For 13 years, Kwame Raoul has served the residents in the 13th Legislative District as their State Senator—a seat vacated by a then-aspiring U.S. Senator candidate Barack Obama. Like Obama, the state senator with the unique name is also an attorney. The son of Haitian immigrants, Raoul grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Motivated by the tradition of hard work and pursuit of a quality education, he went on to attend DePaul University and Chicago Kent College of Law. Building a broad career in law, he worked in the Cook County State’s attorney office as a prosecutor, leaving to work at a small boutique law firm handling criminal defense and other civic matters in the private sector.
Working at the City Colleges of Chicago and two major law firms broadened his experience in trial work in both state and federal court practicing employment, labor and health law. But, his time as an Illinois legislator has allowed him to introduce legislation in the areas of criminal justice reform; he has co-sponsored bills that have abolished the death penalty, separated juvenile corrections from adult corrections and sealed certain records, removing barriers for ex-offenders to become productive members of society.
When Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced she would not pursue another term in office, Raoul stepped up to the plate as a Democratic candidate for the office. In such a high-profile role, Raoul believe it’s the responsibility of the Attorney General to be a responsible voice of change advocacy.
“The Attorney General is very active in advocating for policy changes. I’ve been in the legislature for 13 years—replacing Barack Obama. I hit the ground running. I’ve been active in criminal justice reform before it became a popular topic,” he says.
“[I’ve been] making sure we created diversion programs for non-violent offenders. I’ve been active protecting voting rights. I passed the first ever Illinois Voting Rights Act– that goes beyond the reach of the federal Voting Rights Act–to make sure we’re protected in the redistricting process. I didn’t stop there, I passed the constitutional amendment to protect voting rights. The types of things we see down South and in other states with voter I.D. or other efforts to suppress the vote…this is a constitutional protection against that.”
In 2015, Raoul faced a familiar health battle that has often plagued African American men. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“I’ve been active in access to healthcare. When President Obama brought about the Affordable Care Act and other states had to act, I sponsored two legislatures to embrace ACA. As a cancer survivor myself, it’s quite personal to me,” he explains. “This month marks the two-year anniversary of my diagnosis of prostate cancer. It hits Black men at a prominently high rate. It’s the disease that took my father and both my grandfathers.” He says he is grateful to have had access to quality healthcare but not everyone is that fortunate.
As a father of two, he finds himself concerned with both the violence on the street and the systematic mistrust between law enforcement and the Black community.
Raoul believes more can be done from both sides.
“Evidence shows that violence begets violence. When you have people who come up in the community where violence is normalized, they’re more likely to evolve from a victim to a perpetrator. We have to interrupt that, we have to treat the trauma that has hit our community. We have to redefine who we see as a victim, expand that definition to include a young man who might be walking down the street with his pants sagging down.”
He explains, “When we start thinking about the violence we have and a lot of that grows out of resources being gutted out of our communities…. The Attorney General not only has a voice within the criminal justice information authority as a board member, they also direct capacity, direct victims to resources as well as resources retrieved from lawsuits. That is an important asset I think is largely overlooked.”
The Attorney General’s office is considered by many as a watch dog for Illinoisans against various fraud and protecting the sanctuary of labor laws in place. Will Raoul expand his focus outside of Chicago to prioritize the needs of other residents in various areas in the state?
“Consumer protection is an issue that touches folks throughout the state. It’s not isolated to city and suburbs, upstate or downstate. There are corporations that try to shortcut, try to take advantage of the small person. I have worked with Lisa Madigan’s office with regards to temporary employees who get paid with payroll cards. What we found out is that banks were charging them excessive fees when they sought to use a payroll card. So, they’re getting paid, but a significant portion of their wages were being taken out by the banks, so we put limitations on that,” he said.
“We’re able to speak on statewide protection for employees….be it protection from employers that may try to skirt minimum wage requirements, prevailing wage requirements. When employers try not to have worker’s comp insurance and therefore somebody gets hurt, there’s no coverage there.” Senator Raoul mentions ongoing wage theft that takes place and the many complaints to the Department of Labor. “There have been a lot of complaints under Bruce Rauner’s Department of Labor that has been stalled. Those complaints have been stalled at the dept. of labor and have not been referred to the AG’s office. That was brought to my attention.”
Raoul has been under fire by critics and the other seven candidates for accepting political donations from tobacco base corporations at $10,000 each in the amount of $100,000—all owned by businessman and Chicago Wolves owner Don Levin.
He doesn’t feel this will influence him in making hard-hitting decisions as Attorney General.
“When you start saying, ‘I’m not going to take money from this person and I am going to take money from that person,’ there’s an implication there, that I’m going to take money and do what this person says.’” Raoul says, “I’ve taken money from a wide variety of people throughout my 13-year career in the legislature and not one of those contributions have ‘bought’ advocacy from me. People have supported me because they like the work that I’ve done.”
It will not be an easy transition for Illinois’ next Attorney General. Endorsed by both the Cook County and Madison County Democratic Party, Raoul respects the legacy and work Lisa Madigan has brought to the office in the past 15 years. He says, although he will continue her advocacy for consumer protection, he will also expand their priority for criminal justice reform.
“I think the Attorney General’s office can be used as a ‘bully pulpit’ to advocate for Criminal Justice Reform. She has most recently played a role in advocating for law enforcement reform in the City of Chicago, but it ought not be limited in the City of Chicago. We’ve heard a lot of the challenges that exist in the suburban police departments as well as downstate.”
Raoul believes the formula for his success is remaining accessible to constituents.
“I feel comfortable in our community. My posters for example just have ‘Kwame’ on them to say, ‘Hey, I want people to know me on a first-name basis.’ I want to have that feeling of accessibility to my community. When I first went down to Springfield, people started calling me senator and I said ‘no, please call me Kwame.’”