When State Sen. Carol Ronen, D-Chicago, announced her resignation last October, Heather Steans decided that, after years of public policy and non-profit work, now was the time to run for office.
Steans, of a prominent North Shore family, has been involved in managing state agency budgets in both Illinois and Wisconsin and working on education reform policy for Chicago Public Schools. Another key focus of this candidate's is urban community and economic development. Steans successfully launched the non-profit Windy City Harvest on the city's West Side, which helps train ex-offenders in a horticultural setting. She also serves on the boards of Chicago Public Radio and the Erickson Institute.
Windy City Times: What prompted you to run for office?
Heather Steans: It's hard to point to any one factor. I'm new to the idea of ever running for office. It's a number of different things. I have three kids: 14, 10 and a six-year-old. My six-year-old is now in school full-time, and I had been working part-time since she was born. I was ready now to go back full-time. Sen. [ Carol ] Ronen was thinking that she might retire at some point, and had at one point suggested, 'You should think about doing this.' I said, no, I wouldn't be interested; it's not my thing. Then, when it became a reality and she said she was really going to do it, the other factors had changed. I felt I had more flexibility because my daughter was in school full-time. I was just so much more frustrated with what's not getting done in Springfield, that I felt more strongly about and willing to put myself out there and see if I can actually make a difference and try to push things forward in Springfield.
It's hard to pinpoint any one particular factor. It really was just a whole convergence of things that made me in this point in time see if I could accomplish something. … You need really good policy, but you need politics to get stuff done. When you don't have that there, it's really hard to advance things.
WCT: Springfield has [ reached ] stalemate. What are some of your ideas for helping Springfield move forward?
HS: … One statewide elected official said that when he was asked by a small group that he's a part of, 'What do you think can most make a difference when pushing things forward in Springfield?', his response was, 'We need more independent people there who don't need the job, but who want the job.' There are way too many folks who are dependent on leaders, which means that you don't take risks in the same way. I feel like that is a real advantage that I can bring to it. I do not need to be beholden to anybody in leadership and can really just voice my own conscience, and that of the district, who I think I should really be held accountable to—the people who are actually voting. I think it's something that culturally needs to change to get advanced. I do think, also, that there are a lot of like-minded, progressive legislators who are really frustrated. As you meet and talk with folks. I do think there are a lot of people we can start working with to try to start advancing things and to make a difference. There's a lot of frustration that I'm sensing.
WCT: Your opponent says that this race is an example of pay-to-play politics. I know your family, as well as yourself, have been large contributors over the years. How do you respond to that?
HS: With pay-to-play, you have to get something personal out of it. I've had no personal benefit, nor has that ever been my intention. I've been very issue-related and, overall, much of my giving has been focused on non-profit work than it is on political stuff. My political contributions have been very issue-orientated as on outgrowth of what I'm doing non-profit-wise, seeing that you have to also push things along politically to get stuff to happen. … Pay-to-play is I make a payment so I get some sort of contract from the state. I'm not doing anything for any personal benefit. I find it a very false accusation, very negative, for no purpose. … That's not me. I'm not saying there are not issues with it. I agree. One of the first things I do if I get elected is sign HB1 [ legislation aimed at ending pay-to-play ] , for example. I wholeheartedly agree that pay-to-play has to go in this state. I think I have a lot more ability to get it passed and make some progress with it.
WCT: Briefly touch on your background, and what you think you can bring to the table that your opponent can't.
HS: The consistent driving force in what I've always been about is equalizing opportunities for everyone. I've had great access to opportunities, personally, and I find it incomprehensible that in this land of opportunity, it's not really equal opportunity for all. I went to college—Princeton—and there I created my major in urban studies. Urban poverty issues have always been what have compelled me. I went straight from there and got my public policy degree from [ John F. ] Kennedy School [ of Government ] at Harvard and focused on economic and housing development there. Straight away, I went and worked for the Bureau of the Budget in Illinois. I was the budget director.
In Wisconsin, I was the strategic planner and budget director … for the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations. It was a very broad-based agency—a lot of employment training, as well as human relations work. Ever since, when I came back to Chicago, I have worked on education [ at Chicago Public Schools ] , which I think is one of those huge ways you can really try to level the playing field for folks. I spent a lot of time on education reform issues. I worked for the school system itself as a strategic planner. … Then, when I had my third child, I decided to work even less, part-time, and was working on community development issues in the West Side community, where I myself focus a lot of urban economic development issues and housing. I helped create an organization called Windy City Harvest, for example, which trains ex-offenders in a urban horticultural project.
WCT: You are a very issue-oriented person, and Ronen has been an LGBT ally over the years. I know one of your issues is LGBT rights. Can you tell us where you stand on some issues, and what you think are some of the issues most affecting the community right now?
HS: We have to get civil unions. I'm all for gay marriage, but I think we have to start with civil unions. I very much support civil union legislation. I've already talked to some of the legislators who are sponsoring that. … I'm hopeful I can play a role in moving that forward. I think that's a pretty fundamental right. I also think the parenting laws need to be equalized. We need to make sure there are not unfair opportunities for adoption or to be foster parents for the GLBT community, as well.
Obviously, the one of the highest incidence with folks living with AIDS is in this district. That continues to be a huge need. The state senate has done a really good job, actually. As the federal government is going down with what it is providing domestically for funding for HIV education, treatment and AIDS treatment, the state has been at least picking it up. But that continues to be an ongoing need. I think we also have to be sure that we're really expanding and reaching minority populations. … That's hugely disproportional. I think we need to do a lot more outreach into the minority communities and make sure we are doing a lot of HIV prevention education.
We're fortunate in this district that we have a lot of strong programs that provide these services.
WCT: Do you support the governor's healthcare plan, and what do you think of his approach?
HS: I don't think the approach has been wise in its balance of power issues. I think you have to work with folks and try to do it jointly. I don't think you should do it in a way that is taking power away from the legislature. I think his approach is wrong. I support universal healthcare. I think we need to start moving forward on that. In an ideal world, we'll get the federal government to change so we'll get it federally, which I think is what really needs to happen. In the absence of that, I think the state really needs to step up and keep moving towards universal healthcare coverage. You need to do it with the legislature and the governor in partnership.
WCT: What are some other issues close to your heart that you would like to get done right away, if elected to office?
HS: … The other huge areas, I think, are education funding. The system in this state is very inequitable. We've got huge disparities, like $4,600 per pupil spent in some districts, to $17,000 spent per pupil in some districts. That's a huge disparity, and that's hugely problematic, in my view. I think it's large because of our reliance on property taxes. We've got to actually increase the state share of education funding. By the constitution, the state is supposed to be the primary funder of education. When you say primary funder, you think at least 55 percent. We're down to 34 percent now. I think that's unconscionable, and we've got to change our overall system for education funding. I think that helps bring a lot other problems with the state budget into alignment, too, by doing this. That has got to be looked at.
WCT: What else do you want readers to know about yourself?
HS: I was a co-founder of Women for Obama here, for both Illinois and nationally. I left because I decided to run for this. I've still very involved in the Obama campaign. One of the reason I am is I think he's such a terrific consensus builder. While he's a very progressive person, he's very much able to build bridges and bring people together and focus on the issues that actually need to get done.
When I was working in Wisconsin, ... there I felt people could really focus on what the right policy things were and you could really bring people together. Here, it gets so partisan so fast, the focus on what the right thing to do gets lost.
Very much I feel like we really got to bring people together to resolve our problems. I feel there is consensus out there. For example, on education funding, you have a lot of disparate groups—you have unions, you have business leaders, lots of folks that don't necessarily think alike—but all say that we need to be doing something in the way we fund education. It's not happening right now because of the leadership in Springfield. I think the biggest problem we have right now is getting people to play together around what's important, as opposed to their own personal egos. It's inherent in our system now. My own track record is very much consensus building. You have to when you are working in community development. For example, to get Windy City Harvest, this organization, up, it was trying to get local non-profits comfortable with bringing in a big, outside group like Chicago Botanic Garden. You have to work very hard to get everyone to see why it's advantageous and in all of your best interests. You set up a system up front where you are negotiating how that can work for everybody. I think the same thing can happen. If we get more votes on matters and get more people to go on the record on how they believe, I think consensus can come forward.
I've worked with a whole range, from advocates to legislators to business leaders. I have a lot of relationships across various kinds of entities. I tend to be able to see the biggest context and understand how you can help build consensus.