IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Andy McKenna, Jr

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

By Fran Eaton, Managing Editor, IL Leader (fran@illinoisleader.com)  - Part 2 of a 3 part series

SPOTLIGHT -- In yesterday's part one of three parts of the Spotlight interview, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Andy McKenna, Jr talked about his background, his views on what Illinois' economy needs and how he believes his ideas will help the people of Illinois. [See IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Andy McKenna, Jr ]

Today, he'll talk about his views on specific issues and on Thursday, he'll respond to criticisms of him and his campaign efforts.

We'll back up just a little to get you back into the conversation.

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ILLINOIS LEADER: You really have been looking at running for U.S. Senate for a while . .

McKenna: Well, I felt we needed a new kind of leadership in Illinois in the Republican party of Illinois. I?ve been involved in a lot of Republican campaigns. I think we all can observe the party is going through a transition. I felt it?s the time for a new kind of leader to step forward.

I do think that the conservative principles of the party are not the problem, it?s a question of how you apply those principles to make life better for people. I felt my experience in business and the community could help me see some ways you can make life better, and that?s the message we need to get out there.

We?re planning twenty to twenty-five job round tables across the state. If you?re looking at it, Peoria, Bloomington, Champaign, Springfield, Mt. Vernon, Metro East . . . it's our intention to invite business leaders, civic leaders, heads of hospitals, heads of local community colleges and universities, just try to get a cross section of views.

We?re also going to try to begin combining either with these or when we met with the Teamsters and others, we told them we want their communities to be a part of these roundtables as well. So, we?re cutting our teeth as we go, but we?re intending to broaden it beyond just the business community.

IL: Do you have ideas for how to help the coal industry?

McKenna: There?s no question that there?s different experiences as you go across the state. We were in a parade in Mt Vernon last weekend, and met with some of the people down there. The farm policy we are working on clearly affects people downstate in a significant way.

I think it looks like we may have the political will to put together an energy plan in this country. I think energy is an industry that should affect Illinois significantly. Ethanol is one of the pieces of that.

An idea I?ve heard about, I haven?t studied enough, but I?m interested in it, is the notion of creating clean-burning coal plants right next to the mines. Instead of shipping the coal, you ship the energy. I?m interested to hear more about that.

IL: There is an effort to get the FutureGen plant into southern Illinois. Are you familiar with this initiative?

I met with a business person in Mt Vernon to talk about the oil, gas and coal industry. We don?t know enough to form an opinion yet, but we will be holding a jobs round table there, scheduled for some time in September.

We hope to come out of that with some more definitive ideas. There?s no question that the issue for them there is where I began this whole conversation - their children don?t stay, they leave Illinois because they don?t see job opportunities here. We want to have it in Illinois where our children and their children want to stay here because they think it?s the best economic opportunity and that?s not where it is today.

IL: It sounds to me that the people who you are reaching out to are business people. Who do you consider to be your base?

McKenna: We?re trying to focus on the base of people who are concerned about family life because as a parent, your big concern is what?s life going to be like for our kids and what opportunities are they going to have?

Or, it may be even more urgent for a parent, how am I going to care for the needs of my kids and what kind of jobs are available even today for us?

Am I spending more time in my car than with my kids because of congestion? How do I feel about my kids? experience in school, and are my kids being prepared so they can be successful?

IL: Well, that statement pulls us into the social issues. People are not looking for a handout normally, they're looking for a way to make their own way --

McKenna: And that really for me drives this economy more than anything else - our economy is not driven by the internet, not by bio-engineering, not by technology, those are all parts of it - but its really people desire to build a better life for their families, that?s what really drives this economy.

Give people the freedom to do that, that?s what gets them motivated. Then they use their talents to do all that. But what drives this economy is not a brand new idea, it?s the same thing that got us interested in starting this country in the first place.

IL: This idea of family does make a difference . . . that's how homeschooling families see what they do. They're thinking about what kind of world their children will grow up in.

McKenna: I wanted to tell you an experience we had with a homeschooler downstate. We were at a parade on Saturday and this sixteen year old girl -- she was head of the teenage Republicans in Mt. Vernon -- she came almost running over to Mary and me and wanted to meet us and talk to us about the campaign.

She had been homeschooled and I think she'll end up going to college a year or two early. But extremely bright, extremely motivated, and very Republican. It was neat for me to see how vibrant she was while she was doing it, and she really enjoyed the homeschooling and it didn't slow down her ability to be effective, and maybe accelerated it.

IL: Education fits in with your thoughts of preparing for jobs. In Illinois, we have a serious problem with over 500 failing schools. The president's education program No Child Left Behind has brought federal requirements on the system. You have voiced your desire for school choice. What role does the federal government have in education?

McKenna: The No Child program has taken important first steps. I do believe in local control for education. I would have real serious concerns about a federally-mandated voucher program. But let me tell you what I think they?ve started and what I think the implications of it will be.

I think what the federal government has done is that they?ve said every child in this country ought to get a foundation for learning. Period. I don?t think there?s anyone out there who would disagree with that. And what they?ve done is that they?ve said each state is say you set your goals, and you tell parents how you?re doing against your goals and I think that?s appropriate.

Now I?ve heard them say too much testing is a problem, too much testing is a problem. I think of it this way, before your children go to school in the fall, they say your children should go to the doctor to get a checkup. And when a child goes to the doctor and he says they are healthy, that means the same thing whether you?re in Quincy or Mount Vernon or Glenview or Aurora.

And by the same token, when we get to the end of the year, I think we should get an academic checkup just to see how the kids are doing and it says, yes, your child is at our goals, it ought to mean the same thing again, with whatever city they?re in across the country.

And I think that?s what parents want, and if their kids aren?t at standard or at goal, then parents would want something to change.

Either they have the chance to go to another school or they have the chance to take any number of choices - they wouldn?t want just the choice of staying at a school where things aren?t working out.

Now, I think if you leave that requirement out there, which I think is the baseline requirement that existed when parents sent their kids to school in the first place. And you keep the principle of local control, that you don?t have the federal bureaucracy directing it, parents will begin driving the process and parents themselves will ask for choices, I believe.

A story I heard when I heard in Texas about four years ago with a group from Illinois to learn about their education reform, and one of the people who presented to us was from a school district school superintendent from a township in the Houston area.

He had both very affluent schools and low income schools in their district and once they began being required to report on how they were doing, the low income schools were not doing as well as the affluent schools and those parents got mad and got involved, and began making demands of the schools.

All of sudden, the low income schools began going up. And they were, at that point, getting to a relative balance in terms of student performance.

So I think the requirements of Leave No Child Behind will allow the natural instincts of parents to kick in, and I don?t know its destination yet, but I think it will create a lot more flexibility in the school system, a lot more choices for parents and as a U.S. senator, what I will do is resist the watering down of standards that's going to come.

People will begin to say its too tough, we shouldn?t be asking all this of the kids, and we ought to get these federal mandates out of there. We?re going to need someone to stand up and say, no, and then let the process work itself out.

Let the parents and the local communities demand what they think is right for their kids in the local community, and if that means in certain communities we expand public school choice or charters or we provide private school choice or provide expanded resources for home schooling, whatever it is. If it can work in local communities, then we ought to make it work.

I just think it ought to be engineered at the lowest possible level because that means parents are involved and that?s the best chance of it being successful.

IL: There's some issues with the No Child Left Behind. In the south suburbs, there are several schools that have no choice. All of the schools in the district are failing schools. This version of NCLB left out a way for parents to exit the public system and go into the private system. What would you see as the benefit of government helping the private school system?

McKenna: In Washington, D.C. that school system has a host of issues. One thing that local community is talking about now is private school scholarships and grants, and that may be a very appropriate place to try to it out and have it be an incubator.

And the things you have to look at when you do that is what is the status of the private school system, can it, in fact --

IL: Take in 5000 children?

McKenna: Yes, take the number of children needed. Is the money that is freed up enough for the school sufficient for a family to actually have choices.

There is a series of practical concerns on the issue, but I think that?s a great place where a federal legislator can be both be a voice about saying how this can be effective and what?s an appropriate way to take a step with it, and see where it goes.

I am impressed with some things that have gone on in Milwaukee, and I think it does show that as it goes on in time, private schools do emerge. They?ve had private schools emerge, and the new schools aren?t Catholic schools, they?re other schools that have grown out of churches in local communities.

IL: There does need to be a change in the system. And homeschoolers, as a whole, really do not want anything from the government except to be left alone. They are concerned about the strings that come with federal dollars.

McKenna: Well, you get a federal program, it's what follows. I understand homeschoolers concerns about money and the strings attached to them. If you had a federal program, the first voucher piece only dealt with the federal funding.

So let?s say that $6000 is spent per child in Illinois, and $600 comes from the federal government. Now let?s say we?re going to set up a grant for that money. The first things they?ll do is set up a bureaucracy, so that $600 goes down to $400.

The next thing they?re going to do is say alright, it's going to Loyola Academy or such and such home school program, and we?re going to want to know about that. So that to me goes nowhere.

Now if you take the next step and you say that the federal government is going to mandate that we?re going to take the $6000 spent in Illinois, you can imagine the confusion that can create.

I don?t support that, I think it is a recipe for disaster. I do think there?s places where these grants have been used effectively, I think you don?t need it in a community like this.

But in a disadvantaged community, which is what happened in Milwaukee, it wasn?t affluent suburbs that came forward, it was people who felt they were being abandoned by the school system.

IL: There is a large area where young people are not getting educated in the Chicago area. What is the way to help these people as you can see? You have a very strong religious background, have you been involved in Catholic schools as far as developing them or on the board of any private or parochial school?

McKenna: In our local parish, I was on the board of the creative endowment for our local grade school. I was on the board of Loyola Academy, which is a high school nearby that my children went to, and I?m on the board of Old St Pat?s, which is actually a very interesting model.

It is the first new grade school in the archdiocese in twenty-five years, and their requirement is that they have a third of their students be from disadvantaged communities and two-thirds not from disadvantaged communities. It?s a very vibrant, successful school, but another way of funding inner city education.

IL: Do the parents bring the children to the school, or how do they get out there?

The school is located right at the Dan Ryan and Adams, just west of the loop, it's not far from disadvantaged communities. But they serve kids whose parents are commuting, so they drop them off as they come to the office. I?m on the advisory committee for St. Eucopius grade school in Pilsen, which is a dual language grade school.

IL:The emphasis of some of the other candidates is that they are reaching out to areas where no one else is reaching. . .

McKenna: The truth is, I don?t do a great job of chest pounding . . . Actually, my daughter just started teaching last week in a disadvantaged school in Pensacola, Florida. She?s going to spend two years in a teaching service program for disadvantaged kids. She joined something called the Alliance program for Catholic Education but the kids spend two years in the summers and they go to graduate school themselves. Then in the school year, they teach in Catholic grade schools and high schools in the southeast, but only in poor communities. But they finish with a masters in teaching.

It's been away to engage young, smart people in the career of teaching and specifically in teaching in private schools.

So, my parents gave the largest gift ever to the University of Notre Dame for scholarship, specifically for kids in disadvantaged communities.

There?s been a lifelong kind of commitment to this. The high school I went to my dad started in 1963 because he wasn?t comfortable with the private or public school system, so he started the high school.

IL: What you are saying kind of shatters the idea that Republicans care only about themselves. . . Now, to touch on the life issue. With a Catholic background, what is your position on stem cell research? Do you hold the president's position on stem cell research

McKenna: I applaud the President on his decision because he applied two good principles - one was that he did support the notion of ongoing research, but he did confine it to a way that did not encourage creating a pool of cells that could come in a number of different ways. He didn?t do anything to encourage abortion.

I think the research is very important. I am intrigued that we can now bank things, such as umbilical cords, etc. I spoke with Tommy Thompson and asked him about this and the status of it, and do we have sufficient resources to continue research.

He said that actually today there are so few research scientists able to utilize the resources that are there that we are not in a situation where there are insufficient cells to do the research.

The technologies that are being developed, new parents can, in a sense, retain their stem cells for their kids so that if anything ever came up, they would be able to have the cells there for work to be done.

People can donate things like that. Science is going to open up great possibilities, we don?t want to get in the way of that. But we always want to respect the dignity of life and make sure we?re not pursuing that in a way that is blinded.

IL: What is your position on the abortion? Do you hold any exceptions on the issue?

I would support restrictions that include rape and incest exceptions.

IL: Would you demand a rape and incest exception in legislation in order for you to vote for it?

McKenna: I think we need to do two things constantly. One is articulate the value of life and engage people, and expand people?s notion of life.

And two, be willing to find those places where there is broad agreement in steps we can take. I think things like parental notification, certainly partial birth abortion bans, are places where there is broad agreement.

We need to see the landscape is and then see where you?d go to take the next step. . . That's the way I'd like to leave it. . .

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Tomorrow's Part Three of the McKenna interview will involve tackling some criticisms and asking questions about his and his father's donations to Democratic candidates over the last few years.




Fran has worked as Managing Editor of the Illinois Leader since its inception in June of 2002.