Seeking to unseat Annazette Collins as state senator of West Side’s 5th District
by La Risa Lynch
A long shot best described Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins when she ran for mayor last year. But this time around, the community activist may have some political weight behind her.
Van Pelt Watkins is being backed by Secretary of State Jesse White in her attempt to unseat state Senator Annazette Collins (D-5) in the March 2012 Primaries.
The backing may come as a surprise since White, the 27th Democratic Ward committeeman, nominated Collins to replace then state Senator Rickey Hendon last year.
Hendon’s abrupt resignation created a flurry of contenders to replace him, including Van Pelt-Watkins. Ultimately, Collins got the nod thanks, in part, to White’s influence. Van Pelt Watkins also sought Collins’ old job as 10th District state representative when Collins took over for Hendon.
But, recent questions surrounding Collins’ residency and awarding of scholarships to state supported universities to students who allegedly live outside her district has run afoul with White. So now White is backing Van Pelt-Watkins in her effort to run for the Fifth District on the city’s West Side.
Van Pelt-Watkins is grateful for the support, but not surprised by it. She also has gained the support of Second Ward Ald. Robert Fioretti and former State Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch.
"When you make a run as I did for mayor you don’t know if influential people in the Democratic Party will support you," Van Pelt-Watkins said. "As you go to run, you go and make people understand that you are serious about the race [and] sometimes you attract support; sometimes you don’t."
"I’m not happy with my current senator," said White, who has been the top Black vote getter for any statewide office.
He is perplexed by questions whether Collins lives in her West Side district. According to the Cook County Assessor’s website, Collins has received property tax breaks since 2006 on a Hyde Park condo, located at 6127 S. Woodlawn. Collins has since stated that tax break was given in error and the money has been repaid.
A January 17th ruling by the Chicago Board of Elections, however, has put questions surrounding Collins’ residency to rest. The board ruled that there was no proof of residency violations. Both Collins and Van Pelt-Watkins faced petition challenges. Van Pelt-Watkins was challenged on the legitimacy of her signatures, which the board also ruled as unfounded. It is unclear if the board’s ruling favoring Collins has altered White’s support for Van Pelt-Watkins.
But White still has lingering doubt about those scholarships Collins handed out as a state representative of the 10th District. She served in that capacity from 2001 until her appointment in 2011.
As a perk, General Assembly members can give full scholarships to deserving students that reside in their district. This perk has come under fire in recent months as abuses of the legislative scholarship program dominate headlines.
White reviewed 14 scholarships Collins doled out and found that 13 were outside of the district. Moreover, eight students, he added lived on the same west Walnut street in the 2900 Block; 3500 Block and 3400 Block. Some of these students, White alleges live in Naperville, Bolingbrook and River Grove.
"Have you ever heard of eight individuals going to college in a three block area on one street?" White asked.
In a Chicago Journal article, Collins insisted that students who received the scholarships signed affidavits indicating that they lived within the district.
When asked why Van Pelt-Watkins is seeking office again, she said she believe she can be a more effective leader than the current state senator. She blasted Collins for supporting ComEd rate increase and pushing a failed measure to teach handgun safety to school children.
"We deserve good representation that is not distracted," Van Pelt-Watkins said. "It is clear that her heart and mind has not been here."
Van Pelt-Watkins believes she has a track record to succeed in the General Assembly. She worked to reduce recidivism among ex-offenders by championing legislation to seal criminal records of low-level drug offenses. She worked to hold hospitals accountable in offering their fair share of charity care. She also worked to address economic development to support small businesses.
She plans to campaign on public safety, better schools and economic development -- issues that cross social and economic lines. She contends jobs will reduce the city’s crime rate as well as reduce recidivism among ex-offenders. She noted 25,000 ex-offenders return from Illinois prisons annually, settling mostly on the city’s south and west sides.
Ex-offenders are already disenfranchised because they "can’t get a job, can’t get into school, can’t get housing and have no opportunities," she said. "When people are employed, they are less likely to commit crime."
She supports CPS extended school day and efforts to link teacher evaluations to student performance but she said standardize test scores should not be the deciding factor in evaluating teachers.
"As far as education is concern, our kids are in a pipeline to poverty," she said. "A lot of people say pipeline to prisons, but not everybody goes to prison. But they will go into poverty if they are not prepared to compete with their peers … around the world."
On economic development, Van Pelt-Watkins wants to leverage Chicago’s railroad industry to create jobs. Spurring economic growth means supporting small business and shoring up Illinois manufacturing. America, Van Pelt-Watkins said, was built by manufacturing jobs and "we need to get back to that."