The upcoming primary elections of 2018 in the state of Illinois are quickly approaching with several hotly contested elections directly impacting various neighborhoods within Chicagoland’s African-American community. With that in mind, the Defender will provide race updates as they come in.
This week, the Defender will focus on the race between incumbent State Rep. Mary Flowers (Dist. 31), who has been in office for more than 30 years, and her challenger, Willie Preston. The 31st district of Illinois encompasses portions of Chicago’s Englewood, West Englewood neighborhoods, Oak Lawn, Chicago Ridge, Palos Hills, and other nearby communities.
State Rep. Mary Flowers
Flowers told the Defender it’s been “her pleasure” to serve her constituency for the past 33 years. As a state representative, Flowers is the current chairperson for the health care availability access committee. She also serves on the committees for restorative justice; museums, arts & cultural enhancement; higher education; human services; accountability & administrative review; and health & healthcare disparities.
Throughout the 30-minute interview, she recalled how she passed legislation over her tenure like protections against discrimination for pregnant mothers in the workplace and how she was one of the first voices to propose Chicago police sensitivity training more than a decade ago. She said looking towards the future, she wants to insure all Illinois residents have access to healthcare and not just health insurance.
“There’s a multitude of things that I have worked on and there’s a multitude of things I will continue to work on,” said Flowers. “I do love my job and I’m very proud of the things I’ve done, and I want to do greater things.”
Juggling priorities and day-to-day needs are just part of the job, according to Flowers. She did specify, however, what some of her major initiatives moving forward would be.
“My priorities are to do the best that I can to make sure that we have revenues here in the state of Illinois,” said Flowers. “Right now, my top priorities are job creation, transaction tax by way of the bank, and to make sure that everyone in the state of Illinois has access to health care, not access to insurance, but access to health care.”
Flowers said she would not directly respond to any comments made by Preston as he is not yet officially on the ballot.
When asked about term limits or being out of touch with her community, Flowers responded by stating her constituents ultimately make the final call.
“If the people don’t want me back in office, they’ve had the opportunity not one time or two times but several times over the 30 some odd years [to not re-elect me],” said Flowers. “It’s up to the people to decide.”
Willie Preston, 32, is a Chicago native with several ties to the Englewood community, who has thrown his hat into the ring for this election cycle. Before stepping down to focus on the election, he was formerly an organizer for Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), whose mission is to assist low-income people of color in the Chicago Southland to build power, then subsequently leverage that power to fight for their own interest and liberation, according to its website.
Preston told the Defender he attended Chicago State University before being expelled in 2015 over a dispute involving students’ rights and administrative negligence.
“I was centrally engaged with the administration in the struggle on behalf of the students as a student leader and as a result of winning an election for board trustees which governs the university,” said Preston. “I much rather focus on my time at Chicago State where I learned about politics and how to bridge together on issues.”
Preston said he decided to run for office because he wanted to see a new leadership serve his community.
“Many politicians in the city, county and even at the state level, many of them have been in office since before I was born, and when you look at that reality and when you look at the conditions in neighborhoods like Englewood, Auburn Gresham, you see the results are disastrous,” said Preston.
Preston said when he looks down 79th street, he does not see enough businesses (or even a place to get a cup of coffee). He said he intends to change those dynamics once in office. He said African Americans working on state projects, contracts and more is a priority of his. He called it “atrocious” that according to his research African Americans are doing less than one percent of the business with the state of Illinois. He said Democratic Party “boss leaders” have not made that issue a priority.
“The Black Caucus, our largest caucus in Springfield, you can’t pass gas without them but we continue to pass budgets allocating large portions of the state’s money to our state agencies, as we should, but we do it without any mandates on the contract allocations going to Black firms,” said Preston. “Springfield politicians largely just go along to get along, and that’s what I’m seeing in my district right now and I want to work to change it.”
Beyond his community service with SOUL, Preston said he was elected to serve as a local school counselor for two years at Scott Joplin Elementary School, 7927 S. Honore St. He said that experience really gave him a better insight into how he might effect change. He called Chicago Public Schools a “poster child for corruption.”
Preston responded when asked about how he would serve communities outside of Chicago as state representative by stating, “I think they will appreciate a state representative who will stand up to any political office from the state and who’s going to be honest.”