In a way, Illinois House Representative Robyn Gabel isn’t so different from Northwestern students. On election night you could find her in Nevin’s, eating fish and chips and getting ready to celebrate. Though things didn’t turn out the way she wanted with Trump's win, that just means her government work is far from over. In her seven years in office, Gabel has focused on children and women’s rights, passing bills to ban teenagers from tanning beds, to promote the use of medical cannabis and to reduce nicotine poisoning in children from e-cigarette liquids. Under the new White House administration, Gabel looks forward to asserting states’ rights and making progressive change at home.
NBN: What got you interested in politics?
Gabel: I got involved in politics in the 1970s in the women’s health movement. I worked with women’s health centers and Planned Parenthood. Then I got involved in electoral politics with Harold Washington in Chicago when he ran for mayor and several alderman races. It was very exciting and very powerful and I decided, “Well, maybe electoral politics isn’t all that bad.” So from there I became the executive director of a non-profit organization that did policy and advocacy for women and children’s health.
What are your top priorities for the upcoming legislative session, and what do you think are the biggest issues for the 18th District?
In these new times we are living in, there is a big push to decentralize and have the states be responsible for more policy, so in the future I’m looking at working on three major issues. The first is protecting the environment. Second is women’s right to choose and making sure women have their own say and access to healthcare that they need. That’s how I started in politics and it looks like I’m continuing that struggle. And third is being a welcoming state and allowing immigrants to feel comfortable here in Illinois.
President Trump recently said Chicago should seek federal help for its gun violence problem. What role, if any, should the federal government have?
We should seek federal help for jobs and education. Those are the two areas that would ultimately help improve communities. I’m not sure that bringing in the National Guard would be a solution. I don’t think our neighborhoods need to be more militarized. We need to have less guns on the street rather than more.
In the past you've campaigned for medical marijuana for adults and children with epilepsy. Do you support that being expanded in the future?
Since the bill was passed, we have allowed people with other illnesses to access medical marijuana. People who are sick need to be able to have all the treatments that are proven to be beneficial to them. So yes, I do support medical marijuana. I also think way too many people are in jail right now based on marijuana in general and decriminalizing it is not a bad idea. We have to look and see what happens in other states since Illinois wouldn’t be the first state to do this.
During this past election cycle, the notion of tuition-free colleges was very popular with many young voters. Do you see this as a viable policy solution for the future? If so, who will pay for them?
I did see some information that was put out about making the first two years of college free. Usually if someone makes it through the first two years, they can figure out how to pay for the second two. We already have some federal scholarships and state dollars that are put towards this. I would like to see us do what we can to make college more affordable.
What advice do you have for young people looking to get involved with politics?
This is definitely the time to get involved. Talk to your friends and meet new people and organize groups working on issues. The first thing I would say is get involved in someone else’s campaign. Learn the ropes. I worked in many campaigns before I ran myself. So see if it’s really for you. See where your skills fit in. I would also volunteer at an elected official’s office. Go in a couple days a week. Offer to do some writing, research or help with a particular issue you’re interested in. Go to your city council meetings. Evanston has open city council meetings on Monday nights.
*Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.