Illinois Governor Candidates Commit to Bold Actions At Sierra Club Forum

Sierra Club held its first ever Illinois Gubernatorial Candidate Forum Saturday, October 14th at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a crowd of over 500 witnessed a spirited exchange between candidates who are rivals for the Democratic nomination, but in broad agreement that Illinois should do much more to lead on the environment.

“It is crystal clear, given the rollbacks, the cuts, the denial of science, and attempts to divide our communities that are coming at all of us from the Trump administration, that Illinois must step up to lead,” said Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter Director Jack Darin. “Illinois must lead if we are to make progress against threats like climate change and toxins in our drinking water, and even to protect the tremendous progress we have made together as a society.”

Trump’s moves against climate action, and steps by Governor Rauner’s Illinois EPA to weaken clean air standards for coal plants drew strong rebukes and commitments to move Illinois in an entirely different direction – to a 100% clean energy future.

State Senator Daniel Biss said “I strongly support a firm commitment to move Illinois to 100% clean energy mix, and was the first candidate to do so.” Tio Hardiman agreed, saying “I plan to be a champion for renewable energy, and as a community organizer will build a movement for this goal.” Chris Kennedy pledged to begin with state properties, saying “we can make the State of Illinois commit to using 100% renewable energy for its buildings, and put the entire state on that same trajectory as well.”  J.B. Pritzker said “we need to move this state to 100% renewables, and we must invest in clean energy and battery technology, as I have as an individual, in order to get to that goal,” before apologizing for leaving the event early to attend an event downstate, and introducing State Senator Heather Steans as his surrogate for the remainder of the forum.

The health of Illinois’ water supply was top of mind, with candidates sharing plans for protecting drinking water and Illinois’ rivers and lakes. Kennedy pledged to involve the public in the fight for clean water by informing residents about their water quality to inspire them to action.

Biss said that truly universal access to clean water would come at a cost, but that is clearly worth it to stop poisoning our children and put people to work on water projects in communities that need it most. Steans said Pritzker plans to replace 100% of lead service lines in Illinois, expand existing nutrient control programs, and develop a state water use plan to ensure sustainability of community supplies.

Biss and Kennedy each expressed opposition to the proposed Route 53 extension in Lake County. Kennedy also described the proposed Illiana expressway as “like one of those zombies in one of those movies – it’s time to put a stake in the heart of that thing and move on.” Biss said “investing in mass transit and sustainable transportation is an important part of acting on climate change and reducing carbon emissions. We have to have a holistic view of what transit means across the state – trains, buses, and access to economic opportunity.” Steans did not take a position on specific projects, but said that Pritzker would understand that we cannot look at road projects based on political considerations, but on technical merit. Hardiman also declined to take a position on specific projects, while noting his support for mass transit.

Each of the candidates lamented the long decline in staffing and budget at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and shared their personal connections to Illinois’ outdoors.

Steans pointed out that Illinois ranks 48th out of 50 states when it comes to protected open space per capita, and stressed Pritzker’s commitment to rebuilding the DNR and recognizing the economic benefits of state parks and natural areas. Biss said that the “hollowing out” of IDNR was “unthinkable”, and a result of the Governor “throwing the environment under the bus” when it comes time for budgeting decisions. “People protect what they love, and I love places like our lakefront, the savannahs along the Des Plaines River, the Mississippi bluffs, and the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge,” said Kennedy.

Each candidate acknowledged the importance of planning for the transition to a clean energy future, and the importance of including workers and communities historically dependent on fossil fuels in the benefits it will bring. Biss said  “We need a clear, focused plan to match specific opportunities with impacted workers in the communities where they live, not someplace else.”

Kennedy said his approach to utilities operating in Illinois communities would be “when you stop, you need to clean up the mess you made, and return your site to the community in the condition you found it, and you need to make sure your employees’ pensions are safe. Hardiman agreed, and added that we need to expedite renewable energy in these areas.  Steans said Pritzker “knows this transition is coming, and that his economic plan includes support for infrastructure, clean energy, and agriculture investment to help” and said he is  “100% against fracking – we’ve seen the impacts for water and seismic activity.” All pledged their support for rules requiring cleanup of

All candidates pledged a focus on environmental justice, and focused on the connection between environmental threats and racism and income inequality.

Pritzker began his remarks by quoting the Old Testament: “Justice, justice, shall you pursue”, and then continued “Bruce Rauner and his Koch Brothers, right-wing network, has sold out this state, and put profits over people. We’ve got to stand up to them, to say ‘no’ when they say it’s OK if we pollute the air and make it harder to breathe to help the profits of the fossil fuel industry.  We need a Governor who stands up for environmental justice in particular.” Biss said “It is the responsibility of our movement to protect communities of color and those who have been left behind.  This is about the white privilege that exists in every corner of our policymaking system, our economy, and our country, and we have to do something about that. Hardiman stressed his background in community organizing and peacemaking, and the fact that he would be Illinois’ first African-American Governor. Kennedy talked about diesel pollution in Chicago neighborhoods, the vulnerability of poor communities to storms, and “terrible environmental hazards in poor communities” as violations of Catholic social justice doctrine.

Governor Rauner was invited to participate but did not respond.

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