Small Talk and Sandwiches

Illustration by Vida Kuang

illustration by Vida Kuang

About ten minutes before State Representative Christian Mitchell’s first open house last Saturday, a tall man walks in with a large tray of sandwiches.

“I just thought y’all could use some food, he says warmly. “Looks like you already have some.”

Indeed they did. The meeting was reminiscent of a Sunday church brunch–quietly familiar, a central table, well-laden with cookies, brownies, and chilled drinks acts as a pit stop in between conversations for a few of the more adrift guests, while friendly low-level chatter abounds. Most of the twenty or so in attendance load up plates and settle down at a roundtable and chairs lined up near the office’s windows with friends and neighbors. Two elderly women, sporting large hats and what might have been their Sunday finest were it actually Sunday, remain seated for the duration, too ensconced in small talk for food.

Given the quickly rising political star in attendance that day, this low-key reception seems a little surprising. Still twenty-six, and only a few years removed from an undergraduate stint at the University of Chicago, he’s already gained the favor of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and looks destined for bigger and better things. Those bigger ambitions look very distant today, however, as politics is displayed at its most local.

The open house, designed to introduce Mitchell to constituents in his newly configured district, took place at 35th and King Drive in Bronzeville at the behest of 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns. He was previously Mitchell’s employer, but at the open house Burns lends critical support to the candidate in a district he himself formerly occupied. Nothing obviously political caught my ear in any of the initial conversations, and for a while, the most impassioned discussions of the afternoon are not about bills in the House, but about the Bulls’ playoff chances.

Finally, Mitchell, casually dressed, walks in and surveys the scene. “Looks like a party,” he says with a smile. He immediately sets about making the rounds — a handshake and an open ear for everyone in the room. He talks gamely about boxing–his favorite sport–and high school football with one seated group.

Due to the redistricting that perpetually disrupts Chicago voting patterns, however, many of those at the meeting don’t feel quite at home with Representative Mitchell.

“I’m in the 26th district, ma’am,” Mitchell tells a visibly perplexed woman. “Where do you live?”

“48th and Lake Park,” she replies. “Near Harper.”

“Harper Court? If it’s Harper Court, that’s too far south…”

“No, no. Harper Square. The Co-Op.”

After a minute or two more of trading points of reference, Mitchell refers her to one of the last available maps of the newly gerrymandered 26th District at a table of flyers and official literature.

The new 26th District, drawn up by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly in 2011, covers roughly the same ground as the old district, but includes some disorienting changes. Some boundaries within Kenwood have moved and the district as a whole now extends further south past 87th Street. The previous district’s southernmost boundary was 74th Street.

Even though these rejiggered boundaries should work in their party’s favor, the state’s Democrats have still had a difficult time advancing on highly contentious issues like gun control–a stalemate Mitchell chalks up to the traditional “north of I-80, south of I-80, rural vs urban divide.”

“I hate mixing politics and policy,” he says of the divide. “But the bottom line is you don’t set policy without politics.”

About halfway through his glad-handing around the room, it’s my turn to talk with Mitchell. I ask what the others have said to him.

“So far it’s been mostly:  ‘How you doing? Keep doing a good job,’” he says.  “But there’s been a lot of talk about guns.”

The issue does seem to follow Mitchell around the room, bookending conversations about otherwise unrelated topics like disability benefits and the responsiveness of Alderman Burns’ office. However, a recent statistic saying that over one million people have been killed by gun violence since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. galvanized the group towards gun control.

“They just get so stubborn,” said one man bitterly of gun rights advocates. “And no one understands this straw issue.”

Mitchell, standing with the man before about five guests, notices the puzzled looks and explains.

“Straw purchasing. Only fifteen percent of guns used in crime are actually stolen. Most are legally purchased and then re-sold or given to criminals without any records.”

Mitchell, one of fifteen freshman lawmakers on Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon’s “Firearms Working Group,” has quickly become one of the leading advocates for gun control in the Illinois State General Assembly. He’s introduced, among other bills, legislation bolstering regulations on private handgun purchases to prevent straw purchasing.

“This law would have just said, ‘I, the seller have to keep a record. The buyer keeps a record. Within ten days, we forward those records to the Illinois State Police.’ ” He pauses. “It went down 50-59.”

With a weariness that hangs heavily on his young voice, he describes the apologies offered after the vote.

“People came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Hey, that’s a really good argument. Makes a lot of sense. Can’t do it. NRA. Sorry.”

Mitchell faults closer ties between the National Rifle Association and the firearms industry for the lobby’s heightened obstinacy.

“Sturm, Ruger [& Company] and Smith & Wesson have a profit motive. And that profit motive gets disrupted anytime you do anything that makes it harder for someone to get a gun. So they’ve drawn a line in the sand. That’s what happens in Springfield.”

But, however intractable and unwieldy “politics” might be in Springfield, on this particular afternoon, in this particular office, “politics” hardly seems like a necessary evil. The open house continues to feel, through the end, more like a church social than a gathering for local politicos. Mitchell doesn’t seem to mind.

“I don’t know if I’m comfortable yet,” he tells a constituent asking about adjusting to his new office. “But I’m having fun learning the process.”

On harder days for Mitchell, “learning the process” means coming to terms with vexing political realities. Today, it means small talk and sandwiches.