First and Foremost: A conversation with Ken Mejia-Beal

The newly elected, first out LGBTQ county chair in the state discusses his agenda

Ken Mejia-Beal is an activist advocating on behalf of the working class. He has spent most of his career helping others. After a narrow defeat for state representative for the 42nd District last year, he has been elected as chair of the DuPage County Democratic Party. He is the first African American, out LGBTQ person in Illinois to hold the post. 

Mejia-Beal never had aspirations for a career in public service. The Lisle resident’s background was in finance. “I lost six of my friends to AIDS before I turned 30. It made me evaluate how we were failing folks in our health care realm. I became an HIV/AIDS Activist, which led me to work with food deserts and work with elected officials on legislation. This was all a slow climb for me,” he said.

He shared with PrideIndex his goals as chair of the second-largest voting sector in Illinois, his message for people of color who feel disenfranchised by the Democratic Party, and his open-door policy for those who want to do something in DuPage County. 

PrideIndex (PI): The last time I saw you was in 2014 when we gave Lamont Robinson Jr., the Illinois House of Representatives for the 5th District, an Esteem Award. 

Ken Mejia-Beal (KMB): No. I believe that was 2018. 

PI: Okay. I will correct the date when this appears in print as if I were right all along anyway. It’s okay. Laughs.

KMB: Laughs

PI: Tell me all about yourself, and what have you been up to?

KMB: I’ve been involved in politics for the last 13 years. I ran for state rep in 2020. I came about 2,000 votes short and was the first openly LGBT candidate in DuPage County. Two weeks ago, I became the first openly LGBT person ever to lead a party, either Democrat or Republican, in Illinois. I’m also the youngest chair in DuPage’s history and the first chair of color in DuPage. It’s been a crazy couple of weeks.

PI: That’s good news. PrideIndex followed several openly gay LGBTQ+ candidates, but only a few are moving on to runoff races. I didn’t look at the results like they were disappointing. I figured they were a good starting point.

KMB: Exactly.

PI: You’re a success story. DuPage County has a person of color and an LGBTQ+ person as Democratic chair. So congrats on that. 

KMB: Thank you. 

PI: Let’s take a step back to when you first ran. What did you do to keep going after your loss? How would you advise other candidates to keep their heads up and keep going in the face of a loss?

KMB: For me, it was pretty easy. My goal was to ensure that my values and ideas were out there even if I couldn’t win. So when I ran for state rep in 2020 and did not win, it was the first time in this District that things like social justice, climate change, and police reforms were discussed. Whether or not I won my ideas, my seeds that were planted succeeded. And that’s what matters. It’s not about me; it’s about the community. That’s what other candidates should really be focused on their ideas. 

PI: Did you major in political science or have aspirations to run for public office in college or while growing up? 

KMB: No. I’ve been in the finance industry my whole life. That’s what my education was in. For me, what happened is I lost six of my friends to AIDS before I turned 30. It made me evaluate how we were failing folks in our healthcare realm. I became an HIV/AIDS Activist, which led me to work with food deserts and work with elected officials on legislation. This was all a slow climb for me. I was always comfortable. I mean, even before I ran for office, myself, I worked with other candidates on speech writing, knocking on their constituents’ doors, answering the phones, doing that kind of behind-the-scenes stuff. I never wanted to be in the spotlight. It’s never been my thing, but this is where my life’s course has taken me. I’m here and accepting it. 

PI: You mentioned something very interesting there. One does not associate food deserts with DuPage County.

KMB: I’m originally from Chicago. I’m a South Sider from 79th street. I moved to DuPage County about 10 years ago. These issues that I work for are prominent throughout our state. We might not have food deserts in DuPage per se, but we have a massive population of underserved, underfed, and underpaid folks. We have homeless people here in DuPage, and shelters are popping up every day. So we do have any quality issues. 

PI: That’s something we need to make people aware of; disenfranchised happens everywhere. Not just in this particular city or area code. It’s possible to occur anywhere. 

KMB: Yes, absolutely. 

PI: Now that you are in this position, what are some of your goals? 

KMB: 1. We’ve got to grow the party. When I go into events, I’m usually the youngest person in the room. I’m in my mid-30s; I should no longer be the youngest person in any political room. We need to do better with getting younger people involved. 

2. I’m one of the only black people involved in our party. We have to change that and be more inclusive of black and brown folks. I’m also one of the only openly LGBT person in the entire county. My goal, big picture, is to grow the party here on the DuPage to reflect our nation’s Democratic Party and reflect our county because it has changed in the last 10 years. We have a lot of folks that are here from Chicago from the south. We have a lot of folks from all over the place. The county looks way more diverse than it did 10 years ago, 20 years ago. But the party itself still looks like it did 20 years ago. That’s the problem.

PI: What do you say to African Americans and other people of color who feel disenfranchised by the Democratic Party? 

KMB: I’m with you, then I would say that we must listen. Getting our messages out there is not enough to vote. We’ve got to activate and advocate for ourselves. By that, I mean, when we see elected officials, challenge them. If they’re doing a good job, let’s work with them. And if they’re doing a terrible job, let’s run against them. Let’s be the change that we want to see. That’s what I say to black and brown folks; we can do this. Something I say every single time I can is we are more than the help. We are more than just the people that can uplift the Democratic Party on Election Day. We are the party.

PI: I recall when you were running for office, your opponent made a couple of remarks that were racist and homophobic. Now that you’re the party chair, how do you address detractors or naysayers? 

KMB: Well, what I say to them is, whether you like it or not, there are people like me in the party, and we’re doing the work, and we’re growing. When we look at Congress, we see more black and brown, LGBT, and faces under 40. We see more activists, politicians, under 40, black and brown LGBT people when we look across our country. So what I say to them is, if you are simply bothered by my existence, and the fact that I have the audacity to be a part of my own life, in my own success, then maybe you need to reconsider what party you’re in if it’s such a big deal for you. 

PI: What would you say to people to encourage them to become more active in the Democratic Party?

KMB: We need more people. I was reluctant to join, especially in the suburbs. I felt that I would not be included, and there would be a fight. I’m not going to lie to you. It was a fight in the beginning because you have to educate people on so many things. But once you’re done with that hard part, you will find that you can get to the root of the issues. When I have problems, when I see social justice issues, I can call my congressman on their cell phone on the weekend and say, hey, let’s talk because we have that kind of relationship. I know all of the state reps from DuPage, Cook, Lake, and McHenry Counties when I go to Springfield because I’m in the system. I think, as a people, I guess, to motivate folks, I always encourage everyone to read any information on Thurgood Marshall. The story of Thurgood Marshall is enough inspiration for anybody to want to get involved. They have to get into the system to change it. 

PI: Do you see yourself running for another statewide office? And if so, what office? 

KMB: For right now, I am really happy where I am. Will I run for office again? Maybe. Where do I see myself? I see myself being where young folks need me, the black and brown community needs me, and the LGBT community needs me the most. So whether that’s county office, Springfield, DC, or wherever that is, that is where I’ll be. 

PI: Does that mean you will be running for governor or senator representing the state of Illinois? 

KMB: Maybe. I’m open to anything. At the end of the day, I’ve always run for where I think I’m needed. When this position opened up the first thing I said is, I do not want to be the chair of the second-largest voting bloc in the state of Illinois. I talked to a lot of folks, politicians, elected officials. I was endorsed by all of our congressmen. But more importantly, I spoke to people within communities that have been ignored. And they said, do you know what this would mean, to have a chair of a party that looks like me, that understands my issues? And it was those conversations that got me to run. It’s good to have elected officials support me, to have the party support me is great. What really pushed me over was talking to a 15-year-old black young lady who lives two doors down. She said, do you know what it would be like to have a person that looks like you in an office like this? That’s why I do what I do, not just because I’m qualified, but because it inspires other people that have not been inspired. 

PI: What do you think is the biggest problem facing DuPage County right now?

KMB: I would say unity is our biggest problem. There’s this divide between progressives, moderates, centrists, and all these other things in between. This is an illusion because we all want the same things. We just go about them differently. The problem is our opponents are taking advantage of this. That’s a huge problem in DuPage and all over the country. We’re going to have to work to unite and move forward.

PI: If Governor Pritzker were to call you tomorrow and ask for two things he could do to improve the lives of all Illinois citizens, be it LGBTQ, African American, or other people of color. What would you say to him? 

KMB: It’s funny, you say that I have a call with a governor tomorrow at 10 am. (LAUGHS) 

The two things that I think our state needs:

  1. We have to start counting and poking our chest out about all the work we have done in the state. We have a lot of programs for people to help folks; guess what people don’t know where the hell these programs are; they’ve never heard of them, they don’t know about them until it is too late. We have to talk about all the stuff in Illinois to help working people. 
  2. We have to do better with the way we tax folks. I know the fair tax fell through, which was very unfortunate. The amount of tax we pay in the state, as a working-class, is way too expensive. It’s too high. 

To piggyback on number one, because we’ve done so much, we have voter integrity, the three pillars of the Black Caucus all pass with education, and social justice reform, as a state, we’re doing the work. We delegalized HIV. And we need to tell people where to go to find information, where to get help. And number two, we got to do better with our taxes.

PI: Do you consider yourself to be moderate or progressive? 

KMB: It depends on the issue. I’ve talked to folks, and there’ll be one way on one topic. They’ll say, well Ken, that’s the moderate, middle-of-the-road view. On other issues, they’ll say, wow, that’s very progressive. I’m a Democrat, whatever that means. That is what I fight for, working-class folks. I believe that people should be able to put something in their savings account. I believe medication shouldn’t put you in bankruptcy. I don’t think getting ill should make you have to file for bankruptcy. So wherever that puts me on whatever day of the week, that’s where I’ll be. 

PI: Where do you see yourself in the future? 

KMB: Right now, I see myself in Hawaii on a beach somewhere because that’s where my brain is. It’s almost vacation time.

PI: Laughs.

KMB: Laughs. (Then continues) I see myself working hard for people. I also see myself, and this is where I see myself, ten years from now, 20 years from now, preparing myself to take that next step in my life, with a legion of black, brown, young, LGBT folks behind me ready to take over. I don’t want to be that person that’s 60 – 70 years old, still where I am today doing what I’m doing. I want to do, whatever I can do in whatever time I have, and then pass it on so I can enjoy the work that I’ve done and enjoy the rest of my life and go out with a bit of grace. I think that’s something a lot of our elected officials can learn. And that’s not a dig at anybody, but I think that at some point, you have to relinquish and be ready to pass it on to younger generations. That is where I see myself in the future. Mobilizing those more youthful generations to take over when my time is done. And well before I’m in my 70s, well before that.  Laughs.

PI: Are you still married? What does your partner have to say about what you do? 

KMB: Yes. We’re going to be celebrating six years of marriage and eight years together in January. Some days, it’s like, yeah, I can go out and fight for the people, and some days it’s Ken, I want to see this movie? Do you have to fight for the people right now? Laughs.

I have a very proud, non-binary, Afro Latino American spouse who understands the struggles and what I’m doing. And that’s what matters the most. 

PI: Is there anything else you want to mention? 

KMB: I want to work with as many people as I can. So if you’re reading this and want to do something in DuPage, there is a chair here now that will understand your issue and want to work with you. You don’t have to come and explain to me in a PowerPoint presentation on the plights of being a marginalized person or being an LGBT person. I get it. We can sit down and talk and get down to business. 

Twitter / Facebook @kmbforDuPage