Amid community residents’ calls for an election, political consultant Robert Peters was appointed to be the next state senator of Illinois’s 13th District, which includes Hyde Park. Peters was a former aide to several officials who sit on the committee that appointed him.
The senate seat of the 13th District was previously occupied by now Illinois Attorney General–elect Kwame Raoul. Though residents wanted a say in choosing Raoul’s successor, the process mandated by Illinois law is to fill vacancies through appointment rather than elections.
The 13th Democratic Legislative District Committee selected Peters at a meeting held at the Fourth Ward Democratic Organization Office on 53rd Street, where he was immediately sworn into the office by Judge Robert F. Harris. The announcement came after a closed door executive session of committee members that included Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board president and a mayoral candidate.
Peters previously worked closely with Preckwinkle as a field deputy director on her campaign for Cook County Board president and as a paid political consultant with her office. Several people in the room believed that this relationship ultimately played a large role in Peters’s appointment. Peters has also worked for Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, who also sits on the committee. Hairston said there was no connection between Peters’s selection and previous work with Preckwinkle or herself.
The seat, once held by former president Barack Obama, was left vacant after Raoul was elected to be attorney general in November. Raoul had first been appointed to the seat in 2004 after Obama’s election to the United States Senate.
The next election of state senators will occur in November, 2020. In the state of Illinois, all vacancies that occur fewer than 28 months before the end of the term are filled by appointment; if greater than 28 months remain, a special election is held.
The committee that chose his successor consisted of Preckwinkle and Democratic committeemen whose wards are included in the 13th District, including those who oversee parts of Hyde Park: Hairston of the Fifth Ward and Kevin Bailey of the 20th Ward.
Prior to the meeting, dozens of residents gathered outside of office to protest the appointment process and call for a special election. Gabriel Piemonte, an aldermanic candidate challenging Hairston in the Fifth Ward, said to a crowd of protestors and journalists that he and a group of community residents want a special election—even an advisory one—instead of an appointment.
“What neighbors did not want, what residents did not want was that this be an appointed process, a process where in a closed room ward committeemen made a decision about who was going to represent us,” he said.
Fourth Ward aldermanic candidate Ebony Lucas said, “As we stand out here right now, we have no idea who the candidates are, and, if these are people who are going to be representing us and the community, we deserve to know at a minimum who are you considering and why are you considering them.”
While the appointment process is mandated by Illinois law, the protesters expressed frustration with a lack of clarity and communication that resident Cassie Creswell said “is really disappointing to me as a voter and a taxpayer.”
The protestors referenced the city’s history of political corruption and obscurity. “That’s our history, and it’s continuing now…. It’s unbelievable that in the [seat] of Barack Obama [and Harold Washington] and in supposedly progressive places, things haven’t changed,” resident Michele Beaulieux said.
Resident Hannah Hayes said that her phone calls, e-mails, and social media outreach to Preckwinkle concerning the appointment had gone unanswered. She also noted that her senator and alderman (Sophia King) are both appointed officials.
“So my vote didn’t matter and now I feel like my voice doesn’t matter…. As a voting Democrat, I call on my elected officials to delay this appointment until there is more dialogue, more scrutiny. As the very least, do not claim to be progressive and wear the mantle of a progressive, when that is nothing but hypocrisy.”
“We are asking for a pause to the process…. Going forward there should be a change so that this isn’t the process,” Piemonte concluded.
The committee also considered Adrienne Irmer, Flynn Rush, and Kenneth Sawyer. Irmer and Rush both lost their races for state representative of the 25th District in November 2018, while Sawyer lost his 2004 race for Fourth Ward alderman. Each candidate was given five minutes to address the committee in a public meeting, before committee members followed up with questions. There was no explanation of how the candidates were selected, beyond Sawyer stating that he had only found out about the appointment a week earlier because “there was no announcement.”
In his speech, Peters recalled the struggles of his early life—he was “born deaf with a massive speech impediment” to a mother addicted to drugs and alcohol before being adopted. After college and through unemployment, he relied on the welfare system which “provided very little for me in a time of need.”
Although he has never before run for political office, Peters claimed that “[these] experiences I went through are similar to many experiences of residents in the district. It’s knowing this that drives me in this work.”
Peters, who described himself as “a proud South Sider and an even prouder Chicagoan,” highlighted his work with Reclaim Chicago. He said that he, in conjunction with Preckwinkle, raised the Cook County minimum wage to $13 an hour and organized more than 300,000 doors and dials for Kim Foxx in the 2016 State Attorney’s victory. He also pointed to his work with Preckwinkle in July 2017 that pushed judges to set affordable bails for defendants.
As state senator, Peters pledged to “bring fair and equitable investment into our wards and communities” and “to fight to bring fairness and equality to our justice system” through expanded bail reform and marijuana legalization. Additionally, he promised to “bring radical transparency” to the position—a fixture many district residents felt was lacking in the appointment process.
After being sworn in, Peters said to the crowd, “This isn’t an appointment to become a state senator. It’s to finish out a term. I understand that I’ve got to run for election; I’ve got to earn the vote and the support of the residents of the 13th District, and I promise to do that. And I promise to work with the folks in this room.”
“I want to make sure I’m a champion for everyone in this district, especially the working class folks. I’m Hyde Park born and raised. This is my home, and I want folks to know that any time they need anything, though I don’t have an office number yet, you can call. I’m hoping to have some radical transparency, and I’m hoping to do a new kind of politics.”
Correction on Jan. 10, 2019, 11:11 p.m. CST:
This article originally stated that state representative Christian Mitchell was appointed to his seat in 2012. This is incorrect; Mitchell won election to an open seat before being appointed to the non-elected position of Deputy Governor.