Irvin recounts his theft conviction as a teen, says young people need 'to be constantly engaged'
Thirty-five years ago, 17-year-old Richard Irvin pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft and trespassing for his involvement in stealing a tire from an auto wrecker's yard to fix a flat.
Now mayor of Aurora and a Republican candidate for governor, Irvin on Tuesday called the experience a life-changing one. "I knew I had to create a different outcome for myself," he said.
A central theme of Irvin's campaign has been his evolution from a hardscrabble childhood living in high-crime Section 8 housing with his single mom in Aurora to serving in Operation Desert Storm with the U.S. Army and earning a law degree.
The tire theft "was the first time I directly had a brush with the law," Irvin said Tuesday. He disclosed the charges in an answer to a candidate questionnaire from the Daily Herald, which also reviewed court records.
"I had seen a number of friends I'd grown up with in and out of jail and some even going to prison ... selling drugs, doing bad things. I'd always tried to keep myself on the straight and narrow."
But while driving home from Chicago with two buddies after an interview and training for a job at a local Kentucky Fried Chicken in May 1987, Irvin's car had a flat. The teens got a ride home but didn't have money to buy a new tire, and stores weren't open, Irvin said, adding that the car was essential for getting to work.
"A friend of mine suggested we go to the junk yard and to just get a tire from there because it was junk. So we went to the junk yard pretty much not recognizing it was owned by somebody else and it was somebody else's junk."
Irvin left, but his friends stayed and were arrested by police. Irvin later called authorities and turned himself in but was not jailed, he said.
The junk yard was City Auto Wreckers, 690 McClure Road, and the offense occurred May 30, 1987, court records showed. An official with the company said its current owners took over in 1988 and they couldn't comment on prior matters.
Irvin's grandfather was his lodestar. "He was upset," Irvin remembered. "But he knew I would make up for my bad decision."
Later that year, Irvin appeared before veteran Kane County Judge Gene Nottolini, who told him, "You seem like a nice kid. I don't ever want to see you in court again," Irvin recalled.
He used his Army signup bonus to pay his fines and said his service "changed the trajectory of my life."
The next time he saw Nottolini in court, "I was a lawyer," said Irvin, who has worked as a prosecutor and a defense attorney.
The five other Republican candidates in the June 28 primary are state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, McHenry County businessman Gary Rabine, former state Sen. Paul Schimpf of Waterloo, attorney Max Solomon of Hazel Crest and venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan from rural Petersburg.
The contingent has hammered incumbent Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker for supporting a criminal justice reform law that they say is weak on crime. Asked how his past offense squares with his tough-on-crime stance, Irvin said, "We did something that we would not normally do because of the necessities of life, the necessity of having to fix the car and to have a car to eventually go to that job."
Being tough on crime and empathizing with disadvantaged youths are "not mutually exclusive," Irvin said.
"You've got to make sure that we have a strong police presence that maintains order. And, you have to provide opportunities for people not to be in a circumstance where they need to commit crime."
To reduce crime among young people, "we've got to make sure that young people are constantly engaged, that they're in sports, they're in productive activities, they're in school, and they're off the streets and doing things that are positive."
Irvin added he supports community-oriented policing. "We have to return to the beat cop, where police officers actually work in the neighborhood directly with community members to address issues and be proactive instead of reactive, not simply ride around in their black-and-whites waiting for crime to occur."
Asked if Irvin's past actions should affect his campaign, Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield said, "It is campaign 101 to do opposition research on yourself and get out in front of any issues in your past so you can control the narrative.
"It helps to be able to frame a juvenile crime as a 'youthful mistake.' It is even better if you can set it in a narrative that takes the event and frame it as the turning point where you took control of your life and started forward on the patch to righteousness and success."