Former congressional aide covets 1st District seat

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This week, AustinTalks will be profiling each of the five candidates seeking the Democrat nomination for the 1st District seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Overlooking the Loop from 44 stories up, Richard Boykin’s office tells a condensed story of his professional life.

One wall bears his law degree, a sign of his current job as partner at Barnes & Thornburg law firm.

A binding on the bottom of his bookshelf reads “The State of African-American Males” — an initiative Boykin worked on many years ago with the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.

And on one end of his sticky-note covered desk sits an album with photos of Boykin and a slew of elected officials, including his former boss, U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis.

His nine-year stint as Davis’ chief of staff is what he cites most when arguing why he should be the next Cook County commissioner for the 1st District.

Many believe Boykin is a front runner in a five-candidate race to replace retiring commissioner Earlean Collins.

He’s leading in the fundraising race, racking up about $295,930 since August 2013 – the most of the five candidates, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records. About $100,000 of that comes from the candidate himself.

But that money and the dozens of endorsements, including lawmakers, a number of pastors and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, hasn’t inoculated Boykin from criticism.

The Oak Park Wednesday Journal reported last month that Boykin could have been breaking state law when he received more than one homestead tax exemption for properties in two counties, two in Oak Park and one in Bolingbrook.

Boykin, who says he’s separated from his wife, insists he lives in Oak Park and didn’t know about the tax breaks until the Wednesday Journal brought it to his attention.

He said he’s in the process of waiving the exemptions for the properties he doesn’t live at – an Oak Park condo and the Bolingbrook home – and noted that only his son and wife live in the Bolingbrook home.

Fellow candidate Ronald Lawless said he doesn’t buy that explanation and will contest if Boykin wins the primary.

But when voters consider their choice on the March 18 Democratic ballot, Boykin said he’s the candidate who will be fully loyal to voters.

“I’ll work with (others on the board), but I don’t owe them anything,” he said. “That’s the kind of representation people should desire and expect – somebody who is an independent thinker and who has the life experience to back it up.”

Boykin and his three siblings were raised by his father in Englewood. There, amid the street violence, he saw a police officer beat up a teenager.

He vowed to become a cop so he could end police brutality. But his father told him if he really wanted to make a difference, he should become a lawyer.

So in 1991, Boykin enrolled in the University of Dayton’s law school. After struggling at times with the heavy workload and even academic probation, Boykin earned his degree and passed the bar exam.

He then went to work as as a Congressional Black Caucus fellow in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun.

In 1996, Boykin was tapped as Rep. Davis’ chief of staff. Even though Davis was the elected official, Boykin said his behind-the-scenes work was key for any legislative success in the district.

During his first year, the congressman wanted to amend a transportation bill and add $600 million to an already-proposed $150 million, which would be distributed to inner-city jobs programs. The House had a Republican majority, but Boykin said he worked long hours calling and meeting with legislators from both parties to get the votes.

Davis’ amendment passed – the only amendment approved by a Democratic representative that year on a transportation bill, Boykin said.

“You may not agree with people, but you can convince them that this is good for your community,” said Boykin, who supported Republican Mark Kirk when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, according to the Chicago Tribune.

He notes his campaign finance reports show donations from both parties.

That’s something fellow 1st District hopeful Isaac “Ike” Carothers questions – whether Boykin could stay loyal to Democratic ideals.

Carothers is also critical of Boykin for touting his experience as a congressional aide.

“One person pushes the button,” said Carothers, a former 29th Ward alderman. “Could (Boykin) have brought that success home without Danny Davis? No. If anyone did it, it was Danny Davis.”

Still, Boykin insists he was a key force who helped pass Davis’ Second Chance bill, aimed at helping ex-offenders assimilate back into society.

And he said he pushed federal grant money for the Safer Foundation, which helps ex-offenders get jobs. It’s also where Carothers went to work after being released from prison on corruption charges.

Criminal justice is a key issue for Boykin, who cites overcrowding at the Cook County Jail as an issue needing to be addressed. If elected, he said he would work closely with Sheriff Dart.

He also wants to discuss with Dart how to make streets safer on the West Side, where he wants to encourage small business growth.

“You can’t grow small businesses unless you have safe communities,” Boykin said.

One political observer predicts Boykin will win the Democratic nomination Tuesday because he has political experience at the federal level, unlike the other candidates, said Jaime Dominguez, a political science lecturer at Northwestern University.

Dominguez said voters will see Boykin as a good alternative to Carothers, who is a familiar name having served as alderman for 11 years before going to prison.

“Boykin represents the new kid on the block,” Dominguez said.

Even though Boykin grew up on Chicago’s South Side, attended college and law school in Ohio and worked in Washington, D.C., he said he understands the West Side from working for Congressman Davis and living in Oak Park nearly 10 years.

He also lived in Austin – three months, to be exact – with Rep. Davis and his wife while he looked for housing after moving back to Chicago from Washington, D.C., in 2005.

Boykin said growing up poor and living in different communities actually make him a more well-rounded candidate who can understand both his city and suburban constituents.

“In order to have a strong Oak Park, you have to have a strong Austin. You have to have a strong Bellwood, Broadview, Hillside and Maywood,” he said.

Campaign website

Telephone number: (708) 948-7913

Campaign headquarters: 1110 North Blvd., Oak Park 60301

Chicago Tribune questionnaire

Click here for campaign finance records

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