A longtime African American lawmaker is making her own history just as Democrats are set to begin a historic era of dominance in Springfield. State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-4th) was recently named Senate Majority Leader, making her the first African American female to hold the position and among the highest-ranking elected officials in state governance. 

The Jan. 9 appointment also solidifies what may have already been the case — Lightford, whose district includes parts of the West Side, including Austin, is arguably the most powerful black elected official in Illinois not named Preckwinkle. 

During an interview on Jan. 13, Lightford, 50, described how her new position fits into the larger Senate hierarchy.

“It’s like the Illinois Senate’s equivalent of president and vice-president,” she said. “You have the senate president [Sen. John Cullerton] and he has his majority leader. Under the majority leader are five assistant majority leaders while underneath them are the caucus chair and the caucus whip.” 

Before stepping into her new role, Lightford, who was first elected to the senate in 1998 as a Maywood village trustee, was a longtime assistant majority leader. Earlier this month, she was recently re-elected to head the powerful Illinois Legislative Black Caucus 

With Democrats holding supermajorities in both the Illinois House and Senate, along with the governor’s office, Lightford is poised to wield significant influence in a time of perhaps unprecedented Democratic power in Springfield. 

Much of the party’s focus right out of the gate, she said, will be attempting to undo damage caused by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who didn’t sign a full state budget in the three fiscal years of his four-year term. 

“We have to figure out how to generate revenue,” Lightford said. “We’re discussing a capital bill, minimum wage legislation that I introduced, fixing the pension system and paying down a lot of old debt.” 

Lightford said that the Democrats will also focus on rectifying what had become a crisis of mass proportions in the state that hit lower-income communities the hardest — that of absurdly late payments to childcare providers. 

The state has historically been late paying out money owed to childcare providers, but the problem only worsened under Rauner, Lightford said. 

Before Rauner, she said, the state took between 90 and 100 days to pay childcare providers. When Rauner came into office, “that number grew to over 365 days.” 

The new senate majority leader said that the state is already making headway into speeding up those deferred payments. She said that Comptroller Susana Mendoza had already started to make payments that the former comptroller, Leslie Munger, had been withholding. 

The fundamental issue, however, is that the state must start generating revenue in order to pay down its debts, Lightford said, adding that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s approach to revenue growth includes taxing a range of previously untaxed or even non-existent revenue streams like legalized medical and recreational marijuana. 

Lightford recently drafted a bill that would allow residents to remove low-level marijuana convictions from their record, if they get a judge’s permission. 

“Lawmakers decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2016,” according to the Illinois News Network. “When the law changed, possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana in Illinois became a civil matter rather than a criminal one. The 2016 change didn’t address those who had already been convicted of the crime.” 

Lightford said that the Senate was unable to address the bill during its short lame duck session.

“Hopefully, we’ll have more support and understanding as it moves through the chamber,” she said.

Lightford said that her promotion in the Senate will allow her more leverage to keep fighting the fight she’s been waging since she was first elected more than 20 years ago — even though the job doesn’t generate many headlines. 

For instance, she said, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus was responsible for releasing more than $35 million in funds for summer youth employment, after school and supplemental programs even as the state’s coffers contracted under Rauner. 

That money, Lightford said, translated into real opportunities for young people in communities like Maywood. 

Despite her new position, Lightford said that she doesn’t necessarily feel that she’s reached her pinnacle. 

 “I don’t know that I’ve reached a pinnacle that would cause me to stop grinding for communities in need,” she said. “To be present at the table, where decisions are being made, is so important. It’s important that we make sure the voices of the vulnerable and the voices of those in diverse groups, in particular those in the African community, are heard.” 

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