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State House: Newbie with a plan takes on incumbent in the 38th



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Updated: March 1, 2012 11:20AM

When a newbie with no money or party support takes on an established incumbent who has plenty of both, it’s tempting to dismiss the newbie as naïve, maybe even delusional.

Then you talk to Clifton Graham Jr., who by the usual measures has no chance of prevailing over incumbent state Rep. Al Riley, and you have to give him his due. He’s got a plan.

Graham, 50, is a family man and insurance broker with a long resume of volunteer work in the south suburban 38th Illinois House district. As he campaigns in the district door to door, he’s counting on those long grassroots to put him over.

“I’ve been involved in the community for 40 years,” he said. “The people know me. People in politics know Al Riley but the people don’t know Al Riley.”

Graham is at least half right. People in politics do know Al Riley, who has represented his district in Springfield since 2007, where he’s said to be a quick study. The urban planner and former college professor is endorsed by pretty much every mayor, Democratic township committeeman and fellow state representative in or near the 38th District, as well as by the Illinois AFL-CIO and powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.

But the 59-year-old Riley also can boast of a long history of service in the district, which includes all or parts of Country Club Hills, Flossmoor, Harvey, Homewood, Markham, Oak Forest, Olympia Fields, Tinley Park an Richton Park. Having earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, he was an adjunct professor at Governors State University from 1997 to 2007, a trustee in Olympia Fields and Rich Township and a planning commissioner in Park Forest. He currently is the Rich Township supervisor.

Both candidates calls for lower local property taxes, a regressive form of taxation that they say favors wealthier communities and leaves working-class towns starved for money for their schools. Riley has introduced three bills to change the way schools are funded, and favors a progressive state income tax, rather than the current flat tax, as part of this effort.

Asked what he might do to solve the state’s biggest financial woe — billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities — Riley said the problem wasn’t the public employees’ fault and can’t be solved overnight, but the state might want to consider “a new restricted-purposes revenue source.”

Graham, thinking along the same lines, proposes that new gambling revenues in Illinois, including from a Chicago casino, be shared by all communities within a region. And he would impose new taxes on the financial services industry, push to create partnerships between corporate employers and local schools and colleges, and cut “wasteful” government spending.

What exactly constitutes “wasteful” spending?

Riley’s “double dipping” by holding two government jobs, Graham replied.

Riley is a member of the state board of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, an issue that he says he became passionate about as he worked on local health planning issues over the years. This was a health care problem, he said, that appealed to his practical approach to solving problems.

“It is 100 percent preventable,” he said. “If you don’t drink, you’ll be okay. That’s why I got involved with it.”

Graham, for his part, is a former vice president of a regional branch of the NAACP and founder of the Kevin Staple Foundation, which raised funds for a childhood friend suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Whoever wins the Democratic nomination on March 20 likely will be the district’s next state representative. Nobody is running in the Republican primary.

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