Sen. Robert Peters on ‘otherness,’ Hyde Park, the past and the future

State Sen. Robert Peters discusses his goals and ambitions with Herald staffers. (Herald staff photo)

Staff Writer

Everyone faces difficulties in life, but it would be fair to say that Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) has faced and overcome extraordinary headwinds.

That grit and the reputation he built in Democratic Party politics resulted in his appointment to the Illinois Senate seat once held by former President Barack Obama and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul. What remains to be seen is his ability as a legislator and as a candidate up for reelection two years from now.

He was born deaf to a drug- and alcohol-addicted biological mother and in Lakeview in 1985 and brought home to Hyde Park by adoptive parents, social worker Cynthia Mikolas and civil rights and criminal defense attorney Tom Peters. He is black, an only son with four sisters, and his parents were white. Surgery and tubes rendered his childhood speech impediment nearly imperceptible; his speech is distinctive but mostly notable for its articulation.

“Very much on a social level I think I knew I was different,” Peters said. “To be honest with you, for so much of my life I’ve felt ‘othered.’”

Every Saturday, his Irish Catholic father made him watch “Rudy,” the 1993 film about the “5 foot nothin’, 100 and nothin’” son of a Joliet steel worker who overcame serious odds to join the Notre Dame football team, and it instilled in him the value of never giving up and always trying.

“I always appreciated that he said that,” Peters said, especially as people constantly second-guessed his parents’ decision to adopt him and the other kids bullied him.

He struggled developmentally, and his mother had difficulty paying for his medical needs. Growing up in Hyde Park was lucky, however, because of its safe streets and his friends’ open doors: he began to stay over as his mother’s alcoholism and mental health issues consumed her.

“Due to systemic sexism, she had to be the best mom, the best worker, the best everything, and I think that really weighed on her,” he said. “When my parents were going through a really rough divorce, I needed a place to go.”

Peters said that, with his racial background and “Chicago’s deep history of segregation — it can have a very messed up effect on a kid.” He found out he was adopted when he saw a book on the topic with a black child and a white family on the cover.

“Even though I knew I was different, I didn’t know how to conceptualize that until my mom decided to explain to me my adoption in a lot of detail at a very young age. That immediately made me go, ‘What does this all mean? What does the world mean? Where do I fit in it?’” he said.

“Being from Hyde Park and being rooted in this community, I was lucky to have people to help me guide through that.”

A Ray Elementary and Mount Carmel High School graduate, Peters matriculated at Kansas State University for its small class sizes and because he identified with its underdog football team, which unexpectedly beat the University of Oklahoma 35-7 in 2003. The first years were difficult, but he came to bond with other outsiders: one who grew up in a trailer park, another from New York City, another who was adopted.

Obama’s political ascent inspired Peters’ on-campus political activism: he volunteered heavily for his campaign during the 2008 Kansas caucus, which Obama won in a landslide. In retrospect, Peters describes his college years as a time during which he came into himself and how he viewed his place in the world. He walked at commencement, though he was a few credits short of his degree.

It was the Great Recession, and Peters needed a job. He interned at then-Ald. Toni Preckwinkle’s office in 2009 and continued to pursue his interest in organizing.

Then Peters’ father got cancer, and it became impossible to balance work, school and finances. He has yet to finish his degree.

“A lot of it is tied to the fact that my life went through a lot of change when my dad died,” Peters explained. “It wasn’t easy to try to get by when it happened.” He lost a job at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (“I was an arrogant kid”) and got very little in terms of unemployment benefits.

“I was tough on you because I loved you,” Tom Peters told his son, shortly before he died. “Whatever you do, follow your dreams.” At 26, Peters said he had little idea what his dreams were. He became nihilistic, quit organizing and took a job at Groupon.

Eighteen months later, Cynthia Mikolas died, leavings hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts. They discovered a mess of liquor bottles, animal feces and reams of printed-out emails when they cleaned out her house.

“What did the world do to her?” Peters recalled asking, holding back tears.

Therapy, previously unhelpful, started to work once Peters became an orphan. Nor did he go through his grief alone: he threw himself back into organizing without a sense of personal shame and with the belief that “others should not have shame about who they are, their stories, what they go through and their struggles.

“It is OK to open up, and it is risky, and it is scary, but it’s the only way we can actually build that human connection to each other, because you can’t go through all of this stuff alone,” he said. Then, channeling the signature left-of-center ethos: “You can’t try to take on the Goliaths of struggle on your own. It’s just impossible.”

“It’s going to take a lot of us together to get through this.”

Surveying his life, Peters credits the community that was always accessible during times of need for his success.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder trial over the death of Trayvon Martin shook Peters from his nihilism — “I could have been that kid multiple times” — and he took a job at Chicago Votes. After that, he worked for Preckwinkle again in the 2015 local elections.

At this point, Peters realized the related cycle of campaign seasons with work followed by unemployment, and he resolved to find a more consistent job. He became Reclaim Chicago’s political director, where he says he came into “the maturity of my voice” in campaigning, and he cites the election of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, another Preckwinkle protege, the county minimum wage increase and state bail reform as his proudest accomplishments.

“If someone gets held in and literally the only thing that they’re proven guilty of is being poor, that is a messed-up system,” Peters said, adding that his strong interest in criminal justice issues is a testament to the “tough on crime” policies that influenced the societal issues that affecting his birth, adoption and parents.

“You see my mom, that’s the War on Drugs. You see my dad, you see the expansion of the War on Drugs,” Peters said, his father’s involvement in litigation that resulted from the police doing illegal searches and seizures at a basketball game at the former Stateway Gardens projects just off the Dan Ryan Expressway.

As state senator, Peters wants to prioritize investment into communities. “I think in the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois, we’ve seen more and more isolation. We’ve seen people pushed out,” he said. “We need to invest in communities and not have it be about tougher-on-crime stances, but actually seeing criminal justice reform,” meaning further bail reform, the legalization of marijuana and more sentence commutation.

“I think about the environment. I want to have kids someday,” Peters said. In 30 years, Peters will be 63, the age at which his father passed. “You hear all these things about how the world’s going to end in the next 20 or 30 years,” and rather than curse the darkness, Peters wants investment in green energy and environmentalism — on the South Side as well as the North Shore. He recalled the 10th Ward’s struggle with manganese pollution and land rendered undevelopable by dead steel mills.

“It’s incumbent that we build a future that allows people to live here and be able to stay home or move here [and] come back to Chicago.”

Though Peters has a minute degree of seniority over the other freshman senators, having been appointed right before they were sworn in on Jan. 14, he knows his limitations and the degree of cooperation required to make an impact in the General Assembly. He wants to partner with activists and citizens at home and colleagues in the Senate, banking on his openness as he attempts to thread the policymaking needle.

Peters says “senator” is the title he has, not the title he has earned. He plans to canvass to introduce himself to constituents, to answer their questions and learn from them.

Asked about the controversy surrounding his appointment — some candidates and activists say the Democratic Party’s process was not open or democratic enough — Peters defended the process and pointed to his career of South Side political activism. He discounted the idea that his curried favor with Preckwinkle led to his appointment but said the decision was not one “that a boss handed down: this was a lot of work organizing and relationships I’ve built.”

He hopes he can earn the support of those disappointed in the process.

Regarding the issues surrounding his residency, Peters said he had established residency on the 5400 South block of Everett Avenue, where he lived with his girlfriend, in December 2016.

“The only thing that I feel when I talk about this is that it’s almost caked in an ‘outsider, carpetbagger’ feeling, which is not what’s up. I’ve seen some things that have been said about me that make me feel like I’ve been an outsider,” Peters said. “I’m not. This is my home. This is who I am. This is baked into my DNA.”