Beyond Black: Race is just one factor that shapes the sensibilities of this trio of lawmakers

Feb 1, 2006

Throughout the year, Illinois Issues will publish occasional mini-profiles of some of the state's rising public officials. 

Late one night in May, state Sen. James Clayborne Jr., a Belleville Democrat, stood on the Senate floor and fielded withering attacks from his fellow African-American senators over his sponsorship of landmark legislation to cap noneconomic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago independent, accused Clayborne of bowing to "downstate ideology'' by pushing a measure that would lead to poor Illinoisans being "maimed.'' Sen. Kimberly 

Lightford of Maywood, a Democrat who chairs the Senate's Black Caucus, noted that Clayborne's district includes impoverished, mostly black East St. Louis, and chided: "I'm sure they don't know that you're down here, capping their opportunity to recover in the event they have serious damages.''

Clayborne listened calmly, then responded with a speech suggesting that black lawmakers and other Democrats were slavishly doing the bidding of the trial attorneys' lobby, which opposed the legislation. In an unusually incendiary comment from one of the Senate's more measured voices, Clayborne compared them to Civil War-era slaves obeying their masters.

"Get off the plantation,'' Clayborne said.

The line sparked what was probably the single hottest moment of racial acrimony in the Senate last year. It also confirmed for both sides of the aisle that Clayborne's race and party affiliation don't mean he can be expected to fall in line on major issues.

"He showed a great deal of leadership and political courage by doing what he did'' on medical malpractice, says Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson of Greenville, who, like other Republicans, teamed with Clayborne to get the legislation approved. "It showed his true mettle, I thought.''

It isn't the first time Clayborne has impressed Republicans and been at odds with fellow Democrats and Black Caucus members. As the only African-American senator from outside the Chicago region, Clayborne's stances on hot-button political issues — medical malpractice, gun control, abortion — often stray from or outright oppose those of his Chicago colleagues. 

Clayborne was born in St. Louis, but only because his mother didn't like the so-called "black hospital" that served African Americans in the family's hometown. So she crossed the Mississippi River to deliver him. Clayborne grew up in East St. Louis when that traditionally mixed-race river town was turning into a mostly black "rustbelt'' community. 

He considers his upbringing there to have been a crucial advantage to him. 

"I saw black lawyers, black doctors, black police officers, so there was never any doubt in my mind that I could accomplish those goals,'' he says. "I felt that if I worked hard, there was nothing I couldn't achieve. If you don't grow up seeing those individuals, you may not have that self-esteem.''

But he balks at being described as a black leader. "Why can't I just be a leader?"

Clayborne received his bachelor's degree in political science from Tennessee State University, got his law degree at the University of Miami, then returned home to become a St. Clair County assistant state's attorney. He later entered private practice and, after the 1995 death of state Sen. Kenneth Hall, an East St. Louis Democrat, accepted an appointment to the Senate. He went on to win two re-election bids. He represents the 57th District.

As chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, Clayborne has been the Senate's point person on utility deregulation, a topic he expects to take much of his time this year. 

Like most downstate Democrats, Clayborne has taken middle-to-right positions on some issues, in part because of the reality of representing a partly rural, socially traditionalist region. He has voted for legislation to protect gun-owner rights, lining up against most Chicago Democrats, black and white. He says he's a proponent of abortion rights, but has supported parental-notification measures. Mindful of the Metro East's post-industrial economic problems, Clayborne's backing of business-oriented economic development mirrors that of many Republicans.

"I've had [Democratic] colleagues complain that there's never been a business incentive program I didn't like,'' Clayborne jokes.

At the same time, Clayborne has embraced more traditionally urban causes close to his roots. He runs a mentoring program for East St. Louis high school boys in which they listen to talks from professional black men — an insurance agent, a business owner, a state police sergeant — in hopes of giving them the kind of examples Clayborne got growing up.

"You strike a balance, politically, in terms of representing your own views and your district's views,'' says Clayborne. "If you don't represent those constituents who sent you to Springfield, you're not going to be there very long.''

He hasn't ruled out running for higher office. "Everybody thinks about higher office,'' he says. But he plans to remain in the Senate for now to have time with his four sons, ages 6 through 19, who are involved in basketball and other activities.

"I'm not willing to give that up at this point.''

Kimberly Lightford's ascension to state politics began with a phone call she received prior to the 1998 primaries. Several Democratic political leaders from the Maywood area wanted her to consider running for a vacant seat in the Illinois Senate's 4th District. She was 29.

"I can't even tell you why they asked me to run,'' says Lightford, who had just been elected village trustee in west suburban Maywood. "I don't know if they thought, 'She's young, we can kind of control her.' They didn't know I was very independent and had family members with political backgrounds.''

With her father, two aunts and other relatives running her campaign, she entered the race as an underdog, so poorly funded that her campaign posters were initially in black-and-white. She nonetheless won the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to winning the office in the heavily Democratic district in western Cook County.

She was seated at age 30 as Illinois' youngest-ever female senator. Two weeks into her term, she was again drafted by more seasoned politicians, this time to chair the Senate Black Caucus. Barack Obama, then a state senator from Chicago, nominated her. She won that first election and has had the job since.

Lightford is realistic about why a new, young lawmaker would be installed in that post above more experienced senators: "I didn't have any baggage. There was some divide there, and I wasn't on either side.''

But from that post, others say, Lightford, now going into her eighth year in the Senate, has staked out her own agenda and style. She has pushed Black Caucus members to hone their issues down to a handful of items they can work on in concert each year, focusing on such high-profile topics as education funding (she currently chairs the Senate Education Committee). Last year, she co-sponsored legislation to expand HIV/AIDS testing in state prisons and spearheaded passage of the state's new regulations on the "payday loan'' industry.

"Kim has shown she is her own person. She came in and hit the ground running,'' says Democratic Sen. Miguel del Valle, an assistant majority leader from Chicago.

Del Valle notes Lightford's continuing efforts to change the state's school funding formula with a controversial proposal to put more reliance on the state income tax than on local property taxes. "All legislators say they're for education reform, but there are certain votes that require political courage, and Kim Lightford has shown she's capable of casting those votes.''

Lightford was born on Chicago's West Side, and moved to Maywood when she was 4. "We were the third African-American family on the block,'' she recalls. Growing up in the mixed-race community, she says, while still visiting relatives in mostly black neighborhoods in Chicago, gave her an early sense of race relations.

She also had early exposure to local Chicago politics through relatives, including a grandmother who was a precinct captain. "They'd have political events at the house, and me and my sisters were hostesses.''

Still, Lightford didn't plan to go into politics herself. She went to Western Illinois University and then the University of Illinois at Springfield with the idea of becoming a math teacher or school administrator. While working on her master's degree in public administration at UIS, she served an internship with the House Democrats and became interested in public policy. After graduating, she ran for and won the seat as village trustee in Maywood.

The biggest change in Lightford's life since arriving in the Senate has been an apolitical one. Her son, Isaiah, will be 5 in July. A single mother, Lightford has brought him with her to Springfield every year during session. "He'll tell you he's the governor,'' she says. "I'm creating a politician.''

Lightford says she is considering going back to school for a doctorate, possibly to return to her earlier goal of a career in education. "There is life after this, I know.''

However, she has no plans to leave politics anytime soon and hasn't ruled out a run at higher office — though she jokes that her thinking on that issue "depends on how I feel that day."

Meanwhile, she remains focused on a Senate career that began with political elders in Maywood suggesting a path she hadn't previously considered.

"I don't know what they saw in a 28-year-old," Lightford says. "Public service is nothing I ever sought. But I believe now it is my purpose."

State Rep. Marlow Colvin, a Chicago Democrat, was pulled over one night last year by two police cars carrying four officers, all white. One of them told him he had been going "a little fast.''  

"I was reaching for my license, and he says, 'Be careful, homey,'" recalls Colvin, the chairman of the House Black Caucus. "The implication was clear.''   

As soon as they discovered Colvin was a legislator, "They handed back my license and said, 'Have a nice night.''' 

Colvin tells the story without showing anger. "It confirmed what I'd already known. In the context of being African American, it happens,'' he says matter-of-factly. "And maybe I was going a little fast.'' 

It's not that Colvin doesn't see racial profiling as a problem. It's been a perennial issue since he arrived in the legislature five years ago, and, like virtually all of his African-American colleagues, he backs efforts to address it. But Colvin says he also believes it's important that the Black Caucus, and black lawmakers in general, aren't defined strictly by "black issues.'' 

"The greatest misconception about the Black Caucus is that we walk in lockstep,'' says Colvin. "We have a wide-ranging set of issues.'' Among them, he says, are decidedly color-blind topics such as senior health care, consumer protection and education funding. 

That broader view of the caucus' mission is part of the reason Colvin's colleagues have made him House Black Caucus chair for the past three years, despite being a relatively new lawmaker.

"Marlow has been an excellent bridge between different generations of politics,'' says House Deputy Majority Leader Arthur Turner, a Chicago Democrat who is a 25-year veteran of that chamber. "He's made great strides with his ability to understand the old guys and relate to the new guys.

"Part of that is his tutelage,'' Turner adds, noting Colvin's early Chicago political training, which literally began in childhood. "He's an old-timer when it comes to being around politicians.''

In fact, the story behind Colvin's arrival in the House is a classic, almost cliched study in machine politics. He was born and raised in Chicago's Chatham-Avalon Park area, a working-class black neighborhood in the city's 8th Ward on Chicago's Southeast Side. His father worked at a factory that made corrugated boxes; his mother was a hotel elevator operator. Colvin and his five siblings attended Catholic grammar schools.  

Among Colvin's childhood friends was Todd Stroger, on of powerful 8th Ward committeeman and future Cook County Board President John Stroger. As children, he and Todd hung out at John Stroger's office. Colvin didn't think of it back then as political training. "It was just a lot of fun for me at that time.''

Later, Colvin started helping out in Stroger's 8th Ward, eventually becoming an assistant precinct captain. Meanwhile, he earned a bachelor's degree from Chicago State University and became an administrator with the Cook County assessor's office. 

Todd Stroger was elected to the House in 1992. He remained there until 2001, when he left to take over as 8th Ward alderman. John Stroger, by then CookCounty president, drafted Colvin to take over his son's House seat. "I didn't ask him for it,'' says Colvin. "One day he just called me up and asked me what my views are on public education and health care.'' 

Colvin was re-elected twice to the 33rd District seat by focusing on issues important to the retired "empty-nesters'' that make up much of his old neighborhood in Chicago.

In the coming year, he says, his top priority will be to address rising home-heating costs. "Chicago is cold, man, and every time gas prices go up, there's another group of people who can't afford to heat their homes.'' As chairman of the House Consumer Protection Committee, he's also exploring possible restrictions on refund loans that some businesses offer consumers — at high interest rates — in anticipation of their income tax refunds.

Colvin says it's "flattering'' when people ask him if he's thought about seeking higher office, though he claims his focus right now remains "the needs of the Southeast Side of Chicago.''

"I feel like I've had some impact,'' he says. "It's comforting when people come up to you in the store and say, 'I'm glad you're doing this.'" 


Kevin McDermott is the Springfield bureau chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

llinois Issues, February 2006