By AARON GETTINGER
Ken Thomas, a corporate attorney, University of Chicago Law School alumnus and Hyde Parker, will challenge incumbent State Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) in the March 2020 primary election, saying that his work fighting evictions on the South Side drew him into the race and that the state government needs an outsider’s perspective.
Originally from the south suburbs, he attended the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he studied political science and served for a year as a voting member of the three-campus system’s board of trustees. He finished at the U. of C. in 2016 and began working at the Loop office of Skadden, a New York-based law firm, doing commercial litigation and bankruptcy work.
“I knew I wanted to do something that had to allow me to serve in the community and help,” said Thomas, 28 and newly married. “Skadden is great and allows their attorneys to do pro bono work, so I represented dozens and dozens of low-income tenants from around the city — including in Woodlawn and across the South Side — in their eviction proceedings.”
Most landlords have attorneys; most low-income tenants do not. Three-fifths of unrepresented tenants are evicted, he said, but those with legal counsel drops the eviction rate to 20%. “The average eviction trial … lasts about 100 seconds in our courts. They’re being rubber-stamped!” he said.
Once-evicted people as well as those who have only an eviction filing against them have a substantially more difficult time getting new housing. “It ends up being a lot of majority-Black, particularly on the South Side, that are mostly affected by this,” he said, especially the 4th, 5th and 20th wards.
“Someone’s got to fix this, and I think the intricacy of the problem and how close I was to it give me sort of a unique experience to be able to talk about it.”
Other priorities for Thomas are further criminal justice reforms, including the banning of civil asset forfeiture (CAF), a practice that was previously amended in 2017 (seizures and forfeitures must now be publicly reported by the Illinois State Police). He would like to see automatic expungement of marijuana-related criminal convictions after Illinois legalizes cannabis in January.
He praised the U. of C.’s educational and research output. Asked about its controversial community reputation as a developer, Thomas said “we (must) maintain and grow our affordable housing base, that we make sure we continue to have good schools for our kids, that we make sure that those investments are used to make our community better for the folks who are here.”
He spoke favorably of Senate President John Cullerton’s (D-6th) proposal to give apartment developers a decade-long property tax break if a fifth of their units rent at lower rates, though he is wary of incentivizing as a tactic. “Maybe developers should be required, as they are under the Chicago ordinance, to place a certain percentage of their stock away for affordable housing,” Thomas said, referring to the community benefits agreement housing ordinance currently making its way through City Council.
Thomas is also open to lifting the state ban on rent control and would prefer a statewide policy.
On policing and the U. of C. Police Department, Thomas said “transparency is key [to] restore and continue to build trust in our community.” Asked if he wanted more specific information from the police, he said he was speaking generally about how “transparency is important to building trust in our community” and acknowledging that he would need to study the issue further.
Asked why he is challenging Peters, a General Assembly freshman who was appointed to now-Attorney Gen. Kwame Raoul’s old seat in January, Thomas said talking to low-income tenants in eviction court presents a “helpful aspect” of his candidacy: “Having that perspective in representing clients I think will give me some help.
“I think there is a desire from some, or at least a feeling from some, that our system is broken — that our eviction system is broken, that our political system is broken, that our system in how we select our elected officials, in some instances is broken,” he said, referring to the legislative appointment process by party leaders that spurred no small controversy earlier this year. (Thomas did not apply for the Senate seat — saying he did not know about it and calling it non-transparent.)
“Because there is a broken system, you want to get someone from the outside, someone who’s going to work really hard, someone who’s got the knowledge and the track record with the things that I’ve worked on,” he said.
Asked about the productive spring legislative session in which numerous bills were passed, including 14 championed by his would-be opponent, Thomas stood his ground.
“There was a productive legislative session, no doubt about it,” Thomas responded. “I don’t think that means that our system is not broken. I think that — even though we have change now, for the past seven or eight months — it doesn’t mean folks are still not getting evicted in large numbers on the South Side of Chicago. It doesn’t mean we don’t have instances where the process by which we pick our legislative officials isn’t controlled entirely by the amount of money that people can raise, or the fact that if you know somebody is how you get in.
“Simply because we’ve had some good bills and we’ve had a good legislative session doesn’t change the fact that there are still a lot of things wrong with our political system, and we need an outsider to fix some of those things.”
Thomas said he has spoken to local aldermen and 13th District residents about his run. “I’ve certainly been trying to make the rounds to get myself on people’s radars,” he said. “I think anybody who thinks we should have an independently minded senator in Springfield would be a potential supporter.”