Q&A: Cook County Board candidate Abdelnasser Rashid on taxes, surveillance, and campaign finance reform | Bleader

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Q&A: Cook County Board candidate Abdelnasser Rashid on taxes, surveillance, and campaign finance reform

Posted By on 10.31.18 at 04:00 PM

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click to enlarge COURTESY OF ABDELNASSER RASHID CAMPAIGN
  • Courtesy of Abdelnasser Rashid Campaign

The Cook County Board of Commissioners, which legislates for the second-largest county in the country and oversees a budget poised to hit $6 billion, is one of the rare Republican enclaves in Chicago-area politics. Though the 17-member board is dominated by Democrats, there are four Republicans representing suburban districts. Come next week, though, that number may be down to three.

Abdelnasser Rashid, 29, is a Democratic candidate from the village of Justice, which lies to the southwest of the city between Bridgeview and Willow Springs. Rashid's running to represent Cook County's 17th District against incumbent Sean Morrison of Palos Park. This is actually Morrison's first election too—he was appointed to the seat in 2015, after the resignation of Elizabeth Gorman.

The district, which stretches along the western border of the county from Des Plaines to Orland Park, is home to a growing numbers of Arab-Americans and Muslims. Earlier in the campaign season, polling showed that Rashid, who's backed by a coalition of progressive groups, had a narrow lead over Morrison. The latter came under fire in June when the Sun-Times reported that he was defending his having vouched for a former employee of his security business while the man, Anthony M. Martin, faced charges of soliciting teenage girls for sex. (Martin was allowed to travel despite the charges pending, only to be arrested in Colorado and again charged with using the Internet to solicit an underage girl for sex.)

Rashid, a Harvard graduate who worked on Jesús "Chuy" García's 2015 mayoral campaign and Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign, also spent two years as deputy chief of staff to Cook County Clerk David Orr. He hopped on a phone call with the Reader this week to discuss what that job taught him about government administration, his views of our broken property tax system, and what might be done to improve public understanding of the role of Cook County in our lives.

What do you say to people who have no idea what a county commissioner is to explain why it's a position worth caring about?

This is a great question, and I get it all the time. Cook County is definitely under the radar. People know they have a member of Congress in D.C., they know they have a state senator and a state rep in Springfield. They often don't know they have a county commissioner or what they do.

There are 17 commissioners who pass ordinances—they pass laws. They're responsible for governing the Cook County health and hospital system, which is a big chunk of the budget. They're responsible for overseeing the criminal justice system—Cook County is an arm of the state when it comes to the administration of justice, so everything from the judiciary, prosecutors, and public defenders to the Cook County Sheriff's Office and the Cook County Jail. The county also oversees property tax administration: the assessor's office, the clerk, the treasurer, the recorder [of deeds], the board of review—the entire property tax system is administered by Cook County. It's a small part of your property tax bill, but Cook County makes sure the system is actually running.

Then, of course, the forest preserve is the responsibility of Cook County commissioners. Even though it's technically a separate unit of government, the commissioners are volunteer commissioners for the forest preserve as well. And there are other items: running elections, Cook County has a huge role to play in economic development and transportation—that's not necessarily a constitutional obligation, but it is something the county needs to do given its size and the needs of the residents. So that's what I tell people.

What's a lesson from working with David Orr, who's one of the most widely respected local politicians, that you'd like to apply to legislating for the county?

I learned so much from David Orr, I absolutely loved working with him. I consider him one of the best public servants that Illinois has had. He's someone who's been able to combine understanding policy and administration. He has a big-picture view of what his office is supposed to be doing for elections, for the property tax system, for ethics and transparency . . . and he also pays attention to the details of the office, makes sure that it's running efficiently, that people are treated well, that customers are getting good service, that the office is accessible, that services are offered in different languages. What I learned from him is how important it is to hire strong, competent folks to the offices we're working in.

The clerk's office directly impacted my choice to run for county commissioner—I got to know Cook County [while working there]. Like a lot of other people, it's not like I knew everything about Cook County growing up. But being in the clerk's office, working on our budget, working with commissioners, seeing everything that the county has done I really began to appreciate and understand its role in our lives. The clerk's office gave me the exposure to Cook County that has allowed me to actually run for this office.

I was a senior official in the clerk's office, and that gave me direct experience managing people, making decisions on policies, working with our labor partners, and basically having to work every single day to provide services to residents. As commissioner, that's going to be critical to me—helping [residents] navigate the property tax system, helping them navigate the criminal justice system.

You've talked a lot about the need to make our property tax system more fair during your campaign and have supported Fritz Kaegi in his bid for the assessor's office. Making the system fair necessarily means rightsizing assessments, and as a result, wealthier property owners who've been systematically underassessed for years will have to pay more in property taxes. How are you preparing to deal with their pushback?

I think it's very simple. Assessments are supposed to be accurate, and you might be upset that your assessment for your downtown skyscraper was suddenly rightsized, as we expect to happen, but that's the right thing to do. I think there certainly will be some people, some of the wealthiest people in Cook County, who will see an increase and they may not be happy, but it's a matter of basic fairness, and I think they'll come to understand that.

The other thing is: accurate assessments and consistently accurate assessments create an environment for investment. Investors don't want to come to the Chicago real estate market when they don't know what to expect from property taxes, as is the case now. So it's actually a deterrent to investment when they don't know what's going to happen, whether one year property taxes are gonna be high, the other year low—they can't predict what profits they're going to make. And so rightsizing might decrease their profits a bit, but they will have predictability, and that creates a more positive business environment. A lot of these folks who are going to be directly impacted by this have been pushing to fix the property tax system themselves, because of what I just mentioned about the business environment. So there's strong support for fixing assessments even for many folks in the real estate business.

You've also talked about the need for progressive revenue streams for county government. The only progressive tax the county can levy is the property tax. But the commissioners froze it in 1994 so it's paying for a smaller and smaller chunk of the county budget over time. Commissioners haven't even wanted to increase the levy by the rate of inflation—which the county's entitled to under the freeze. What's your position on unfreezing the property tax? Or even just taking the inflationary growth?

I think we have to get assessments right first in order to even have a conversation about the property tax freeze. I'm completely against telling some homeowner in Orland Park or in Markham that the county needs more dollars from you when you're already dramatically overassessed. This is gonna take a little bit of time, so I think it's wrong to talk about lifting the property tax freeze when our assessments are so unfair.

OK, but the county has an ongoing structural deficit—there's no hole in next year's budget, but it's going to continue being a problem in the future. Besides property taxes, do you see any other potential progressive sources of revenue that are actually in the county's power to procure?

President Preckwinkle has made clear that the 2019 budget does not include any new tax increases. Moving forward we do need to understand that Cook County is directly impacted by policy-making decisions at the state and federal level. When the state moves toward a graduated income tax, that will help Cook County. If Congress repeals Obamacare or makes changes to the health-care system, that can hurt Cook County and put taxpayers on the hook for more money. But that is all looking toward 2020 and beyond. Right now the 2019 budget will be balanced without any tax increases.

I do think we need to look at how we use the forest preserves. I think we need to do more to attract residents to them, there's opportunity for economic growth. Progressive revenue is certainly an important thing to think about, but it's also important to look at where we can achieve some cost savings that don't hurt workers, like the way we combined the clerk's office with the recorder of deeds office. This saves $2 million in administrative redundancies, and there will be other savings because of streamlining technology. I also support merging the Cook County Clerk's election division with the Chicago Board of Elections for the same reasons. I think those can be one office, they could do the job just fine like other large counties do—that's estimated to save up to $10 million a year, according to the Civic Federation.

What's your position on Countering Violent Extremism, which has been developed as an anti-terrorism program by the federal government (and with which Cook County is involved) but has also been criticized for expanding surveillance of Muslim communities? Are you concerned about it given the history of FBI surveillance of Muslims in Cook County?

I think our federal government needs to understand that they're not going to address national security by profiling Arabs and Muslims. And it's unconstitutional, it's illegal, it's wrong, and it's ineffective. I think too often the CVE programs are a cover for that exact type of community surveillance.

CVE could mean many different things, and I think it's really important that we understand what specifically the county's role is. As commissioner I'd be interested in getting clarity from the Department of Homeland Security in Cook County and other offices as to what projects they're participating in relating to CVE. I will certainly ask questions to make sure that we are not profiling people, and if we are I'll call for us to end participation in these programs.

Is there anything you could do as commissioner to improve voter turnout for these elections?

I think as commissioner the most important thing I can do is to give voters confidence in the work that I do, to be accessible to people, for them to know that I'm transparent about my work and doing my job well and that I'm committed to serving them. I think building public confidence in our elected officials and government is one of the most important things we can do to strengthen our democracy. When everyone's' perception of Cook County is that it's "Crook County," when everyone's perception of Cook County is that it's all about corruption and money going down the drain, people have little incentive to participate in the political process, unfortunately.

There's one more obvious thing: I support small-donor financing. We need to reform our campaign finance system. Until we pass a constitutional amendment or do something to undo the damage from Citizens United, we need to rely on local measures like small-donor campaign financing to incentivize elected officials and candidates to actually seek support from the communities they're trying to represent, rather than seek large amounts of dollars from the politically connected, wealthy corporations, and special interest groups. Our political system right now is inundated with money, and that money drowns out the voices of ordinary people, and we need to do something to curb the influence of money in politics. I could do that specifically as a commissioner by supporting small-donor financing at the county level.

So in essence, creating a county ordinance that would regulate campaign donations for county elections and provide public financing?

Yes, there are existing models, like New York City has small-donor financing. Basically it's an opt-in system where a candidate commits to not accepting any donations above a certain dollar amount. If you commit to that, then any money you receive up to [$175] is matched six to one. So a $50 donation turns into a $300 donation.

And candidates who don't opt in could still take donations in any amount?

Correct. This doesn't completely solve [the problem], but it's one step to allow candidates who don't have access to large amounts of money to still be competitive by raising dollars from their constituents. It doesn't eliminate the ability of big money to still enter the political process, but it does give grassroots candidates more of a chance to compete.

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