PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday March 17th, 2014, 6:52pm

Election Preview: Tensions Boil Over In The 26th District Legislative Race

Jhatayn “Jay” Travis, who is challenging incumbent State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) in the 26th District Democratic race, blasted her opponent Monday for "questionable election tactics." Mitchell's campaign called Travis' comments "desperate and superfluous." Progress Illinois details the latest scuffle kicking up dirt in the race on the eve of the primary election.

Jhatayn “Jay” Travis, who is challenging incumbent State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-Chicago) in the 26th District Democratic race, blasted her opponent Monday for "questionable election tactics." 

Travis, a long-time community activist and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization's former executive director, called out Mitchell on the eve of Tuesday's primary election for "his turn to dirty electioneering and his continued reliance on the same small circle of billionaire donors who have supported Bruce Rauner's campaign."

According to Travis' campaign, community members on Sunday spotted what they say were paid staffers from Mitchell's campaign removing Travis yard posters and replacing them with Mitchell signs.

"My opponent's use of dirty campaign tactics is disappointing, but not surprising," Travis said. "This is the same person who was silent on school closings and refused to show his face to the seniors whose retirement savings he gutted with his vote for SB 1."

Mitchell's camp fired back, saying in a brief statement to Progress Illinois that Travis' "attacks" are "desperate and superfluous" and made by a candidate that is "trailing by double digits in every single poll."

"Christian is going to continue talking about improving our neighborhoods, our schools and getting crime off the streets," the statement added.

Mitchell, who has held his state rep seat since January 2013, and Travis are the only candidates in the Democratic primary contest in the 26th District, which runs just parallel to Lake Michigan and stretches from the far South Side of Chicago to the near North Side. Republican Jacob "Coby" Hakalir is also running for the 26th district seat.

Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science and public affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Mitchell has generally been supportive of issues pushed by House Speaker Michael Madigan, who "has tried post Blagojevich to sketch out the new Democrats."

"There’s been a push to kind of put up a list of accomplishments in terms of positioning Democrats, and those have not sat well with parts of the traditional Democratic base, particularly in terms of public employee unions [and] teacher unions," Redfield explained. "You've got the public employee unions on (Travis') side, and on the other side you’ve got the speaker, you’ve got education reform groups, you’ve got some business groups, some labor groups, and so that makes (the 26th District race) interesting." 

Redfield noted that this "family fight within the Democratic base" is also playing out in 39th and 40th state representative districts, which are also located in Chicago.

In the 39th District, community organizer and writer Will Guzzardi is challenging politically-connected incumbent State Rep. Maria "Toni" Berrios (D-Chicago), whose father is the influential Cook County assessor and county Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios. In the 40th District, four Democratic candidates are vying to unseat incumbent State Rep. Jaime Andrade (D-Chicago), a former top aide to the now retired Chicago Ald. Dick Mell (33rd).

"If those three incumbents were to go down, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but if they were to go down, it would send a message that the speaker can’t protect his incumbents," Redfield said. "Depending on who wins and who loses, that has implications going forward for the [state legislative] session and probably even into the [Chicago] mayor's race," he said.

Endorsements and campaign cash

Groups such as the Illinois AFL-CIO, the People's Lobby and the Sierra Club have endorsed Mitchell, who previously worked as an organizer with Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, which is also known as SOUL. A slew of elected officials are also throwing their weight behind the incumbent, including Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to name a few. 

Travis, who formally announced her candidacy in Illinois' 26th district race back in February, has garnered endorsements from groups like Citizen Action Illinois and Northside Democracy for America.

Her supporters also include AFSCME Council 31, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and SEIU* Local 73, among others.

A good chunk of Travis' campaign funding has come from unions. Travis sat on $7,266 at the close of the fourth quarter, which ended December 31. She has since pulled in donations from the aforementioned labor groups and other supporters.

But the money Travis has brought in is dwarfed by Mitchell's funding. After adding up the cash on hand each candidate had and what they have received since January 1, records show that Travis has some $325,000 in funding and Mitchell has about $650,000, Redfield explained.

At the close of the fourth quarter, Mitchell's political fund had $136,962 in the bank, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records. Mitchell has since seen in-kind donations for things like postage and printing from the Democratic Majority committee, which is controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan. Other more recent donations to Mitchell's political committee have come from the Equality Illinois PAC, an organization focused on advancing LGBT rights, as well as hefty funding from the Stand for Children IL PAC, a proponent of charter schools and Mitchell's largest campaign contributor during the 2012 election cycle.

The "Friends of Christian Mitchell" committee has also received more recent notable contributions at $1,000 each from U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL,5) and Andrea Zopp, a Chicago Board of Education member and president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

On Friday, Mitchell's political fund pulled in a $30,000 contribution from the Democrats for Education Reform. Travis' camp has called out Democrats for Education Reform for being a "special interest PAC that is overwhelmingly funded by the billionaire Crown family (who have also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Bruce Rauner), and former Enron executive and notorious anti-pension activist John Arnold.

"Over and over again throughout this primary race, we have seen entrenched special interests and corporate billionaires trying to play king-maker in the 26th District," Travis stressed. "Christian has refused to have an open and honest debate before the voters. His political patrons have tried to suppress the voter file. And now they're stooping to paying people to pull up our yard signs. These are the tactics of a Springfield politician whose unaccountable behavior has made him vulnerable, and who is desperately relying on his political patrons to buy the election for him."

Check out this piece from the Hyde Park Herald that includes a comprehensive breakdown of the campaign cash that has poured into the 26th District race. The Herald has also analyzed some of the TV ads put out by supporters of both Mitchell and Travis.

The issues

Throughout her campaign, Travis has repeatedly pointed out that Mitchell voted for the controversial pension reform law, which the legislature approved in December. Travis believes the pension reform law is "flawed," and she backs efforts to replace it "with a solution that generates the revenue needed to restore the state’s financial health and provide our seniors with the retirement security that they have worked for all their lives," according to her website. She also supports pension reform that would require the city of Chicago to meet its full pension obligations. 

Mitchell has explained in a statement on his campaign website that his vote for the state pension reform law was not an easy one.

"I understand how much retirees depend on the promise of their pension – and retirees will continue to have a pension. Their pension, however, will be one that the state can honestly afford," Mitchell wrote. "The status quo was simply unsustainable. We could do nothing and continue painful and devastating funding cuts to schools and our frayed safety net programs or we could find a way forward."

Education is another hot topic in the 26th District race. 

Travis has spoken out against neighborhood school closings, is a strong supporter of an elected Chicago school board and will "champion a just school funding formula" if she is elected, her website reads. Additionally, Travis will work "to prevent the misappropriation of taxpayer dollars towards unproven, corrupt charter school operators and to instead invest in sustainable school transformation."

Travis contends that Mitchell has failed to be leader against school closings and charter school expansion.

But Mitchell maintains that he has lead by example when it comes to education policy.

Mitchell cosponsored HB 2793, which would provide for the election of Chicago school board members, and has been a "leading voice on education funding reform since before he became a state representative," according to a previous statement from his camp. Also, Mitchell is a cosponsor of House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 33, which looks to replace the state's flat income tax with a graduated income tax. Mitchell believes "everyone ought to pay their fair share to adequately fund the investments in human services, education, and infrastructure, that make our state competitive," his campaign has stated.

From a policy standpoint, Redfield said Mitchell is more aligned with the education reform movement, which favors things like increased teacher and student testing and more charter schools. 

"Mitchell is clearly taking money from people who are in that camp," Redfield said. "Generally, you're going to find the teacher unions on the other side of those issues ... in terms of teacher testing standards, how we're dealing with merit pay, Common Core [State Standards], those kind of education reform issues. Those are near and dear to Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform." 

Public safety issues have also come to the forefront in the 26th District race. 

Mitchell put out a TV ad about gun violence in which he states his support for banning assault weapons and high-capacity clips in Illinois, closing background check loopholes and investing in high-quality after school programs. The state legislature has yet to pass a measure that would ban assault weapons or high-capacity clips. But Mitchell supported legislation, which was signed into law in August, requiring that gun sellers check to make sure buyers have valid Firearm Owners Identification cards before making the transfer.

Redfield said Mitchell's voting record on gun-related matters puts him at an advantage over Travis, as he is able to distinguish himself on issues beyond things like education and pension reform.

Mitchell has also received funding from the Gun Violence Prevention PAC, meaning "he was on the right side of concealed carry in terms of that group," Redfield noted.

"Being recognized by that group ... that's always helpful in appealing to different audiences," he added.

For her part, Travis is a "proponent of comprehensive solutions to the violence that affects our neighborhoods and communities," according to her website. If elected, Travis said she will push for youth development and employment funding as well as the expansion of restorative justice programs. Additionally, Travis wants to expand job training programs and other supports for ex-offenders to help prevent them from re-entering the criminal justice system.

Check back with Progress Illinois Tuesday for our coverage of the March 18 Democratic primary, including the 26th District race.

*The SEIU Illinois Council sponsors this website.

Image: AP/David Mercer

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