By AARON GETTINGER
Democratic committeemen from the 10 wards that, in part, make up the 26th Illinois House District appointed Rep. Kam Buckner last Friday to succeed Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell, who resigned from the General Assembly on Jan. 11.
Rumors had circulated that Buckner, a former University of Illinois football player, current executive director of World Sport Chicago and a Bronzeville resident, was the favorite. In the end, he was the committeemen’s unanimous choice and was sworn in immediately after Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), the meeting chairman, made the announcement.
“It’s a humbling honor to be appointed by the committeemen,” Buckner said after taking the oath of office from Judge Toya T. Harvey of the Circuit Court of Cook County. “I’m really excited to get to work and to go to Springfield and represent the folks in the 26th District and really to be a part of what I see as a new generation of young leadership who are really focused on being committed to the state, empowering our neighborhoods and engaging all stakeholders in a very intentional way.”
Buckner was born in Roseland, the son of a public-school teacher and a sheriff’s deputy, both of whom he said were very active in their unions. He said they taught him that “service is the rent you pay to live on Earth.”
Buckner said his parents struggled to make ends meet during his childhood, but they taught him that education is key to success in life. He said growing up on the Far South Side had a tremendous effect on his perspective about the role of government: during the time between graduating high school and matriculating at college, 14 of his friends and family members died of gun violence in Chicago.
A Morgan Park High School graduate, Buckner studied political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and holds a law degree from DePaul University. From 2007 to 2012, he served as U.S. Senator Dick Durbin’s (D) aide and outreach manager before a year working in communications and intergovernmental affairs for former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
In 2013, Buckner became the senior manager of government and neighborhood relations for the Chicago Cubs — he said he lost his allegiance to the White Sox at the time — where he coordinated negotiations and process of the $675-million renovation and expansion of Wrigley Field.
Buckner has been at World Sport Chicago, a nonprofit that grew out of Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid, since 2015, where he manages a $2-million budget and oversees strategic, operational, fundraising and developmental efforts and concerns. He also works as an attorney in private practice and does some consulting work.
During the question-and-answer period before the committee entered a closed executive session, Buckner said he would leave World Sport Chicago sometime in the next few months. Since 2016, he also has been an adjunct professor in public policy studies at the University of Chicago; he said the work is flexible.
Illinois legislators serve full-time. Buckner said he recently became active in the 3rd Ward Democratic organization.
“I think that it’s my duty to try to do the most good for the most people in the shortest amount of time,” Buckner said.
“I grew up in an atmosphere where it was often easier to find guns and drugs than books and fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. I’ve committed my life, because of that, to working for all of our people but especially the least among us: the sick, the starving and the suffering.”
He said what is good for the working people of the 26th District is good for the State of Illinois, that business development and economic development there could be a blueprint for statewide efforts. He named “protecting workers’ wages and workers’ rights,” abortion rights, economic development, equitable school funding, criminal justice reform and the state budget.
“I’ve served on the board of Chicago State University for the last two years, and in that position, I saw what the budget impasse did to higher education,” he said.
Buckner supports an elected Chicago Public Schools board and efforts to boost voter turnout should that reform pass; he also said he is “not a proponent of charter schools.”
“I am idealistic enough to think that I can make a difference, but I’m also pragmatic enough to figure out a way to make it work,” he said. He called Harold Washington, who served as the district’s representative before becoming a congressman and mayor, a model of “effective collaboration.”
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), her ward’s committeewoman, said she was pleased with Buckner’s appointment: “He is very talented — very qualified — and I think the committeemen did a great job in choosing him.”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the 4th Ward’s committeewoman, did not attend the meeting and voted by proxy.
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-2nd), whose daughter Kacy Milan Rush applied for the appointment, congratulated Buckner on his selection and called the process “open and fair.”
Indeed, the meeting was not marked by the protest or social media attention that the appointment process of Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) received earlier this month; some political candidates and members of the public have attacked the appointment process in Illinois, mandated by the state constitution and statute, as undemocratic and unresponsive to citizens’ opinions.
Reilly said all of the other candidates — LaVonté Stewart, Dominique Battle, Kacy Milan Rush, Elizabeth Gardner and Marc Loveless — had futures in public service and thanked them for participating in the process. He said he hopes the appointment will spark more participation in the democratic process in Chicago, particularly in Democratic ward organization.
Hyde Parker Helena Duncan interrupted the meeting, however, as the committeemen questioned candidate LaVonté Stewart.
“Where is the opportunity for public input?” she asked. “Oh, there was none. That sounds pretty democratic, doesn’t it?” Reilly said the appointment process was state-mandated, to which Duncan replied angrily about the short period of time between the announcement of the appointment meeting and its taking place.
“We’re upset with that process, even if it is mandated. The fact that, if I didn’t have a Twitter account, I would not know that this was going on — that’s not right,” Duncan said. “Where is my opportunity to tell my elected representative [who] I think, when I still don’t know who all the candidates are?”
Reilly noted that the General Assembly was already in session and passing legislation and that the 26th District needed a representative. Duncan eventually left with a handful of others.
Reilly announced the appointment meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 18; candidates had until Thursday to submit credentials to the Cook County Democratic Party.
The committee was comprised of Tim Egan (2nd, represented by proxy), Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), Preckwinkle, Hairston, Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th), Ald. Michelle Harris (8th, proxy), Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th, proxy), Kevin Bailey (20th), Reilly and Lucy Moog (43rd) and met at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel in the Loop.
Reilly did note as he called the meeting to order that the appointment would be a brief one: the 2020 Democratic primary will occur just over a year from now.