By AARON GETTINGER
Curtis Tarver II has a lot going on in his life.
He recently started working at a new law firm, Cogan and Powell, where he does personal injury, wrongful death and civil rights litigation. He co-owns the Vice District Brewing Company, 1454 S. Michigan Ave., in South Loop. He also is almost assuredly going to be the next state representative for the 25th District.
Tarver won the crowded Democratic primary with a little over a quarter of the vote and faces only write-in challengers this fall.
He is studying intractable problems of pensions, budget and socioeconomic injustice while preparing to replace the majority leader, State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25), a fixture of Illinois politics for decades.
During the hot weeks leading up to the general election, the North Kenwood single father is spending as much time as possible with his five-year-old daughter and talking to Currie and other elected officials.
“Barbara did this for 40 years,” Tarver said. “You could probably call her at 3 o’clock in the morning and ask her some question about the budget 20 years ago. She’s just that good. There’s no way to come in as a first-term state rep and have that institutional knowledge, right? But it’s certainly not the case that I can’t acquire some knowledge heading into that.”
Tarver graduated early from high school, spent a year at the University of Illinois at Chicago and transferred to Iowa State University, where he was one of 900 black students. The teenager from 116th and Ashland became friends with farmers’ sons and, in so doing, learned about the cruelly thin profit margins that, in a good year, sustain family farms.
All the better, he thinks, for a state representative from the South Side to have an understanding of the rest of the Prairie State now mostly covered by corn and soybean fields.
“You can’t legislate for a district,” he said. “You have to legislate for an entire state.”
Now in his 30s, Tarver acts with the calculation of a man who knows exactly how he is presenting himself. He does not operate with a politician’s hamfisted glad-handing, cajolement or rage. He is soft-spoken and generous with his time.
He did not affirm support for Rep. Mike Madigan (D-22) as house speaker. He acknowledged that working with J.B. Pritzker’s administration would allow a more progressive agenda than with that of incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner but said his focus won’t change “depending on who’s sitting in that seat.”
Education, criminal justice reform and support for small businesses got Tarver into the race, and he discussed the last in detail first. “I don’t think you treat every business in the same manner,” he said. Getting a necessary permit for his microbrewery from the Illinois Department of Transportation took 10 months and postponed the hiring of two dozen employees.
He does not, however, think this could be solved by a re-stack of state agencies. Tarver wants, rather, to cut red tape, look at the current laws “and see what we can tweak.” As someone who has dealt with Chicago, Cook County, the Village of Homewood, where another Vice District location is planned, and the state, he thinks he can make Illinois better for business.
Tarver said he hears less about the need for criminal justice reform in Hyde Park than anywhere else in the 25th District. If the incarcerated population could be decreased 25 percent by 2025, which he said was “a laudable goal,” where he asked, is the money going to go?
Efforts to combat recidivism, he hopes, through incentivizing businesses to hire returned citizens and allowing them to seal and expunge more types of criminal backgrounds — small-type drug charges, he said, not predatory crimes. Rather than a whole-scale reworking of the criminal code, Tarver wants to see judges that “reflect the community” and understand its issues as well as additional flexibility in sentencing.
He wants to legalize cannabis, too, but wants to prevent in Illinois what has occurred in most other states, where savvy, presentable white hippies and venture capitalists make out like bandits as people of color continue to deal with the effects of the War on Drugs.
And he wants pot taxes to fund education, as the other recreational states have done with hundreds of millions of dollars. He said primary and secondary education is the main issue in Hyde Park–Kenwood, with concerns about charter schools (for which he has publicly advocated) and where state money would go after the passage of a new school funding law last year.
“What I care about is every student in Illinois — whether they’re in the 25th District or otherwise, because you can’t legislate for a district — has the ability to get up and go to a phenomenal school that is extremely close by that’s public,” said Tarver. He wants to see less early childhood testing, castigating a process whereby an exam taken before kindergarten can determine a student’s public school trajectory through 12th grade.
When asked about the high costs of childcare experienced by many parents, Tarver strongly supported early childhood education from age three — “Get these kids, whether their parents can pay for it or not, get these children into some kind of educational facility, public ideally, as soon as possible.”
New revenue alone will not save Illinois’ beleaguered public colleges and universities, he said, but new revenue and administrations’ prioritizations could.
As far as the pension debt crisis, Tarver floated re-amortization, “an annual payment with the debt stretched over a longer period of time,” though he is unsure of what Illinois’ creditors think of the idea. Per revenue, he was blunt: “I think we’re going to have to raise taxes no matter what. I don’t see a way around that.” While he does not support taxing retirement income, which he said is “probably political suicide,” he came out in support of a progressive income tax — with caveats.
“Increasing taxes without some kind of understanding of how that is planned to be spent, I think, gets us right back to where we are today,” he said. “I certainly support a progressive income tax, but are the numbers that I’ve seen to date the ones that I ultimately can vote on? I can’t say that, no.”
Curtis Tarver is a man who knows his areas of expertise. He acknowledges that there are policymaking areas outside of them by his expressed willingness to take advice and guidance from a number of sources, including the good legislators of the State of Illinois. “I’m going to Springfield with an incredibly open mind,” he said, pledging to consider Republicans and Downstate Democrats.
“My goal is to build as many bridges as possible, in the district and with other representatives so that when I have a bill, I can carry it and gain some traction and hopefully get it passed,” he said.
Considering his predecessor’s nearly 40 years in the office he is likely to win this fall, Tarver is ready for the long haul — under the right circumstances.
“As long as I’m passionate about it, fired up about it, as long as it doesn’t, you know, adversely affect my relationship with my daughter, then I’m going to do it, as long as people believe in me and think I can do the job.”