Illinois lawmakers want to give former President Barack Obama his due.
Two bills pending in the Illinois Legislature would make Obama’s Aug. 4 birthday the new state holiday. Other supporters propose to name a highway and a tollway after Obama. But some Republicans oppose the legislation, claiming it could cost the state too much money.
Chicago South Side State Representatives Sonia Harper (D-6th) and Andre Thapedi (D-32nd) are optimistic and determined to see their proposed bills succeed.
“If this state holiday bill doesn’t pass, we still have one for I-55, and another one for a tollway named after him,” said Harper. “I think we are going to get something named for Obama during this General Assembly session.”
Thapedi, who is sponsoring one of the bills, had tried making Obama’s birthday a state holiday last year but the bill stalled in a House committee. Thapedi said this year’s legislation has a much better chance of being passed into law.
“It’s a great time to honor him,” he said. “Last year, there were some concerns honoring a sitting president. Now that he’s no longer a sitting president, it’s a great time to honor him.”
He speculates that Republicans will join Gov. Bruce Rauner in opposition to the bills because they never supported Obama or any of initiatives sponsored by Democrats. He also worries they will oppose the cost of a new state holiday.
“Last time I got some numbers, they were extremely inflated and they were clearly not accurate,” said Thapedi. “I don’t know [the cost] because I don’t get real concrete, logical numbers from the governor’s office.”
“If the cost is the issue, then let’s take the other holidays off the table,” said Harper. “I believe this president deserves as much respect and attention like the others, no matter how much it costs.”
Harper thinks Obama was one of the best U.S. presidents ever. His achievements as the first black president, a Nobel prize winner, and his work as a law professor and activist at the University of Chicago, she said, make Obama very special for the state.
“Him being a president just encouraged so many people, especially the people of color,” said Harper. “I think his legacy should not be forgotten.”
Both House Bill 231 and Senate Bill 55 would make Obama’s birthday an official holiday. However, the House bill would shut down state government offices and give schools and businesses the option of closing. The Senate bill’s “Barack Obama Day” would be commemorative only.
Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez (R-99th) of Springfield said she sits on the State Government Administration Committee which considered the legislation.
“Obama is an important figure for Illinois,” said Jimenez. “However, I voted no against the bill. It would be costly for the state.”
Some Illinoisans see the value of having a day to celebrate Obama.
“The March [at] Selma [to Montgomery] was 52 years ago and now having a black president [is being] celebrated,” said Mary Schaffer, 53, a Chicago health sector worker who was in Springfield celebrating International Women’s Day. She has concerns about the rhetoric of President Donald Trump. “It’s been a long struggle and I fear we are going backwards.”