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Meet Kash Jackson, Libertarian Nominee For Illinois Governor

Rachel Otwell / NPR Illinois
Kash Jackson

There are two third party candidates for Illinois governor. And while four names will be on the ballot November 6th (or now, if you choose to vote early) - the efforts to get out messaging is one where odds are certainly stacked heavily against Sam McCann of the Conservative party, andGrayson "Kash" Jackson, running as a Libertarian.

In what's the most expensive statewide race in the nation's history, McCann's and Jackson's campaign funds are hardly comparable to the some $300 million being spent by Democrat JB Pritzker and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. 

Earlier this month, an NBC Chicago round-table had all four candidates on stage. But it's looking like Jackson and McCann will be left out of other debates to follow.

NPR Illinois invited them both to our Springfield station to sit down and talk about their backgrounds, campaigns, and why they are running, against the odds. (It's worth noting, in asurvey put out by UIS & NPR Illinois, over 40% of those who responded said when it comes to the race for governor, they will vote for a third party or are still undecided.)

Today, we hear from Grayson "Kash" Jackson, a Navy veteran who served for 20 years, and a stay-at-home dad:

The transcript for this interview has been edited for length/clarity.

Grayson "Kash" Jackson: So what inspired me to run? It was really my family law case, what I've experienced over four years of litigation fighting to be a father to my children, realizing that the country that I had defended a wasn't really the nation that I believed that it was. The more I went through the process and the more things that I directly experienced, the more I realized that government isn't functioning to do what's in the best interest of the people that it purports to serve.

And there I saw a tremendous amount of impropriety going on directly inside the courts. That kind of led me into, of course, reaching out to other people, looking into support groups and what I found is it's a systemic issue across the entire nation. That just segwayed into me opening up other doors of government and saying, well, what are they doing over here in criminal justice? How are they behaving and treating people over here? 

And I began to really realize there's a lot of unconstitutional legislation that has been passed that is on the books. We got to be able to do better than this and I felt that after 20 years in the military I had the necessary skill sets and talents and I had garnered a tremendous amount of leadership experience, working with diverse groups of men and women, and I knew that I was capable. So, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and take a long shot at it. And here we are today. I'm sitting here talking to you. 

NPR Illinois: When it comes to some of the more alternative political advocacy, there's this thing called the men's rights movement. It postulates men are now being discriminated against even more than women and family law and father's rights when it comes to custody is one of their top issues. Just wondering if you are at all related to that philosophy?

No, I'm not. Many people mislabel me as being a father's rights activist and that's not accurate. What is accurate is that I fight for children and all parents because I know a lot of moms, really great moms out there, that are experiencing it as well. Unfortunately, mothers fall underneath this stereotype that if they don't get custody, there's something wrong with them. That alone should tell us that there is a standard, whether or not it's a written law, there's a standard out there that moms get custody. If we're stereotyping moms for not getting custody, then what's driving that stereotype? The stereotype is that traditionally moms were caretakers and they receive full custody.

In reality, there's a lot of hidden things that people are unaware of, relationships between attorneys and judges and you know, who golfed with who. And I mean there's just all of these things that we don't see and we're not doing right by our families.

And we're going to get to some of the bigger picture topics here. But while we're on the subject of family law, you've been in the news over child support with reports saying you weren't paying what you were ordered by the courts to pay. Bring us up to speed on where that stands, if you will.

Let me rewind for a minute. I have an older son in North Carolina. He and I were apart for pretty much his entire life because I was in the military and his mom and I were separated early when he was one or two. And I paid child support on him for over 12 years with no problems. I have always supported my children. I went through the Lake County court system, in the state of Illinois. At that time they said, okay, well you have two children, that's going to be 28% of your income. But then they add on childcare and extracurricular activities on top of that. So I already had a $500 support order and was paying it, I had paid it for over 12 years. No problem. But now, when they imposed a 28% order, plus childcare plus extracurricular activities, in effect, that meant I had to relinquish 40% of my income, beginning that day that the order was entered.

The average American citizen cannot lose 40% of their income overnight and pay their bills. They can't do it. And I told the judge, I'm going to see you for contempt because you're telling me I have to turn over 40% of my income and I can't afford it. But I said, you know what? What I will do, I'll do childcare five days a week. I'll pick them up from school. I'll take them to activities, I'll do homework, I'll feed them dinner. Mom doesn't have to do anything. I'll drop them off to her house after I've done it all and she can just put them to bed. And the judge said, "No." 

As a result, I began falling behind. Immediately I began falling behind and I fell thousands of dollars behind. Because when you take that much of somebody's income, you have placed an undue burden on them. Here's what a lot of people don't consider: when the family parts ways, the state attempts to ensure that children are living the same lifestyle they were living when the parents were together.

Well, can the average American family right now, can they take on a second mortgage or second rent? The average family? No, they cannot, with no increase in income, no increase in salary whatsoever. That's what's happening because now dad or mom, whomever now has to pay their own rent and their own utilities . Where I get aggravated is we're not providing the same lifestyle for those children. Where they had at one time equal access to both parents, now they don't. Why are we only talking about the money part? We're not talking about what's most important, and that's time with their parents.

Illinois doesn't care about that because what it does is it drives up litigation, because then you're continuously drug in and out of court for contempt, that's more money for attorneys and more time in front of judges and it just continues to drive that cottage industry known as family law. So they don't really care whether or not you can pay it. They don't care if you live on the streets, they could care less.

We've touched on some of the things that have happened in your life. Being a veteran, having to go to court over custody battles and how those things have influenced you. You are a Libertarian of course, and while I realize it's a pretty basic question, could you just tell us what that means exactly and why that party appeals to you?

"We can respectfully disagree and leave it at that. We don't need to pass legislation forcing our belief system on the rest of society and that's what Republicans and Democrats try and do."

It really has to do with the fact that we believe in individual rights: your rights as an individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The current political atmosphere that we have is one that says you have to choose A or B. You either got to be on this conservative team or you have to be on this liberal team. And Libertarians believe you can be whoever the heck you want. We don't really care. But understand that your rights end where my rights begin, and that is respecting the rights of the individual and that's really in essence what moderates and independents are, which is the majority of Illinois. They're just pragmatic people who say, I don't really care how you live. Live however you want. Just don't make me live like that. I don't mind paying some taxes, but whatever you take from me, spend it responsibly.

It's really kind of that simple. We don't want a large government. We think that a minimal style of government is okay. Exactly what that looks like I think really depends on your population size and things to that effect. In large part, libertarianism is not liberal. A lot of people get us confused. They say they hear "libera" and they think liberal. We're liberal, but only on freedom. We want you to be free to live.

Now, why is that appealing? Well, it's very appealing because I've got people that are voting for me and supporting me, not just because they're not happy with the other two candidates, but because they're realizing, wait, that's not really how it should be. It really should be that I get to live how I want to live and my neighbor can live how he or she wants to live and that's okay.

We can respectfully disagree and leave it at that. We don't need to pass legislation forcing our belief system on the rest of society and that's what Republicans and Democrats try and do. They want to force legislation, tell you and your neighbors how to live, and if you don't agree, well you're wrong. Because look here we have a piece of legislation signed into law that says we're right.

I mean at one time slavery was legal. At one time women couldn't vote. That was legal. Legal does not equal moral. So we have to make that distinction. And more and more people are waking up to it, and that's why I have people that supported me, that voted for Trump, voted for Bernie, voted for Hillary. The whole spectrum. People are coming in droves to the campaign.

So we've touched on some of your background and how that's inspired where you're at right now as far as the things you believe in and are fighting for. What are some of the most important issues facing the state as you see it?

On a statewide level, the number one issue is our fiscal crisis. That's what is affecting every single citizen in some way, shape or form. We have anywhere from $130 to $250 billion in unfunded pensions, depending on which credit agency calculates it and what they calculated into. We can take the conservative figure of $130 billion of unfunded pensions. There's our greatest elephant in the room that we have to deal with right here, right now. My solution for that, we need to go ahead and do what the State University Retirement System has been doing for over 20 years. Open up a 401k or 403b style. Allow government employees right now to opt into it if they choose. Now, let me be clear. I didn't say mandate.

I don't want the state to mandate this, but I think that our tier two employees would find it very attractive because they understand while it may be ingrained in our constitution that we have to pay these, if the money isn't there 10, 15, 20 years down the road when they retire, the money's not there. So it can be in the constitution all day long, but if we don't have the revenue necessary to pay these pensions and we're bankrupt, then okay - we've got a great piece of paper that says we're supposed to pay it to you, but we have no money to give it to you. That's going to be an unfortunate reality if we don't change course right now. So open it up right now to all state employees. Give them all the option and then we need to work towards passing that legislation to enroll all new state hires into a defined contribution plan.

The platform on your website promises "to make living in Illinois, affordable for middle-class residents by controlling spending and taxes." What dollar amount could we expect to see you propose cutting in your first budget proposal?

I don't have a dollar figure to be honest with you. And I mean that definitely takes a tremendous amount of analysis to work towards and that's going to take a lot of people that are a lot smarter than me to find that exact figure. And in there you said the taxes, right? It's on my website. That is the largest driver of the outflux of citizens out of this state. Our property taxes are entirely too high.

I live in Lake County. We have the highest effective property tax rate in the state, 17th highest in the nation. And I am personally affected by it. I purchased my home in 2009. My taxes were $4,500. When I sold it in 2015, they had nearly doubled to $9,000, just short of $9,000. It's absolute insanity what people are having to spend and it's immoral when we've got citizens living on fixed incomes and they've been responsible, they pay their houses off, and now they're looking at losing their home because they can't afford property tax. That's a problem. And we have to really restructure our property taxes. 

What does property tax fund? Primarily education. So anywhere from 60 to about 70% goes to fund education. I want to see education, especially teachers salaries and pensions, begin to be funded on a local level. Let the local level decide what they can afford to pay their teachers and what type of pensions that they can afford to give them, because the current state of affairs, we just can't keep up.

And I think in large part it's due to the excessive school districts that we have. Now, let me be clear for your listeners out there that I'm not talking about consolidating physical buildings and busing students, especially in rural Illinois, you know, 45 minutes to an hour. I'm not talking about that.

I'm talking about the administrative overhead, paying administrators these ridiculous six-figure salaries, seven-figure pensions. I want all teachers to be paid well. I want administrators to be paid well. But I think we've gone beyond the point of paying well and we've really gotten into where we're paying ridiculous amounts of money. And as a result, we don't have teachers and students in programs receiving the funding that they should be.

I would rather we hired 10 more teachers and one less administrator. That's just a figure I'm throwing out, but I would like the money to go where it needs to be. We need strong programs in our schools that offer a variety of benefits to our students so that our parents have more options for their children to be able to choose from different programs where we can hire on more teachers.

We can't do that at current levels of funding. And a lot of this is on a local level, the governor should not be dictating and mandating down on a local level what they're paying their teachers or their administrators. That's not the governor's job. My job is to ensure that every student across Illinois receives the same funding. That's what I want. Ensure on a statewide level. I'm doing that. We're treating every student fairly. If every student across Illinois, for example, gets $12,000, I'm doing my job.

On a local level - it's going to be their job. If they want additional revenue to go towards education or something, they should be doing that. But the property tax burden, that is the largest problem in our state. So I would like to begin with a five-year property tax freeze, allow people's wages to kind of begin to catch up, kind of reduce the effect of that high property tax on their family. And then I would like to also incorporate a two-thirds voter referendum statewide.

Local officials are raising taxes, and they're attempting to generate additional revenue on their local economy and they can't afford it. And the people oftentimes are not getting a choice, they're not getting a say in that. And I want them to have the say if the majority of the populous, 66% says, yeah, hey, we can afford that, good to go then. Then they can raise taxes because the majority of the citizens feel it's affordable and they can handle it. And then if they want to allocate those additional resources, that's up to them, they can go ahead and do that.

There is quite an obstacle for third party candidates to get on the ballot. It's required for nominees for Governor to get 25,000 signatures in a petition effort. Generally, people get well over that amount because it's going to be contested. What are your thoughts on ballot access and in general, accessibility for third parties when it comes to their role in state government?

"Now is the time for third parties, now is the time for independents and people to rise up - break the two-party system."

Ballot access is atrocious for third parties. We needed to acquire over 25,000 valid signatures, which in effect meant we needed close to 50,000 to survive a petition challenge that we anticipated. Now, where's this harming voters? It's harming voters because they're only left with two choices. They're left with Republicans and they're left with Democrats because it's virtually, not impossible, but it's extremely difficult for a third party to get on.

And for independents, unless they're wealthy or have some sort of a large financial backing, it's even more difficult to get onto the ballot, and that limits choices for voters. Voters need more choices. 

It's much like how government provides large tax incentives to multi-million dollar corporations and not to John the mechanic with a small auto body shop. They've chosen a winner and a loser in what is supposed to be a free market system. Politics should be the same where we encourage competition, because when we don't, well then when you see like what we have in many of our General Assembly seats where about 50% of those seats go unopposed. They're going unopposed because they're inside these gerrymandered districts that benefit either the Republican or the Democrat living there and somebody from an opposing party knows they don't stand much of a chance of getting in. So why even bother?

And then that allows the mainstream parties to go for whatever crappy candidate ... like the Nazi out of the 3rd Congressional District. A Libertarian in the same district would have needed like 1,500 signatures as opposed to a couple of hundred for Art Jones or whatever the number, a huge disparity. So a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi could get on, but a fiscally conservative, socially compassionate Libertarian wouldn't be able to, or it'd be very, very difficult.

We're not giving voters the choices that they need. If you're an independent or a third party, get the 5,000 signatures. If you get on the ballot, then you know what? You got a ticket to the big show and go in there and fight your best fight.

And then one of the perennial things we hear about third party candidates is that they "steal" votes from parties that are seen as legitimate, of course meaning the Democratic and Republican parties. Are you hearing rhetoric out there about the idea that you could be stealing votes from either candidate JB Pritzker, a Democrat and Republican Governor, Bruce Rauner?

Of course, we get it plenty - all of the time. I hear, "You're just going to split the vote. You're stealing votes." But let's just go ahead and address some of those stereotypes and that misinformation. Number one, I don't steal anything. I earn every single thing that I get, including every vote. I've slept in the back of a Ford Focus at the DuQuoin County Fair for three days. I've endured tremendous heat and humidity and mosquitoes at some of these events. And no campaign staff. Look, I'm working my tail off across the state. I don't have millions of dollars to flood people's social media and Youtube, and the radio airwaves, I don't have it, and we want to get big spending out of government. 

Look, I'm not going to steal anything. What I'm going to do is I'm going to win over voters from the Democratic side, from the Republican side, from the moderates, independents, undecided. I'm winning them over with my message and with my work ethic, with my authenticity and my dedication of what I'm doing. I really believe that now is the time for third parties. Now is the time for independents to rise up. Break the two-party system, and I believe in Americans. Look, I'm a little bit of an idealist. I believe in Americans.

I believe that we founded and formed this nation on the premise of individual liberty. Men and women were willing to die for that and you have to have that type of conviction in your heart. If you want change bad enough for you and your family, then you resolve yourself that you're going to do what is necessary up to and including changing your vote from your typical Republican or Democrat, to "I'm going to take a chance on this guy because I like what he says."

It's been about a year now since the #MeToo movement went viral and it's had consequences here in Illinois within state government. People have lost jobs and there have been task forces that are looking at different ways to address sexual harassment in the workplace. I'm wondering if this is an important issue when it comes to your campaign and what your thoughts are?

The Inspector General's Office for the General Assembly sat vacant for over two years, and a lady by the name of Denise Rotheimer from up in Lake County, she had filed some complaints against Ira Silverstein and they sat on a desk covered with dust, and come to find out there were several complaints that have been filed against these General Assembly members for things that went uninvestigated. It is completely unacceptable that the people of Illinois did not know, number one, that this office is sitting vacant. Nobody's inspecting these complaints. And I think a lot of it has to do just with the climate of politics in Illinois.

It's pay to play games. It's, I rubbed your back, you rub mine, you cover me, I cover you, with very little transparency. And when we do find that somebody has done something improper there are slaps on the hand, and then typically it's okay. Just go retire silently, right? Just kinda, you know, off with you. And we'll move onto our next one.

There should be criminal prosecution for that. There should be an investigation into the General Assembly as to why that seat sat vacant and somebody should be held responsible for the real victims out there or potential victims who did not have these concerns addressed.

And, and as a result of that, let's just say that they're factual. Somebody was sexually harassed or assaulted or anything else, then the offender is still left in place to continue victimizing other people. That is unacceptable. And I don't know why we're not hearing more about it. More people should be held accountable because I want to know why was that seat sitting vacant for two years? Who is responsible? Why didn't we hold them accountable? Why isn't there a public hearing unfolding right now? How many people were negatively affected?

The Chicago Public Schools is another great example of students being sexually harassed, raped, molested. I haven't seen anything happening out of it. Very, very little through the airwaves about the CPS system. And so that tells me we have an entire political climate that finds that it's okay, it's acceptable, it's just kind of Illinois politics at its finest, and we're not going to change course. I don't believe that. 

I was in the military for 20 years. We take those things very, very seriously. We take immediate action and frankly, I just want to see a lot more transparency and we hear that term all the time. Transparency.

I want to put cameras in and a closed circuit television into every legislator's office. I want to install them down in the General Assembly. I want people to see and hear everything that's occurring with their local officials, with our state officials. I want to have a Facebook feed going right out of the governor's office so you can listen to my phone calls with the speaker of the House. Listen to what I'm saying. I don't have anything to hide. So if you have nothing to hide, and I will not at all advocate for this on a private level, okay, let's be clear about fourth amendment issues, but on a government level, we're not dealing with top-secret material here. We're dealing with taxes and finances and state law and statutes and on and on and on. We should be completely transparent.

And you know what, if there's this great Facebook feed coming out of the governor's office and people are tuning in - I'm going to be accountable to the people and we should set that standard for all of our political offices.

And so your name now, Grayson "Kash" Jackson, that was the result of a name change. We hear a lot about political branding these days. Was the name change perhaps an attempt to strengthen your brand or political identity?

I was raised by my maternal grandparents and their last name was Jackson. I didn't know my dad's side of the family until I was about 22 years old and in the military. That was the first time I ever met my father. First time I ever met my paternal grandmother. My paternal grandfather had already passed and that's where I began to learn more about my family. As my time in the military was ending, I grew more of a relationship with my father. I grew one for a short period of time with my grandmother before she passed away. And I wanted to be able to pay tribute to both sides of my family.

It had an impact on my life and influenced who I was as a man. And on top of that, leaving the military, I really felt compelled that, you know, look, this isn't just an opportunity for me leaving the military to write a new chapter in my life. I saw it as an opportunity to write my own book. That I can decide who I want to be, what I want to be, what I want to do, and it's all mine. Like I'm in control of my destiny. And in all honesty, that was the first time I'd felt like that in my entire life.

Being in the military, there are a lot of restrictions there on what you can say, what you can do, everything. There's a lot of restrictions. And I never truly felt like I was the man that I was intended to be. And so I said, you know what, I'm writing a brand new book and I'm the author of the book and I get to choose the characters, their names, who they are, what they do. I took ownership of my own life and part of that ownership was my name of who I want to be, and so I chose the name Grayson "Kash" Jackson.

Grayson I simply chose because it was unique and I felt that it suited me and just who I was as a man. My middle name cash with a "K" - my paternal grandparents played folk music all over the country and were big Johnny Cash fans, but I couldn't steal from the original, so I spelled it with a k. And then Jackson because my maternal last name was Jackson. And that's how I came to it.

We know that this is shaping up to be the most expensive governor's race in Illinois history. Together JB Pritzker and Governor Bruce Rauner are spending hundreds of millions of dollars. You're clearly working with quite a bit less money here. What are your thoughts when it comes to campaign finance reform and the way money plays a role in politics?

How dumb are they gonna look, when a blue collar guy will beat two men that spent over $300 million dollars, how dumb are they going to look? What Illinois will succeed in doing if they choose that I'm the best man for the job and they elect me, what they're going to do is they're going to set the precedent for campaign finance reform without ever having passed one piece of legislation. They will, in fact, send a ripple effect, not only across the nation but across the world - that we're fed up and tired of people thinking that how much money they have or how politically connected they are will determine their success in running for this office or an office similar to this.

That you know what? These offices were intended for our carpenters and plumbers and our teachers and our librarians and our homemakers. These offices were not intended and structured for simply the wealthy. I'm going to be in the first NBC televised debate and I'm pretty certain I'm the first candidate, certainly libertarian, in gubernatorial history to be in a televised debate on a major news network.

The opportunity exists for Illinois to send that message to our legislators and throughout the nation that we will not tolerate our seats being purchased. It's really a travesty to me to see that we have people living homeless on the streets. We have a people going without. I did a sleep-out in Chicago with a local veteran group to raise awareness for the homeless veteran epidemic in Chicago. And I stayed out on the streets in January or February.

"The mere fact that you would even consider spending that kind of money to run negative campaign ads against another person and not choose to save somebody's life with it instead, says volumes to me."

And we have people that are living in these conditions and we have two men that have tremendous financial capability. The mere fact that you would even consider spending that kind of money to run negative campaign ads against another person and not choose to save somebody's life with it instead says volumes to me. I think that I simply live in a different world and I'm not judging them because they're wealthy and I'm not. I'm simply saying that from where I grew up and where I come from, I would have spent that money helping people. Because anything that I got to say to JB Pritzker or Bruce Rauner, I can do it on the debate stage. And if people want to know how I think about them, they can tune into one of my virtual town halls.

One of the issues that's out there right now is recreational marijuana and whether or not the state is going to head in the direction to legalize. What are your thoughts and if you could tie this at all to criminal injustice in general - we know a lot of people have been charged and gone to prison for marijuana-related crimes. Can you give us your perspective on those issues?

The first piece of this conversation that needs to be had isn't about how much revenue we can generate from the legalization of cannabis. The very first conversation piece that should be had when talking about cannabis is when are we going to restore the freedom to those people incarcerated for a victimless crime? That's the first conversation that should be had. Call it a task force or whatever you want to call it, but we should be immediately identifying people right now, even without the legalization of cannabis. Governor Bruce Rauner could begin a pardoning of those that are only incarcerated for a victimless crime such as possession or growing of cannabis or distribution, and begin to bring those people back to their families. Because if they never harmed somebody, if they never harm anybody's property, that's the first conversation piece that should be had.

Secondary to that is then addressing criminal justice reform. Cannabis altogether should be legalized recreationally, medicinally, industrially. What I don't want to see happen, I don't want to see government develop a monopoly or develop a system that only large corporations can afford the permitting fees for a grow facility. Okay? We've been incarcerating large numbers of people using them basically in indentured servitude, in working for the state. And that is unacceptable to me.

What we'll see oftentimes is, only these large corporations can get these grow facilities going and afford the permitting and the lotteries. And it's kind of again, a pay to play scheme. Absolutely not. Okay. This should go all the way down to home growers. People that want to treat themselves with medicinal cannabis, I mean if they want to use it for cooking, because there are restaurants out there now that have infused ingredients with cannabis, they should all be able to get into that market.

It shouldn't be this, you know, grotesquely regulated industry. Look, go, grow your cannabis, be responsible, have fun, be a productive member of society, open a business. Certainly, we can go ahead and incorporate some sort of a sales tax on that, on that cannabis product. Expand our economy, open it up - kind of like a tourist industry, like what a Colorado and Washington state's doing, and let's do right by all people. And not just by the wealthy.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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