CARBONDALE — Chris Kennedy believes he has a set of skills that uniquely qualify him to be governor of the state of Illinois.
Kennedy moved to Illinois in 1986 to work for Archer Daniels Midland Co. in Decatur. He has held positions at Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Merchandise Mart Properties in Chicago, as well as serving on the board of trustees for University of Illinois and board of Greater Chicago Food Depository. Those positions taught him how different parts of the country interact with the economy.
He and his wife, Sheila, run Top Box Foods, a hunger-relief agency they founded which provides high-quality, healthy, low-cost food to underserved neighborhoods.
Kennedy, who has four children, says wants the same thing everyone else in the state wants: to keep our children here and keep our communities intact.
“I want my kids to stay in Illinois because I want to be close to my grandchildren, if I’m lucky enough to have them,” he said.
Kennedy said Illinois has the largest outmigration of millennials and the largest outmigration of college freshmen in the country.
“I don’t think it has to be that way,” he added.
He compared the state’s economy to a circular drain. The one thing that will change that is the power of higher education, particularly capitalizing on the research institutions like Southern Illinois University. Professors create new knowledge through research. When that knowledge is applied in a practical sense, it creates new jobs.
“The average commute time in Chicago is 59 minutes. Almost everyone in the state lives within 59 minutes of a university,” Kennedy said.
He added that the state has the wrong tax system to fund education, but he sees the problem as a lawmaker problem. Kennedy believes Illinois needs a progressive income tax. Even with a Democratic super majority in both the Illinois House and Senate and a Democratic governor, they could not get changes made in the tax system.
“The state isn’t broke. The legislature is broke. Rauner allowed the budget problem to become an economic problem for the entire state,” Kennedy said.
One of the problems, according to Kennedy, is too many lawmakers with conflicts of interest. For example, Mike Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House, is also chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois. As chair of the party, he appointed Joe Berrios as head of Cook County Democratic Park. He got himself appointed as Cook County assessor. Madigan also works as a property tax appeals lawyer.
Kennedy said the Sears Tower sold for $1.2 billion dollars, approximately $600 million below its value. A building at 300 N. LaSalle St. sold at $848 million, $400 million below its value. The missed property taxes on these two buildings, which amounts to about $50 million, could help fund Chicago schools.
Kennedy believes a progressive income tax would create revenue to fund higher education.
While on his commute into Chicago, Kennedy often heard tourism ads for the states of Michigan and Wisconsin. Those ads really irritated him after a couple decades.
“I started to see how you could use a tourism economy as an economic engine,” he said.
He wondered how to capitalize on the Illinois’ hills and forests and rivers, saying it’s an easy five or six hour drive to Southern Illinois tourism destinations.
The state needs third party tourism agencies that will create a comprehensive marketing strategy designed to draw consumers, along with a destination firms to bundle tourism assets.
Kennedy has visited Cairo to learn about the issues there. While he was in Cairo, he went to see the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. He walked up on the crumbling concrete, but no one else wanted to go with him.
“I went to see the confluence of these two great rivers. It’s beautiful, except you cannot see it because the state hasn’t pruned the damn trees,” Kennedy said.
He sees issues in Cairo as education issues.
“Zero percent of kids in Cairo are college-ready. Seventy-five percent of high school graduates need remedial education,” Kennedy said. “The problem with Cairo is not with the housing authority. It’s with the school. It needs to be fully funded by the state.”
Kennedy is eighth of 11 children, and his wife is one of five children. He and his wife have nieces and nephews who will never work, but they will survive because they come from big families who will bring them along.
Kennedy said the people in Cairo come from a big American family that should bring them along, too, but we cannot ask people to support a corrupt system.
Kennedy favors legalizing recreational marijuana with some safeguards for children and levels of THC.
He favors term limits and is opposed to fracking.
“I don’t know why we’d introduce an unproven technology that has the potential to wreck the water,” Kennedy said.
He does not call himself a Kennedy Democrat, in reference to his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, but instead likes to be known as a “Teddy Kennedy” Democrat, in reference to another of his well-known uncles. His Uncle Teddy had friends who were Republicans and worked at keeping those friendships. He also was able to separate election tactics from the person running.