The possible election of law school lecturer Barack Obama to the U.S. Senate has managed not only to ravage Illinois' floundering Republican party, but it has also presented local Chicago aldermen with the task of appointing a new senator to fill Obama's state senate spot.
There are seven candidates for the appointment, though only one was available for comment.
Public interest attorney and former Divinity School alumnus Al Hofeld has thrown his hat into the ring, touting education reform, low-income housing, and an end to predatory lending as his three major issues.
"Foreclosure is a huge problem on the South Side and it has a lot to do with practices of predatory lending by major banks in the region," said Hofeld, who established the South Side Federal Credit Union, a community bank that makes small payday loans, in November last year. "Banks charge in upwards of 500% for pay-day loans to low income people, which undercuts community-based development."
Hofeld underscored the fact that foreclosure cases are not fee-generating. Attorneys who defend clients in those cases do not earn fees from any money awarded to successful defendants. Hofeld said that making the cases fee-generating would be a "tremendous financial incentive for attorneys to take on these types of cases."
"Most foreclosure cases go undefended; this type of legislation, which I hope to introduce in the senate, would go a long way to saving people's homes on the South Side," Hofeld said. "Mortgage lenders and the banking industry are largely opposed to such measures; passing legislation, however, wouldn't increase the senate budget, but would simply shift responsibility onto those making the loans in the first place."
Senator Dan Cronin (R-Lombard) mentioned that he enjoyed Obama's presence and "genuine motivation for the right reasons" in the Illinois senate and said that any proposed legislation on foreclosure cases indicates that "the likely-capable Hyde Parker replacing Obama is probably going back to the issues right there in the communitygood local issues that help people solve problems."
The Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago reports that there were 20,200 foreclosure cases in Cook County in 2002, with the number remaining nearly that high in the following two years. The cases were marked by exorbitant interest rates, hidden fees, and vague terms of agreement in lending contracts. Hofeld said this amounts to predatory lending and that the South Side desperately needs new legislation to prevent it.
Alderman Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) said that predatory lending is something that political officers have been working to fix for a long time. "There are a variety of issues that the candidates have an interest in working on," Hairston said. "That is just one of many variables that will be taken into consideration."
Hofeld also sees education as an important consideration for the community. He supports a current House bill, which will appropriate more than $1,000 per child from state funds to Illinois schools. This has been a controversial Senate issue, as other senators have expressed their disapproval.
"You can't measure your commitment to education simply by advocating more money," Cronin said. "This approach will only go toward the poorest schools; so schools in the suburbs that are not necessarily the poorest schools, but are struggling with special education or with compliance with No Child Left Behind, will not receive much help."
Cronin mentioned that the average per-pupil expenditure is higher in Chicago than in suburban DuPage County.
"If the candidate to replace Barack Obama is talking only about more money, more money I'm just really tired of hearing that," Cronin said. "Let's hope we have a thoughtful legislator, indicative of the Hyde Park and University of Chicago community, who can solve problems and make decisions in the Barack Obama tradition."
Hofeld said that Gov. Rod Blagojevich plans on vetoing the bill, which will create a showdown in the state Senate.
Hofeld's appointment to the state Senate depends upon the considerations of the local area aldermen. The 13th Senate district covers parts of the 42nd, 2nd, 6th, 11th, and 17th wards, as well as all of the 4th and 5th wards. Correspondingly, 4th ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle and 5th ward alderman Leslie Hairston will have 53% of the weighted vote, as the district largely falls in their jurisdiction.
"We have had some pretty impressive and distinguished state senators from this area and whoever we appoint won't be the last," Preckwinkle said. "Alderman Hairston and I are looking for independent candidates that will represent the community well."
Preckwinkle mentioned the importance of selecting a candidate who "we will also be able to elect the following March."
Hairston said that this has traditionally been an independent district. "We will continue looking for an independent candidate; we will not be deviating from that at all," Hairston said. "Obama is a Democrat, but he was an independent Democrat from Hyde Park and represents those independent values we have there. We will be looking for someone who has those same values."
While Hofeld does not rule out the possibility of running in 2006 if he is not appointed, he said that he will need to evaluate the circumstances and "wait to see who is appointed before making a decision."
"I feel deeply that the district needs, first off, an independent lawmaker; and secondly, the district needs a strong advocate for progressive social change," he said. "Aldermen Preckwinkle and Hairston are doing their best to choose an independent and Alderman Preckwinkle, in particular, has been an outspoken opponent of payday lenders, seeking to implement a lot of payday reform."
Replacing Obama, who has gained national celebrity status in the past few months, will be a challenge for whoever is chosen.
"What I liked about Barack is that I know he understood viewpoints across the political spectrum and was able to engage in discussion and debate," said fellow senator Cronin. "He didn't just go down the popular political path. He was more thoughtful and a little more understanding of communities other than his own."
While the University maintains its obligatory neutrality in this local political issue, Community Relations Coordinator Hank Webber said whoever replaces Obama will be filling the role of an "extraordinary person with extraordinary talents."
"Barack's talent has been recognized throughout the country and he is a person with a multitude of skills," Webber said. "Those are very big shoes for anyone to fill."
The appointment process will begin according to state procedural law following Obama's official resignation from the senate. Other individuals who have declared their candidacy are Kwami Raoul, Adrienne Jones, Rev. Earl Demus, Steve Stern, Chris Staniek, and William Burns.