Chris Kennedy: The Illinois Governor’s Race

Christopher Kennedy at the Chicago Defender offices. Photo: Mary L. Datcher

We’re a year away from the 2018 Illinois primary gubernatorial race with several potential Democratic candidates considering running, including billionaire J.B. Pritzker.

One name rings out among the pack whose family is a great part of our American political history.

Chris Kennedy, the eighth child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, is a long-time Illinois resident and businessman. Aside from his famous last name, Chris Kennedy has built a solid foundation in the business arena, serving as president for Merchandise Mart Properties from 2000-2012, and co-founding Top Box Foods in 2012 with wife Sheila, a non-profit that distributes quality discounted groceries to areas that have limited grocery store access.

His official announcement in February to run for the Illinois governor’s seat comes as no surprise to political insiders as Kennedy’s team prepared as early as December 2016. Although he has never held a public office, he was an important part of uncle Ted Kennedy’s presidential bid in 1980, his brother Joseph Kennedy’s congressional run in 1981, and he was an avid donor to several Democratic campaigns — including then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s first run in 2007.

With the strong consideration of running for Obama’s Senate seat, Kennedy declined and was appointed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn to the University of Illinois board of trustees — a year later becoming the chairman until 2015.

At 53, he and his wife have raised four children and reside in the north shore suburb of Kenilworth. Why has it taken this long to finally make the commitment to run for public office?

He answered, “That’s exactly what my mother asked (he laughs). I think it’s a big step for me and my immediate family. I can’t sit on the sideline and watch what’s happening to our state and tenure. I love this state. I want to spend the rest of my life here, I want my children to live here. I want them to have great jobs and long careers. It’s the same thing that everybody else wants for their kids, their nieces, nephews or their neighbor’s families — to keep that neighborhood intact,” he said.

Rips on Rauner

Kennedy doesn’t mince any words for the current governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, and how he’s handled the budget stalemate. He says, he’s “somebody who’s got a unique philosophy about human nature and our relationship with each other” and “somebody who doesn’t believe in the role of government at all.”

He continued, “Somebody who wants to destroy unions and doesn’t see government as an entity that can help others. I think that’s an enormous shock. I saw him do what he’s done to the state, go after our economic engines — places like the University of Illinois — organizations like 1871 or research labs. Go after them and destroy them as well. Turn his back on 800 social service agencies — essentially use them as pawns — taking them hostage and starve them of any resources. Destroy a network of social services that has taken over 100 years to build. To say to everyone, ‘I am willing to destroy those to get the things that I think are important.’ When I saw him do this, it concerned me,” Kennedy said. “The state is headed in the wrong direction.”

A graduate of Boston College, he earned his BA in political science and relocated to Evanston, where he received his MBA in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He went back to his hometown of Boston but was soon back in Illinois with a different mission.

“I moved here to join the fight against hunger. The Reagan administration oversaw the country and they made decisions as a government. Decisions as a government for the first time, that created government-inspired hunger. There have been homelessness and hunger before that, but never created directly by the government and specific decisions by an administration.”

At the time, Kennedy wasn’t familiar with how food was made, grown or retailed in the country and wanted to learn, so he joined the movement. “I moved from Boston to Decatur, Illinois, to work for Archer Daniels Midland, which is a giant grain processor. They moved me around Illinois. I started in Decatur and moved there, and to places like Peoria; Lincoln, Nebraska; Salinas, Kansas; down in St. Louis and the export operations in NOLA, and ended up in Chicago. During that time, I started volunteering for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, where I eventually became chairman,” he explained.

Distributing Food

This was one of the main reasons he and his wife, Sheila — an attorney and former social worker — started Top Box Foods. The company distributes to nearly 100 different churches and community organizations throughout the Southern suburbs and “places like Lake County, North Chicago, Waukegan, and Zion,” Kennedy said.

He explains: “It’s a social business. We buy food and we sell it. It’s more like a ‘hand up,’ not a ‘hand out.’ The people are our customers, we’re a nonprofit, we’re not a charity. They buy high-quality food from us, but it’s half price of a grocery store. They are our customers, and we get to know them so that they’ll come back and we can understand what they want.”

Kennedy is very vocal on his stance against Gov. Rauner, and now the Trump administration, where the class divide is widening and the American dream is becoming further out of reach for many.

“A notion that you can move to America and rise from rags to riches like the Kennedy family did or every generation does a little better than the previous generation, where there’s endless opportunity — that’s come to an end. Today in America, if you’re born poor, you’ll probably stay poor. If you’re born rich, you’ll probably stay rich. If you’re born in between, you’ll probably have a life of great turmoil, hazards and threats daily unless you’re a minority.”

A strong advocate for education, he believes it’s a major component to fixing some of the problems that plague low-disparity communities suffering from both violence, the opioid epidemic and lack of mental health facilities.

On education: “We need to pay for the grade schools and the high schools with help at the state level. The system is broken and it doesn’t work, and it’s rigged against the poor. We don’t need to look inward and have a conference and decide what to do.”

On health care: “We’ve created enormously successful programs that allow people to live full lives, but only with care and help. Now, we’re dismantling that and we’re going to unleash on our communities a wave of adverse effects that never needed to occur that contribute to violence, and everyone is concerned about that.”

On the social injustice: “A reality that racism still exists and sexism still exists and we need to be active on how we combat those things, and not stay on the sidelines. We cut resources for all those programs that allow people to be successful in life. Then we have this opioid epidemic that overlays these conditions. People come in from the suburbs to buy heroin,” he continues.

“They come into our city and buy it from people whose education doesn’t allow them to do anything else but to sell it on the street corner, and they’ll never get rich off that. They are shooting each other to get control of that corner. It’s unbelievable, and we have a governor who is turning his back on all of it.”

With a famous pedigree of public service, Kennedy has been making the rounds in the Black community — meeting with community stakeholders and faith leaders on the West Side and South Side in the past month. Only time will tell if these meetings will pay off and the real connection between Chris Kennedy and voters will make a dent in Gov. Rauner’s armor of billions.      

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