Q&A with the Rev. James Meeks
By Abdon M. Pallasch
December 11, 2010 1:32AM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
With the fiery passion of the preacher he is, State Sen. James Meeks draws his lines in the sand:
City employees must contribute more to their pensions and retire later to help solve the city’s budget crisis.
Teachers must draft a better plan for weeding out duds from their ranks.
If President Obama endorses a mayoral candidate, it won’t be his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, “It’s going to be me,” Meeks says.
Meeks brings an unusual political pedigree to the race for mayor of Chicago.
The pastor — on leave — of the 20,000-strong Salem Baptist Church, Meeks was the only African-American legislator to vote against civil unions for gay couples a week and a half ago.
It’s not just his conservative social stands that makes him the closest thing to a Republican in the race — he even persuaded former state GOP Chair Andy McKenna to endorse him. And Meeks talks more than most candidates about making Chicago business-friendly.
But 12 years ago, Meeks made headlines by organizing neighbors to vote 32 businesses — all liquor stores — out of Roseland. Now Meeks surveys Michigan Avenue at 115th Street and proclaims the area better than he found it.
Q. How many liquor stores were here?
A. Thirty-two. We used a referendum to vote the whole precinct dry, from 119th to 130th.
Q. I see occupied storefronts here.
A. These are new businesses that have moved in. When we did that, we offered everybody in the liquor stores who lost a job a job. We offered to pay their salary while they were going through job training or until they had a job.
Q. Do you have business-recruitment techniques you’ve used here that you’d like to take citywide?
A. We have the “Arise’’ program. People come to the church and propose start-up businesses. A panel of judges votes on the best presentation. The winner gets $5,000 to start a business. I’d like to see the city figure out a way to invest in start-up business. I’ve tried to work with the alderman to bring a simple thing to this neighborhood called a supermarket. I would like to use TIF [Tax Increment Financing] funds to make sure there is a grocery store in every neighborhood. I’m working with the general assembly to change the law so that revenues that exceed a certain amount in TIF accounts can be used for blighted communities.
Q. What do you think of Daley declaring parts of downtown “blighted” to start TIFs there?
A. Development downtown is good. Downtown is the crown jewel of our city. We should protect big business at all costs. When big business grows, it creates jobs. Downtown TIFs can also benefit neighborhoods like Austin and Englewood that are blighted. We want people in blighted communities to cheer every time there is a new expansion downtown … because they also know it benefits their community.
Q. Your church worked with the Curtis Elementary School down the block here…
A. That school was on academic probation. We worked with every eighth-grader and every third-grader until that school got off academic probation. [Former Chicago Public Schools CEO] Arne Duncan told us that was the biggest improvement that this community had ever seen. We organized 300 volunteers. Every student with perfect attendance, we gave them a computer. (Meeks walked into his campaign office.)
Q. You have fought to end the inequities in funding Illinois schools. As mayor would you have more leverage to fix that?
A. As long as we could show the general assembly how these dollars would translate into student improvement, I think the appetite is there right now. If we spend “X’’ number of dollars on full-day kindergarten, you’ll see improvement. We did a survey and 75 percent of people in the state are willing to pay more to education if we could show there was some improvement.
Q. Do you agree with the Chicago Teachers Union that schools need a superintendent instead of a CEO?
A. We hire an educator to be in charge of CPS. We work closely with the Teacher’s Union to develop a seven-year plan of how to turn our schools around. Our goal is to make sure every third-grader is reading at a third-grade level; full day of kindergarten; first, second, and third-graders having double reading and math, not just 50 minutes but 100 minutes every day. I want to bring everybody together, like Dr. Ruth Love did in 1983 at the International Amphitheater. She presented the plan to all the teachers and staff, and that was the first and last time that everyone in the system was together. I would do that every year. The 22,000 teachers in city of Chicago should be at the table to develop the strategy.
Q. But you also want to give teachers a new task?
I’m going to give the Chicago Teachers Union one year to create a policy of establishing what is an effective teacher, what is an ineffective teacher, and how do we dismiss an ineffective teacher. If they don’t come up with a policy in a year, then I would ask the General Assembly for that policy. I think all teachers get a bum rap because of bad teachers. Teachers don’t want bad teachers either.
Same thing with the cops?
A. (Smiling) Uhhh, too bad we’re on education. I think the CPS headquarters on Clark Street needs a complete overhaul. I think everybody in the building needs to be re-evaluated to determine whether or not we keep everybody in the building. No doubt it’s a bloated bureaucracy. It’s not working.”
Q. You argued with a police officer who pulled you over in 2005. You got out of the car. He used profane language…
A. I received a letter from the [police] Their investigation concluded I was in the right and the officer was disciplined. Rather than publishing my letter, I took that as a wonderful opportunity to get to know Mark Donohue from the Fraternal Order of Police and to find out what is it that makes a policeman tick. I could have taken that letter and said, “See, I was treated wrongly.” Now it is a part of the rules of the road . . . that you stay in the car. I urged Gov. Blagojevich to give $150,000 for a trial run of cameras in police cars. (Donahue adds in a phone interview: “He’s been a partner not only to get the cameras, but also the bullet-proof vests.”)
Q. There are videos of you out there using racially charged language, calling Mayor Daley and other “white people” who won’t change the state’s school funding system “slave masters.” Critics say [Obama’s former pastor] Rev. Wright got in trouble for saying less and that if you rise in the polls, whoever leads the mayor’s race will put those on TV, and that will scare people away from voting for you.
A. I would say that the individual who did that would be involved in negative politicking. Those tapes were not found locked away in a basement. It was live on TV. It was a sermon about education. I don’t apologize for being passionate about education. I came out two days later and apologized for using the “N word” in the Sun-Times. Mayor Daley said, “Thank God he’s seen the light.” If anyone would use that video to try to scare people away from me, I would ask them, where were they when our children were in this predicament and they never spoke up.
Q. You’ve mentored controversial people like Mel Reynolds and R. Kelly. Were you able to help them?
A. They are doing productive things today, I hope. America and Americans are not in the business of discarding people. R. Kelly was never convicted of anything wrong. Mel Reynolds was. He was a Rhodes scholar, a congressman. He came back to the community. What do you do? Not only Mel Reynolds but the 30,000 people who come out of prison every year. Do we want to set up a society where everybody discards those individuals and nobody lends them a helping hand? Our biggest problem now is people who are incarcerated who come out of prisons and can’t get a job.
Q. How do you solve the city’s under-funded pension crisis?
A. One of the biggest problems the new mayor faces is pensions. What real leadership does is put the proposals on the table now so everybody can see them. I think the present employees have to pay more into the pension system. We’re going to have to maybe raise the retirement age from 50 to 55. I think the city is going to have to contribute more. I think we’re going to have to move to a two-tier pension system. This will all be part of negotiations. It depends how many jobs we want to save.
Q. What do you think of leasing out city assets like parking meters, the Skyway and Midway Airport?
A. People who talk about reversing the parking meter deal, I don’t know how you can talk about reversing it when the billion dollars has already been spent. We’re stuck. I am not in favor of mortgaging our future, especially when we don’t have any assets left that would be revenue-generating. [Midway Airport] would be another short-term solution. I am not a fan of privatizing city assets. There are some worth looking at, like garbage collection. But Midway? After the parking meters, I think there is not an appetite from the citizens to privatize anything big like that.
Q. You think we could privatize garbage collection?
A. That could work, privatizing garbage collection, looking at a different grid, reducing the amount of men that are on the trucks now could work. We have three because of union rules. The one that drives it can only drive. But our situation is dire — we might not be able to do all the things that we used to do.
Q. Were you close to President Obama in the state Senate?
A. Relatively, yes. I was there when he announced for U.S. Senate. I marched with him in the Bud Billiken Parade. I was there the night he won. I was among a select group of people invited to a private reception at the night of the inauguration. So we were fairly close. Many people think his claim to fame is the fact that he’s the first African-American president. It’s not. His claim to fame is that he was born on my birthday. It was my birthday five years before it was his.
Q. Think he’ll endorse Rahm?
A. I think he’s going to endorse me. I think it’s just logical for him to endorse me. I was his colleague in the Senate. I was with him day the he announced for president. Rahm did not get on board until after Hillary [Clinton] so I would think that it would be me over anybody else.
Q . You grew up not far from here?
A. I grew up in Englewood. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t know that. I thought we were rich. We had food on our table, clothes on our back. My dad had a tremendous work ethic. One time I was lamenting that my dad was not at my eighth-grade graduation. My dad said, “Son, did you have a new suit on at your graduation?” I said, “Well, yes sir.” He said, “I was there.” At Harper High School, I was senior class president. I played basketball freshman, sophomore and junior year. In my senior year, when it was finally time for me to start on the basketball team, I got the chance to become the lead actor in the school play, Purlie Victorious, a minister. Drama rehearsal was the same time as basketball practice. I chose to be the preacher in the school play because I knew deep down inside, that’s what I wanted to do in life. I went to Bishop College in Dallas, Texas. I started as pastor at Beth Eden Church and five years later I started Salem.
Q. Rev. Jackson designated you his heir apparent at Rainbow/PUSH. How did you get to be friends with Rev. Jackson?
A. One day a group of pastors were invited to Rev. Jackson’s house, The next day, I wrote out a plan how to implement everything we had talked about. I was not taking notes at the meeting, just sitting and listening. It was my intention to slip it under Rev. Jackson’s door. As I was slipping it under the door, his daughter Santita opened the door. She said, “What are you doing?” . . . I said, “I’m just slipping this under the door for your father to read.’’ “Go in the living room. He’s in there.” He said, “Sit down.” He starts reading it. He said, “You weren’t taking notes yesterday — how did you remember this?” The next Sunday was Christmas. I was at church. We were going through our regular service. I looked up. Jesse Jackson comes walking in.