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ELECTIONS 2018: GOVERNOR Chris Kennedy talks LGBT issues, reason for political run
by Matt Simonette

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Businessman Christopher Kennedy—who heads Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises, the Kennedy family's investment company—was, for several years, the head of Merchandise Mart. He has also been active in a number of non-profits.

Kennedy announced his candidacy to be Illinois governor in early 2017. He spoke to Windy City Times about his issue's with the state's current government and his thoughts about the future of the state's LGBT community.

Windy City Times: What prompted you to run for office?

Chris Kennedy: I'd say a host of different factors. If you look at my background, and what defines me, there's this notion that I'm an American first and the core value of that is freedom. … As an Irish-Catholic, I believe in social justice; in the United States, much of our social justice thinking is derivative of Abrahamic social justice. In that notion, with Muslims, Jews and Christians, there's an idea of "freedom"—Pope John Paul II spoke about freedom before the United Nations, for example. He said that freedom is a measure of man's dignity and greatness. As a Kennedy family member, I think of freedom as an extension of the civil rights movement. I believe that people in Illinois should be free to make the choices that they want to make. For many people, those choices are no longer available.

Our state economy shrunk last year, yet in the last two years, average household income jumped 11 percent. That's nearly impossible to do, having a shrinking economy and rising household income. The only way to do that is get rid of the poor so that their numbers aren't in the calculation. The state of Illinois has attacked the poor and pushed them out of our state. As a result, that makes those of us who remain behind look wealthy.

The poor are poor largely because they are undereducated. They are undereducated largely because we pay for our schools through property taxes instead of a progressive income tax, because a handful of elected officials, like [Illinois House] Speaker [Michael] Madigan, the chairman of the Democratic Party, have outside jobs as property tax appeals lawyers. They make money on the system. I think what they're doing is not illegal, but it should be. I don't think anybody should have an outside job as an elected official.

WCT: What are some other important issues for voters?

CK: The thing that people want more than anything else is more democracy and less hypocrisy. I don't think they want a property tax system that relies on subjective judgement rather than the rule of law. They don't want to live in a community where, if you're black, you're over-assessed. Nobody wants to be a part of that system—right now we all are. Why do we have a city that cuts off access to half our mental health facilities? Why do we allow this occur? I think those issues about how we care for each other are important.

WCT: What do you see you biggest challenge in the election, as well as your biggest challenge, in the race so far?

CK: I think that my biggest challenge is the status quo, the entrenched power structure, opposes me—the chairmen of our party, the chairman for the State of Illinois and the chairman of Cook County Democratic Party. They're all opposition. But I think this election is about change. So I think my greatest weakness is my greatest strength—that I am an outsider.

WCT: What has your engagement with the LGBT community been like?

CK: I ran the Merchandise Mart. … You go back to the '80s, and so many industries that are headquartered at the Mart, whether it's apparel, decorative accessories, or the design industry, were being decimated by loss of a lot of creative talent and executives as a result of the AIDS crisis.

Many of the organizations pioneered around funding AIDS research, treatment and care, including many at the Merchandise Mart, groups like the Design Industry Fund for AIDS ( DIFA ). What we tried to do is, in every industry, create a funding opportunity and mechanism that allowed us to contribute to the research and treatment. For instance, the biggest trade show of the year there is called Neocon. DIFA held an annual dinner in Chicago every year, and I went to them and persuaded to move that dinner to the Saturday of Neocon. That allowed them to tap into the hundreds of companies that participate in the show and it created an enormous fundraising stream.

We hosted Dining by Design, not just in Chicago, but around the country, to create additional funding streams. … I would say that I have a rich, robust history with the community and it's one that I'm proud of.

WCT: What do you see as the two or three most important issues facing the LGBT community in Illinois right now?

CK: I've witnessed in my own lifetime this incredible extension of the civil rights movement around LGBT rights issues. I remember my mother asking us all to boycott the state of Colorado after it passed anti-LGBTQ legislation. That was part of our consciousness, and now there have been these incredible changes and an embrace of a community that had been maligned and marginalized.

I have a great fear that the progress we've made in the LGBTQ civil rights era will roll back. I see the president planting a stake in the ground, by abolishing advisory groups. He is telegraphing to the rest of the country that this civil rights improvement does not matter and that we can turn our back. When a president is under pressure, they can create an external enemy, like Putin regularly does, or they can create an internal enemy. My fear is that Donald Trump will choose a minority group that is vulnerable and turn his supporters against them. That's what I see occurring now.

One of the critical things we learned from the Trump and Rauner administrations is that leadership matters. Trump talks about the "deep state," a group of people embedded in government who are there to resist his awful changes. I think we can take insight from that as we look to populate leadership in the state of Illinois. We need to make sure that we vet those potential leaders, agencies and commissions with leadership of the LGBTQ community, so that issues of importance are going to be reflected in the values of the very people that are being asked to implement them or propagate regulations.

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