Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the race for the 20th district state representative seat, which pits first-time candidate and law student Mo Khan against long-serving GOP incumbent Mike McAuliffe.
The election battle for the state House's 20th district seat is an interesting legislative race worth watching in Illinois.
The contest pits long-serving incumbent Mike McAuliffe, the sole Chicago Republican in the state legislature, against Park Ridge Democrat Mo Khan, a law student and first-time political candidate.
Illinois' 20th district covers parts of Chicago's Northwest Side and the suburbs of Des Plaines, Franklin Park, Niles, Park Ridge, Rosemont and Schiller Park.
McAuliffe, 50, is a resident of Chicago's 41st Ward. The Republican, who defines his occupation as a full-time state lawmaker, was first elected to the legislature in 1996 and is running for a 10th term. His campaign did not return requests for comment on this story.
Khan, 29, is currently pursing a law degree at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, from which he will graduate in May. He has an undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Iowa and has worked as a business consultant for start-up firms. After graduating from the University of Iowa in 2007, Khan served as a traveling aide for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. The Park Ridge native was later a special assistant to former Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias during his 2010 U.S. Senate campaign.
As Khan has traveled the 20th district for his own campaign, residents have raised concerns about flooding, jet noise from O'Hare Aiport, college affordability and a lack of high-quality jobs, among other issues.
"I'm going to work hard to address those challenges," Khan told Progress Illinois. "That's part of working for the district. But if you're going to be a legislator, matter of fact, that's worth a damn, you've got to be able to see the opportunities moving forward, the potential in those opportunities and how we pursue them with policy decisions."
"This isn't the broad-platitudes campaign," he added. "There's specific initiatives that I'm pursuing."
If elected to the legislature, Khan would push for the creation a "business incubator" in the 20th district that would, among other things, link start-up businesses to investors.
"That's the No. 1 thing that holds start-up companies back -- access to capital," Khan stressed. "When we make sure start-up companies ... have access to capital, that's going to mean good-paying jobs for people right here in our district."
He said Oakton Community College is an example of a "perfect space" to house such a facility. Additionally, Khan envisions local high schools offering a "business incubator elective," allowing students to learn the "building blocks of a start-up company."
The Democrat said he would also advocate for more technical education courses, including computer coding, in the 20th district's public schools and elsewhere in Illinois if elected.
"When we do these things, we're going to have a lot of great businesses right here in this district," he said. "I totally believe if we start doing things like this, we could have the next Facebook, the next Google come out of here. Property values are going to skyrocket because everyone's going to want to be in this school district."
The aforementioned proposals fit into Khan's overall objective to create a more business-friendly environment in Illinois, which also involves reforming the tax code to help boost start-up companies, he said. Regarding tax incentives, Khan is not a proponent of "negotiating with individual corporations," calling that approach "bad policy." However, the state's tax incentive system should be "highly geared towards people creating jobs in the tech economy."
College affordability is another pillar of Khan's platform. He has several local policy ideas designed to reduce the cost of a higher education, including increasing the number of dual credit high school courses in which students earn both high school and college credit. High school and higher ed programs that allow students who work to obtain college credit should also be expanded, he said.
"Another thing that I think is worth investigating: community colleges moving to three year institutions, teaming that up with our state universities," Khan said. "Our state universities working in cohesion with our network of community colleges could (mean) tremendous savings."
Under such a model, Khan said students could attend community colleges for their general education and elective courses and then go to a state university in their final year of school "to develop the skills that you're going to take into the economy with you."
On a separate education issue, the law student said he is in favor of an elected school board in Chicago.
The Chicago Board of Education is the only non-elected school board in Illinois, and the state legislature must ultimately change the rules. Legislation that would provide for the election of Chicago school board members, instead of the current appointment system, failed to gain traction among state lawmakers last legislative session.
"I'm for shifting to an elected school board," Khan said. "I think it's going to increase the democracy and the citizen engagement which goes into our schools."
The state rep contest in the 20th district is not as expensive as other Illinois House races, including those in the 71st, 79th and 115th districts, which have topped $1 million and have greater involvement from state party leaders.
In the 20th district race, the campaign funds raised by McAullife and Khan plus outside spending has reached more than $230,000, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform's Sunshine Database, which provides an analysis of campaign finance in the state.
In his election battle against McAuliffe, Khan is running a grassroots, "door-to-door" campaign. He said he is not receiving financial help from House Speaker Michael Madigan, chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, or other party leaders.
On the flip side, the Illinois House Republican Organization, controlled by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, is among McAuliffe's top 2014 election contributors. The House Republican Organization, for example, has contributed more than $11,900 in in-kind donations to McAuliffe to cover campaign salaries, travel expenses and an intern program since July 1, the start of the last fundraising quarter.
Khan said his campaign has the funds needed to compete.
"We're not going to match the money that our opponent is going to do," he said. "What we have is a huge grassroots organization, and I've been knocking doors on all summer, and I've been clear and consistent on the policy initiatives that I'm pursuing. And people have been very responsive. We've got a lot of people who've joined the campaign from the doors ... Whether we have the heavy backing of special interest groups or not, we're going to be competitive, and we've shown that over the last 14 months."
Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said there are few highly competitive state House and Senate races this election season, primarily due to the "gerrymandering of the districts."
In more competitive races, "the legislative leaders do play a predominate role in funding," because "the cost to the candidate campaign runs from about $250,000 to close to a million dollars," he said. "That's more than most state legislative candidates can easily raise on their own, so they depend on either interest groups or the party leaders."
"The other state legislators are safe, and so money doesn't have to be put in their districts," Simpson continued. "In this case, the Republicans are obviously trying to protect the seat, and that's the reason for their contribution."
Madigan, meanwhile, "doesn't want to put his resources where he thinks the campaign's too weak to have a chance," he said, explaining that "if (Khan's) only a law student and not established in a career with a record in the community, [that] makes him a weaker candidate and not likely to win."
Overall, McAuliffe has a larger campaign war chest than Khan.
McAuliffe had $96,909 in the bank on July 1, and has raised nearly $153,800 since then, including in-kind donations and contributions reported after September 30, when the third quarter ended. His campaign account had $113,720 in cash on hand at the end of September, state records show.
Khan started the third fundraising quarter with $7,322 in his campaign account, and has received more than $61,500 in contributions since July 1, including in-kind donations. His third quarterly report showed that he ended September with $25,552 in the bank.
On Monday, Khan's campaign reported a $5,300 individual contribution from Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is unrelated to State Rep. Mike McAuliffe. Khan knows the Virginia governor through Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, of which McAuliffe served as chairman.
"We share a lot of things in common," Khan said of the Virginia governor. "We're both pro-business Democrats. And we're socially progressive ... That's a clear distinction from the McAuliffe I'm running against."
Rep. McAuliffe, meanwhile, considers himself to be a "common sense legislator who can bring people together to find solutions to problems."
"I work with Republicans, I work with Democrats, I work with non-partisan mayors," he said in a Pioneer Press questionnaire. "I have a record of the type of bipartisan cooperation that we need more of in Springfield."
McAuliffe, for example, was one of four House Republicans who supported legislation for the advisory November ballot question about whether the state should increase its hourly minimum wage to $10, up from the current $8.25.
As for the minimum wage, McAuliffe is "not against raising it," however, he thinks "it should be done in conjunction with a national increase that won't put Illinois at a competitive disadvantage with other states," he said.
Khan is in favor of a state minimum wage bump to $10 an hour, explaining that he is "very mindful" of the struggles faced by low-wage workers. The Democrat, however, takes issue with "this [minimum wage] talk of lifting people out of federal poverty, because it misses the point altogether."
"How do we increase their economic opportunities," he asked, referring to minimum wage workers. "How do we make sure that they have skills that make them competitive in the economy? ... A lot of these minimum wage jobs are going to be nonexistent in the years to come [as technology advances], so what about the skill-set development?"
He circled back to public-private partnerships. Khan said more partnerships should be formed between businesses with low-wage workers and community colleges, high schools and "any other educational platforms" so employees can learn skills needed "to move along from those jobs and be competitive in the economy."
Such arrangements, Khan said, would be "good for the employees so they have the requisite skill sets, but it's also good for that business." That's because "when those employees are making more money ... they're going to put money right back into those local businesses," he said.
Both candidates vying for the 20th district representative seat agree that the state's 2011 temporary income tax hike should not be made permanent.
If the state's temporary income tax hike is allowed to sunset, as it is scheduled to do in January 2015, the personal income tax will change from its current 5 percent to 3.75 percent, and the corporate income tax will drop from 7 percent to 5.25 percent.
"I support the scheduled rollback of the income tax rates and will not support any plan to make these income tax rates permanent," McAuliffe said in a Chicago Tribune candidate Q & A. "The state of Illinois is looked upon as a place in which businesses do not want to locate, mostly due to an unfriendly business climate. In order to inspire more business growth, there needs to be an effort to reduce taxes."
Khan said he supports rolling the tax hike back "incrementally."
"What that's going to mean, I think we'll find out next year," he said. "There's been a lot of non-specifics from the candidates for governor on exactly what services would need to be cut" to fill the revenue hole if the tax hike expires next year.
"But I think it was flawed from the outset in 2011," he said of the tax increase. "Moving forward, I want to incrementally lower it. When the time comes in the legislature, I'm going to sit down and work across the aisle ... visit every state agency and figure out where savings are to be had."
On the topic of pensions, Khan said SB 1, the state's controversial pension reform overhaul that passed last year, is "100 percent" unconstitutional. The measure is currently facing a legal challenge by a coalition of labor unions based on its constitutionality.
Khan detailed at least one possible plan B on pension reform, should the state's Supreme Court strike down SB 1.
The cost-of-living-adjustment "is the largest cost-driver, and I think Senator [John] Cullerton has put out a plan in which current employees would have the option of keeping their COLA, but accepting a pay freeze or being allowed (to have) pay raises but foregoing their COLA ... This would be something interesting to consider," he said.
McAuliffe voted for SB 1.
"If the bill is found unconstitutional, the General Assembly must be immediately ready to work on new legislation which abides by the guidelines laid out in any court ruling," the Republican said in his Chicago Tribune questionnaire. "It is without question that the current unfunded pension liability needs to be addressed."