A Sit-Down with State Representative Kam Buckner (D-26)
Representative Buckner joined the Illinois General Assembly in 2019 and serves as Chair of the Illinois House Legislative Black Caucus.
Your house district includes much of downtown Chicago, as well as south side neighborhoods such as Bronzeville, Kenwood and Woodlawn. How do you balance the needs of such varied communities?
Representing the 26th District requires me to be an intentional, balanced and thoughtful representative. I have a varied group of constituents across the district and in many cases priorities differ as well, but the things that my constituents have in common are so much stronger than the things that separate us. Whether they live in Streeterville or South Shore, Washington Park or Woodlawn, Bronzeville or River North; My constituents want good schools, safe neighborhoods, reliable healthcare delivery systems and fairness and I feel obligated to do all I can to help them get those things.
You’ve been a big supporter of the New Leaf Illinois network. Why is cannabis expungement such an important social justice reform? And what impact has it had on your constituents?
Simply put, communities of color have borne the brunt of the discriminatory, racist enforcement of the failed so called war on drugs. In May of 2019, the Illinois General Assembly legalized recreational marijuana.
At the heart of our cannabis legalization effort was the concept of restoration, reinvestment and inclusion, and while I still have issues with much of the reinvestment and inclusion portions, expungement for those with previous cannabis records is a key element of this new path forward. Nearly 800,000 cannabis convictions in Illinois are eligible for automatic expungement by law enforcement and the pardon process. That’s a huge win for many people who probably should have never been convicted in the first place.
On top of that there are some 70,000 criminal records on file that qualify for expungement that will not be done automatically. We know the process can be difficult, overwhelming and intimidating, which is why the work being done by New Leaf Illinois is so important. A criminal record can impact one’s financial well-being, job opportunities, educational prospects and other areas of life.
As Co- Chair of the House Black Caucus, what are the top policy issues you’re focused on over the next year?
The policy issues that are most important to me are centered around what I call “the essential 3 Es”: Education, Economic Development and Equity. As we begin to build back and use the lessons learned from the pandemic, we have to put an emphasis on making sure that our schools are funded and resourced at the levels that our young people deserve. We have to also find ways to insert dollars and resources into every community in the state, especially those that have been intentionally left behind. We can only right the wrongs of the past by addressing inequities head on.
You joined the Illinois General Assembly in 2019 as one of the youngest members. What fresh perspective do you think you bring to Springfield?
I think I bring my lived experiences to Springfield with me. I am a guy who grew up in Chicago, my parents were both public servants (law enforcement and education), I attended public schools my entire educational career. I’ve worked in federal, state and local government. I’ve worked in the public, private and non-profit sectors. I’ve been a public university trustee and taught at a private university. All of these experiences have made me a better legislator and given me the confidence to make decisions that will positively affect the people of Illinois.