Friday, February 29, 2008

THE INK-STAINED WRETCH: CNN kept Waukegan explosion "humor" in check

Perhaps it is because I worked for two decades in the news business, but I could see the CNN anchor Thursday afternoon doing her best to suppress a laugh as she gave us the update on an explosion in Waukegan, Ill., that the network had reported live earlier in the day.

As it turns out, no one was killed in what officials say was a gas explosion that gutted several businesses and was felt by people as far as a block away. Eight people were taken to area hospitals for minor injuries.

THE POTENTIAL FOR humor came out of the fact that the initial image presented by the explosion was so incredibly disgusting. Firefighters and other emergency crews arriving at the scene found body parts strewn all about the street.

For a few seconds, officials surveying the scene saw the flesh-colored parts and feared they were going to be spending their next few hours picking through rubble while trying to resurrect the parts of people who just happened to be present at the wrong time.

But in what sounds like a bit from a “Marx Brothers” movie, the body parts turned out to be not quite what they appeared at first glance. Among the businesses gutted by the explosion were a hair salon and a clothing store – specifically, one that sold tuxedos.

Had the body parts not come from mannequins, Waukegan, Ill., would no longer be remembered primarily as the birthplace of Jack Benny. Photograph provided by City of Waukegan.

The body parts in question belonged to the mannequins used in the store to display the tuxedoes. At least those mannequins ended their time on this planet while being well dressed. Except for the mannequin clad in the light blue tuxedo with a ruffled shirt and dark blue cummerbund. That one gets the shame of dying in a tacky high school prom outfit.

SOME PEOPLE ARE going to be repulsed at the notion that anyone could find humor in an explosion. But actually, it is the way reporter-types (and many law enforcement officials I have known) deal with the potential tragedy once it turns out there is no real carnage.

It’s not like anybody is making quips about Tinley Park, where police continue to look for the man who earlier this month killed five women and seriously wounded a sixth during a robbery attempt at a Lane Bryant women’s clothing store.

Nonetheless, I can appreciate the differing viewpoint that non-reporters take toward incidents. After all, a reporter (particularly one who focuses attention on crime and disasters) usually pops into the lives of people at their absolute low point.

It is why I can understand why reporters approached Gov. Rod Blagojevich when he attended a ceremony at Northern Illinois University, and then proceeded to ask him questions about issues other than the 21st Century version of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre that left five students dead and several others shot.

SEVERAL STUDENTS BOO-ED and heckled reporter types, which probably fed into the governor’s ego and makes him think all the more that the people of the state of Illinois love him (they really love him) and will forgive him for anything he does.

The simple fact is that Blagojevich may be implicated in a federal investigation of political corruption. He gives people so few chances to talk to him, that this occasion had to be used.

Besides, the world does not revolve around DeKalb, Ill., even though some students may wish it did. Blagojevich said he would push for state funds to pay for demolition of the hall where the shootings took place and construction of a new memorial. That story got reported as well as Blagojevich’s lame response to being “Public Official A.”

What else was notable this week in the world of the Chicago-area reporter types who try to follow in the footsteps of “The Front Page?”

SUN-TIMES DINGS TRIBUNE, WHOOPIE!!!: The Chicago Sun-Times went a tad overboard with its coverage Thursday of how Tribune Co. chief Sam Zell seriously wants to find some corporation to pay him big bucks for the right to put their name on the stadium used by the Chicago Cubs.

With a screaming headline reading, “It’s Trib vs. Chicago,” the newspaper made a big splash with stories and columns denouncing Zell for even daring to think of changing the name of Wrigley Field (which is named for the Wrigley family that used to own the team and still owns the chewing gum manufacturing company).

The newspaper also devoted ample space on their website to the comments of Cubs fans (many of whom read as though they forgot to take their medication) who want to get all worked up over this.

THE ONLY REASON the Sun-Times cares about this is that it is an excuse to beat up on the opposition newspaper. If anybody other than Tribune Co. owned the Cubs, the Sun-Times would take a more rational viewpoint on this issue.

The truth is that modern sports economics make all of Zell’s proposed moves (including more night games and concerts at the stadium) the norm. He is not asking for anything out of line with other professional sports teams.

If our government officials are going to be forced to deal with this issue (the state may wind up buying the stadium and paying for a major overhaul of its infrastructure), they are going to have to get over this silly notion that the Chicago Cubs are “holier than thou.” They’re just a baseball team, and a lousy one at that.

BLACK’S BLACK DAY: He was done in by videotape.

An appeals court panel in Chicago rejected the request of former Chicago Sun-Times chief Conrad Black to remain free while his appeals take place. Black will have to report to prison on Monday, or risk being labeled a fugitive from justice.

The court ruled that his conviction on an obstruction of justice charge on claims that he removed boxes of documents from his office in Toronto after a court had said they were not to be touched is so air tight there is no chance it will be overturned. They cited the security video used during Black’s trial that shows him hauling box after box after box out of the office.

So that puts Black in the same category as one-time Chicago Cubs idol Sammy Sosa as someone whose Chicago rep was forever damaged by incriminating video (remember the security camera that caught Sosa leaving a game early at the end of the 2004 season?)

Unlike Sosa, Black now has a 6 ½ year prison term to serve (provided he behaves himself while in prison, he’ll have to serve about 5 ½ years before being eligible for early release).

AND ON A FINAL NOTE: I’m still trying to figure out just what officials with the “Today” show thought they were accomplishing by having former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson on their program.

Peterson, whose third wife is now officially a homicide and whose fourth wife is still missing (it has been four months now), didn’t say anything of interest during his show, and the perception most viewers picked up is that NBC will put anything on the air if they think it will help bring in ratings.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Activists scare people with abortion rhetoric

To some people, the extent to which they are interested in anything happening in Springfield is to know the latest about whether Public Official A (a.k.a., Gov. Rod Blagojevich) is on the verge of being indicted, tried and sent to prison.

The notion of two consecutive Illinois governors winding up their political careers in prison (George Ryan currently receives the benefits of an “Oxford education” – waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his appeal while sitting in a prison cell at the federal facility in Oxford, Wis.) is titillating to those Chicago political observers who want to think that government begins and ends at City Hall.

BUT BELIEVE IT or not, those clowns in “Springpatch” are more than just a batch of youthful politicos in training combined with a few old hacks who don’t have what it takes to hold elective office in Chicago proper. The ladies and gentlemen of the General Assembly will be asked this spring to consider issues ranging from firearm possession to Wrigley Field ownership to abortion.

Yes, abortion.

It is the issue that will never go away, yet in some ways is one of the perennial issues of the Illinois political process. Every year, some measure comes up that gets the activists on both sides of the issue to act their most irrational.

This year, the anti-abortion activists have a head start on the silly season. The Glen Ellyn-based Illinois Family Institute is sending out Internet missives meant to stir up trouble aimed squarely at a bill sponsored this spring by state Reps. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and Rosemary Mulligan, R-Des Plaines.

THE BILL IN question is meant to ensure that women have access to the medical services that can end a pregnancy. Considering that availability of such services was the intent of the Supreme Court ruling of 1973 that wiped out state laws making abortion a crime, the bill is all too logical.

But to the institute, the measure is “draconian” in that it stands in the way of “conscience for moral reasons” and would go so far as to require sex education courses for Kindergarten children and condom training for 9-year-olds.

Basically, the Currie/Mulligan bill would prevent government from taking any action that would interfere with abortion being available to women who choose it. Such a law is necessary because the General Assembly throughout the years has passed measures designed by anti-abortion activists to make it as difficult as possible for women to actually gain access to abortion.

Some people might see their actions as political bullying of women. But to the institute, any attempt to stop them from stopping people is a “radical and unprecedented departure” from Illinois law.

“CLEARLY, THE ENACTMENT of (the bill) would codify all abortion procedures at any stage of pregnancy,” the institute writes, in a statement recently e-mailed to all of their followers across Illinois and select other political observers (somehow, I managed to get on the group’s e-mail list a few years ago).

When you think about it rationally (which is something that doesn’t often happen when it comes to abortion debate), the Currie/Mulligan bill is not a radical concept.

Abortion is a legal medical procedure (and don’t tell me that it is gross – if you look at it graphically, so is a gall bladder removal, but no one in their right mind would think of criminalizing that) that should not be made unavailable by the actions of political people who want to force their personal moral choice on others.

Admittedly, I favor allowing a woman the right to decide this issue herself. I have a problem with anti-abortion activists trying to impose their views on a woman’s choice, and I find it disgusting that they try to portray their position as moral.

AS I SEE it, they are using the potential of a future human life to try to tell an existing life (that of the mother) what she can do with her body. The idea of telling someone what she can’t do sounds so much like a personal infringement of her rights – the very notion is so anti-Republican, or at least anti- the concept of individual choice that conservatives always claim they stand for.

A particularly appalling part of the institute’s message to activists is the portion that pretends to address the concerns of doctors who do not want to be involved with the termination of a pregnancy.

Now I do not have a problem with a doctor being a bit squeamish about the process. The Currie/Mulligan bill says they should be required to refer women to another doctor, if they themselves do not want to provide the service.

Doctors provide referrals all the time. It is not a radical medical concept.

BUT THE INSTITUTE wants to believe that a doctor is being punished if he is required by law to refer a woman who wants an abortion to another doctor.

“Quite simply, the enactment… would drive anyone having a religious or moral belief against abortion or contraceptives from the Illinois health care community,” the institute writes, in its Internet missive.

Rationally, that might not be bad. Perhaps a doctor, pharmacist or medical technician who wants to impose his view of morals over sound medical practices should think seriously about whether they are in the right line of work, in the same way that a member of the clergy who suddenly had a loss of religious faith should think about doing something else with their lives.

WHAT IS MOST disgusting about the institute’s missive is that it is taking advantage of the ignorance of some people when it comes to the legislative process, as practiced in Illinois. This is a bill that is a long shot to become law.

Currie and Mulligan may be high-ranking members of the Illinois House of Representatives, but the Illinois House is run by Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago – who personally opposes abortion and thinks his political party’s vehement support for it is misguided.

Abortion opponents privately admit Madigan is their best ally. He allows their measures to get fair hearings and allows individual Democrats to vote their conscience – which lets Dem legislators from rural Illinois to break from the party platform position.

ALSO, WHEN ONE considers that Democratic legislators these days can’t play nice with each other, it is unlikely that a majority of people in both chambers of the General Assembly will manage to support the issue, and get Blagojevich to sign the measure into law.

So if you are considering getting all worked up by the Illinois Family Institute’s hysterical missive that tries to scare people into envisioning 13-year-old girls having abortions, take a deep breath.

Then, realize the bill is likely just another of the “perennial issue” bills that come up every year, create a lot of hysterical talk and wind up accomplishing nothing.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Abortion missives can sometimes be comical in their ridiculous use of rhetoric, but this one ( is just absurd.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Joliet, Ill." losing its rep as a prison town

There once was a time when the placement of a “Joliet, Ill.” dateline atop a news story was a sure-fire guarantee of prison violence or some other news related to the activity of a violent criminal.

The small city located at the far southwestern-most corner of what could be considered the Chicago area became internationally known for the facilities located in or near its borders that housed dangerous and violent criminals.

THE NAMES “STATEVILLE” and “Joliet” brought to mind the same dank, depressing images of criminal justice and retribution as do names like “Leavenworth” and “Alcatraz.”

Those days are receding into the past, and Joliet municipal officials are glad. While they enjoyed the tax benefits and jobs provided by having two maximum-security prisons nearby, the fact that their town was known more for its dangerous visiting residents than anything that happened in town had to be depressing.

Joliet’s days as a prison town are declining because the Joliet Correctional Center and the Stateville Correctional Center in neighboring Crest Hill (which many people mistake for the low-income section of Joliet) are old. The Joliet prison dates to the 19th Century, while Stateville is a modern (only by Illinois prison standards) facility that opened in 1925.

Age is the element that brought the Joliet Correctional Center to its demise as a viable maximum-security prison, and its sister Stateville Correctional Center could soon share the same fate. Photograph provided by Library of Congress collection.

Trying to turn those old prisons that were meant to resemble imposing castles that would scare passersby into never wanting to have to spend any time there (while also intimidating the inmates who were there) into modern corrections facilities would be way too expensive.

IT IS EASIER to just build new facilities, which can be constructed up to modern standards of criminal incarceration – which, for those who fear inmates are being “coddled” are still extremely restrictive. No one in their right mind would volunteer to live under such conditions.

The old Joliet Correctional Center already has been shuttered, as far as housing maximum-security inmates. The facility is now a center for people convicted of a crime in northern Illinois. They start their prison term there, spend a few days while being evaluated by state corrections officials, then they are assigned to the prison where they will spend the bulk of their hard time.

That fate is to be shared by Stateville, if Gov. Rod Blagojevich gets his way.

When Blagojevich presented his state budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, it called for closing the oldest parts of Stateville (the ones that are most in violation of modern standards for housing inmates) and using other parts to perform the same functions now carried out on the other side of town at the former Joliet Correctional Center.

STATEVILLE CURRENTLY HAS about 3,500 inmates, and it is estimated that the move would cause about 1,500 of them to be relocated to prisons across the state. That sounds like an ambitious project – trying to shift that many potentially dangerous people around the state.

There’s a very good chance that the bulk of them would wind up in Thomson, Ill., where a modern facility has been sitting empty in the rural northwest Illinois county for nearly a decade. Officials would like to have transfers complete by 2011.

Corrections officials also say that some less-violent inmates could be placed at new prisons in Lawrenceville and Sheridan, although critics of the proposed shift say the three new prisons were meant to supplement existing facilities – not replace them.

The Thomson prison is actually one of the laughable tales of state government ineptitude. The problem is that Illinois Department of Corrections officials were never given adequate funding to maintain the new prison.

THE FACILITY BUILT back in the 1990s was meant to give Illinois a modern maximum-security prison. Its construction was completed in time to theoretically open the facility in 2001.

But the state built itself a new toy that it can’t afford to play with. Large portions of the modern prison have sat empty for six years now, and a recent report by the Illinois auditor general’s office said some parts of the prison are deteriorating due to non-use.

I’ll credit Blagojevich for realizing that it is past due for the state to start using its new prison. I also realize that Stateville is a place whose best days are in the past. I have been inside Stateville on a few occasions (as a reporter, not an inmate), and what always amazed me was seeing the same spots that were used in the late 1948 film “Call Northside 777.” What was once fresh and new had become rather decrepit by the time I saw it 50 years later.

A shift from Stateville is a move that should have taken place some time ago.

THAT, OF COURSE, will not stop political people from trying to get involved. State Sen. Debbie D. Halvorson, D-Crete, says she will oppose any shift of inmates away from Stateville because that also means Corrections Department jobs moving from Will County to Carroll County.

State officials concede that about 400 jobs will be shifted from the Joliet-area if the move takes place.

In the big picture (that of the entire state), the jobs factor is irrelevant – the actual payroll will remain the same. Some might even argue that in the small picture, it is not that important because another Illinois area would suddenly gain a batch of jobs. It all balances out.

But Halvorson is running a campaign to move up to the House of Representatives, and Stateville is in the territory encompassed by the congressional district she wants to represent in Washington.

SHE WANTS TO appear as though she will fight for local jobs, and figures Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., whose Quad Cities-area congressional district would gain from the Illinois Corrections Department change, can fight his own battle to support the shift.

This issue is not an easy one for most Chicagoans to understand because most of us are living here in part because we would never want to live in the kind of isolated community that usually attracts prison facilities.

About the only place in Chicago that has anything resembling a prison atmosphere is the Little Village neighborhood, which abuts the Cook County Jail complex. But that neighborhood’s historic character is one where newly arrived immigrants live for a bit before moving up in life. Even the current Mexican population that lives in “La Villita” will some day move on to better places. Nobody in Chicago stays long-term in a jail atmosphere.

In fact, the reason Joliet got to be the unofficial prison capital of Illinois is because it used to be fairly isolated. Officials a century ago never envisioned the suburban sprawl that would spread itself out from Chicago in all directions and turn Joliet and its surrounding communities into just more suburbs of the Second City.

BUT THERE ARE people who will vehemently fight on both sides of this issue. Joliet area officials, while they would enjoy cleansing their public image of the prison ties, also enjoy the economic benefits of a steady employer like Illinois government.

Most of the people who work at the prisons are not the kind of people who would be able, or willing, to make a sudden move across the state just to keep a job.

Likewise, Carroll County, Ill., is an isolated place. While on the Mississippi River, Carroll County is the rural space that falls between the Quad Cities and Galena, Ill. Getting this prison to finally hire people and open itself is likely the biggest economic opportunity the county of just over 16,000 people (by comparison, the typical ward in Chicago has about three times that many people) will ever see.

For Thomson itself, the prison will put the town of 559 people (it’s the self-proclaimed “Melon Capital of the World”) on the map, just like no one ever paid attention to Tamms, Ill., until they got to be the location of the state’s only “super maximum” security prison.

IN THE BIG picture, Carroll County will gain more than Will County will lose. After all, Joliet still has two of the biggest moneymaking riverboat casinos in Illinois, a racetrack that hosts major auto racing events and an independent league professional baseball team. A lot of Illinois communities (many across the Midwest, to be honest) would love to be in Joliet’s position.

Honestly, the most negative aspect I can think of for Joliet is that officials will have to figure out a way to explain to future generations who watch reruns of “The Blues Brothers” film just why the blues singer character portrayed by John Belushi was nicknamed “Joliet Jake.” After all, the day will come when the nickname no longer makes sense.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Illinois corrections officials have used the Joliet area as the site of two ( of its most intense-security facilities for more than eight decades.

We’ll see how pleased Thomson ( is to have a maximum-security prison after the first incident that takes place within its walls.

Inmates who have spent their time within Stateville’s walls all had their own ways of coping (,9171,951815,00.html) with the mental anguish of being locked up.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Chicago's "3rd airport" truly a saga of stupidity

When the Chicago Tribune ran “Gary as the ‘third airport’?,” as a headline this week, I couldn’t help but think for a moment that someone in government had a burst of common sense.

But then I read into the story and realized it was merely about how Gary-Chicago International Airport would like to someday have more passenger airlines use their facility, which currently provides an outlet for cargo being flown into the Chicago-area and next month will have daily passenger flights connecting Gary to Greensboro, N.C.

THE ROLE OF the Gary, Ind. airport in the development of a third major airport for the Chicago area (in fact, the whole process of trying to develop another airport to compliment O’Hare International and Midway airports) is a classic tale of the way our politicos like to work at their own pace and are more than willing to hold off on the public good if it tries to come too fast.

Political delays in developing a new airport are not unique, as certain issues are perennials. They are controversial topics that sound impressive and provide the raw material for newspaper banner headlines and breathless accounts of television newscasts that make it seem that a historic moment is about to take place.

The classic perennial issue is gambling, particularly the construction of a casino in Chicago proper (not Elgin or Aurora or Joliet or any of the northwest Indiana towns). As recently as last year, officials talked of creating a casino as a way of raising money to help raise needed money for mass transit in Chicago.

With some work, this airport could be the Chicago equivalent of Newark International. Photograph provided by Indiana Department of Transportation.

But it didn’t happen. It never does.

CASINO PROPOSALS OF many differing details were debated every single year I covered the Illinois General Assembly (1993-99) and have been discussed every year since I have moved beyond the Statehouse Scene. Actually, it wasn’t even a new issue when I covered it.

Despite all the rhetoric, NOTHING has ever happened that would result in shovels being turned in earth to dig up soil to lay a foundation for an actual casino in Chicago.

Similar to gambling, we’re also nowhere near getting a third airport for the Chicago area, even though the issue has been under review for three decades and reached a peak 17 years ago.

How long has this issue dragged on? Had action been taken back in 1991 when politicians were focused on it, we likely would now have an airport somewhere near Chicago to supplement the two airports that lie on the edge of the city limits.

COMING UP WITH an airport site has always been the problem, largely because politicos in Illinois and Indiana both want to ensure their state receives the economic benefits from its construction. Actual aviation needs of an airfield are irrelevant to many political people.

Back in the early 1990s (I covered mass transit for awhile for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago), a commission of officials from both states had narrowed the sites down to four. One was a major overhaul of what was then called Gary Regional Airport, which had a cute little terminal and one runway.

Chicago officials always acted as though the issue didn’t affect them because none of the sites were in Cook County – the others were near Peotone, Kankakee and a site east of Beecher, Ill., whose sole benefit was that the Illinois-Indiana state line cut through the middle of the proposed airport (making it the perfect political compromise).

But Mayor Richard M. Daley derailed the process by proposing an airport on the far Southeast Side of Chicago that would have obliterated neighborhoods like Hegewisch and suburbs like Burnham, and would have turned places like South Chicago and Calumet City into a southern equivalent of places like Park Ridge and Wood Dale – which get hit with constant O’Hare Airport overhead jet noise.

I STILL REMEMBER the day when the political people officially chose the Chicago site. It was pure politics. Indiana officials on the commission solidly favored a Gary airport expansion, while the one south suburban Cook County member picked the site near Peotone and commission member George Ryan (later to become governor) voted for the site near his home town of Kankakee.

All the others voted for Chicago, and it won, only to be derailed the following year when the Illinois General Assembly decided to play its own partisan games. Daley rescinded his offer, and most of the talk about new airports since then has focused on Peotone.

In recent years, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., has tried to lead development of a Peotone airport by saying it would benefit the economy of the entire south suburbs and far South Side of Chicago (which, not-coincidentally, is his congressional district).

But that puts him into a fight with Will County regional officials who want to see a Peotone-based airport as a local entity that cuts Chicago out of the equation altogether.

INSOFAR AS PEOTONE residents themselves are concerned, most of them do NOT want an airport near their homes. But they also see the political delays as evidence that things are so bungled up that nothing will happen anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Indiana officials continue to push for small-scale development of Gary-Chicago International out of hopes that future political mood swings could allow them to be ready to accommodate a future major expansion.

What I remember the most about the 1991 bi-state commission airport hearing was listening to Ryan when he said he could never, in good conscience, make any type of vote that would support putting a Chicago-area airport in Indiana.

That logic is so short sighted.

THE SITE AT the southern tip of Lake Michigan near steel mills make it ideal in that airport noise would affect steel workers (who might not hear it anyway due to the noise emanating from their jobs) and the fish that are able to survive in a portion of the lake that is tainted with steel mill waste.

Noise pollution for people would be minimal. Considering that I once lived under an O’Hare flight pattern (on Irving Park Road four blocks east of Cumberland Avenue), I appreciate first-hand how annoying constant jet noise can be.

A Gary airport expansion also would use land that already is contaminated and someday is going to have to undergo a serious environmental cleanup. Airport critics use that as an excuse to claim Gary is too expensive to build – ignoring the fact that the cost will have to be paid someday and likely will increase with the passage of time.

It might as well be now.

USING GARY AS a site for a new airport even fits in with the existing makeup of the Chicago area with O’Hare to the northwest, Midway to the southwest and Gary-Chicago at the far southeast corner of what can be called the Chicago area.

What is most disgusting about the “third airport” debate is that it is still going on. When it peaked in the early 1990s, studies said that if political people gave the needed approval for an airport site soon (perhaps by 1992), construction could start by decade’s end and the first flights could use the new airport sometime about 2002.

This airport should have been up and running by now. The fact that it isn’t is the ultimate evidence of political people ignoring the public needs.

It’s not like the overcrowded conditions at O’Hare International have alleviated. The only reason the airport is no longer the world’s busiest is because Hartsfield International Airport near Atlanta is busier – not because of a decrease in O’Hare flights.

SINCE MIDWAY IS already at its capacity (and was originally built back in the early days of aviation and was never really intended for modern-day aeronautic activity), it cannot pick up any of the O’Hare overload.

Chicago still needs a new airport.

Yet the political people who perennially discuss building casinos in Chicago also have dragged out talk of developing a new airport.

FOR WHAT IT’S worth, I believe the day will come when politicians finally approve a Chicago casino, and perhaps even a new airport. Political people eventually get around to action, as long as they sense that the people affected by the issue have waited their turn.

The perfect example of someone waiting their turn is the Chicago Bears. Back in the mid-1980s, the football team was just as insistent as the Chicago White Sox baseball team that it needed a new stadium.

The White Sox played power politics and threatened to leave Chicago, thereby forcing politicos to act in 1988. Don’t think for a moment that they have been forgiven.

CERTAIN POLITICAL PEOPLE who resent all government support for sports teams think of the White Sox in particular as “persona non grata” because they forced the Illinois General Assembly to act ahead of its snail-pace preference.

But had the Sox waited until Illinois lawmakers finally felt like doing something, they likely would have had to wait as long as the Bears, who did not get a major overhaul of their existing stadium until 2003.

At that rate, maybe we’ll see a new Chicago area airport some time by 2020. Let’s just hope the needs of Chicago aviation can hold out until then.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Gary-Chicago International Airport (which I once heard suggested should be called Chicago South Shore Airport) has an ideal location to be the third-major airport ( for the Chicago area. Of course, that means political people in Illinois refuse to take it seriously.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Politicos need professional dedication as much as campaign cash to survive elective office

A part of me has a certain respect for the people who actually decide to run for political office, in part because of the dedication it takes on someone’s part to subject their lives to public scrutiny and allow “the people’s business” to take over their very existence.

“The people’s business” – that’s the phrase I have heard used semi-jokingly when political people refer to their work, and it is true. The decisions they make affect the regulations that confront our daily lives and how much tax is added to the price of the objects we buy.

PEOPLE WHO GET elected to a city council or state legislature post have to succumb to the minutia of government policy and accept that someone (sometimes me) is going to find fault with whatever they do, regardless of what they do.

So I’ll have to admit that I gained respect for Tim Baldermann, a Republican candidate for Congress from Illinois’ 11th congressional district, when he decided now that he did not want to proceed with plans to run for the federal post in Washington.

When he announced his decision last week, Baldermann said he was only now realizing how time-consuming it would be to run a serious campaign that might actually have a shot at winning the congressional seat, which represents an area stretching from the outermost southern suburbs of the Chicago area down to Bloomington – a combination suburban and rural Illinois district with many conflicting interests and opportunities to upset people.

I wonder what becomes of that great big headshot banner? Photograph provided by Baldermann for Congress.

He also came to realize the expense of political campaigns. Although he managed to raise about $203,000 to spend on his primary election victory over two no-name politicos, having any chance to defeat state Sen. Debbie D. Halvorson, D-Crete, would have required a financial commitment he was not willing to make.

HOW TIME-CONSUMING can it be if you don’t have great personal wealth to pay the bills for a modern-day campaign?

The late Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois used to say he had to spend a part of every single day he was in federal office (12 years in the U.S. Senate, 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives) making telephone calls intended to solicit donations so that he could have the funding necessary to run respectable re-election campaigns.

He hated doing it, but the drive to have a positive influence on public policy was so strong in Simon that he made the calls and got the cash contributions so he could keep going back to Washington to do, “the people’s business.”

Someone who is honest enough to admit publicly he doesn’t want to make the calls and whose drive to be a part of the legislative process isn’t strong enough to undergo the ordeal deserves our respect.

ILLINOIS REPUBLICAN CHAIRMAN Andrew McKenna expressed similar sentiments, saying in a statement released Friday that, “running for Congress is a difficult job that requires the full commitment from a candidate and his family.”

Not all Republican officials feel that way. Some are upset.

The congressional seat in question is held by retiring Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., whose actions in Congress have caused enough of a public outcry that political observers think Democrat Halvorson is the favorite to win the Nov. 4 election.

They wish Baldermann had decided before the Republican primary election earlier this month to get out of the race. They would have rather had a candidate with the legitimacy of being chosen by GOP primary voters, rather than someone who will be lambasted by Halvorson and by Green Party nominee Jason Wallace as an illegitimately chosen flunky indebted to party hacks rather than, “the people.”

SOME MIGHT THINK a non-committal Baldermann is better than a no-name with a weak resume who is no more legitimate than Lar Daly, the legendary Chicago guy who ran for virtually everything during his lifetime (he never won); campaigning against tax increases and for castration of rapists while using the nickname “America First’ and wearing an “Uncle Sam” suit.

But the cowardly thing for Baldermann to do would have been to remain in the campaign, then proceed to run a weak election effort that would have drawn no attention and whose purpose would merely have been to fill a space on the Republican side of the November general election ballot.

Then, after losing to Halvorson, he could have tried claiming it was just a bad year for Republicans in ’08 and probably would have spewed the political rhetoric of losers – their political party didn’t do enough to support them.

I’m glad to know we won’t be hearing such talk from Baldermann, who was a desirable candidate for the Republican Party in Illinois because of his public service resume. He has never held a federal government position, but he is mayor of his hometown of New Lenox (a far southwest suburb of Chicago) and he also is police chief of the inner southwest suburb of Chicago Ridge.

HE IS A law enforcement professional who is not so limited in his worldview that he takes the time to understand the workings of municipal government. That is a combination of factors that, on paper, could have given Halvorson’s decade-long career in the Illinois Legislature a serious challenge.

One aspect of Baldermann’s withdrawal is ironic – the region of Illinois he comes from. Those same southwest suburbs of Chicago also produced one of the other notable incidents of a guy who decided that modern-day electoral politics just wasn’t for him.

Back in 1995, Edward Zabrocki was the long-time mayor of Tinley Park who decided to try getting into politics beyond the municipal level – winning election to a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives.

HE WAS A part of the Republican majority that seized control of Illinois government that year and used its power to try to ram a blatantly partisan political agenda through. The power politics disgusted Zabrocki so much that he resigned his seat after serving only six months of the two-year term to which he was elected. He has never to this day sought any office beyond being mayor of his hometown.

By getting out now, Baldermann becomes like Zabrocki – someone who decided that his real life was more important than a political one. Even though both men remain as suburban mayors, the reality is that those part-time posts are largely exempt from the “Democrat vs. Republican” wars some of us find so intriguing about politics.

I don’t know whom the Republicans are going to come up with to replace Baldermann on the November election ballot, although party officials from counties stretching from Will to McLean and out west to Bureau will have to get together soon (possibly this week?) to choose a replacement.

THE POLITICAL JUNKIE in me would have loved to see a serious clash between Baldermann and Halvorson. I was looking forward to the political infighting that would have taken place.

But now, I’m going to have to look elsewhere to fulfill my dreams of a congressional campaign brawl. Perhaps I’ll turn to the Illinois 14th congressional, where Republican James Oberweis is only a narrow favorite to defeat Democrat Bill Foster.

Despite the historic GOP tendencies of that far west suburban and rural Illinois district, the same national political trends that boost Halvorson’s campaign favor Foster against Oberweis. That is why those two are already spending big money on campaign ads to let us know that Foster is a liberal flake and Oberweis is a right-wing nut who sold out American jobs to China.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Here is the Internet presence of the congressional campaign ( that never will be. It will be interesting to see how long this link remains alive.

From the “home of Proud Americans,” some information about Baldermann’s municipal ( record. It’s no wonder the GOP wanted him, even though some conservative elements believe Baldermann was little more ( than a stooge for Cook County Board member William Beavers.

Details (,022208Baldermann.article) about Baldermann’s withdrawal.

For anyone who thinks Lar “America First” Daly sounds too ridiculous to be real, keep in mind (,9171,892443,00.html) that my imagination is nowhere near creative enough to come up with a character like Lar.

Illinois’ new hot congressional race (the Illinois 14th) provides Hispanic people with lousy options regardless of who wins. Details are provided in a commentary published at The South Chicagoan (, which is the Chicago Argus’ sister weblog.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

THE INK-STAINED WRETCH: Television too anxious to broadcast the "news" live

Once, when I was sitting in the press room at Chicago City Hall during a lull in the action, some of us reporter-types were half-watching a television set that was tuned to a local television station’s early afternoon newscast.

Two female anchors were engaging in some banter about some fluff subject (it might have been a cooking segment, I don’t remember) when one of my reporter counterparts made a statement that I still think of as a sound philosophy when trying to comprehend what goes through the collective mindset of television news shows.

“IT DOESN’T BOTHER me that they want to fill airtime with this stuff, but do they have to call it ‘news’?”

It's not news. Not really.

Too much of what appears on television news shows is content meant to amuse the viewer enough to keep him or her watching long enough to watch the commercials – assuming (that is) they aren’t TiVoing their way through them.

But even when television news shows are trying to come up with hard-hitting reporting, there is something about the stupid nature of news broadcasting that comes through – which is the reason I still read newspapers, even though too many geeks want to believe it is the television medium that sets the news agenda.

(The reality is that television and wire services all too often pick up on stories that newspapers report first – but a story that is ignored by television will not gain any ground in the public consciousness.)

A PERFECT EXAMPLE of television’s stupid nature came on Friday, when I made the mistake for about an hour during the afternoon of watching CNN.

Actually, I was flipping around my dial between CNN, CNN-Headline News, MSNBC and CLTV (ChicagoLand TeleVision, for those of you who are not fortunate enough to live in the Chicago area). As it turned out, for much of the hour, the same story was dominating all the stations.

The story was the emergency landing that an American Airlines flight from West Palm Beach, Fla., to Chicago was forced to make at Miami International Airport.

It appears there were signs of problems with the front landing gear, and the airline had the pilots abort their planned flight and set the plane down as quickly as possible.

THAT MEANT FLYING around and around and around Miami’s airport to burn off jet fuel (so as to reduce the risk of an explosion if there was a crash landing. Finally, the airplane came down, slowly, slowly, slowly, then touched down and within about three minutes came to a complete stop.

Pilots were able to get the landing gear into position and it held. The landing itself was uneventful. For passengers, the problem became their personal inconvenience – they did not arrive at O’Hare International Airport until some time about 8 p.m., compared to the 3:50 p.m. scheduled arrival.

Now I fully understand why American Airlines was cautious. They preferred to reduce the odds that a deadly crash would occur. They handled the situation professionally, and emergency crews were ready in case something had gone wrong.

What I do not understand is why CNN, CNN-Headline, MSNBC and CLTV (I didn’t bother watching Fox News, although I expect they did the same thing) all felt the need to show the live video of the airplane going around and around and around, and finally making what appeared on screen as a routine landing.

FOR WHAT IT’S worth, my television was tuned to CLTV at the moment the airplane came down safely. It was the Tribune Co.’s Chicago-area cable news operation that allowed me to see that all the breathless “news” coverage resulted in “no” story.

That’s right. I said NO story.

At most, it should be worth a paragraph in Saturday newspapers, or perhaps a picture with a colorful cut-line of the rescue crews waiting in position just in case a crash had occurred.

That is what was really behind the LIVE NEWS COVERAGE that aired Friday afternoon. Each and every one of those stations wanted to be able to say that they were broadcasting live at the actual moment that a passenger jet hit the tarmac and exploded in flames, killing the 133 passengers and five crew members on board.

THEY WOULD HAVE gone into graphic detail picking through the gore and carnage, and we would have seen the “money shot” over and over and over for days on end.

The news professional in me understands that when word came that emergency crews were preparing themselves for a potential crash, the appropriate newsperson response is to get oneself in place to cover the story – if it happens.

Since it didn’t (thankfully, it didn’t), we should just write it off. Not every news tip pans out.

Instead, the television stations felt compelled to keep broadcasting a summary of the afternoon non-events that they spent valuable air time reporting in great detail.

SINCE WHAT COULD have been the story of the day (the one that knocked Hillary Clinton’s wise-aleck debate crack about Barack Obama’s Xerox policy out of the news cycle) fell through, CNN Headline felt the need to come up with another NON news event they had the potential to show live.

The briefs network (which employs some of the most beautiful women currently on television news) took us to the Greater Los Angeles area, where we got to see a police chase.

We got to watch from overhead as police pursued a nearly 30-year-old stolen vehicle after the driver refused to pull over. We even got to see news anchor Susan Hendricks interview a police authority who gave us blow-by-blow details about what exactly law enforcement officials were doing in the live video we were watching.

That incident ended after about 15 minutes, with a police officer using his car to give the offending driver’s vehicle a nudge, thereby bringing it to a stop. The arrest was then made on national television, with the police expert telling us that the driver would have been pursued (and caught) by a German Sheppard on the scene – had he tried to flee on foot.

THAT STORY IS worth even less than the emergency landing. At most, it is worth one paragraph in whichever suburban newspaper is relevant in that part of the Los Angeles area that a car thief was arrested following a brief chase. I can’t envision the Los Angeles Times (I hope not, anyway) being interested in writing a word about the incident.

It was at that point I turned off the television. I just couldn’t take any more potential gore being hyped into incidents of significance.

News is something that happens. It is NOT anticipation of what dramatic event could possibly happen if the odds break a certain way. That ought to be Lesson Number One taught in Journalism School (and it is times like this I am thankful I got a real education instead of majoring in journalism or communications).

A professional newsroom is ready to go with just about any circumstance. A quality newsroom would have been ready to start offering up hard coverage if people had been killed on injured in a landing, or had the police chase resulted in pedestrians or other spectators becoming caught in the crossfire. A quality newsroom would not have let itself get sucked into broadcasting morbid trivia in hopes that it became news.

SO WHILE A part of me is grateful for the outcomes of both incidents, I am more repulsed at the TV twinkies who thought the actual buildup to the non-news events was worthy of such breathless coverage.

And insofar as a Chicago angle in all this is concerned, we have area people who have relatives and friends on board American Flight 862 who are thankful their loved ones did not become part of a legitimate news story on Friday.

Of course, then we would have got to see some enterprising TV type think he was going to win his Emmy by asking someone if they would have been sad, had their cousin/girlfriend/whatever been maimed.

Oh well. It’s only television. And as everybody’ favorite “ignorant slut” of TV news parody, Jane Curtin of the Weekend Update sketches, used to say, “That’s the news. Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow.”


EDITOR’S NOTES: Friday’s emergency landing of an American Airlines jet may have caused “tense moments” (, but no news resulted from the event.

At most, this ( is what the emergency landing story is worth.

Too many news directors have visions of O.J. Simpson whenever police chases ( come to mind.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Chicagoans got the presidential political brawl New Yorkers fantasized about having this year

Chicago political geeks should celebrate this year’s presidential primary season because it has given us something our New York brethren fantasized about, but will not achieve.

Chicago South Side resident Barack Obama is challenging Chicago north suburban native Hillary R. Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Once John Edwards of South Carolina had the decency to step aside (along with the other Dems who had dreams of someday living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.), the primary became a good old-fashioned Chicago brawl.

THE SAME POLITICAL tactics that have often been used by our politicos whose ambitions are limited to City Hall, the County Building or (occasionally) the Statehouse in Springfield, Ill., are getting a viewing on the national scale.

Although Hillary left the Chicago area to go to college and never came back (similar to how Ronald Reagan left Illinois after college and never returned – see, she and Ronnie do have something in common), her political style has a strong Chicago streak. It is tough, willing to do whatever is necessary to gain support without regard for whose feelings are hurt, and figures that someone who is sensitive enough to hold a grudge was probably never going to support you anyway.

It’s actually a shame that Hillary Clinton did not decide to return to her roots in Illinois when she decided she wanted a political career of her own after her husband’s presidency ended. The adopted-New Yorker’s tough personality would have complimented the Chicago political scene, and could have provided our politicos with a worthy competitor.

The aggressive campaign style used by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the presidential primary is identical to what happens every day at City Hall, where pols play to win.

With such an attitude, nothing she has done in this campaign has been particularly surprising. Hillary wants to win this thing, and she’s not giving up.

HER ATTACKS ON Obama have been trashed by some as uncalled for, and callous and cold-hearted. But for those of us who appreciate good ol’ campaign brawls, this is the stuff that interesting politics is made of. We are living through the “war stories” that will be told to future civics classes, and will be thrashed about by political professionals of the future.

Not only that, but Hillary Clinton is correct when she says that Obama has not been “vetted” on the national scale anywhere near the degree to which she has. Of course, no one outside of her husband has. And I personally believe the Clinton critics in our society detest her even more than him.

So the key to observing the Clinton attacks is not so much about whether or not she’s got a legitimate charge that Obama plagiarized the written works of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (not really, it’s not plagiarism if the source gives you permission).

What we should be watching for is to see how Obama responds. Can he handle the heat? Can he even manage to swat a few of these ridiculous charges back at Clinton and make the mud stick to her clothes so badly that the symbolic stain never truly washes away?

TAKE THEIR DEBATE Thursday at the University of Austin, when Obama naively tried to take the high road by saying, “we shouldn’t spend our time tearing each other down, we should spend time building our country up.”

How sweet. Hillary rebutted by trashing Obama on the use of Patrick’s political words about words, and said of their rhetoric, “that’s not change we can believe it. It’s change you can Xerox.”

Some might say Clinton hurt herself by noting the boos and hisses that came from the debate audience. But many more are going to note Obama’s reaction. He hemmed and hawed and (visibly shaken) accused her of, “being unfair.”

How is Obama going to be able to handle the attack dogs working on behalf of likely GOP nominee John McCain and the rest of the Republicans if he can’t even handle a Hillary slam? She’s actually performing a public service of sorts by getting him ready for what is to come.

THOSE ATTACKS HAVE already started. McCain is already starting to talk Obama smack, and he’s got his wife taking on possible first lady opponent Michelle Obama. Of course, I’m sure he also has a whole mess of Clinton material stored up so he can shift gears and bash her about – should she manage to overcome her campaign problems and beat Obama.

Should Democrats actually prevail on Nov. 4 and the United States of America winds up with an Obama presidency, the intensity will ratchet up a few notches higher.

Obama talks about change in the mindset of government. The Youth of America say that is why they like him so much.

But when it comes right down to it, every politician claims they are for change. The word “change,” in and of itself, is empty rhetoric. Obama’s vision of change is not going to be accepted by everybody.

MORE CONSERVATIVE ELEMENTS of our society probably think the change that is needed is to take progressives like Obama and get them out of government – thereby allowing “more respectable” elements of society to set public policy.

We saw the degree to which they played politics with the Bill Clinton presidency and unleashed their wrath on Al Gore when he tried in 2000 to get a full accounting of the vote tallies in Florida to see if he really did win the electoral college tally as well as the popular vote.

Those people who liked the idea of George W. Bush in the White House the past eight years and who remain among the roughly one-third of the country that still supports his performance (consider that one congressional candidate in Illinois – James Oberweis – is saying in campaign commercials he agrees with “nearly everything” President Bush has done) are going to try to make political life as uncomfortable as possible for an Obama presidency (or a Clinton or McCain one, for that matter).

In some ways, running an election campaign by Chicago Rules is a good way to determine if Obama has what it takes to be Leader of the Free World.

IF IT TURNS out his old Illinois Statehouse critics are correct that he’s too much of an academic to play power politics, then we’re better off knowing now rather than next year after he’s taken an oath of office to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

Besides, there is one other plus to getting to see a Chicago political brawl. It is the fact that Chicago, in a sense, has prevailed upon the snotty, often-elitist political geeks (as though anybody from Brooklyn should think they’re superior) from New York City.

I can remember when the New York Post early in 2007 made an effort to start selling a national edition of the newspaper in Chicago. I occasionally plunked down my $1 to buy a copy of the paper, and took particular interest in the supposedly entertaining (more often trivial) way in which it covered politics.

Their occasional Obama stories tried to dismiss him as a fringe candidate worthy of less attention than Dennis Kucinich. I can remember one story that was a five-point list of trivial Obama facts, including that his middle name was “Hussein.” Another story dismissed him as a “surfer dude” from Hawaii who would try to, “ride his wave of popularity” into the White House.

THEIR COVERAGE KEPT playing up the notion that Hillary would overwhelm her Democratic opponents, while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would stomp all over the GOP competition.

The general election would become an All-New York political brawl. Residents of the Big Apple (which is a nickname that has always struck me as more ridiculous than calling Chicago the Windy City) would finally get to see the Giuliani/Clinton fight they wanted in the 2000 U.S. Senate elections, but were deprived of when Giuliani had to step out and lightweight congressman Rick Lazio (anybody remember him) wound up being Hillary’s whipping boy.

Some New Yorkers even envisioned the general election as a three-way, All-New York brawl – Mayor Michael Bloomberg would supposedly run as a political independent and stage a major third-party candidacy for the White House.

ONLY A NEW Yorker could be arrogant enough to think that scenario could ever happen.

Personally, I feel fortunate that the rise of Obama-mania and the failure of Giuliani to gain much of any support among rank-and-file Republican voters make it possible NONE of the New Yorkers will be in the general election.

So the provincial New Yorker will decry that 2008 will not be the first time a woman, Italian or Jewish person was elected to serve as president.

INSTEAD, WE’LL JUST have to settle for the first African-American as president, and it won’t be somebody from Harlem. It will be someone from the South Side of Chicago (someone to whom the name Hyde Park means the neighborhood on Lake Michigan, not the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt). And if either of those thoughts make you uncomfortable, then think of Obama as potentially the first Hawaiian (he was born and raised there) to be president.

Just imagine how much fun life at the White House could be with a Polynesian flair.

The only problem? Hula dancers at a January inauguration ceremony in the District of Columbia would result in serious cases of frostbite.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Even the New York Times (the newspaper that supposedly publishes “All the News that’s Fit to Print”) bought into the idea of a presidential campaign between ( three New Yorkers.

After reading all the early coverage that tried to trivialize the concept of Barack Obama, it was hilarious to see the New York Post finally came to the realization that Obama was the best bet for the Democratic nomination for president. They endorsed him. (

For those who want a more thorough accounting of Thursday’s debate between Obama and Clinton, check The South Chicagoan (

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Michelle Obama has nothing to apologize for

I happened to be watching the C-SPAN live broadcast when Michelle Obama (the better half spouse of presidential aspirant Barack) said the positive reception her biracial husband’s political campaign received in predominantly white areas made her proud to be an American.

The line stuck in my mind as positive – she is praising white people for looking at a candidate for something other than the melanin content of his skin.

SO IT AMAZES me that some Professional Political Pontificators are twisting the remark into a Michelle-bashing session. I’m still trying to figure out whether the commentators who are pursuing this are sleazy, or just half-wits.

Bill O’Reilly went so far as to say Michelle Obama might be deserving of “a lynching party” if more statements turned up that his supporters could twist into something they perceive as sounding anti-American.

It’s not just the pundits who are criticizing her. Cindy McCain, the wife of GOP presidential dreamer John, dumped on Michelle by questioning her patriotism for making such a remark (which goes along with John McCain’s campaign strategy of recent days where he singles out Barack Obama for attacks).

For the record, Michelle Obama was speaking to a campaign rally in Milwaukee, telling them of how she and Barack had struggled to get through college and make something of their lives.

WHEN SHE SEGUED into talking of life on the campaign trail in rural America and the positive reception she has received in Iowa and similar places, she said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change.”

I honestly don’t see how anyone can interpret that into a slam, unless they are the types of people who want to believe that Obama’s race is supposed to be a negative factor, and he’s refusing to play along in the role of an “Al Sharpton” clone.

Now Michelle Obama is about one year older than I am. Both of us attended college in the mid-1980s, and our professional lives date back to the late 1980s. Her “adult life” is my adult life. We both have seen sleazy political acts – many of which were done by people who believe they were acting in the public interest.

I remember Harold Washington being harassed by a City Council majority and demonized by a segment of the Chicago population that was absolutely horrified at the concept of anyone other than a white man of Irish ethnicity being elected mayor of the Second City.

I REMEMBER PRESIDENT Ronald Reagan being more than willing to bash the elements of society less fortunate than himself with policies that were meant to benefit the elite of the nation, out of some misguided idea that their benefits would “trickle down” to the poor.

I remember how George Bush the elder ran for president by dragging up an inmate furlough program in Massachusetts, turning the name “Willie Horton” into a millstone that hung around the neck of Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis and led to his electoral defeat. (The person I always felt sorry for was the one-time Detroit Tigers outfielder of the same name who now has to go through the rest of his life putting up with political snickers).

I remember the eight years of the Clinton presidency as a constant barrage of conservative criticisms leveled because of his alleged liberalism, even though progressives actually thought he was a sell-out who was too willing to cut deals with the opposition.

How else to explain that an investigation into whether federal laws were broken with a real estate deal in Arkansas ended up concluding that the president was less than forthcoming in admitting he cheated on his wife?

AND FOR THE opposition party-led Congress to then use that as an excuse to impeach and try to remove him from office? Not everybody in this country thought Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican, was a hero for leading the political circus that permanently twisted the perceptions many U.S. residents have of politics.

I remember the presidency of Bush the younger as one that started under illicit Election Day circumstances aided by Florida elections officials and the U.S. Supreme Court, and evolved into something more than willing to harass (the Patriot Act?) anyone not prepared to follow its goals in lock step formation.

It is one that has dragged this country into a war that some of us see as a pathetic attempt to try to rewrite history so as to bolster his father’s legacy (let’s not forget the first Gulf War of 1990, which really was nothing more than a stupid skirmish in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East).

Our “war” was supposedly to make the world safe from terrorist activity done on behalf of Islam, as though demonizing Arabs and other Muslim followers is somehow justified. And it’s not like our efforts have succeeded. Where is Osama bin Laden?

FOR THAT MATTER, we live in a country where some people try to push the concept that Obama can never be elected president because too many people will mistake him for Osama.

Personally, I find all of these ideas and events to be embarrassing, if not bordering on being un-American.

It is in that atmosphere that the presidential campaign of Barack Obama can be seen as a redeeming factor. I see the seriousness of his campaign as evidence that many of the mean-spirited racial attitudes that inspired my negative list are on the decline. That is what Michelle Obama is praising when she talks of being proud of her country these days.

You’d think conservatives would be happy at the notion that Obama is being considered on the merits of his campaign talk. In theory, it goes along with their talk of wanting a color-blind society – one where a person’s race should not be a factor.

BUT TO HEAR them get upset at Michelle Obama makes us realize what some of them want is a society that is blind to color – one that pretends people who aren’t exactly like them do not exist.

So maybe the social enlightenment that Michelle Obama says makes her proud to be an American is not totally in place. There are still people who mentally are living in their own warped world and seem to think we’re supposed to live in it with them.

Michelle Obama is correct in being proud of the treatment her husband is getting these days from the American people. What we should be ashamed of are the people who have a problem with that fact.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Bill O’Reilly’s response on television to Michelle Obama can be found here (,2933,331428,00.html). Even those trying to defend Bill ( make him look bad.

One of the things about the Internet as a forum for communication that annoys me is its way of encouraging Triple-A’s (Another Anonymous Airhead) to give their opinions without having the guts to sign their names. Here is a perfect example of that phenomenon (

Texas is going to be the scene of ¡Tejano Wars!, as Barack Obama and Hillary R. Clinton spend the next two weeks fighting it out for the Hispanic vote for the Democratic nomination for president. The South Chicagoan (the Chicago Argus’ sister weblog) has a detailed account ( Thursday about how they’re trying to achieve that goal.

I'd rather suffer with the White Sox than sink so low as to root for the Chicago Cubs

I hope to spend a few summer nights this year at U.S. Cellular Field, rather than celebrating the 100th consecutive season without a World Series title. Photograph provided by State of Illinois.

(NOT IN) TUSCON, Ariz. – When I look at the baseball club that will represent the image of Chicago’s South Side this summer, I’m not sure what to think – other than to wonder if the White Sox are looking too much to the past instead of the future.

But my baseball attentions will be settled on U.S. Cellular Field this year, just as in past years. The Chicago Cubs might as well not even exist (be honest, the only reason they will contend for a division title is that the division they play in stinks so bad the Caribbean Series champion Licey Tigers of the Dominican League could win it).

I’D RATHER WATCH another White Sox team struggle to stay afloat, than follow the Cubs this year as they officially make it 100 full years without a World Series victory (and 63 years without even appearing in the Series).

But watching the White Sox won’t be easy, particularly after learning the team may try to work out a deal to get Bartolo Colón to pitch for them this season. I remember the season he had for Chicago back in 2003. It wasn’t bad.

Then, I remember that ’03 was five years ago – and that Colón has had his share of physical ailments since leaving the White Sox to pitch for the Los Angeles Angels.

When combined with Jose Contreras, the Cuban exile who back in 2003 was the star of the Cuban national baseball team who was expected to be a star in Major League Baseball for years to come, what I see is a team that is hoping too much for baseball talent resurrections.

WHILE I REALIZE that in a certain sense, the White Sox management made some moves that helped to improve the ball club a little bit, I just am not optimistic about 2008.

I was NOT upset this winter when longtime Minnesota Twins star Torii Hunter chose to take a big-money ($90 million over five years) contract with the Angels, rather than accept a respectable pay contract with the White Sox.

While I respect Hunter’s defensive skills in playing the outfield and realize he would have been an upgrade over the White Sox center field situation, I NEVER thought he was so special as to warrant one of the top salaries in professional baseball.

But in their attempt to make room on their payroll for Hunter or someone of his superstar ilk, the White Sox hurt their one strength – starting pitching.

WHEN THE 2007 season ended, I was initially optimistic for ’08 because I liked the notion of a team built around a Big Three of Mark Buehrle, Javier Vázquez and Jon Garland. No other team would have had a better starting rotation, and only a few could say they were as good.

But I’m still not over the loss of Garland, who was traded away to the Angels on the theory that eliminating his salary demands (his contact expires at season’s end and it likely will take a sizable financial offer for some team – the Yankees? – to sign him in the future) would make it possible for the White Sox to bolster so many other areas of the team.

Instead, the best they could do was come up with Nick Swisher, the Oakland Athletics outfielder who, while bearing some talent, is probably best known in these parts because his father, Steve, played for the dreaded Cubs back when I was a kid. (Swisher the elder and Larry Biittner will always be the quintessential Chicago Cubs in my mind, and that’s not good).

Jose Contreras, the aging pitcher who allegedly is in his mid-30s (but could really be in his early 40s, he had a lengthy career pitching in the Cuban League and for Team Cuba before coming to the United States), is going to have to be a reliable pitcher if the White Sox are going to avoid fighting it out with the Kansas City Royals for last place in their division.

LIKEWISE, THE SIGNING of Colón (if it happens) is now an integral move. Contreras and Colón pitching up to their ability when they were both five years younger, combined with Buehrle and Vázquez, would give the White Sox a respectable pitching rotation. Contreras and Colón showing their age (and in Colón’s case, his weight) leaves the White Sox with a weakened rotation of pitchers who should be spending the Summer of ’08 entertaining the fans of the Birmingham Barons.

I really don’t know what to expect this year.

In theory, the White Sox have a talented heart of the batting order of sluggers Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and potential future Hall of Fame slugger Jim Thome (his Home Run No. 500 was one of last year’s highlights). In theory, they are a team that can keep up with the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians in their division and contend with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and the Angels for the ’08 American League championship.

But then I wake up from my baseball dreams, and realize the ’08 White Sox have the potential to resemble the Sox teams of my youth. Does anybody else remember Harry Chappas and Bill Nahorodny?

HAVING TWO LOSING seasons (’07 and ’08) would undo any emotional goodwill the White Sox developed by actually winning in 2005 the first championship by a Chicago baseball team in 46 years and the first World Series title in 88 years.

I could handle the idea of a crummy ball club if I knew for sure it was going to happen. I came of age following Chicago baseball back in the 1970s when winning seasons were rare, and both teams usually stunk so bad that the real competition was to see which one finished in last place in their division with a worse record.

The concept of White Sox teams that perennially finish the season with winning records and are considered a factor in the pennant race (which has been the case, more or less, for the past 18 years) is an alien concept – one I don’t ever think I’ll get used to.

Perhaps it is just the difference in character between fans of the White Sox and the Cubs. The latter are the eternal optimists. Despite watching their team get humiliated in the first round of the National League playoffs, Cubs fans are convinced that 2007 was something historic in nature that should forever be celebrated. The entire 1969 team (which didn’t even make it to the playoffs) is worthy of Hall of Fame induction, in the minds of Cubs fans.

BY COMPARISON, THERE was a large portion of White Sox fandom that was convinced the whole season would collapse in failure all the way up to the point that shortstop Juan Uribe fielded that hard-hit ground ball and made a sudden throw to Konerko for the final out of the last game of the World Series, preserving a 1-0 win by Freddy Garcia.

Then, we became convinced that something bad would happen in future years – which is why some of us are not the least bit surprised that the Sox played so badly last year and may do so again this year.

Why stick with the Sox?

One-time Cubs employee turned White Sox owner Bill Veeck accurately summarized the character of Chicago baseball fans in his now-nearly-50-year-old memoir, “Veeck – as in Wreck.”

CUBS FANS COME from the suburbs and out-of-town, and view their time spent at Wrigley Field watching the Cubs as a way “to relax.”

By comparison, to White Sox fans, “there is nothing casual or relaxing about baseball,” and that only, “the strong, the dedicated and the masochistic” are South Side baseball fans. Some people might argue that such an attitude is insane.

It’s ridiculous.

It’s immature.

MAYBE CUBS FANS are a more reasonable breed of human being – remembering that a pennant is not a matter of life and death.

But if it is really just a game, then what’s the point of rooting for it?

Spending this summer wondering if Colón will revert to his peak career form and give the White Sox one last great year in what has been a respectable professional baseball career gives us White Sox fans something to take our minds off the serious problems that exist in our lives.

AND WHEN THE White Sox win, it provides an emotional boost for the Sox fan that a Cubs fan who is primarily interested in beer and ivy on the outfield walls can never appreciate.

That’s why no matter how much people want to romanticize the 100-year streak of Cubs teams failing to win the World Series (or even appear in it the past 63 years), no Cubs championship of the future will ever mean as much to the character of Chicago as the 2005 White Sox or any future White Sox champion meant to the city.

And for those who would note the regional character and say a Cubs championship would mean more to people outside Chicago than a White Sox title would, all I have to say is, “Who really cares what plays in Peoria?”


EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who just have to have a Cubs-related tidbit, all I’ll say is I will not criticize Aramis Ramirez for his weak defense of cockfighting in his native Dominican Republic. My views on Ramirez are identical to what I wrote at The Chicago Argus’ sister weblog, The South Chicagoan, ( about pitchers Pedro Martinez and Juan Marichal.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Blagojevich a control freak with state budget

When Gov. Rod Blagojevich gives his budget address Wednesday, he’s going to elicit a combination of emotions – boredom and anger.

Legislators, lobbyists and other Statehouse Scene observers are going to struggle to stay awake due to the governor’s whiny voice and less-than-exciting public speaking skills. But those same people are going to enter the Illinois House chambers for the speech totally upset.

BLAGOJEVICH, IN HIS desire to exert complete oversight of the process of presenting a budget proposal for the upcoming Illinois government fiscal year, is showing himself to be a control freak.

That kind of attitude is going to mess with the attitudes of the people the governor will ultimately need to approve a state budget. So we can forget about any notion that lawmakers will “play nice” this year and not do anything as embarrassing as last year’s behavior – where a funding resolution for Chicago mass transit dragged into the early weeks of this year.

What has Statehouse people upset is the idea that Blagojevich is being extra secretive about the details of the government spending plan he will present Wednesday at noon.

The mood among state legislators toward Gov. Rod Blagojevich is as dark as the skies above the Statehouse in this 90-year-old postcard image of the Illinois capitol.

Gubernatorial aides, particularly those who work with the Bureau of the Budget, have spent the past few months putting together a spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year that would in theory allow Illinois government to not be deeper in debt on June 30, 2009.

THEIR WORK CULMINATES with the governor’s budget address, which is one of the ceremonial rituals that defines the Statehouse Scene. After Wednesday, the budget process gets handed off to the General Assembly, which will spend the next few months reviewing and amending a budget plan until taking a final vote before adjourning for the summer.

The governor’s budget address is one of the ceremonial moments of the state government academic year. It’s almost like Homecoming at a college campus, where a lot of people come out of the woodwork to see what the old place looks like. Wednesday in Springfield will be a madhouse with politicos and their observers all making sure to be at the Statehouse so they can see for themselves just what Blagojevich has in mind.

To accommodate those people with differing interests, the governor’s staff usually conducts briefings the day before the budget address to provide a summary of what is in the spending plan.

The General Assembly’s leaders and the state constitutional officers (attorney general, secretary of state, etc.) all are given a presentation, and they in turn provide a review for their key aides.

IN THE CASE of the state Legislature’s members, they receive briefings from their respective partisan leaders, which means Republican senators and representatives are told of all the budget’s shortcomings, and the Democrats in theory are told of its strengths.

Even reporters who work regularly at the Statehouse are given a pair of briefings. From my experience covering state government under governors James R. Thompson, Jim Edgar and George H. Ryan, one briefing would occur in the afternoon – with the state budget director prepared to take detailed questions about the governor’s spending priorities.

The second briefing would come in the evening, and would be held by the governor himself to allow him the chance to influence the way reporters perceived the budget.

Under the agreement, reporters would not actually write or broadcast anything about the budget proposal until the governor’s budget address began. The advantage to reporters is they had something of a clue as to what was in the several-hundreds-of-pages budget book and could write a more intelligent story or two after the afternoon budget speech.

IT ALSO MEANT that an enterprising reporter could have the bulk of the story written, and could spend their after-speech time gaining intelligent reaction to the spending plan.

What made reactions somewhat intelligent was that lawmakers who were commenting on the proposal actually had an idea what was in the budget even before the speech began. They actually knew what they were talking about.

Not this year. The budgetary briefings are being held in the final hours of Wednesday morning just prior to the speech. Blagojevich himself is not participating. With that little lead time, the concept of briefings that are worth anything is a joke.

Blagojevich, as I said before, is being a control freak.

HE’S NOT ALLOWING anyone outside of his immediate circle to know what is in the Illinois government spending proposal until the absolute last possible minute. I would imagine any of his staff who actually talked to a legislator, lobbyist or reporter would wind up losing his or her job.

It also means Blagojevich is needlessly ticking off the Legislature, which in theory is controlled by his politically partisan allies. A Democrat-run Illinois House and state Senate ought to be prepared to give Chicago Democrat Blagojevich whatever he wants.

Fat chance. The Chicago White Sox have a better chance this year of winning the World Series than Blagojevich has of achieving détente with the General Assembly.

I can’t understand why Blagojevich, who has threatened to pull similar tactics in the past, is so willing to antagonize the pols, unless he seriously believes the Illinois electorate is so stupid that they will automatically believe “it’s the Legislature’s fault” for whatever problems arise in state government this spring.

IT IS BECAUSE of moments like this that I find it ridiculous when people complain Chicago Democrats are taking over Illinois politics and will run everything with strong-arm tactics.

“The Three Stooges” is a more appropriate image. The constant tensions and backstabbing are going to prevent any politically partisan agenda from being imposed on the people of Illinois.

In fact, the only reason Blagojevich may get away with this is because the current status of the Republican Party in Illinois is brain-dead. There are no signs the GOP in Illinois will be able to put together a credible candidate to challenge the second-term governor who has made it clear he expects to be elected to Term Number Three come the 2010 elections.

So if you are one of those people who feel a need to watch the broadcasts of the budget address that likely will air on public television stations across Illinois, keep in mind that the governor is not just a bumbling speaker who historically takes up to two hours to deliver the same type of speech that his predecessors could give in 40 minutes.

HE’S A CONNIVING politico who is facing a potentially angry mob.

Because he’s governor, he thinks he can get away with it. There’s just one lesson Blagojevich should heed, and it comes from Illinois political history.

In their book “The Glory and the Tragedy,” former Statehouse reporters Taylor Pensoneau and Bob Ellis wrote that former Gov. Dan Walker pulled the exact same stunt – nobody was allowed to see his first budget proposal until he literally started speaking for his first budget address in 1973.

WALKER, WHO HAD gone through a tenuous campaign against the Democratic organization in Chicago to become Illinois governor, cemented a reputation among his alleged political allies as a political pain in the derriere.

His budget stunt was just one of several reasons that built up into the Democratic Party challenging his desire for re-election in 1976. Even though the challenge ultimately resulted in a Republican winning that election cycle and starting a streak of 26 years with GOP governors, many Democrats of that era thought that dumping Dan Walker made the elections that year a complete success.

If he’s not careful, Rod Blagojevich could find himself in the same position two years from now.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Illinois Republicans are not expecting anything positive to come ( from Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s budget address Wednesday at noon.

Blagojevich’s Drop Dead speech/budget address to the General Assembly ( can be viewed live in Chicago on WTTW-TV, Ch. 11. Clips are likely to be archived at the Illinois Channel’s website ( for future viewing.

Losing one's ethnicity is a tragedy

Illinois’ Army National Guard has a new operations director and she’s a double-first – a woman and a Latina. Yet Alicia Tate-Nadeau has little sense of her own Mexican ethnic background; the sea of assimilation has washed much of it away.

For a more thorough commentary about this issue, you should read The South Chicagoan, a newly created weblog that is a sister publication to The Chicago Argus.

Named for the neighborhood that contains the oldest Spanish-speaking enclave in Chicago (and one of the oldest in the Midwestern United States), the weblog will serve as a forum for a national perspective of issues related to this country’s growing Latino population.

The weblog can be found at


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Is the Sun-Times off-kilter in DeKalb coverage?

I will concede that everybody has somebody who loves them.

Nobody is completely evil. And it probably is good not to automatically demonize people, even if they do something repulsive.

BUT THE CHICAGO Sun-Times is taking that logic to an extreme with its coverage the past couple of days of the shootings by a former Northern Illinois University student that left five current students dead, several others wounded and hundreds more mentally injured.

I thought it a bit strange when Mark Brown, the primary hard-news columnist for the Sun-Times, did a piece for the Sunday newspaper where he talked to people around campus who knew Steven Kasmierczak when he was a NIU student and were having trouble believing that the calm young man they knew would be capable of planning, then carrying out, a shooting spree.

Kazmierczak was a star of the sociology department who graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and who went on to work on a master’s degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana – not exactly the type of person who fits the profile of a heinous criminal, except that Brown found some people who noted that Kazmierczak was having trouble coping with the additional expectations put on graduate-level students.

It was unlike other pieces of reporting I had been reading, most of which were the stereotypical story that gets written everytime some violent crime takes place – the perpetrator was a loner who “creeped out” everybody who had any slight contact with him, and reminded many people of Travis Bickle, the character Robert DeNiro played in “Taxi Driver.”

I HAD TROUBLE accepting the notion of Kasmierczak as an “ideal student,” but I am willing to give Brown credit for doing some serious legwork to track down these people and use his column to tell a different story than what everybody else had.

But the Sun-Times on Monday crossed over a line in trying to humanize Kasmierczak, and I’m still trying to figure out what their motivation could be.

A big huge full-page cover with the screaming headline, “He was anything but a MONSTER” and a second full page inside provided ample space for the story of an interview with Jessica Baty – Kasmierczak’s girlfriend of two years.

She talked of their last time together on Valentine’s Day, and their last telephone conversation just hours before the shooting took place. She also talked of the package she received the day after the shootings that contained some of his belongings.

“HE WAS PROBABLY the nicest, most caring person every,” Baty said.

Now as a former reporter myself, I fully understand the notion of giving big play to a shocking story. The first-person reminisces of a criminal’s girlfriend certainly count. While somewhat pathetic, Baty’s feelings for her boyfriend (whom she was living with in Champaign) can be news.

But such treatment would usually be reserved for a story that the newspaper dug up on its own, and that it had to itself. What a newspaper wants to do in such a situation is create a dramatic front page image that makes people want to plunk down their two quarters at the newsstand or in a newsbox and buy a copy of the paper.

Then, they want that front page to get photographed and used as a background shot over the head of the news anchor on television newscasts across the country as part of their own coverage of the Dekalb shootings (most of which will consist of reading wire service copy while shots are broadcast of police milling around campus).

BUT THERE WAS nothing “exclusive” about Baty’s interview. She talked to Cable News Network, which has been airing excerpts over and over and over both yesterday and today. Even as I write this Monday night, CNN is still playing the interview, and Baty’s tears continue to be choked down.

The Sun-Times is hyping a story that really isn’t their story. As far as I can tell, the story was put together from information compiled by four reporters, and most of it came from the person who took notes while sitting in the newsroom in front of a television set hooked up for cable.

Now there have been times when I, as a reporter, took notes off a television screen, then wrote them up into copy for a news story. The time that jumps immediately to mind was an incident nearly two decades ago when rumors were floating about that Oprah Winfrey and her longtime fiancé, Stedman Graham, were involved in an incident that involved police being called.

It didn’t really happen, but the talk had become pervasive enough that Oprah felt compelled to use a few minutes of her syndicated television show to address the matter. Hence, I wrote a few paragraphs based on what she said. It was a minor contribution, and it certainly wasn’t something I tried to hype into a major story the way the Sun-Times did in Monday’s paper.

IN ALL FAIRNESS, there are a few paragraphs that indicate some signs of actual reporting taking place. It appears someone actually went to the Baty family home in Wonder Lake to try to talk to Jessica, and get some original quotes for the Sun-Times. But that attempt apparently failed.

She isn’t talking anymore to anyone else, which is her personal right.

So all the Sun-Times got for having a reporter make the 70-mile drive to Wonder Lake was a colorful bit of detail that the Baty family had set up a sign in front of their home basically telling people to leave them alone while they “grieve and mourn” for what happened last week in DeKalb.

Now the Sun-Times was not alone in stealing quotes from Baty’s CNN interview. Jessica is also quoted on the front page of Monday’s editions of the Chicago Tribune.

BUT THE TRIBUNE’S approach was just to write a few Baty-related paragraphs saying that she had talked to the Atlanta-based news channel, and work them into the larger story that many students at Northern Illinois University were turning to local clergy people to try to cope with Thursday’s acts of violence.

In fact, I had to go looking very closely at the Tribune story before even realizing the same quotes from Baty were in both newspapers. The Sun-Times smacked me even before I paid for the newspaper with a full-page image of a tearful Baty, and a smaller photograph of Baty and Kasmierczak appearing to be the cute, adoring couple.

Now why does this bother me so?

It is because I do not understand why the Sun-Times is so willing to try to make Kasmierczak appear to be so typical.

ADMITTEDLY, HIS PHYSICAL appearance would not have attracted much attention unless he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, in which case his heavily tattooed arms would have stood out. But tattoos, in and of themselves, are not a criminal act.

But Baty, in her CNN interview, admits Kasmierczak’s final farewell to her during their last telephone call was different in that it was so final. She also noted he had stopped taking his prescribed medications a few weeks earlier, and had also begun purchasing more firearms – two of which he kept stored in the Champaign apartment they shared.

To my sense, this indicates someone who is planning a violent outburst. In his mind, he was plotting last week’s events for some time. While I can understand how Baty would not notice changes in his behavior until it was too late, to me it makes last week’s acts in DeKalb all the more premeditated, and repulsive.

Yet the Sun-Times wants us to think he’s almost as much a victim as anyone else who died last week.

IT HAS MADE me wonder. Would Kasmierczak be getting such a sympathetic view if he weren’t a “scrawny white male” (the original description offered by NIU campus police when the incident first happened)?

I can’t help but compare the view to the demonization being given to the, as of yet, uncaught gunman in a quintuple murder at a southwest suburban Tinley Park shopping center. In my mind, the only difference between Kasmierczak and the uncaught gunman was that after killing five people, Kasmierczak turned the gun on himself, while the Tinley Park gunman drove away.

We have seen multiple police sketches of the Tinley Park suspect, who clearly is an African-American man with elaborately-braided hair. We got to hear the eerie audio tape Monday of the store manager whispering into her cell phone while trying to tell police what was happening – just before she was shot to death.

VARIOUS CLERGY PEOPLE on Monday came forward to urge the man to surrender, saying he would suffer even more if his time on the run lasted much longer. Political people are trying to turn him into the poster child for resurrecting the death penalty, even before he is arrested.

Police are emphasizing that the man is a threat to everyone around him, and that people who are not giving up his identity to the police are really criminals themselves. I’d argue that Kasmierczak was just as much a threat by stocking up on firearms, although I’m not sure what legal methods could have been used to restrict him from owning so many pistols.

Were the actions at a suburban Lane Bryant store (a robbery attempt that got violent when the store manager tried calling police) really that much more heinous than what happened in DeKalb?


EDITOR’S NOTES: Northern Illinois University’s student newspaper found students who remembered living ( in an apartment building with Kasmierczak. They gave the stereotypical responses of a loner who they paid little attention to.

The Chicago Sun-Times tried to boost their own newspaper’s circulation with this pickup Monday (,CSTNWS-NIU18.article) of an interview by CNN. Columnist Mark Brown did some serious reporting in coming up with this column (,CST-NWS-brown17.article) in the Sunday newspaper.