone who does."

This isn't the first time Karpen and Berrios have gone toe-to-toe. GB covered the race the last time Karpen took on Berrios two years ago. In an impressive showing for a third party candidate, took home 21 percent of the vote. This time around, he foresees a better outing.

Determining who has the edge on the election's eve is tough. Berrios has the brand-name recognition as a Democrat in a one-party city. But Karpen has scored a slew of surprise endorsements this year from the Sun-Times, Tribune, the teachers union, and even the local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America.

When asked about her predictions for tomorrow, Berrios laughed, stating simply, "I'm pushing for all Democrats--straight ticket."

It's a familiar sentiment--one Democrats around the country have been pushing in an effort to beat back the right. And, as in the rest of the country, the polls will show if voters find it a compelling plea or not.

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Laurie / November 1, 2010 6:31 PM

I agree with the critique of machine politics, and I have done a lot to support independent candidates. But, people must be judged as individuals. Here is why I am voting for Rep. Toni Berrios instead of the independent this time around.

Rep. Toni Berrios is my representative. I was working on a difficult political issue as a newcomer. I sent her 30 pages of materials and arranged a meeting with myself and other constituents.

When we arrived, she apologized for being 5 minutes late because it was her birthday!

In our meeting with her, she finished our sentences as we discussed this issue. Why? Because she had actually read the materials and already knew exactly what we were talking about!

She graciously listened to us and asked some more questions for 45 minutes even though she clearly understood the issue completely.

When we eventually sponsored legislation, she signed as a co-sponsor. NOTE: This was a difficult prison reform issue--the kind that really never helps a legislator, and anyway, she is a law and order candidate, as she told us.

But, she thought there was an important due process claim to be made and she was willing to stand up for it. What more could we ask for than a thoughtful principled legislator?

At future meetings in Springfield with other legislators, and with the Department of Corrections, she always attended to lend her voice to making sure there was a good outcome. She took the time to follow through and stay educated, and she has done that NOT because it helps her in any way, but simply to help create good government.

Even if she hadn't supported this particular issue, I would probably still vote for her. The thoughtful consideration she gave to an issue that normally would not appeal to her is rare. And it is how government should work. She is strong, responsive and works hard. I have seen it first-hand.

I'm sure Karpen is a great guy. But, I am supporting Rep. Berrios ON THE MERITS. She is a fantastic and industrious legislator. I am proud to be in her district!

Judge people as individuals, especially in politics!!!

Kathleen / November 1, 2010 7:42 PM

I wish that I could say that my experiences with Berrios had been as positive as Laurie's were. It makes me glad to hear that the representative took the time to school herself on the issue that her constituents brought to her, but when I approached her as the spokesperson for a community organizing effort in Logan Square, she acted as if she couldn't care less about what we were trying to do and offered no kind of assistance or support to our work.

I am supporting Jeremy because I frequently see him in the neighborhood talking to people, making the effort to connect and educate himself about what is going on in the district. I appreciate him making the time to attend every event I have invited him to, and I think that he truthfully will put much more energy into representing the 39th than Toni Berrios has. In one article I read recently, Berrios said that people should vote for her because the 39th district had been gerrymandered to ensure a Latino representative a few years back - THIS is a reason to vote for someone? I hope for a refreshing new way of doing the people's business in the 39th after Tuesday.

Sunshine / November 1, 2010 7:44 PM

Hi Laurie, so what is your position in Madigan's office?

Laurie / November 1, 2010 8:05 PM

Sunshine: Are you kidding me? Madigan working hard on a difficult prison reform issue? Try accepting that reasonable people have different opinions than you. It is a perspective that is critical to coalition-building and successful electoral politics.

Scott / November 1, 2010 8:17 PM

I was just asked to sign a ballot petition for someone who wants to run against Rey Colon... this race raises the same question for me: when is good enough good enough?

I'm all for more energy and more responsiveness and more transparency. Who isn't? But given the total lack of these things in so many offices I have to wonder if the people trying to unseat the reasonably okay reps aren't actually trying to unseat anyone, they're just trying to get into office--any office.

I wish Jeremy all the best, but, until he goes after a seat that ISN'T already taken by a decent pol, I'm not going to vote for him. I'd like to see him get into a fight worth winning.

Nadya / November 1, 2010 8:54 PM

All I know is this--my previously apolitical boyfriend (who used to make excuses about not voting because all politicians are corrupt) went to meet with her and a small group one time, and he came away saying, "If that's what meeting with local politicians is like, maybe the whole system isn't garbage."

She's got our loyalty and two votes from this household, because she was so accessible and responsive to our grass roots group. She's been our thoughtful and steady advocate ever since that meeting.

Dan B. / November 2, 2010 12:33 AM

So, here is the critical question.

How many of you are voting against Lisa Madigan because her father is Mike Madigan?

You can't make this argument against Toni Berrios and not Lisa Madigan. You have to look at their records, not their fathers.

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