The slender, soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair somehow seems taller than his 6-foot, 1-inch frame, and while often serious as he points to problems in state government, he occasionally slips into a smile that seems so genuine you suspect it’s always there beneath the surface, even as he ponders complex answers to grave problems.
State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, in March announced his candidacy for Illinois governor, and the former University of Chicago math professor acknowledges and embraces what’s ahead, from critical challenges for Illinois to formidable opponents in the Democratic primary next March.
Biss, 39, is counting on everyday Illinoisans to rise and shine and smile despite billionaire Gov. Bruce Rauner and the field of Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls: southern Illinois school superintendent Bob Daiber, Chicago businessman Chris Kennedy, Chicago venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar.
Biss’ slogan is “It’s about us,” and thus far the sentiment seems to touch regular Illinoisans who appreciate his remark that “Decisions are being made about us, without us.”
Illinois needs to change its overall approach to governing, Biss says, from transactional to transformational – from making deals based on blatant or secret quid pro quo, this-for-that arrangements to acting in the public interest.
“We need a bold, progressive agenda and a movement to enact it, a movement of the people willing to rise up and withstand all the power of that money and the political machine and build a government that works for us.”
Biss has served one term in the state House of Representatives and has been in the state Senate since 2013. His six years in state government give him a sober assessment of past failures and a strong streak of independence.
“Illinois has real problems,” he says, “ – our debt, our political dysfunction and our history of corruption. We are all in this so we all need to be part of the solution.”
The typical Illinoisan may be ready to join together to seek solutions. Rauner’s disapproval rating is 60 percent, said a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll. Oddly, House Speaker Mike Madigan, D-Chicago, isn’t far behind, with a 58 percent disapproval rating, according to the same poll.
The state Republican Party tries to link Biss to Madigan, which Biss finds a bit amusing.
“If Mike Madigan had had his way, I wouldn’t have been a State Representative,” says Biss, who in 2011 introduced House Joint Resolution Constitutional Amendment 20, which would impose term limits of 10 years on the legislature’s leaders, a measure that would force Madigan – speaker for 32 of the last 34 years – out of his post.
“The legislature is too tightly controlled by four individuals who are not accountable to most citizens,” Biss says. “We need to make the legislative process more responsive by ensuring that we hear fresh ideas from new leaders, which is vitally important to how the legislative process takes shape.”
However, he continues, “We can’t solve all our problems by focusing on one individual.”
One focus Biss offers is Illinois’ flat tax, established in the Constitution, which he says fails to fairly spread the burden across citizens’ abilities to contribute to the costs of government operations and programs.
“We have the fourth-most-unfair tax system in the country,” Biss says. “We tax the middle class and the working poor more, and the richest Illinois residents – the beneficiaries of two generations of all the economic growth – aren’t being asked to pay their fair share.”
Another focus is an internal Democratic political pattern.
“The Democratic Party has been making the same mistake for years,” he says “focusing only on districts they consider ‘competitive’ right now. They put all their resources there. Instead, they should invest everywhere [to] build a deep bench everywhere.
“We have to build local candidates for townships, school boards, city councils and so on, so when the time comes, there’ll be an apparatus there, ready,” he continues. “If you just ignore parts of the country, it’ll be too late when a district becomes competitive.”
The primary race must be competitive, too, Biss says. After Pritzker in April donated $7 million to his own campaign, Biss says, “My wife and I sat down over that weekend and we talked about it, and on Monday I wrote a $25 check to my campaign.”
An observer chuckles, then Biss adds, “Within days we received hundreds of contributions from all over the state, from people willing to chip in, willing to donate as a way to improve their lives – a grassroots way.”
A grassroots approach extends to Biss’ relationships with those he disagrees with, whether voters or lawmakers.
“I talk with anyone – everyone – because I feel we can have conversations if you support or oppose something out of principle,” he says. “We need principles. And backbones. I’ll work with anyone if the talk is based on principles and the public interest, concentrating on core values.”
Biss’ campaign web site is danielbiss.com.