Kwame Raoul, Democrat for attorney general, explains his views, and the influences that shaped them.
The man who wants to be Illinois’ next attorney general has a mean jump shot, would rather listen than talk, has survived cancer and draws inspiration from his own life experiences when taking a stand on key issues. One of those experiences profoundly affected his life and political outlook.
“I recall about seven years ago a 13-year-old boy was shot right across the street from my home and my son was also 13 at the time,” said 53-year-old Kwame Raoul, a Democrat who is currently a state senator from Chicago. “My daughter has witnessed somebody put a gun to someone’s head. I have personal friends who have lost kids to gun violence within a mile of my home.”
Arne Duncan has been friends with Raoul for more than 40 years.
“Kwame called me right when that happened and I’ve probably never heard him more upset and scared,” said Duncan, who was U.S. Secretary of Education for President Barack Obama for seven years. “It shook him to his core and I literally remember where I was standing when he called me.
“When this happens directly in front of your house and there is yellow tape everywhere and you’re trying to figure out where your teenage son is, it doesn’t get more real than that,” Duncan said. “So this issue is extraordinarily personal for Kwame.”
“It makes me feel as a father who is involved in public policy that we haven’t done an adequate job of creating a safe environment for our children,” Raoul said. “I can recall my daughter when she was about 12 years old asking, ‘Why can’t I live somewhere where I can play outside like some of my friends?’”
Several Raoul-sponsored or cosponsored gun control bills have passed the Illinois General Assembly in recent years. Bills that deal with background checks for private firearms sales and establishing a mandatory minimum sentence for the crime of firearms trafficking have both become law. Legislation that requires state licensing, staff training and new recordkeeping requirements for Illinois firearms dealers, and a bill that establishes a Firearms Restraining Order, both await gubernatorial action. Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a Raoul- cosponsored bill requiring a 72-hour waiting period on the purchase of assault-type weapons.
Raoul was the chief sponsor or cosponsor of introduced legislation to ban bump stocks and trigger cranks; limit concealed carry permit holders to carry just one gun at a time; ban the sale of assault-type weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines; let municipalities pass their own assault-type weapons regulations; and require the private sales and transfers of concealable firearms to take place at a federally licensed firearms dealer.
The Illinois State Rifle Association has broadly opposed the gun control measures that Raoul has sponsored or supported in the Illinois General Assembly. They agree with the would-be attorney general that something needs to be done about the root cause of the violence, but feel more gun restrictions aren’t the answer.
“Gun control measures just make it very hard on the legal person and it doesn’t do anything to the criminals. In fact, criminals have an advantage with gun control laws because it makes it harder for people to defend themselves,” said Illinois State Rifle Association (ISRA) executive director Richard Pearson. “Guns are inanimate objects, they aren’t legal or illegal, but the people who operate them are legal or illegal.”
That is a rare point on which the ISRA and Raoul agree.
“I think there’s merit to what some people say regarding that individuals are responsible, that triggers are not pulled by themselves,” Raoul said. He has not owned a gun, but Raoul has fired one at a southern Illinois shooting complex.
Raoul the person
Kwame Raoul is the divorced father of a 20-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter. He represents the 13th Senate District, which stretches from downtown Chicago to the city’s south side where it meets the Indiana border. Raoul was appointed in 2004 to the seat left vacant when Barack Obama was elected U.S. senator and has served ever since. He won a bruising, eight-way March 20 Democratic primary race for attorney general and will face Republican Erika Harold on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Raoul is a lifelong resident of the Hyde Park/Kenwood area of Chicago. He completed his undergraduate education at DePaul University and earned a law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law. Raoul served as a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, was a labor and employment attorney for the City Colleges of Chicago, and is currently a partner in the health law group of Quarles & Brady. By his own admission, Raoul is at his best in the afternoons and evenings.
Kwame is a common West African first name. The surname Raoul is French, the primary language spoken in his parents’ home country of Haiti.
“Kwame was one of my closest friends throughout high school and we were co-captains of the high school basketball team,” said Duncan, who attended the University of Chicago Lab School with Raoul. “He was a really good athlete, we still play together and in fact played several weeks ago, and he still has a really good jump shot.”
“We definitely laugh, joke and talk a little trash on the basketball court,” Duncan said. “But he can also be a policy wonk and be very, very serious on issues. He’s quiet, he’d rather listen than talk. He’s also an emotional guy and I’ve seen him moved to tears or choke up when he talks about people struggling.”
Congresswoman Robin Kelly of Matteson is a Democrat who represents the 2nd District, and has known Raoul since 2004 when he was tapped to replace Obama.
“He’s very easygoing, we have this joke that I’m his big sister because I’m older, and he has almost like a sheepish grin,” Kelly said. “He’s very smart, easy to work with, supportive, he always has good ideas on how to clean up legislation or make it better. He doesn’t know a stranger, he’s willing to work across the aisle with people who have a different ideology than he does.
“When he came to the Senate in 2004 he heard a lot of, ‘Oh, you have big shoes to fill’ by taking over Obama’s seat,” Kelly said. “But he had his own shoes that he filled quite nicely. He didn’t have to fill Obama’s.”
Health care and health scare
Raoul learned about health care from his father, a community physician who often came home with a fruitcake or a block of cheese because he wouldn’t reject a patient due to an inability to pay.
“That plays heavily into my determination that everybody has access to health care,” Raoul said. “We should embrace this notion of health care as a human right instead of something that is just for the privileged.”
That feeling was reinforced two years ago when Raoul was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“I got the call, I cried, and I said ‘OK, I’ve got to deal with it,’” Raoul said. “Having access to health care allowed me to get early detection and get the treatment I needed to be healthy.”
Raoul’s father and grandfather died from prostate cancer. Election day, Nov. 6, is the anniversary of the death of his father, a Haitian immigrant whom Raoul considers a role model.
“My parents came from a country that our president referred to as a ‘shithole,’” Raoul said. “I’m proud of my Haitian heritage. I know that Haitian-American immigrants have made tremendous contributions to this country going all the way back to the Revolutionary War where Haitian soldiers fought at the siege of Savannah.
“So for the United States to have a discriminatory animus expressed by our Commander-in-Chief toward Haitian immigrants makes me more sensitive to the issue,” Raoul said. “I voted for legislation that said we wouldn’t use Illinois law enforcement resources to enforce immigration laws, that’s not our job.”
Raoul was referring to the TRUST Act, which became law last year and prohibits any Illinois law enforcement officer from stopping, arresting, searching or detaining someone solely on the basis of citizenship or immigration status. It also limits cooperation between Illinois law enforcement and federal immigration authorities regarding immigration detention orders or non-judicial immigration warrants.
Cause and experience
Raoul knows many people who have been victims of sexual assault and harassment.
“We need to evolve as a society and recognize that in all workplaces we’ve tolerated a culture that we need to move on from,” Raoul said.
One outcome of this experience and strong feeling is Raoul-sponsored Senate Bill 3404 which has been approved by the General Assembly and is headed to the governor’s desk. The bill provides additional protections and rights for survivors of sexual assault or abuse. It also creates the Survivors’ Bill of Rights, filling gaps in Illinois’ current laws and bringing the state in line with federal guidelines.
Raoul also knows people who have experienced voter access issues and pledged to continue to protect voting rights as attorney general.
“Sometimes we take one step forward and a couple of steps back,” Raoul said. “You’d think that we would want to be inclusive, would want to maximize voter participation. But there are concerted efforts to negatively impact voter participation.”
Raoul feels he has been racially profiled in his lifetime and has definitely experienced racism. He does not consider Illinois a racist state, although he feels many state residents have conscious or unconscious biases.
As a former prosecutor, you’d think that Raoul would support a return of the death penalty, but that’s not the case.
“We have a history of charging the wrong person for some really heinous crimes,” Raoul said. “So it’s a dangerous thing to look at how heinous a particular murder may be and say because of the heinous nature of that, they ought to impose the death penalty.”
State Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, the House Majority Leader, shares her district and many of her views with Raoul.
“When it comes to social service programs we are very much on the same page,” Currie said. “The more than two years in which Illinois had no budget both of us were very concerned about the many social service programs that were falling through the cracks, and we were always trying to find ways that those programs could be funded.”
Representing a district with liberal views is one thing, but there are concerns that as a potential statewide officeholder Raoul might be reluctant to back conservative issues that are dear to many Illinoisans.
“If Mr. Raoul gets to be our attorney general, I would hope he would uphold the parental notification law, for example,” said Tim Moore, president of Springfield Right to Life. “And I would expect that, regardless of where Mr. Raoul stands on the issue of life, he would want to look for a higher quality of inspection for these abortion clinics across the state which seem to fly under the radar of the inspection criteria for standard clinics.”
“I understand Mr. Raoul’s position for abortion so I think that would be quite a surprise if he would come out and do that,” Moore said. “We very much would like to have conversations with Mr. Raoul if he gets into office, and I would be duly impressed if Mr. Raoul wanted to open that conversation.”
Take the money and run
The Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois has no record of discipline or pending proceedings against Raoul. His legislative career has been free of the scandal that sometimes engulfs those in Illinois public service and he will put his legal career on hold if elected attorney general. None of the lawmakers on either side of the aisle contacted for this story had anything negative to say about Raoul as a person.
But there’s one issue that could be a potential problem as the general election campaign gets into full swing. It was brought to light by his fellow Democrats during the primary, the fact that Raoul accepted campaign contributions from industries he may have to regulate if elected attorney general, such as tobacco and utility interests.
Raoul will be under greater scrutiny because of this. It would be much more reassuring to voters if he opted out of these contributions,” said Mary Miro, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “In a perfect world there would be a process where Raoul would not need to take money from these industries.”
Miro’s organization advocates a state matching program for small contributions that could help eliminate the need to accept this type of campaign funding. The donations in question are perfectly legal, but may raise questions about Raoul’s objectivity if he’s elected, she said.
“Other states have done this and it equals the playing field for candidates,” Miro said. “It creates an opportunity for candidates to decline contributions like this from private companies that they’ll be overseeing and still have the capacity to raise funds for their campaign.”
Whether these contributions become a major issue in November may hinge, ironically, on money as well, according to Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield
“It depends on how much money Erika Harold has to effectively raise those issues,” Redfield said. “That’s one of the ways she could work to get an advantage is trying to define him as business as usual, not somebody who could carry on in the public interest, and question how independent he could be.”
Raoul said the contributions will not affect his ability to properly do the job if elected, and his 14-year voting history proves it.
“Much was made of me taking contributions from a gentleman who has tobacco interests,” Raoul said. “My voting record has been 100 percent consistent with the advocacy of the American Lung Association on tobacco issues and inconsistent with what tobacco companies would want.”
“The Attorney General’s Office could potentially regulate any business in the state,” Raoul said. “I don’t think there has been an individual who hasn’t accepted a financial contribution from a business that could potentially be regulated by the Attorney General’s Office.”
“I met Erika Harold on several occasions on the campaign trail,” Raoul said. “She’s always been very pleasant when we’ve met. I am looking forward to debating her. From what I sense she’s of a personality that would want to engage in a positive, issue-oriented debate.”
A debate between the attorney general candidates may be a good way for Raoul and Harold to get the voters familiar with them, since it might be tough for them to find enough air time or advertising space in the months leading up to November.
“J.B. Pritzker and Bruce Rauner will spend $200 million on the governor’s race,” said Redfield of UIS. “It’s going to be difficult for the two attorney general candidates to break through all of the spending and noise that’s going to be involved in the legislative and governor’s races.
“You’ve got to have a message and you’ve got to have the money to deliver it, so you are somewhat dependent on outside money,” Redfield said. “Pritzker and Rauner are going to pour money into their own parties’ races, and the attorney general’s contest is the only other statewide contest where there’s going to be any action. Who is putting money in and from what direction will be an interesting thing to watch.”
Raoul’s constituent base is currently in the Chicago area and Harold is from Urbana. Raoul knows he needs to campaign heavily downstate to counter his opponent’s base.
“Downstate is an important battleground and I plan on traveling throughout the state during the campaign,” Raoul said. “Lisa Madigan’s late announcement that she wasn’t running kind of shrunk our window of opportunity to do that in the primary.”
Raoul was able to make several forays into central Illinois during the primary, often in the company of incumbent legislators like 48th District State Senator Andy Manar, a fellow Democrat.
“He’s a good listener, especially when it comes to issues in downstate Illinois,” Manar said. “He has always gone the extra mile to try to better understand parts of the state that he doesn’t represent, for every issue from school funding to concealed carry.”
Manar recalled a day he spent with Raoul in several 48th district communities.
“We stopped by a coffee shop on the square in Carlinville and by the time he was done he had talked to every single person in that coffee shop,” Manar said. “He sat at their tables on his own, I didn’t prompt him. He met a girl who was running for Miss Macoupin County and had his picture taken with her, bought a couple of raffle tickets from her and wished her good luck.
“Anybody who would spend time like that with average, everyday people in a coffee shop in Carlinville brings something to the table that we desperately need,” Manar said.
Then there’s the issue of the Democratic Party itself, specifically the head of the party, House Speaker Michael Madigan, the father of current Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Gov. Rauner has spent millions to demonize the speaker and hang him like an albatross from the neck of of every Democratic candidate, as well as several Republicans who have defied Rauner.
What does Raoul think of the Democratic Party leadership?
“I firmly believe that something we haven’t done well enough in the Democratic Party or politics at large is to pass the baton,” Raoul said. “I think it would be a healthy thing for the speaker to look at allowing somebody else to ascend to that leadership role at some point. We need to embrace passing the baton.”
David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.
This is the fourth in a series of in-depth profiles of statewide political candidates. Erika Harold, the Republican candidate for attorney general, was profiled last fall. See “The GOP’s fresh face: Conservative with a clean image, Erika Harold launches unlikely campaign for attorney general,” at illinoistimes.com.