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State House: 2 compete in tight race in 26th

Kenny Johnson

Kenny Johnson

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Updated: March 29, 2012 8:04AM

In what will likely be one of the tightest races for a Chicago seat in the Illinois House — and among the most expensive — two South Side candidates have split Chicago’s black political establishment into two camps.

Leading the way in endorsements and campaign donations in the 26th District Democratic primary is wunderkind Christian Mitchell. The 25-year-old University of Chicago grad and policy wonk won the early backing of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, his boss until last November, and Ald. Will Burns (4th). Burns gave up the 26th District seat last year. Preckwinkle and Burns donated $25,000 each to Mitchell last September, a large and crucial early boost.

Kenny Johnson, a 41-year-old advertising executive and entrepreneur, says others might have been scared off but he jumped in, trying to best his second-place finish to Burns in a five-way race in 2008. Johnson, of the South Loop, also ran unsuccessfully for 2nd Ward alderman in 2007.

The district covers a long narrow strip running from the Gold Coast to 91st Street, touching parts of nine wards and crossing the Loop, the South Loop, Bronzeville, Washington Park, Hyde Park, South Shore and South Chicago. Neither the appointed incumbent nor any Republicans are running.

Johnson acknowledges he is not a traditional outsider but when asked what sets him apart, he noted his “independence,” a clear jab at Mitchell. “I’m not beholden to anyone,” Johnson told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Still, Johnson has racked up many endorsements, including U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., his boss from 1996-1999; U.S. Rep. Danny Davis; three aldermen in the district; four state reps; the Chicago Teachers Union; AFSCME, and Laborers Local 1001. He has raised about $53,000, including a $27,000 personal loan.

Mitchell, of Bronzeville, dismisses Johnson’s jab. “In the legacy and tradition of people in this seat, I’m going to read every bill, look at each proposal on its merits. I’m going to fight for reform, for good government,” said Mitchell, who worked for two years as a South Side and south suburban community organizer before joining Preckwinkle’s senior staff last May as director of outreach and external relations. He also ran Burns’ aldermanic campaign.

“I’m sure there are some people who invest with the expectation that I’ll vote down the line,” he said. “But that’s not how Toni [Preckwinkle] and Will [Burns] operate, that’s not the legacy of where we all come from.”

Added Burns: “I’m not interested in talking to Christian about every vote he’ll cast. I don’t have time for that. . . . Toni doesn’t have time. We want to send someone down there who will do a good job. That’s why we’re supporting Mitchell.”

Mitchell has $146,000 in campaign donations to spend and a longer list of endorsements than Johnson, including Gov. Pat Quinn; U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush; Secretary of State Jesse White; Cook County Clerk David Orr; four aldermen; seven state reps; the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, and 10 unions, including Chicago Firefighters, UFCW and SEIU Illinois State Council. He’s also backed by progressive organizations such as IVI-IPO, Equality Illinois and the Sierra Club.

A poll released by Johnson on Monday had him up 8 points — 29 percent to Mitchell’s 21 percent. But the race is still wide open, with 50 percent of the 400 likely voters who were polled undecided. Johnson’s lead shrank from a 13 percent margin in November, when a poll released by his campaign showed that 75 percent of voters were undecided.

To differentiate himself, Johnson emphasizes his experience and contacts in business, government and among nonprofits (he sits on two boards), saying he’s deeply rooted in Chicago. “These have all shaped who I am in terms of being able to get things done for Chicago and Illinois,” said Johnson, who does “experiential marketing,” such as party promotions tailored to minorities and Millennials.

Mitchell acknowledges his shorter career but notes the depth of his public sector experiences, including drafting two bills that became law while he was a community organizer and working with Preckwinkle to balance the county budget at a time of declining revenues and rising need.

He grew up the child of a single mom in the western suburbs. “So as I look at budget crises I know we have to make reforms. . . . But we can’t balance the budget on the backs of working people,” he said.

The two aren’t far apart on the issues, though Mitchell, who has a degree in public policy, is more of a technocratic in the mold of Preckwinkle. He’s a devotee of “performance management,” a system for measuring everything government does to get the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

Both are open to extending the recent state income tax increase beyond 2014, gay marriage and a shift to a progressive income tax.

Both oppose a bill to reduce pensions for public employees. Mitchell rejects it because it was developed without broad input. Still, he is adamant something must be done to reduce the state’s massive pension liability, including looking at contribution levels and cost of living increases and spreading out the state’s pension payments over time.

Johnson says the pension bill is unconstitutional and wants a negotiated solution, though he doubts the unions “will forfeit money they are owed because politicians didn’t do the right thing.” He says the state can whittle away at its massive pension bill by curbing pension abuses and luring more businesses to Illinois.

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