After 2nd DUI, Time For Rep. Buckner To Move On From Mayoral Ambitions

·10 min read

CHICAGO — State Rep. Kam Buckner wants to move on from his drunken driving conviction.

Actually, the Chicago Democrat has been convicted of driving under the influence twice, according to a Tribune report that dredged up the time he got pinched in 2010 for falling asleep behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit.

Regardless, Buckner, who was appointed rather than elected to his House seat, was most recently sentenced to 12 months of conditional discharge — which means he won't have to serve a 28-day jail sentence if he stays out of trouble — after pleading guilty last month to a 2019 drunken driving charge.

“It’s a moment that I wasn’t proud of, right, it’s a moment that I can’t take back. It’s a moment that I can only learn from both personally, spiritually, professionally, which I have done,” Buckner told the Tribune this week.

That’s a nice sentiment. But a quick turn of the page post-sentencing is not realistic for Buckner, the former University of Illinois football star harboring unrealistic plans for his political future.

Buckner, 36, says he’s seriously considering a run for Chicago mayor in February 2023, which is funny to me because he would still be serving his conditional discharge sentence when voters go to the polls.

I can see the campaign slogan now: “Vote For Kam! My DUI conviction could be behind me next month!”

It seems the politically ambitious state representative needs a bit of a reality check.

The two-time convicted drunken driver is living the charmed life of a politician with a resume built on a clout.

Buckner was a staffer for both now-former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, and was appointed to the Chicago State University Board of Trustees by now-former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

In January 2019, Buckner was appointed by Democratic Party committeemen to represent the 26th House District, which stretches from the Gold Coast to the South Side.

Two months later — and two years before Buckner was a lead sponsor on a House bill — he got arrested for drunken driving in Springfield while the legislature was in session.

Video of Buckner’s 2019 arrest shows the freshman representative with the remnants of a to-go cocktail in his cup holder being awakened from his behind-the-wheel slumber by police after drinking at the Butternut Hut.

“I’ve been here for four days. I’m f—--- exhausted,” Buckner told the officer. “I’m a state rep.”

Mentioning his clout job representing the people of Chicago to the cops was not an effective argument.

Buckner seemed to struggle to keep his balance walking a straight line and standing on one foot.

After refusing to take a Breathalyzer test, Buckner asked the arresting officer if he could “explain something.”

“I’ve gone through session until like 9 o’clock at night. I’m just tired, man. I have a lot of things going on. My father is in a f—-- cancer ward. I’m just trying to go home and go to my parents in Chicago. I’m just trying to go back to the hotel.”

“I understand where you’re coming from, my man. However, I’ve got to do my job,” the officer said.

That’s when Buckner put on what sounded like a sympathy play. His cancer-patient father was a Chicago police officer for 36 years, Buckner told the officer.

“You’re going to go to jail,” the officer said, offering a Breathalyzer test as a “last effort” for the state representative to prove that sleepiness, not cocktails at the Butternut Hut, contributed to his napping while driving.

Buckner declined. He was placed in handcuffs and gently seated in the back of a police car, the video shows.

There’s an argument to made — but not a law that allows it — that Illinois lawmakers who break state laws, even misdemeanors, should lose their public office like anybody else whose employer could fire them for getting a DUI, even on their own time, as state law allows.

But that’s not the only advantage Rep. "I drank one beer" Buckner had over a lot of people who suffered bad judgment after getting pulled over after having too many cocktails.

When workaday folks refuse to take Breathalyzer tests after cops find them asleep behind the wheel — as Buckner did in 2019 — they don’t have help from labor unions to pay for chauffeured car rides to get around during the 12 months their license is automatically suspended under state law.

On Friday, Buckner said he wasn’t sure when he started serving his mandated suspension. State statute says mandatory suspensions start 46 days after refusing a Breathalyzer test.

Buckner said that during his mandatory suspension, he was allowed to drive after installing a mechanism on his vehicle that allows the car to start only after the driver blows under the legal limit into a breath-analyzing device. But he doesn’t drive much anyway. His 5-year-old car only has 12,000 miles, he told me.

Between October 2019 and May 25, 2020 — about a year and 46 days after the state representative’s arrest — the “Friends of Kam Buckner” campaign fund reported $3,310.62 in expenses for 190 Uber rides.

That was the most of any active campaign fund, and nearly 20 percent of the 996 “Uber” expenses claimed on campaign finance reports during the same time period, according to state records.

From May 26, 2020, to Christmas Eve 2021, Buckner’s campaign fund reported another $9,925 in “Uber” expenses, a grand total of $13,236.46 for 529 chauffeured rides.

I asked Buckner about the abundance of campaign-funded Uber expenses.

“I have a pretty vast district from South Chicago up to the Gold Coast, 10 aldermanic wards in my district. And I have a team that is extremely active, and we do use our political funds to move about the district. It’s not uncommon for me and my staff to have events when we are in five or six different neighborhoods in Chicago in one day, right,” he said.

“We do use, as everyone does, political funds to supplement where we don’t have the state funding. We have a very scant budget from what we get from our state budget. The political stuff and the government stuff, there’s obviously a buffer between them. But we move around the district for both of them.”

Buckner told me that he completed court-mandated alcohol assessments, but has not participated in either in-patient or outpatient treatment. He hasn’t given up drinking.

I asked him what lesson he learned after his second DUI conviction.

“The most important thing for me walking away from that is nobody was harmed. I didn’t harm anybody. That’s the most important thing for me. Secondly, human beings can have intervals of times when we’re not making the best, most cogent position. If you ever have to ask yourself if you should be behind the wheel of a car, the answer is no, whether it's that you’re sleepy or intoxicated or not in the right mental headspace, it’s nothing to play with,” he said.

“My evolution as a person is a continuing one. It’s not something that I’m proud of, but I also will say I’m not embarrassed by it. What would be embarrassing is if it happened, and I learned nothing from it, and I didn’t think it set me on a path to be a better person.”

Buckner’s second drunken driving conviction is less about what he learned about himself and more about what Illinoisans can learn about him, beyond the carefully crafted talking points he has repeated almost verbatim to reporter after reporter.

Watching video of his 2019 arrest left me with the impression that Buckner believes a state lawmaker, and the son of a veteran cop being treated for cancer, should get special treatment after a night of drinking and driving. Or at least some sympathy for having to endure several long legislative sessions in a row that lasted until 9 p.m.

His campaign disclosure reports paint a picture of a fledgling politician who has a penchant for conducting political business at fancy restaurants, bars and taverns, sometimes making multiple stops in a single night.

Here’s a sampling of the $20,758.21 Buckner has charged his “Friends” fund for “meals” since the campaign war chest started accepting donations in 2019 until December.

On a Wednesday in July 2000, for instance, Buckner charged his campaign $896.26 for a visit to Phlavz Bar & Grille and a $356.48 for “meals” at Boss Bar, a boozy 4 a.m. tavern with terrible food. The night before, July 28, 2000, Buckner charged his campaign $1,333.19 for meals at celebrity chef Fabio Viviani’s Siena tavern.

Buckner’s political operation footed the bill for “meals” at Tavern on Rush ($312.43) and Gibsons Steak House ($280.76) on Sept. 29, 2021.

I asked Buckner, who leads the legislative Black Caucus, to explain the spending reports that resemble credit card receipts the morning after bar hopping.

“Usually when I’m doing political, kinda conversations and stuff, not on the government side, I’ll put a whole day to the side and do them all in one day,” he said. “It’s typically, I try to stay in my district. So, Tavern (on Rush), Gibsons, and Hugo’s [Frog Bar] are spots that I frequent. It’s not that I have a fancy penchant, these are my constituents.”

Buckner is not accused of misusing campaign cash. I’m sure his campaign supporters are happy to subsidize expensive political chats.

But after perusing his campaign spending, it was clear that his brand of politics is just a lot fancier than that of other state representatives.

For instance, Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell — the former 26th District representative Buckner replaced — charged his campaign for 30 meals (mostly at Subway in Bridgeport) over six years for $5226.99, state records show.

After all, what we’ve learned from former Ald. Ricardo Munoz’s conviction on charges that he spent campaign cash on personal travel, among other things, is that the FBI is interested in how politicians in America’s most corrupt state spend political funds.

The intersection of Buckner’s DUI sentence and his possible mayoral candidacy is exactly what piqued my interest in the state representative's campaign fund — which is run by his sister, cousin and former state treasurer’s office director of ePay, Russell Singleton, who now is the treasury director for MGM Resorts in Las Vegas.

That's where I found that in September 2020, as coronavirus cases spiked and Gov. J.B. Pritzker began to shut down indoor dining across the state, Buckner charged his campaign account $2,748 for a three-day stay at the five-star luxury hotel Fontainebleau Miami Beach, state records show.

The reason for the expensive stay in paradise was to meet with people who were "potentially fundraisers," Buckner told me. The trip, however, did not lead to any funds being raised, he said.

On two days in August 2021, Buckner charged his campaign account $2,648.88 for a stay at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, a trip he told me was a “getaway” with his friend, Louisiana state Rep. Royce Duplessis.

Buckner said they met with a small group of other African American public officials and lobbyists to talk about starting an “interest group” called the “Alliance of Black Male Electeds,” which never materialized. Unlike Buckner, Duplessis did not report expenses related to a Las Vegas trip on Louisiana campaign finance disclosure documents.

The millennial lawmaker’s tale of his evolving journey toward self-improvement might’ve been heartwarmingly believable if, after a closer look, it didn’t appear that Buckner's rush to put his criminal trouble behind him has everything to do with political ambition.

What Buckner should be moving on from from is "seriously considering" a run for mayor.

Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series "Time: The Kalief Browder Story." He was a producer, writer and narrator for the "Chicagoland" docuseries on CNN and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary "16 Shots.

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This article originally appeared on the Chicago Patch