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  Windy City Times

Joe Laiacona takes on Deb Mell
Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis
2009-10-21

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Joe Laiacona is taking on incumbent state Rep. Deb Mell in what is shaping up to a very intriguing race in the state's 40th District. Does Laiacona realize the magnitude of the task before him? Absolutely. Is he intimidated? Hardly.

In a talk with Windy City Times, the openly gay Laiacona—who teaches at Columbia College and is an amateur genealogist—discussed his platform, Mell's interview with this publication and his reason for not being more "out" on his campaign Web site.

Windy City Times: How's the campaign going?

Joe Laiacona: It's going very well. I see myself as the David in this situation; I'm hoping I have the slingshot [ to take on Goliath ] . But it's going well in my district.

For the past weeks, I've been collecting signatures—and I've gotten a surprising and good reaction from [ the constituents ] .

WCT: I saw the exchange on your Web site where you mentioned to a constituent who your opponent was and the person responded, "Why didn't you say so?"

JOE LAIACONA: That happened a lot; I didn't make it up. I don't believe in negative campaigning. I just said I was running. However, most people signed up because they believe in easy ballot access; they really want to have a choice.

WCT: So why are you the better candidate?

JOE LAIACONA: I have 62 years of experience in living, I'm better educated ( if that makes a difference to you or anyone else ) , I solidly represent the middle-class people in my district—and I'm better able to speak on their behalf.

WCT: So you don't think Deb Mell can solidly represent the middle class?

JOE LAIACONA: Well, she's the daughter of a millionaire.

WCT: But in her interview with us, she said that she makes an effort to constantly interact with constituents in the district, which is primarily blue-collar and working-class, correct?

JOE LAIACONA: It is, but I think I can do a better job. Also, I have a solid union background; I'm a homeowner with the same homeowner problems everyone else has; I'm intimately connected with the education system as an instructor at Columbia College; I don't have any health insurance, which allows me to speak to the needs of the common man—and I have no problem reading a 50-page report [ referring to Mell's interview that was published in WCT's Sept. 30 issue, in which she said that she does not have the "time and staff" to read large reports ] . You know how big our budget? It's about 700 pages.

WCT: What are your comments about Deb Mell's interview? You've made some references to it.

JOE LAIACONA: Well, you've heard one. Second, you might want to talk to Mr. Joravsky about Deb Mell. [ Laiacona hands the interviewer a copy of a Jan. 24, 2008, Chicago Reader article written by Ben Joravsky entitled "Mell Family Politics: Richard Mell strikes a deal to push his daughter Deborah into the statehouse—and indepedent-leaning Iris Martinez out." ] It's a different side of the story than what Ms. Mell gave. And, thirdly, one of the things I've learned is that a lot of people have [ Deb Mell predecessor ] Richard Bradley's name on their front windows. As far as I can see, he was very popular—and some of the people signed my petition because they miss Richard Bradley. As a matter of fact, while I was deciding to run, I talked with Richard to make sure he wasn't running.

WCT: So if he ran, you wouldn't be in this race?

JOE LAIACONA: That's for sure. The voters in my district thought he did a good job. Quite frankly, the primary reason I'm running is that, when I investigated if I should run, I found that there was a great deal of dissatisfaction and anger that I shared with the people in the neighborhood about politics in Chicago and Illinois. People are fed up with the status quo—the nepotism, the payola, the back-room deals, the closed-door caucuses, the lack of information.

WCT: Deb Mell talked about her vote for [ not impeaching her brother-in-law ] former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Is that a sticking point with you?

JOE LAIACONA: Yes. I think she represented her family, not her constituents. I don't think she had to vote "yes." I think she should've voted "present."

I was in that same situation myself. ( This is going back about 30 years. ) There was some turmoil in a company I worked for, and my sister-in-law was one of the employees under me. My supervisor called me and asked me to fire her. I said, "Dennis, I can't fire my sister-in-law," and he said, "That's OK. I'll do it for you." Voting "present" would have been another way [ for Mell ] .

WCT: An issue that's mentioned on your Web site is "transparency." You've talked a little about it; why is that so important?

JOE LAIACONA: Because state representatives and other elected officials are employees. That's what they are—they're public servants. The persons who are trustees of the political corporation are voters, and voters need to have all the information so they can [ make the best informed decision ] for the state. Without all the information, they can't vote intelligently and wisely—and we need transparency so they'll know how to vote.

WCT: Can there be too much transparency?

JOE LAIACONA: Well, not everything needs to be on public record. In fact, I believe in a strong right to privacy. But I'm talking about transparency in public action; I don't want the government in my bedroom. I don't need to know how much is in my next door neighbor's bank account, but I might need to know who's funding my legislator.

What the caucus and committee systems have done is given cover to legislators to not vote on something. I tried doing a search on legislative rules and ethics and, one after another, these rules died in committee. That means I don't know what anyone thought of that law—or if I should vote for that person the next time around.

WCT: Something I didn't see on your Web site was anything on LGBT rights. Did I overlook that?

JOE LAIACONA: No.

WCT: Why is that the case? You have worked for a gay publication [ as columnist "Jack Rinella" for Gay Chicago magazine ] .

JOE LAIACONA: First of all, it's not an issue in my neighborhood...

WCT: How do you know that?

JOE LAIACONA: I've talked with my constituents. But I think they should be called "human rights." Specifically, I address marriage rights in my platform.

WCT: But there are other issues that are of concern to the LGBT community.

JOE LAIACONA: Yes—but I want equality, irrespective of race, creed, sexual orientation, gender, age.

WCT: Why, in your biography, is your partner not mentioned?

JOE LAIACONA: [ Pauses. ] Because he's not.

WCT: Did he not want it mentioned?

JOE LAIACONA: No—we've never discussed it. As a matter of fact, I don't think my sexual orientation should be an issue. But I gave a speech at the North Side Democracy for America [ the other ] night, and my lover, Patrick Herlihy, was there with me.

Actually, [ someone ] asked me, "You know you're running against a lesbian. What is the gay community going to think about that?" I said, "Well, I'm not sure, but I'm gay and I worked for Gay Chicago magazine for 17 years." He said, "Oh." I'm not going back into the closet but I'm not making an issue out of it.

WCT: But do you understand why it might appear to some people that you're whitewashing [ your gay identity ] ?

JOE LAIACONA: I do understand.

WCT: Are you having an LGBT fundraiser?

JOE LAIACONA: If somebody's [ hosting ] it, I certainly would.

WCT: What's your biggest obstacle?

JOE LAIACONA: Money.

WCT: So you'd be willing to engage Deb Mell in a debate?

JOE LAIACONA: I look forward to it. [ Smiles ]

WCT: Has she made any overtures to you?

JOE LAIACONA: No.

WCT: Have you made any to her?

JOE LAIACONA: I expect community organizations in our district to make overtures to both of us.

See www.friendsforjoelaiacona.org . Also, Laiacona is holding a reception Thursday, Oct. 22, at Trattoria Caterina, 616 S. Dearborn, 5-7 p.m.; RSVP at the Web site.


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