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Black lawmakers block Emanuel's gun bill

Published: Friday, Nov. 8, 2013 10:15 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD (MCT) — A contingent of black lawmakers blocked a vote on Mayor Rahm Emanuel's watered-down proposal to impose tougher penalties for illegal gun possession, the latest example of a rift between the mayor and the African-American community.

The reversal came after the stage appeared to be set Thursday to approve one of Emanuel's top legislative priorities of the fall session. Sponsoring Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, held a news conference where he predicted the latest incarnation of the bill involving mandatory minimum prison sentences would pass.

As the Illinois House came to order, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. gave the morning invocation and lawmakers dealt with a few routine matters. When the gun bill came up, Rep. Ken Dunkin, leader of the House Black Caucus, had used a surprise procedural maneuver requesting information on how much the measure would cost taxpayers.

It was enough to put off consideration. Speaker Michael Madigan quickly adjourned the House until January. "We were finished with our business," Madigan said afterward. The powerful Southwest Side Democrat said he did not know if the mayor's gun bill had enough votes to pass.

Later, African-American lawmakers voiced concerns that increased incarceration instead of rehabilitation would ill-serve a community beset by high unemployment, high rates of incarceration and few jobs for recently released inmates.

"If you're not investing in education, you're investing in prisons," said Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth, a Peoria Democrat, who added that black lawmakers also want violent criminals off the street.

The quick adjournment avoided a potentially fiery debate pitting African-American and Latino legislators against largely white Chicago-area and Downstate lawmakers, which would have put on display philosophical fissures among Democrats. It would have been the second time this week, following approval of gay marriage, that black lawmakers would have been asked to support a high-profile bill opposed by some of their constituents.

"Today was a day that we wanted to make sure that the sponsor and the mayor of Chicago (are) aware that we have a real problem" with this gun legislation, said Dunkin, who said crime fighting should not be done in a "piecemeal way."

By blocking the legislation, the lawmakers aligned themselves on the issue with a re-election seeking Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn rather than Emanuel. Quinn has sought more money for programs to rehabilitate first offenders and re-entry programs for inmates.

Emanuel, who had billed the legislation as a way to help crack down on gun violence that continues to plague city streets, decried what he called "political stunts" to derail it.

"Criminals are the only winners when procedural games are used to defer a bill that clearly has the necessary votes in both chambers of the General Assembly," the mayor said in a statement.

By blocking the bill, African-American lawmakers sent a significant message to Emanuel, who has seen dissatisfaction among black voters grow in his time as mayor. A Tribune poll in the spring found more African-American voters disapproved of Emanuel's job performance than approved -- 48 percent to 40 percent. Emanuel has closed Chicago public schools, presided over a teachers strike and had difficulty getting a handle on violent crime that's made national headlines.

The mayor's bill originally would have required three-year mandatory sentences for first-time gun offenders. That was negotiated away, and the latest version of the bill would have kept a mandatory one-year sentence but prevented judges from using boot-camp as an alternative to imprisonment. As a result of that change, the politically powerful National Rifle Association backed the measure.

Still, opponents questioned if the latest version of the bill would do little more than give the mayor a political boost, particularly because it likely would not have taken effect until June 1. To take effect immediately, the measure would have required a supermajority of votes in the House and Senate, a tough hurdle.

Zalewski had argued that criminals change their behavior when they hear of tougher penalties, including stiffer sentences for repeat offenders, gang members and people with violent felonies on their rap sheets. For example, under the measure unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon who repeats the offense would carry a minimum sentence of four years in prison. That's one year longer than current law. In addition, inmates would have been required to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Current inmates are eligible for day-for-day "good time" that allows them to cut their time behind bars in half.

After the bill stalled, Zalewski accused some black lawmakers of resorting to a "parliamentary trick" and contended they showed an "unwillingness to have a debate about public policy, public safety."

(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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