Daniel Biss Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

In a recurring feature, the Reader conducts 15-minute interviews with candidates running for city, county, state, and federal offices that represent Illinois. This week: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss.

When former University of Chicago math professor and current state senator Daniel Biss announced he was running for Illinois governor last March, few thought he had a real shot. But last week’s We Ask America poll shows him in second place behind billionaire J.B. Pritzker—this having raised about a tenth of the money. The 40-year-old outsider is more popular than developer Chris Kennedy, whose name recognition may not be enough to offset the political damage caused by his taking Mayor Rahm Emanuel to task over what he called “strategic gentrification” policies. Biss has been crisscrossing the state with running mate Litesa Wallace, a state rep from Rockford, and hammering on progressive talking points such as repealing Illinois’s ban on rent control, legalizing marijuana, establishing single-payer health care, and providing free tuition for state and community colleges. We caught up with him by phone as he was on his way from Peoria to Bloomington last week.

In the early 2000s you used to talk about American soldiers’ torture of Iraqi POWs at Abu Ghraib as a motivating force to get into local politics. Do you still think about that?

[Chuckles, then a long pause] Yeah, I do. I, um, I . . . Something changed in me. I went from feeling like “Hey, I really care about this stuff but it’s just a thing I have opinions about and I can talk about but I’ll go on and do something else with my daily life” to feeling all of a sudden, “Hold on—this is being done in my name, and I cannot allow that to continue, and it’s my moral responsibility to do what I can to stop it.” And really, Abu Ghraib itself was a very emotionally meaningful moment for me, but more broadly the dishonesty and immorality around the U.S. entry into and conduct in the war in Iraq really affected me.

Did you not pay attention much to politics before that?

I thought of politics as a spectator sport. I cared about it a lot and spent a lot of time thinking about it and talking about it, and grew up in a household where we talked about politics around the dinner table, and as a young adult was very interested. But it seemed like a thing that happened to us, not a thing that we controlled. And I think the moment that really changed my life was the moment I realized I have a stake in this and therefore I have a responsibility to do what I can about it. That didn’t mean I was gonna run for office, that didn’t mean I would run for governor, that didn’t mean I would run for legislature. It didn’t mean I would necessarily leave professionally what I was doing [teaching math at the University of Chicago], but it meant I had to do what I could. I started showing up to meetings and knocking on doors and becoming really engaged in organizing work.

It seems like you were pretty active in the Daily Kos community in the early aughts. I saw a post from 2006 where you wrote about how you didn’t quite understand how online politics and offline politics connected. What’s been your learning curve about how to connect grassroots ground-game politics with what happens online and turn that into votes?

I’m really excited about our campaign’s approach to seamlessly integrating online and offline efforts. Our online effort isn’t just fund-raising like a lot of campaigns. We’ve got a digital organizing person, we have very real engagement with passionate grassroot supporters online, and we help empower them to engage on their own terms with undecided voters online. And then we take that tremendous online energy and try to harness it to have people begin to have offline conversations, knock on doors and make calls. I think that that is only natural, given that that’s how life works these days. Online and offline relationships are not fundamentally different from one another. We live online and offline simultaneously. I don’t think we could be running this campaign ten years ago. I don’t think we could build the kind of support we’ve built without mature online not only strategy but also just a mature online world where social media, online communities are as robust and feel as natural to people as they do.

In the early Obama years it really seemed like there was a lot of energy in that online environment—a lot of young people were getting plugged into politics through online communities like Daily Kos. And I feel like the energy isn’t really there anymore, the energy has migrated elsewhere. When I think of where the young political energy is happening, I think much more of something like the Democratic Socialists of America—all the organizing and the conventions. That got me thinking about your early partnership with [35th Ward alderman] Carlos Ramirez-Rosa that didn’t last very long. I understand you guys had a policy disagreement about Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), but can you tell me, how did you figure that it was worth parting with Carlos and the possible youthful energy that he would bring to your campaign over that particular policy disagreement?

It was just a disagreement that emerged quickly after we had previously had an understanding. And it changed our dynamic in a way that made it so that we couldn’t go on. And I think it was the right way to move forward the way we did, but you know, I take your point. There’s incredible grassroots energy around styles of politics—whether they’re radical styles of politics, or left politics, nonmainstream politics—that are changing our country in a really, really good way.

I think that the homogeneity of the politics that I grew up with in the 80s and 90s, and seeing the relative timidity of most political activity, was a real restraint on how much good government could do and how much excitement a political campaign could generate. I think that the netroots revolution that came about in 2003 and ’04 was a reaction to that kind of timid politics and was a reaction to the attitude that Democrats should allow Republicans to set the terms of the debate.

You may remember that a seminal moment in the Howard Dean campaign in 2003 was when he spoke at some convention. He walked up to a microphone, and I think the first words out of his mouth were “What I want to know is why are Democrats helping George Bush in his run-up to the Iraq war? What I want know is why are Democrats having a conversation about the privatization of social security?” The fundamental question wasn’t what’s right and what’s wrong, the question was why can’t Democrats have the backbone that they need. I think that galvanized a new political energy that was so important, that Barack Obama would have never been elected president without, that changed our country in really great ways, but that was also fundamentally partisan.

I think what we’re now seeing is a further pushing of boundaries by people who are not totally comfortable with the two-party system, and I think the responsibility of Democratic Party officials is to create a real, welcoming, genuine home for people who right now don’t feel at home with the Democratic Party. I think that’s electorally important, but even beyond that it’s important for us to have a government that actually, meaningfully includes all voices.

You’ve talked a lot about how in your time as a state rep and state senator you’ve been able to resist pressure from [house speaker] Michael Madigan and the Democratic machine establishment in the state capitol. But at the end of the day Madigan’s outlasted everyone. The guy really understands power, how it works and how to wield it. Is there anything you’ve learned from him that you can use for your own benefit?

Understanding political power is incredibly important, and discipline is incredibly important, and working hard is incredibly important, and understanding others’ perspectives and motivations and using that understanding to inform your own negotiating posture is incredibly important. I’ve learned all those things by watching him. But I will also say this: There’s a fundamental question about what the role of a government leader is. I believe a government leader needs to lay out a long-term vision and to change the landscape so as to enable the achievement of that vision. Whereas I think he sees the role of a government leader as simply to operate in the context of what’s currently possible and maintain power in that terrain. I think that that distinction is incredibly important: Are you an adjudicator or are you a visionary? Do you believe in a politics based on transactions or a politics based on a philosophy of how we ought to live? Those two approaches result in really different kinds of behaviors of leaders.

When I was interviewing Fritz Kaegi we talked about this as well, the same kind of dynamics with [Cook County assessor] Joe Berrios. One of the problems Kaegi talked about is you go to elected officials in communities that are directly being affected by the way the property taxes are levied, where people are hurting, and elected officials say: “Yeah, this is totally wrong, but Joe’s a good guy and he did x, y, and z for me, and I’m staying loyal to him.” I imagine with Madigan that kind of dynamic is even more intense. Have you figured out a good way to counter that?

I think the way to do that is to build political power, to actually motivate people to organize around a meaningful agenda. The status quo in Springfield has been successful by keeping the public relatively disengaged in the legislative process, relatively disengaged from following what actually goes on in the capitol building. I think the way to actually change the outcome is to change that level of engagement, and I think if you did that effectively you would utterly transform what comes out of Springfield.

Speaking of that: Most people’s eyes glaze over when they hear the word “pensions.” Most people are not public-sector employees and will never, ever see a pension in their lives—especially young people, a lot of whom are working as contract and contingent workers. But it’s such a central issue in Illinois politics and the source of so many financial problems in the state. How do you break down why people should care about what you have to say about the “pension crisis” when it’s such an alienating topic?

To expect people who don’t themselves have a pension to voluntarily engage with the technicalities of pension funding is hopeless, and there’s no reason they should engage in it. But a conversation about retirement security and what it means to be able to retire with dignity is a conversation that’s interesting to a lot of people. A conversation about what it takes for a state to be able to provide truly universal access to health care, so that health care is our right and not an option—that ties to our ability to solve our fiscal problems, and that is something that is of great interest to most people. The question of what it takes to have free college tuition at public universities and community colleges because that’s what’s necessary to provide universal access to full participation in the modern economy—that interests people. But again, that’s tied to solving our state’s fiscal problems. And I think we need to learn to get out of the alienating jargon and into a place of actually discussing the stuff that really matters in people’s lives. And I think our elections need to be disputes about values and our governing process should be a technical discussion about how to implement those values.

I saw the Sun-Times article about some of the errors that were in some of the math papers you published. That period in your life, when you were facing those difficulties with your academic work seems like that would have been difficult, you were devoting so much of your time and career to that. How did you handle that time period in your life?

It really wasn’t a big deal. It’s very normal in the course of academia for there to be disputes back and forth, and for one side to win, and for people to poke holes in arguments. I think it’s been used as a political cudgel a little bit, but it wasn’t actually an unusual episode in my academic career at all, and I had lots of colleagues who had undergone similar challenges. It’s just part of what it means to be an academic.