Ra Joy can breathe, finally. He left his tie at home. He’s abandoned his notes on a podium he isn’t using. His shoulders are relaxed as he scans the room — Arts & Letters 101 on DePaul University’s Lincoln Park campus — and his hands rise and fall with a certain, hard-to-place ease as he talks.
And really, that’s all he came here to do: talk. It’s a conversation with students, DePaul Democrats specifically.
“This is the first time in a long time I’ve had the opportunity to talk where I don’t have a timer,” Joy says to the room. Joy is the running mate of Chris Kennedy, a Democratic candidate in the 2018 gubernatorial race. “Public and civic engagement is ridiculous; it’s not conducive for a dialogue with some of the heavy issues we’re dealing with.”
Although — Joy wishes it could be a bit more of a dialogue.“My hope was to be unplugged today — have a candid conversation, less digital stuff,” he says. A pause, then a gesture in my direction: “I see we have some reporters.” The room laughs.
But Joy gets it. It’s a campaign. He’s a politician now, technically.
So far, the Kennedy-Joy campaign has styled itself as a “radical” solution to the state’s longstanding political dysfunction, which has left Illinoisans with the country’s lowest levels of trust in their government. If elected, Kennedy has said he plans to overhaul the state’s property tax system, move towards single-payer health care and eventually legalize marijuana (or, as Joy refers to it, “Kennedy Kush”). The polls have put him among the top three contenders for the Democratic primary alongside billionaire fundraiser J.B. Pritzker and state Sen. Daniel Biss.
Joy worked in policy and advocacy for over a decade in the Land of Lincoln before joining the governor’s race, first as the executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois and most recently as the director of Change Illinois. Kennedy and his running mate go back; according to Joy, the two have known each other for about 15 years. They first teamed up to send relief to Haiti after the country was struck by floods and a hurricane in 2004, along with state Sen. Kwame Raoul — the son of Haitian immigrants currently running to be Illinois’s Attorney General.
“This is not some politically-arranged marriage in the 11th hour,” Joy says, “which may perhaps be the case for some other tickets.”
Kennedy and Joy have plenty in common. They’re both running as political outsiders trying to tear down Springfield’s Democratic establishment. Neither has held elected office, though Joy once worked for Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Kennedy is, well, a Kennedy. But the parallels don’t quite end there.
Speaking to the DePaul Democrats Wednesday night, Joy tells the room that, like most people, he used to have a blackboard at the back of his head. It’s a metaphor: when it comes to life, he means, most of us have our every responsibility spelled out on a board, crammed into the finite space of 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week.
“Chances are, your blackboard is all the way full,” Joy says. “But when you lose a child, everything comes off that blackboard. Everything.”
Xavier Joy — the oldest son — had been a student, home for the summer from Morehouse College in Atlanta. Last June, he was shot and killed just blocks from his home in Hyde Park. His family believes he was murdered for his cell phone. Xavier had been the one with political ambition, his friends and family said. He had seen a flawed world and decided it was worth fighting for, volunteering across the South and West Side for years. Then he died.
“We went from one minute talking about the future, planning for the the future, in the blink of an eye, the most vital, sacred part of you is taken,” Joy says.
After June 8, 2017, Joy got on the phone and talked. He reached out to others he knew had also found themselves with a sudden, irreparable loss, including Kennedy, whose father was assassinated on June 6, 1968, during the presidential campaign.
Joy doesn’t like to talk about it. Kennedy doesn’t either. But how could you ignore it? Any of it? How do you pretend the past is the past when it saturates every minute of the present, day in and day out? How do you — the reporter — brush past the moment Joy refers to his “middle son” when you know he only has two remaining kids, or pretend you don’t feel the shadow of incomprehensible tragedy pass directly over your heart?
“Once you take everything off that blackboard, you’re a lot more deliberate about what you put back on that blackboard,” Joy says. “And I tell people all the time that this campaign is the challenge and opportunity of a lifetime.”
And what about the campaign? It depends on who you ask.
By most metrics, Pritzker is the clear frontrunner in the Democratic primary. He’s led the pack in every poll since October, has the biggest war chest and can tout a lot of endorsements from the Democratic establishment, including both U.S. senators from Illinois.
And yet, with one month left until the primary, there are signs the race is far from a done deal.
Take the money. Yes, Pritzker has it — a lot of it — and he’s using it. To date, he’s dumped $49 million of his own dollars into the campaign, outspending President Donald Trump in his primary from 2016. He’s managed to dominate the airwaves, and that’s done him well for name recognition across the state.
But if the latest polls are to be believed, Pritzker’s lead is shrinking — fast. One poll shows Biss and Pritzker in a “dead heat” lined up against Rauner, while the state senator has had a fraction of the cash.
“If you’ve spent $50 million dollars to try to secure something, and you have yet to do it,” Joy says, “that is a clear message voters are looking for an alternative to JB Pritzker.”
Then, there are the undecided voters. A We Ask America poll from last month estimated that nearly 40 percent of voters were undecided in the gubernatorial race, while another poll from early February put the figure closer to 30 percent.
As more voters begin to make up their minds and election day draws closer, the challenge for Kennedy will be to keep from getting boxed out by Biss and Pritzker. According to a poll released by Victory Research on Thursday, Kennedy is lagging behind Pritzker (27 percent) and Biss (23 percent) with only 17.3 percent of the vote.
In the meantime, Joy will keep doing what he seems to do best: talk. I couldn’t detect any fatigue as he spoke — even bragged — about his travel schedule, leading me to believe he might actually mean it when he says he enjoys “criss-crossing the state.”
“It’s a privilege and, really, the funnest part of this campaign,” he says, “meeting with and listening to people of all colors, all creeds and all walks of life.”
At the end of the night, after Joy finished speaking and most of the audience had trickled out of the room, I ask why exactly he had been so relaxed speaking to the DePaul Democrats even with the student reporters lurking in the corner with their cameras, notepads and Twitter-enabled devices.
He laughs. “It’s college Dems, man!”
“I could focus on what’s broken, and point a finger at what’s broken,” Joy says. “Or, I could spend time and energy on how fix it. The folks that are in this room are part of the solution.”
(Header image courtesy of Jack McNeil, Kennedy for Illinois)