By AARON GETTINGER
Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th), appointed last month to succeed Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell, has parlayed a lifelong interest in and engagement with public service and civics into his new position at the General Assembly.
He grew up in Roseland, the son of a sheriff’s deputy sergeant, a South Side native who worked at the juvenile detention center and the criminal court, and a public schoolteacher originally from Mississippi, the first in her family to go to college. He is an only son with four sisters and the grandson of a Baptist minister.
“It was a very interesting childhood,” he said with a grin. “We would spend most of our time after school and in the summertime engaged in educational activities.
“That was my mother’s idea of ‘necessary fun.’ It was important to me — and it’s one of those things when you get older, you realize the effect they had on your life.”
It wasn’t until after adolescence that he realized the trips to the Art Institute had given him an extraordinary knowledge of Claude Monet. His father and uncles were in a regional soul music group that signed with Chicago’s own Playboy Records in the late 1960s. “I grew up really culturally immersed,” Buckner said.
As he got older, Buckner also realized that his parents kept him occupied in order to keep him off the streets and to position him to take advantage of opportunities available to him. Sports were part of that immersion, and Bucker, who towers over not-small men, became an excellent football player, ballet lessons having informed his footwork. That talent took him to the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign.
Buckner said his parents always stressed the importance of service but did not push him into political life. He recounted a 1987 trip downtown as a three-year-old to Mayor Harold Washington’s wake as his first political memory, and Washington’s portrait was displayed alongside those of JFK and Jesus in his childhood home. He stayed up late as a kid to watch local election returns come in and got taken with the idea that public policy can address societal ills.
As a college student, Buckner interned for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and witnessed the rise of Barack Obama to the White House. He has also worked for the Chicago Cubs and the World Sport Chicago nonprofit.
Between his background and the diverse 26th District, which spans from Gold Coast to South Chicago, encompassing Kenwood west of Woodlawn Avenue and Hyde Park west of Ellis, Buckner thinks he brings a unique perspective to Springfield, with transparency and communication being his goals.
He said he has talked with business and community leaders as well as the disenfranchised and cynical in the district. “I think it’s incumbent upon me to make sure I keep those folks, whether it’s the elderly lady at the senior home or the small business-owner or the single parent trying to make the right educational choice for their children — that these aren’t just stories. These are people,” he said.
Buckner sees Illinois as having a “unique opportunity” to effect change with its new Democratic governor and legislature, and he cites that as the reason behind his push into state, not local, government. He said he studied the process for selecting Mitchell’s successor and reached out to the Democratic committeemen involved.
On Jan. 18, he was their unanimous choice. He thinks Illinois stands in a position to push for change with ingenuity. He knows that few states face as many challenges as Illinois.
“I’ve learned more about pensions in the last two weeks than I’ve known my entire life — and not because I haven’t studied it, but because the truthful answers aren’t the ones that kind of float around when it comes to the things that we read and the talking points we hear from folks,” he said. “Debt is not a bad thing, if it’s used the right way, but I think that our debt needs to pay for our future; our future shouldn’t be paying for our debt.”
While Illinois must find a way to pay the pensions it owes, Buckner said, the government must consider different ways to attract and keep talent in the civil service other than low wages with the promise of a well-funded retirement. “I don’t think that the private sector model is necessarily the panacea to fix this,” he said. He advocates looking at private and other governments’ policies. “Often the answer is found somewhere in a hybrid,” he said.
Legalized recreational marijuana stands as a source of new revenue that Gov. J.B. Pritzker supports, and Buckner is cautiously optimistic about it, provided it also benefits economically troubled communities and the people imprisoned because of current drug laws. He called for a calculated use of the potential revenue but said legalization, if it happens, will take time; maybe not during this legislative session.
On education, he noted the disparate resources allocated for Chicago Public Schools students compared to their peers at New Trier district on the North Shore. “For us to ask our children to compete in the world, and they do a good job with what they have, where they’re already starting off in the deficit based on what we put into their education in the purely numerical standpoint — is just not fair,” he said.
A former trustee of Chicago State University, Buckner said he saw Illinois’ higher education system not function effectively during the recent state budgetary impasse. He said he saw a brain drain of Illinois students who attended colleges and universities outside of Illinois.
He said that, for all the emphasis placed on science, technology, engineering, arts and math curriculum in primary and secondary education, higher education has not reacted to students seeking alternative forms of education.
The question, Buckner said, is how to get in front of changes in higher education “or at least stop the bleeding and make sure we are offering attractive options through our higher educational institutions.”
Buckner said that the public opinion of Chicago are not accurate. He noted that the Chicago of his youth was much more violent than it is now but said the city’s violent reputation has had an effect. “Perception is reality,” he said. Though Buckner is single and childless, “I’ve had conversations with friends who are raising kids, and they refuse to gamble with their children’s lives. That’s not just a violence thing: It’s about schools, it’s about economic opportunity” and cost of living.
“I’ve always been of the mindset that people who can afford to pay the taxes won’t mind doing so if the services delivered are worth if, if they’re living in a city that’s worth it, that’s safer, cleaner” and better for raising children. He expressed hope for “a strategic campaign to welcome folks back to the state” at some point in the future.
Buckner grew up hoping that his Second City could one day outpace New York. Chicago is projected to soon become the nation’s fourth-largest city. People, he said, want to live where there is opportunity, safety and good education for their children and opportunities for civic engagement in government. “I think somehow we’ve gotten away from that,” he said. “I think the whole ‘City That Works’ moniker was something that people took pride in, because the city worked because people worked it.”
This legislative session, Buckner has refiled his predecessor’s Safe Zones Act, which enables state agencies to focus on violence-affected neighborhoods, though he said issues exist within the bill that are yet to be worked out. He plans to file a shell bill alongside the much-anticipated state capital bill for transportation infrastructural improvements.
The second-most junior freshman in the General Assembly, Buckner said he has been aided in the new job by both the leadership and other members of both parties. He is among the youngest members of the legislature; with Rep. Curtis Tarver (D-25th) and Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th), Hyde Park–Kenwood’s legislators are all freshmen under the age of 40.
Buckner, who lives in Bronzeville with a district office at 449 E. 35th St., promised a presence throughout the 26th District and coordinated outreach with Tarver and Rep. Marcus Evans (D-33rd), a friend from high school, in the southern part of the district. “I know the history and the activism and the interest in Hyde Park is huge,” Buckner said.
“I’ve worked for enough politicians and been around this thing for long enough to realize when you remove yourself from the people, you remove yourself from the reason you’re there and why you’ve decided to take on this life work,” he said. “I am holding myself accountable and expect that others hold me accountable, to make sure that I’m listening and that I keep those stories and those people and those instances in the front of my brain when I’m down there making decisions for all of us.”