Raoul’s replacement: Inside the political appointment process

Capitol Connection

ILLINOIS (WCIA) — It was the American dream delivered the Chicago way.

Democratic Party leaders from wards in the city’s south side dismissed complaints about residency qualifications to anoint Robert Peters, a 33-year-old college dropout turned campaign operative, as the newest state senator to represent Illinois’ 13th district on Sunday afternoon.

Illinois election code requires that new members elected or appointed to the legislature must live within the district they intend to represent for at least two years before they can take office.

Chicago Board of Election records appear to show Peters changed his residency twice in the last two years. One of the addresses, which he confirmed was his condominium, is located in Pilsen, which is outside of Illinois’ 13th Senate District. Records show the Pilsen condo as his registered address until May of 2017.

Peters insists he lived and voted inside the district during each of the last two elections dating back to November of 2016. He claims he moved out of Pilsen and into his girlfriend’s Hyde Park residence in 2016 and didn’t update his voter registration “until a little bit later.”

Such a technicality was only a minor speed bump on Peters’ ascent to the statehouse in a back room meeting where party bosses picked the longshot community organizer over a number of other candidates who touted professional credentials and political connections of their own.

The snubbed candidates included the son of a sitting Congressman, the nephew of a former Chicago mayor, and a graduate of MIT who lost her statehouse race to Curtis Tarver, an attorney and former aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The Senate seat was last held by Democrats Kwame Raoul and Barack Obama, who both entered the job as accomplished attorneys and who left it to become Illinois’ next Attorney General and to serve in the U.S. Senate, respectively.

Despite objections that he too recently lived outside of the district, Peters was sworn in on Sunday and will serve for the remainder of Raoul’s four-year term, which expires after the 2020 election.

“I definitely understand the pressure,” Peters told WCIA in a phone interview Sunday night. “It is a tall order, but I’m prepared to do it. I want to make sure that I build on the legacy of Obama and Kwame, especially the work that Kwame has done and is going to do.”

But it was party boss Toni Preckwinkle — not Raoul — who flexed her political muscle to tilt the results in Peters’ favor, according to several sources familiar with the closed door selection process.

Peters acknowledges Preckwinkle is his political mentor. He says the powerful Cook County Board President and recently elected Chair of the Cook County Democratic Party took him under her wing at a dark time in his life.

“Right after college, my dad died,” he said. “I was unemployed. I was on some form of the welfare system, and that was one of the hardest things to try to balance. Then a year and a half later, my mom died. So after that, I said, ‘I just have to do work.’”

Preckwinkle hired him on as a campaign field director after he dropped out at Kansas State in 2009. The new job offered him a renewed sense of purpose after financial pressure and struggles with ADHD waylaid his academic pursuits.

That work largely centered around community organizing, networking, and relationship building. He quickly earned a schooling in Chicago politics where who he knew became a form of currency that bought him access and advancement faster than college credits ever could.

In the 2018 primary race for governor, Peters landed a job as the political director for the Daniel Biss campaign. In that role, Peters fostered relationships with progressive political groups to secure their endorsements. Sources who worked with Peters in the Biss campaign say he helped deliver the backing of liberal groups like Reclaim Chicago, The People’s Lobby, MoveOn, and National Nurses United.

His ties to those groups run deep, and his passion for their purpose is cemented in a painful upbringing of his own.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon. I was born deaf with a major speech impediment,” he said, adding that his biological mother was addicted to crack cocaine when she gave him up for adoption. Peters would later lose both adopted parents in tragic fashion. His father, a civil rights attorney, died of cancer. His mother, a social worker, suffered from mental health disorders and died battling addiction.

“If I’m doing anything, I want to be helping people like them,” he said.

His coveted new job in the Illinois Senate, which is technically considered part-time, comes with a $67,836 annual state salary, plus benefits. 

“I’m very honored and excited to have the committee support me, but I’m most excited to do the work,” he said. “I want to earn the trust and the vote of the people of the 13th District.”

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