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Rep. Robin Kelly supports the Green New Deal and strong gun control in IPM interview

Rep. Robin Kelly discusses her re-election efforts and policy proposals in an interview with IPM.

URBANACongresswoman Robin Kelly is up for re-election in Illinois’ 2nd congressional district. She’s running against Republican challenger Thomas Lynch.

Illinois Newsroom’s Harrison Malkin spoke with Kelly about ways to curb gun violence, the Green New Deal, and a range of other policy issues.

Malkin: First, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your political background. Some of our viewers don’t know you and now you’re in their district.

Kelly: All right. Well, as you said, I’m Robin Kelly. I represent the 2nd congressional district of Illinois. I was a special election. So, I’ve been in the seats since April 2013. So next year will be my 10th anniversary. Prior to that, I was the chief administrative officer for Cook County, the second largest county in the United States. And prior to that, the chief of staff for Alexi Giannoulias. And then I was also a state rep for four years. And before that, (I) worked for local governments, I’ve actually worked on every level of government. But my background is really social service. I would say in counseling, and just really, I’ve been in the human service business, I think my whole life.

Malkin: I know you studied psychology at Bradley University. How has that informed your politics?

Kelly: Well, it’s funny, I have an undergrad in Psych, a Master’s in Counseling, and a PhD in Political Science. And I always say the psych and counseling helped me much more on this job than the PhD in Political Science. Because you meet all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds, whether in your party or not in your party. And then also you have all kinds of constituents, you know, and my district is so diverse. Urban, suburban and rural. And that will be exacerbated when I come into my new district in January.

Malkin: Do you think it’s created some more compassion as well, when you’re talking to voters and thinking about the issues facing people in your newly redrawn district?

Kelly: You know what, when I looked at my district before, and now I really look at five things. Most people want a roof over their head, a job, healthcare. They (want to) live in safe communities and want (a) good education for their children…I lived in Peoria many, many years. So…coming from Manhattan in New York City, that was rural, to me. Even though Peoria has changed some, you know. Now I live in the suburbs, so I’ve kind of had a taste of many different lifestyles. We, my grandparents, had a small farm in Southern (New) Jersey, so I’ve lived in more, you know, rural parts, at least for the summer. So I think (I) already had the compassion. And I think that Psych and counseling helped me with that…(I) try to look at people as people.

Kelly: Can you just say a bit more about the newly redrawn district and what it’s going to be like representing, you know, people in rural areas, and also people in Chicago. And then maybe your experience as well in Central Illinois, bridging that divide?

Kelly: Again, you know, I try to look at the simple things that people want…I’m very active in the gun violence prevention space. And I know, as I go south in my district, you know, people may have a different take, but it’s not that I’m against guns. I just am against what has been going on for too many years now. And it’s spreading more and more and more. But I, again, I’m urban, suburban, and rural. And I’ve gotten very much involved with my farmers. I have a barn home meeting every summer and…farmers come, Democrat, Republican, Independent, and I do a lot of listening. 

I’ve won awards from the Farm Bureau. So I just want people to know that, you know, don’t feel like I’m not going to support you and your issues, because I don’t think that, you know, farmers would say that across the board. Like in my urban areas, they talk about crime, but in my suburban areas, in even Kankakee…people talk about taxes and education. And each group talks about that. It’s really not as different, as you know, people think.

Malkin: I think one thing that impacts everybody is the economy. And this summer, there’s been a lot of talk on inflation, especially as certain professions’ wages don’t keep up. And I’m curious what policies you’d like to see, especially on the federal level to increase job growth, increase wages for people, and overall boost the economy?

Kelly: Well, I mean, our jobless rate is very low. So we’re doing well. But it’s just the idea of how much you get paid in those jobs that you have…But as you said, the pay raises have not kept up with inflation. And inflation is a global issue. So, you know, we can do some things, but it’s still, you know, a global issue. Definitely, we should push, and we have $15 an hour, that’s still not a whole lot. 

But I think we need to raise, you know, the minimum wage federally. And I think that will help some, but I think some of the things that we’ve put in place, like just the bills we’ve passed, like the infrastructure bill. That’ll put a lot of people to work, you know, tunnels, bridges, you know, clean water, broadband, for everybody. I think what we just did with the inflation act, lowering the cost of medicine for some folks and what we did with the environment that will put people to work, and not just (in) minimum wage jobs.

We’ve done things over the last few years that improve, you know, workforce development, just the training that people have. So, I mean, I think things will get better, I know that I go grocery shopping, also, you know, I put gas in my car. But I think that, you know, everything is not in our hands…we really are, you know, a part of the world and what’s going on in the world. And COVID has had a nasty impact, not only healthcare, but as far as the economy…And what we pass(ed) as far as like CHIPS and manufacturing and all of that. I think that people will see the fruits of our labor.

Malkin: Just to follow up real quick, though, would you support a higher national minimum wage. Like $15? Or $20?

Kelly: I’ve always supported (the) $15 minimum wage, I’ve always supported that. Yeah, I’ve always supported it. But again, even with that, it’s still tough on people. You know, I remember my son, when he went to work…when he started, he was making $14.10. And every once in a while, you know, I had to help them out, you know, so not everybody’s lucky to have, you know, a parent or someone that can help them out. 

So yeah, that is (a) big concern. And then the cost of housing and, you know, it’s hard for kids to move out. And, you know, those kinds of things. And even, I know, no one feels sorry for Congress. But, you know, we either pay two rents, two mortgages. Or rent and mortgage because we have to have a place in DC. And it’s very expensive to live in DC. Very expensive.

Malkin: Yeah, I mean, when I was in Danville, which again, is a new part of your district, people said jobs and housing are the two biggest concerns. So it’s good to hear that response from you. And one thing that I think is both economic and also (related to) agriculture (and) climate change is the natural gas pipeline in Pembroke Township. 

And some of our viewers don’t know about it. So, can you just describe what that is, and the costs and benefits of that project?

Kelly: Sure. When I first went to Pembroke, which is about 10 years ago now…I mean, I’m sure I’ve driven through it before, but as the congressperson, I was so surprised that, you know, the state of the area where, you know, people had outhouses, they use propane gas, many, most did not have internet or broadband access or anything like that. And even though I know people want to move to a whole different way, you know…this will help them not only residentially, but help them with attracting business…

One of my staff (members) went down and he was in, you know, all the meetings representing me, and then we made a presentation to them, you know, so I mean, I think it’s a good thing for the town. I know some people had issues with it, but they had to have some movement in a better direction.

Malkin: Right. So, how would you reconcile or react to some of the environmental, and I think, eminent domain concerns as well from some farmers.

Kelly: I get that, but the town would fail. I mean, they had to move in a direction. I think what the eminent domain has to be done in the most respectful way, you know, to the farmers. And I’m not sure every little thing they worked out with it. And, environmentally, people were using propane gas, and they had to pay for the gas, you know, ahead of time before they would even get the gas. That is no way to live. You know, I think what we’re doing, part of it is humane, frankly,

Malkin: Something that you touched on is broadband access, which is both a concern in rural communities, especially in Illinois, and urban areas. How did that project and other initiatives that you’re working on seek to combat that?

Kelly: Sure. Well, in urban areas, we hear more about people can’t afford it. And then in rural areas, they don’t have the infrastructure to have it. So many people worked on it, but it was led by (a) actually bipartisan (campaign), and particularly people that represented rural areas, because…because the whip Jim Clyburn was a very big proponent of it. 

So we were able to work with them. And in the infrastructure bill, you know, they’ll get money to work on the infrastructure. We actually presented a check for $3 million to Pembroke to start working on their internet and broadband. But, again, people couldn’t do e-learning, couldn’t apply for jobs. You can’t do telehealth. And if you live in a rural area, all of those, especially telehealth is extremely important.

Malkin: How do you see climate change as impacting these issues and impacting farmers? 

Kelly: Well, I was just on one of my farms…and then watching the news, the floods, the very, very hot weather, you know, like farmers, you know, they live and die by the weather and how well their crops do. So hopefully with some of the things that we’re putting in place, again, it’s a worldwide problem, we can’t solve all the issues, but hopefully, with more attention…money being invested…I mean, we can’t control the sun, or the rain or whatever, but we can help people put a foundation in place that will help with it. And we can all lessen our carbon footprint. ‘

Malkin: One proposal that’s been making riptides, but it struggled a bit is the Green New Deal. What’s your thought on it?

Kelly: The Green New Deal was never a bill. You know, it was an idea, you know, that was put forth. And I’m sure some of the things that were the ideas that were put forth have all been taken into consideration, and some recommended and some not. I mean everyone on the side of the aisle I sit on (knows) that something definitely needs to be done. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

Malkin: Would you support it?

Kelly: Um, yeah, I mean, I don’t know every specific area of it, but I know that yeah, I would support (it). We need to do something. It’s evident, you know, that I want my grandchildren to be able to breathe, you know, when they get older, I want there to be, you know, a world there for them. So I do think we need to do you know what’s feasible, you know, and then also, as we, as you know, new generations are coming up to teach them in school, you know, what are better ways to save this planet.

Malkin: Another life and death issue in a lot of ways is gun violence. And this is something that touched you and that you’ve worked on very closely. You’ve worked on a bill with my hometown, New Jersey Congressperson Tom Malinowski, to use the powers of the FTC to hold gun companies accountable. Can you just describe that bill for us?

Kelly: Well, how it started was (that) guns have been carved out of the Consumer Product Safety. Like there’s more regulations on teddy bears, cribs, all of that, but not guns. (They) were successfully carved out and we think that they should be put back in and then, you know, we need to look at guns and at the Consumer Product Safety Commission…Tom, you know, said they didn’t have the resources…So he’s actually taken up the mantle for me, because I remember when he called me about it to see if we can…rework that…there was some responsibility that the gun makers have and that they have to go through the same process, just like teddy bears, cribs, car seats and those kinds of things.

Malkin: What else would you like to see because it’s not getting better in a lot of ways. And there’s been over 300 mass shootings this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

Kelly: Well, for me, it’s the mass shootings, but also what I brought to Congress, where there’s the everyday, die by yourself shootings…in Chicago from July 1 to July 4, I believe, there were nine shootings, you know, and those people that die by themselves don’t get moments of silence or anything like that. They’re forgotten about. So five or six years ago, I stopped standing up for the moments of silence…I didn’t want to be a part of that. Now, for the first time, in 30 years, we did pass legislation, it wasn’t everything we wanted. 

But we do feel that that legislation will help save lives. And we often hear, well, Chicago has the toughest gun laws. But look what they don’t talk about is…a big part of (it) was trafficking…we need national laws, because most of our guns come from Indiana and Wisconsin. They hate when I say that, but it’s the truth. 

Since I’ve been in Congress, it’s actually become easier to buy a gun in Indiana and Wisconsin than it was when I first came to Congress. So we need to ban assault weapons, instead of what we have now. (We need) more severe background checks. If you can’t buy a handgun until you’re 21, you should not be able to buy an assault weapon until you’re 21. So to me, that needs to be corrected. 

Also, we’ve always pushed for gun violence being seen as a public health crisis, and then have a report come out every year so that people can see the cost of gun violence. And that (not) only, you know, the people that die…(but the) people that have been maimed for life and how much that costs. We’ve spoken to many doctors, you know, about that. But I know, you know, the story is, oh, they’re trying to take your gun away…We’re not trying to take your gun away. But that’s the story that was pushed for so long.

Malkin: Do you think one of the reasons for inaction is not seeing the connection between both mass shootings and non-mass shootings, like you mentioned?

Kelly: Well, I think that if we came in every day, and we had a moment of silence, individually, yeah, I think people see it, you know, more now…we know suicide is first than homicides, and then accidents. So many, you know people get hurt…

Malkin: To put it a different way, this is something you just touched on, but reconciling second amendment rights, you know, especially in a district that’s full of diverse opinions on guns with these protections that can save lives.

Kelly: And I get the second amendment, but I have the right to play in a park, to go to the store, to go to school, to go to church, to go to a synagogue, to sit on my porch to ride on a CTA bus. I’m just going through the ways I know that individuals, you know, have died. I have a right to do those things too, you know, and we know that when the second amendment was created, the world was a little bit different. And it’s been so stretched…to me it has become an excuse.

Malkin: Before we finish up, another hot button issue is abortion rights, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. What federal protections would you like to see put in place?

Kelly: We have the Women’s, you know, Protection Act, but I want women to be able to travel where they want to travel. First of all, I mean, I think it’s a travesty what happened that they overturned Roe v. Wade. That is not your business, you know, what I do with my body. You know, and they’ve truly overstepped, but women should have the right to travel (to) places that are already safe havens…doctors that do the procedure should not be afraid for their lives, you know, because they are giving women (a) choice. 

If something comes in the mail, a pill, that should be okay, too. I think like if we can just make sure, you know, those things are in place that won’t help everything, but it’s very, very scary. You know, when I think about Illinois, you know…thank God, what happened in Kansas, and then we have Minnesota, but places are already overwhelmed. And it’s just going to get worse. And the other thing that concerns me, I do a lot of work around maternal mortality. And (the) United States ranks very poorly, as far as women giving birth and the amount of women that die each year. And Black women die more. So now you’re forcing people to have babies. So, you know, I expect maternal mortality to rise, because we’re forcing people to have babies.

Malkin: Can you just say a little bit more about your work, and also how some of the strict abortion laws are going to create more medical emergencies?

Kelly: The United States ranks very poorly when it comes to delivering babies…Black women die three to four times the rate of white women. And depending…Indigenous women, like in Washington state, die eight times (the) rate. And in Illinois, actually, Black women died six times the rate of white women…these might be women that don’t have the same access that other people have. We know there is, you know, a greater inequality in healthcare, and lack of access, there’s a lack of, you know, doctors of color. And it’s been proven, you do better when, you know, the doc or the caretaker looks like you…

Malkin: Illinois is a bit of an oasis in this sense, but what can the state do to support people in neighboring states that don’t have those rights right now?

Kelly: Well, they’re already doing it. I’ve spoken to the head of Planned Parenthood here, and she said they’re already overwhelmed. But Illinois is doing what they can do, you know, to have arms open (and to say) that people are welcome. And then they can get services here. And, again, (we’re) lucky that Minnesota is not that far away, and then Kansas, you know, came through for us also. So, hopefully, you know, that’s going to work. But yeah, I mean, we’re (an) oasis, in many ways when it comes to policies and politics.

Malkin: Before we close up, I want to finish with your elevator pitch of sorts. Again, some voters are just encountering you. And so what would you say…why should they choose you as their representative?

Kelly: You know, if they look at my track record, I have a track record that I’m proud of. So I think that’s, you know, very, very important. I am a member that has integrity. I’m smart, I’m invested. This is not just a job to me. I really feel…that I was put on this earth to be a public servant, and I think that I’m a good one.

Malkin: Well, thank you so much for your time.

Harrison Malkin is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow him @HarrisonMalkin

Picture of Harrison Malkin

Harrison Malkin

Harrison Malkin is a politics reporter at Illinois Public Media. He's focusing on elections across the state, particularly the 13th and 15th congressional districts and the gubernatorial race. Malkin studied Politics and Communications at Ithaca College, where he was a nightly newscaster and reporter for WICB. From 2020 to 2021, he was a reporting fellow at the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College. You can send a tip, recommendation, or note to hmalkin@illinois.edu.

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