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ELECTIONS 25th Dist. State Rep. candidate Grace McKibben on LGBTQ issues, religious freedom laws
by Liz Baudler

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Grace Chan McKibben is the current Development Director of Indo-American Center, and one of a crowded field of candidates vying to replace retiring State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie in the 25th district. Chan McKibben's challengers are William Calloway, Angelique Collins, Adrienne Irmer, Anne Marie Miles, Flynn Rush, and Curtis Tarver II: Windy City Times was able to speak with Collins, Irmer, Miles and Tarver as well as Chan McKibben.

Windy City Times: What are the main issues facing the 25th district?

Grace Chan McKibben: So there are two main issues in the 25th district. It is a district that has very diverse ethnic and economic background. Through the district, there's a great deal of concern about economic opportunities, particularly employment, particularly in South Shore and South Chicago, but also pretty much everywhere because there has not been a lot of economic stability since the Great Recession. There's a lot of worry about whether income is keeping pace. In the more affluent part of the district, housing costs keep going up, so there's worry about affordable housing as well.

The other issue is education. There are a lot of good schools in the district, but also schools that are inadequately funded. There are many education advocates, especially in Hyde Park/Kenwood, who would like to see more equitable public school funding and an elected school board. And I'm a strong proponent of an elected school board as well as funding that would make sure that schools that are less privileged would have the same opportunities to compete as the schools that are already well-funded.

WCT: Your district is incredibly diverse.

GCM: It spans the lakefront and includes a lot of different neighborhoods, including some of the most privileged neighborhoods in the city and some of the most neglected neighborhoods in the city. Like South Chicago, for example, has not had a lot of economic development since the steel mills have closed and there are a lot of undeveloped brownfields that still need to be cleaned up and developed and then there's also a lot of folks that have not had good economic opportunities for a long time.

WCT: Let's talk a little bit about your background.

GCM: I have worked for government: I was Chief of Staff at the Department of Employment Security so I understand how legislation gets passed, how government works on a day to day basis. And I've worked in the nonprofit world now for the past ten years, and I understand when there isn't a budget that supports education and social services how devastating it is, not only to the agencies that provide these services but really, to the people that depend on these services. Elderly services, services for children, services for the disabled, the whole social services world has been devastated in the past three years because there hasn't been a state budget. And so I bring experience in both education and nonprofits, and earlier I worked in higher ed as well. So I bring a wealth of experience from diverse industries and a strong record of being able to negotiate, of being able to bring together coalitions of folks that cross traditional race and class, even party lines to ideological lines to the table to work things out.

WCT: What would be first on your agenda were you to get to Springfield?

GCM: First on the agenda is to make sure is to make sure that we get a budget passed next year. Folks that aren't directly affected by it sometimes don't understand how difficult it is for the social services agencies and for schools when they are not sure how to provide the services that they need and how to meet payroll and how to continue to keep the doors open, and so I think, first and foremost, is to make sure that there's a budget that prioritizes services, prioritizes education, and part of that is also developing new revenue sources as well. That would be higher on the priority list.

WCT: What would be some of the revenue sources that you might be interested in developing?

GCM: There's quite a lot of interest in closing corporate loopholes to make sure that corporations pay their fair share. About 67% of all corporations based in Illinois do not pay a dime for corporate taxes, so there needs to be much closer attention in figuring out how to close the loopholes in corporate taxes. There is a lot of interest in developing a La Salle street tax, which taxes certain financial transactions, particularly in the investment world, and that would bring in significant revenue to cover a lot of the revenue shortfall.

Eventually there needs to be serious conversation about changing the Illinois state income tax to a progressive income tax. Illinois is one of very few states, I think there's 6 states, that have a flat tax. Several years ago that income tax was increased from 3.5% to 5% and then went back down to a lower percentage, and this year is being increased to 4.95%, closer to five. It's still not quite enough revenue, because the budget is such that, because there have been so much debt in not paying the social services, not paying private companies that have contracts with governments in such a long time, and also not paying pension debt. So there needs to be a very serious look at developing tax revenue. And the progressive state income tax just means that folks who make more will pay more on a higher tax bracket, and folks that don't make as much will pay less. It does require a constitutional amendment, and that's why I said that it's probably not the first thing that folks will work on. It does take a longer time to get to. I think we have a window of opportunity in the next year, or maybe the next few years to come. This year there are more state representatives senators that are retiring or otherwise not seeking reelection, so there's more of an opportunity for new voices and new faces and new ideas. I think that is what is encouraging as well.

WCT: What is your experience with the LGBTQ community?

GCM: I have been a supporter of LGBT rights and an advocate of LGBT rights from very early on. In the early 90s my husband and I were sponsoring LGBT student groups to talk to other students in residence halls, but even before that, I grew up in Hong Kong. This is one of the things that I emphasize quite a bit throughout the campaign trail—that I did not grow up in the U.S, so I don't take a lot of rights and the liberties we have in the US for granted, because in a lot of the other countries, you don't have that. In Hong Kong there is nondiscrimination for the LGBT community, but there isn't very strict enforcement of nondiscrimination and to be sure that people are able to have equal opportunities in employment and education and housing. Growing up in that environment and coming to the US in the 80s, when the AIDS crisis was going on and LGBT issues were just coming to the forefront, I had high school friends that joined the early LGBT movement. I have a very close high school friend who dropped out of college to be a leader in ACT-UP. So this is a long history.

More recently among my own children there are LGBT kids. I've also been working with the Chicago Gay Men's chorus for this past year as the acting executive director, helping them with the strategic plan. A lot of it, helping a historical organization like that that has significant impact on the LGBT life in Chicago, makes you realize how important history is because current chorus members are not as much connected with that history from the 80s and 90s.

I think there's a lot of misconception from the outside world, particularly from the non LGBT community, you know, now that there's marriage equality, and now that there are less overt discrimination in some circles, that there's no need for groups like Chicago's Gay Men's Chorus to continue to do what they do anymore, and that's absolutely not true. It's such a fragile balance, and there's so many issues, particularly since the last election, that have come to the fore. There's still not equality; for the trans community it's definitely still not equal. There's still a lot of battles that still need to be fought.

WCT: What do you think the biggest issue facing the LGBTQ community, and particularly the trans community, might be?

GCM: In Illinois, the law doesn't require that health insurance cover therapy or surgery, and that is important to push for. And the current rhetoric, particularly in the schools, pushed by some small number of parents feeding on the fear of other parents, to discriminate against transgender students in the use of bathrooms and locker rooms, is something that I care a lot about. I think that particularly in first-generation immigrant communities, that some folks are not supportive of the transgender community and there's a lot of fear and misunderstanding and they been the most vocal in their opposition.

WCT: On your candidate survey it looks like you support laws repealing criminalizing HIV/AIDS transmission: elaborate on that position.

GCM: I think that in the case of transmission of HIV, the more important piece is to make sure that people get the healthcare that they need, so I think that criminalization of HIV transmission would deter people from being able to have access to the healthcare that they need.

WCT: Can you elaborate on your position regarding religious freedom laws?

GCM: I am not in favor of laws that would allow organizations to use religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate against certain groups such as LGBT groups or people of color. I've been on the ACLU board for a long time, and one of the legislations that the ACLU has been able to pass in the past year is a legislation that would prevent religious organizations from further discriminating against people, particularly on the issue of reproductive rights. Catholic hospitals previously had been able to use the fact that they are religious organizations to deny women access to reproductive healthcare.

WCT: Any final thoughts?

GCM: I'd just like to go on the record and say I'm supportive of the rights of everyone. That's my commitment to the ACLU and my commitment to civil rights. That I believe that our system should be set up that everyone has equal opportunity to access not just healthcare, employment and basic rights, and so on, but have the opportunity to succeed and thrive in the community. That's what I'm the most passionate about.

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