For 13 years Ken Dunkin served constituents in the 5th District as the State Representative in the Illinois General Assembly. Over the years, he became one of the leading legislators in Springfield– known for his outspoken demeanor and a district that was increasingly becoming gentrified south of Roosevelt Road.
A kid from the Chicago Housing projects of Cabrini Green, he graduated from Lincoln Park High School and went on to attend Loop College (now Harold Washington College), earning his Associate Degree. From there, he went to Morehouse College, where he graduated with a B.A. in Political Science, and acquired his M.B.A at the University of Chicago in Social Welfare. As a fresh graduate, young and ready to hit the ground running, he worked as a social worker for the Boys and Girls Club located in the Robert Taylor Homes for several years. It was there he began to formulate his plan to work in government—consulting on local and federal government projects.
In 2002, he was sworn in as State Representative, a seat that was held by Lovana Jones for nearly 20 years. As he gradually built his presence on the street, mentored by Black senior legislators and public officials such as Secretary of State Jesse White—he would go on to sweep the next seven terms.
A familiar and likeable public official, Dunkin was part of the community—someone who was approachable, charismatic and at times could be seen at an occasional party. As his political fortress around him grew stronger, his connection to various constituents in his district was seemingly unbreakable—so it appeared. There was an inside resistance growing between the long-time Speaker of the House Mike Madigan and Dunkin.
Respectful of the Speaker’s role and position, it was no secret of Madigan’s power and control of the floor with a predominately Democratic rule of both the House and Senate. The shocking win of billionaire Governor Bruce Rauner would begin a war that would leave a major casualty—State Representative Ken Dunkin. In “Obama-fashion,” Dunkin’s habit of crossing over the aisle building relationships with Republican colleagues was suddenly taboo as Governor Rauner would lock horns with Madigan over the state budget–a budget that would take nearly three years to pass.
The Republican Governor immediately opposed the rising costs in Union pensions, attempting to cut down union positioning. In addition to the anti-union proposals, other crucial funding to maintain pay-outs to child care providers, home care services, violence prevention, youth programming and state operated colleges felt the pressure, and one crucial vote on the House floor would change Dunkin’s political career.
A last chance vote that would amend and hold out the child care credit with 71 votes in favor would not happen for the Dems and the absence of Dunkin would be publically persecuted. Meetings followed with powerhouse unions such as SEIU. The word was out and a firestorm of mobilization against Dunkin would tip the scales in favor of attorney and challenger Julianna Stratton, who ran against Dunkin for the 5th District seat.
Backed by the Cook County Democratic party, CTU, SEIU and other prominent officials such as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, more than $2 million was pumped into Stratton’s campaign. Not missing a beat, Dunkin was supported by GOP and bipartisan organizations with an additional $2.5 million. It would be become the most expensive statewide campaign for a single race with Stratton winning 65 percent of the vote and Dunkin carrying 33 percent.
Reflections on His Loss
Since the defeat by Stratton, Dunkin has stayed low-key, restlessly taking in the reality of being in the private sector. After working in government for a great deal of his professional life, it is still a hard pill to swallow.
In an exclusive interview with the Defender, he reflects on his role and the misconception he felt was present during his campaign. “Let me be clear. I have supported trade unions, service employees at the local level, the county level, at the state level. They won. So, there’s really no issue there in terms of the unions. The issue became when Mike Madigan wanted to flex his muscle as he does quietly and openly and sometimes loudly, and everyone else fights his battles. Unions do it when it’s convenient for them, as if they want to curry favor with him,” Dunkin says.
“Because if you look at his history of voting against some of the union interests, at times they never went to the level of angst, anxiety and sense of urgency to get rid of him as they did me. So, it’s a combination of things and sort of an overall storm that went into a level of hysteria because they did not want me to come off of Mike Madigan’s program,” Dunkin says. “That program was ‘when I [Madigan] said we’re going to vote on something, we’re going to vote on it.’”
It’s no secret, Dunkin’s disagreement with Madigan played out in the media as a form of defiance and was quickly coined “plantation politics.” Today, he doesn’t steer away from how he truly feels.
“Right now, people are at an all-time low because they’re disengaged, disconnected, not seeing any upward movement collectively or even sporadically. It’s just stagnant. Part of it is, politics takes a very lethargic approach towards coming into modern times,” he explains further.
“Lynching was going on for decades, and [we are] post-slavery close to a century now. The intelligentsia, the humanistic spirit, back during that time in this country will say ‘that’s inhumane’ and ‘that’s wrong’. ‘That’s un-Godly.’ But the culture in this country in most parts of the Southern States legally was there. This is what we do in politics—we never addressed it. They [politicians] didn’t see a sense of urgency until the media and television broadcasts began. The Defender almost immediately shifted the intellectual paradigm of who should be talking about subjects that impact our community and force politicians to act.”
Without pointing fingers at his former colleagues in the Black Legislative Caucus, whom he still holds in high regards, he adamantly says the Black community is being overlooked by the Democratic party.
“I’m also here not to disregard some of the advocacy that my colleagues have put forth an effort towards over the years—[those] I’ve served with and the ones that came prior to myself from Harold Washington to Carolyn Moseley-Braun to Senator Barack Obama–countless members past and present who put in real work for the community. My question stands, is Mike Madigan always correct?”
Understanding his shaky ground with who many consider the “most powerful man in Illinois politics,” why miss such an important vote when he chose to leave town? Didn’t he know the backlash it would cause to him, his party and the thousands of children affected by the budget set back?
In explaining his position, he also reminds us of the discord between Madigan and previous governors including Rod Blagojevich and Patrick Quinn.
“[Blagojevich and Quinn] were two Democrats that he [Madigan] fought tooth and nail with quite frankly. And everyone knows that because we dealt over time with both of them several times,” said Dunkin. He recalls Quinn halting state lawmakers’ paychecks in July 2013. “He was fighting with Mike Madigan. So, this was a manufactured crisis that occurred as it related to child care.”
The hand was dealt and there was no turning back. Dunkin’s absence was frowned upon as defiance and betrayal. He says Madigan’s behavior towards him was like “the perfect father teaching me a lesson in front of every other House member on the Democratic side.”
He said he received a call about the bill to override the governor’s veto before he left town on official business and it could not wait until when he came back. “Mike Madigan is not used to not getting what he wants from anybody, especially a Black legislator,” says Dunkin.
“It is the Mike Madigan show from start to finish in the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. He can prove it and I certainly can prove it as well that he is the boss of politics here in this state.”
A year later, after his loss to Stratton who is now tapped as Democratic gubernatorial candidate JB Pritzker’s running mate—Dunkin has done some soul-searching reflecting back to his decision to leave town during such a crucial vote.
“Are there any things that I would do differently? Are there any regrets? The short answer is yes, there’s always some things that I can do to have not pissed off or upset my core constituents. These special interest groups are going to love, like or be indifferent to what it is as long as they’re not being hurt from it. That’s a part of politics.”
Reflecting back, he takes a deep breath. “I accept their decision to not elect me back then and I moved on—I’m comfortable with that. But, I’m more excited to get ready for a new chapter of me understanding the needs of my respective community and watching some of these unnecessary landmines that exist in my own district. I’m not going to live my life or run for office or be in office just to please the Democratic Party.”
But, during that vote—two other Democratic votes held out. Representative and Attorney General candidate Scott Drury (58th) and Rep. Jack Franks (63rd), a chairman for McHenry County Board.
Dunkin feels he was singled out by the Speaker and the media. “No one wants to be in a grandiose dogfight like that because the way they attacked me personally, they really can’t stand on the issues for any substantiated period of time because I’ve always sponsored pay increases for childcare workers, home care assistance, senior services. As a matter of fact, I got those dollars released by way of negotiating with the bill sponsor in the Senate and the House– Senator [Toi] Hutchison (40th) and House member Jehan Gordon-Booth (98th).”
But if the bill had passed, critics of the former State Rep. concluded nearly 48,000 Illinois children would have received adequate childcare assistance.
The criticism continued as he received financial support from Rauner endorsed PACs including the Illinois Opportunity Project who contributed $500,000 in order to retain his seat. Every day, mailboxes gradually filled with literature slamming the legislator for being “bought and sold” to the highest bidder. To add further damage, a 1996 charge of a domestic dispute came public between Dunkin and the mother of his child, involving an altercation with another man who suffered a broken nose, damaged teeth and a scar. Dunkin was never convicted of the allegations.
“There were people on both sides of the aisle who contributed to my campaign over the years. Most of them were Democratic organizations. It was just the amount of money that Republican organizations were associated with that came through in a big way with me being in a big fight,” he says. “Just like Harold Washington says, ‘take the money but vote your community.’ That’s never been an issue for any elected official [except] when it came to me and when they were writing substantial checks.”
He asked, “What was I supposed to do when an entire apparatus in the state of Illinois and the most powerful politician in the state of Illinois, the most powerful politician at the county level and all of the committeemen in my respected district were completely against me? So, I’m not going to accept any money from any Republican or any other Democrat for that matter and let them pass along the way they did?”
Back in the Ring
Today, Dunkin has focused on the impact of economic Black wealth and the lack of development in African American communities across the city. With five potential candidates running for the 5th District Illinois House seat, he is throwing his hat back into the ring to run.
“Getting back down to Springfield to me would mean coming up with the best and the brightest ideas that my community can benefit from. Because if the Black community benefits, other communities benefit as well. Right now, as you know when Whites are in a recession, Blacks are in a depression,” he says. “Politics over the long run will do nothing for the average citizen out here. They really could care less about all this name calling and finger pointing.”
There are still some raw feelings about how Dunkin played the situation, crossing bipartisan lines with a governor who is “anti-union.” It won’t be an easy race and he’s prepared to deal with the critics. In a climate where younger voices are against the status quo of Illinois’ long-standing infrastructure—Dunkin is not shy about still working with both parties to get what he wants.
“Why are we always second fiddle or taken for granted? I want us to push ourselves and respect the core Democratic base because right now, we don’t. We lip service the scenario on just how it is over there in the Black neighborhoods. What I love about candidates running across the city, the county and the state is there’s a new tenor. Just to hide behind Democratic mantra is no longer acceptable in terms of making progress,” said Dunkin.
For the past couple of weeks, Dunkin and his team have diligently worked to wrangle signatures in order to make the Dec. 4 filing deadline for the ballot. His presence is seen at the senior homes, the high-rise tenant meetings, local grocery stores and knocking on familiar doors throughout the district. His mantra is to be an “independent Democrat thinker” still running as a Democrat candidate and not an independent.
Sitting in the Defender offices, he looked around our vast walls and focused on the paper’s iconic publishers—Robert S. Abbott and John H.H. Sengstacke, two men who were instrumental in advocating racial equality in education, labor, business development and wealth.
Dunkin pointed to their self-portraits and reflected on their achievements from the 1920’s to 1960’s. “They were all about economics. You create an economic environment in our communities, then you will see crime subside and… people wanting to do well as we invest in our schools. We have to demand that.”
With much on the line and at stake, Chicago voters have very long memories. Dunkin believes he has a shot at winning back a seat he has felt at ease in for 14 years, but once again, the voters will determine his fate on March 20, 2018.
Out of sight is out of mind.