By JEFRREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Illinois’ youngest state legislator, state Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-26), will face off in next March’s state primary with former Kenwood Oakland Community Organization Executive Director Jay Travis. But the 27-year-old incumbent — who is seeking a second term to represent the district including parts of Hyde Park, Kenwood, downtown and the South Side — is already confident that he will snag the Democratic nomination.
“I feel good,” said Mitchell, adding that he’s “confident in my chances.” Asked if he was worried about Travis’ endorsement by the Chicago Teachers Union, he added, “They made a decision and I respect that, but I think we’re going to do fine on this campaign.”
Mitchell’s rise to power has been fast and steady, despite a spate of obstacles in his early life. The child of a single mother, Mitchell split time between the Illinois suburbs of Westchester and Maywood, where his grandparents lived. When he was 9, his aunt, an in-home nurse, was falsely convicted of murder. “It changed our lives forever,” Mitchell said, adding that his family ended up spending most of the money they had saved for his college education on her legal defense.
Nevertheless, in 2004, Mitchell began attending the University of Chicago (U. of C.) on a scholarship. He graduated with a public policy degree after considering a focus on economics. “When I was there, I was trying to figure out a way to make a difference,” Mitchell said, and “to make sure that some of the stuff happening to me growing up didn’t happen to other people.”
When he was at the U. of C., Mitchell also forged a highly valuable political connection: There he met and became friends with alum Ald. Will Burns (4th), for whom he would serve as campaign manager in his 2010 bid for alderman.
Shortly after graduating, he began work as a community organizer for Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, during which time he worked with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. After serving Ald. Burns, he took on a position as Preckwinkle’s director of external affairs.
“Both of them have been influences in teaching me how serious this work is,” Mitchell said.
These two connections would prove key in Mitchell’s 2012 campaign to replace outgoing Rep. Kimberly DuBuclet: he received donations of $25,000 from both Preckwinkle and Burns, and both would later speak at his first campaign kick-off at Little Black Pearl, 1060 E. 47th St.
Records reveal Mitchell raked in more than $560,000 in campaign contributions that year, including from political committees such as Pro-Choice Illinois and Stand for Children and unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union and Illinois AFL-CIO. Mitchell’s roster of 2012 corporate contributors included ComED, AT&T, supermarket retailer Meijer and Winston,-Salem, N.C.-based Reynolds American Inc.
Asked about the $5,000 sum he received from the top cigarette manufacturer, Mitchell responded only by saying that he doesn’t “let campaign contributions sway what I do in terms of public policy. Folks who want to donate to my campaign to be helpful, I assume are donating because they believe in good governance and someone who’s going to give them a fair hearing, regardless of where they come from.”
In his time at the General Assembly so far, Rep. Mitchell has signed on as a chief sponsor for 10 bills, including HB 3714, a bill that if passed would add a two percent charge to ammunition to fund trauma care. He said he takes pride in his support for SB 26, which expands Medicaid services; HB 1189, requiring background checks for all gun purchases; and in the fact that he was the first African American to co-sponsor the legislature’s marriage equality bill.
Mitchell said he would soon introduce legislation amending drug laws with the aim of reducing the state’s prison population and expressed interest in working on education-funding reform to reduce the impact of local property taxes on the quality of education.
If he is re-elected next year, Mitchell may no longer be the youngest member of the Illinois General Assembly — Will Guzzardi, 26, is running for a seat. Yet while Mitchell cited work ethic as more important than age, he said young legislators bring potentially new perspectives.
“I think you always have to balance that with experience, which is why I kind of seek out mentors and friends who understand what Springfield is like,” Mitchell said.