Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A DAY IN THE LIFE (of Chicago): Should Obama be able to “fire” GM CEO?

Whenever people suggest there ought to be some sort of bailout by the federal government to help prop up the news business (on the grounds that the information they gather is of great significance to creating an educated electorate), it makes me squirmish.

I wouldn’t want federal bureaucrats having any say in determining what gets covered. I don’t think they would have the slightest clue, and they definitely would put their political self-interest ahead of the information needs of the public.

THIS IS SOMETHING where the industry ought to succeed (or fail) on its own. And my attitude there is similar to what I think of President Barack Obama’s actions with regard to the automobile industry.

It bothers me that Obama was successful in getting the Chief Executive Officer of General Motors to agree to resign, as a condition of the federal government providing financial assistance to prop up the U.S.-based companies that manufacture automobiles.

Former GM CEO Rick Waggoner says he lost his job Friday when he met with officials of the Obama Administration, and had it put to him that he should “step aside.”

It may well be true that the new CEO, Fritz Henderson, is very qualified to head General Motors. But the governor of Michigan is correct when she says that Waggoner is being used as a “sacrificial lamb” for the auto industry.

I DON’T LIKE the idea of federal officials having a say in terms of who runs a private company. It ought to be up to the corporate types to figure out for themselves who is in charge and how they go about trying to resolve their economic struggles.

If it turns out that the federal government has that much of a problem with the thought of the current executives being able to take steps that could bring the company back to solid financial ground, then perhaps they should re-think the logic of providing such a company with any kind of financial assistance.

He might be well intentioned in thinking that the U.S. auto industry should not be allowed to wither away (even though the reason it is struggling is that the Japanese automakers these days often produce a better product). But a majority of the electorate last year voted for Obama to be president of the federal government. Trying to pick a new auto manufacturing CEO oversteps acceptable boundaries.

It would be as ridiculous as Mayor Richard M. Daley trying to pick new management for the White Sox. What other issues are in the news these days?

THEY BACKED DOWN: So much for Naperville North High School offering up controversial education professor (and one-time outspoken anti-war activist) Bill Ayers to speak to a new generation of high school students.

Officials at the school on Monday rescinded their offer to have Ayers talk to a select group of social studies students about contemporary issues. School officials told the Arlington Heights-based Daily Herald newspaper they received more than 100 negative e-mails and several hostile telephone calls.

In the words of Supt. Alan Leis, “any value here is completely lost.”

I still think the conservative types who resent the fact that anyone from the ‘60s who didn’t adamantly support U.S. involvement in Vietnam can be considered a respectable person screwed up by making this an issue. Had Ayers come and spoke, there’s a good chance that most of the youth who heard him would have quickly forgotten his message. Ayers’ opponents turned his public speaking into an issue, and made themselves look petty in the process.

FINALLY SEEING SOME STIMULUS MONEY: Many municipal governments throughout the Chicago area (and across the country, for that matter) are trying to figure out how they can get some of the money created by the economic stimulus package to pay for local construction projects.

Most accept that they’re going to have to wait a couple of months before they know whether or not they get any cash.

Which is why I find it ironic that Chicago city officials are upset to learn that O’Hare International Airport will get $12.3 million in stimulus funds to repave a runway and relocate a parallel taxiway.

City officials are quick to note that the expansion projects they yearn for at O’Hare cannot be covered with stimulus money. Instead of being thankful that they’re among the first to learn that they’re getting something (the airport is run by the Chicago Department of Aviation), they’re getting worked up over what they have to wait a little while longer for.

SNOWFALL IN SPRINGTIME: I was glad to see the snow that hit the Chicago area this weekend melt away by Monday. The act of having to brush my car clear of snow before I could drive on Sunday was depressing.

In fact, the thought I kept having that day was to wonder if the people in Glendale and Mesa in Arizona were snickering at the thought of wet, slushy weather conditions befalling our city.

The significance of those two Phoenix suburbs is that they host the training camps for the Chicago White Sox and that certain other ball club that likes to pretend it too has major league status.

It is just another reminder that baseball will soon be back. For Opening Day comes Monday. Just six more days until we get to see the Kansas City Royals in town to kick off the 2009 season, or get to watch the Cubs in Houston on Comcast Sports Network.


Monday, March 30, 2009

People who screech “no” usually don’t have enough vision to see the future

There is one thing I have learned during just over two decades of covering public policy and attempts to implement major projects – there’s always someone who will screech “no.”

And while I’m not saying that every objector is a crackpot, the fact is that there are people whose objection is centered around the fact that they don’t want anything in their “backyard.”

THEY’RE THE “NIMBY” crowd – they will scream “no” just because it will be the only time anyone will pay attention to them.

So if you get the impression that the people who are opposed to bringing the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago are not swaying me to their side, you’d be correct.

And if you figure out that I think a new group calling itself “No Games Chicago” is a batch of Facebook fans with way too much free time on their hands, you’d be correct. There are those among us who would like this rendition of an Olympic Stadium for Chicago to remain just a dream. Illustration provided by Chicago 2016.

But these people are going to get their moment of public attention – their 15 minutes of fame, so to speak – this week, when the International Olympic Committee makes its trip to Chicago to give our home city the once-over to see if we are worthy of hosting the summer Olympics to be held seven years from now.

THESE PEOPLE USE a weblog and a Facebook page to promote their idea, which if you don’t give it much thought sounds so noble.

“Better Housing – Schools – Buses and Trains.”

They’re trying to push the idea that the money spent to give Chicago some quickie cosmetic improvements and build (or upgrade) the athletic facilities required for an international spectacle such as the Olympics would be better put to use to upgrade education, housing and public transportation for the masses.

Now I know some people are going to read this commentary and respond that my cynicism has made me snotty (if not elitist). But whenever a major project that would significantly alter the face of the city is put forth, you will always get some local resident who will complain that they don’t want change, and would rather see the money go elsewhere.

IN FACT, THEY will always cite schools or hospitals or mass transit or something along those lines as a better use for the money that would have paid for construction.

I’m skeptical, in part because even if we did put that money into these areas, there’s the likelihood that these people would complain that we’re still not spending enough. This is empty rhetoric, nothing more.

But another problem is that we, the people of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs that comprise the metropolitan area, can’t often agree on what constitutes “improvement” in those areas.

We could take some of this construction money and try to direct it to the Chicago Public Schools. But what about those people who don’t put their kids in the public school system? They’re going to complain that they’re not getting a share of this money.

OR EVEN IF they’re in public school systems, what if they’re in the suburban areas (roughly two of every three Chicago-area residents live in a suburb, rather than the city proper)? Is there a guarantee that every single one of the 129 municipalities of Cook County (just over 260 if you count the five collar counties as well) would get money for their school systems?

Put money into mass transit? What about people who don’t want to use mass transit, and who view the very concept as some sort of “communist plot” to take away a person’s automobile (some people really are that paranoid)?

My point is that when these people cite their mantra (“Better Housing – Schools – Buses and Trains”) all through this week, we need to keep in mind that it is a false promise.

There’s also the fact that the Olympic Games, if they truly come to Chicago, have the ability to force Chicago officials to confront certain problems that confront public policy and public life.

WHILE IT WOULD be nice if city officials were willing to confront these problems without the motivation of having the world’s eyes on the city for a couple of weeks in the future, the reality is that it likely will take such an event as an Olympics to provide the impetus.

Take the streets around Washington Park that recently got repaved so that they would not look so decrepit when Olympic officials see the site being considered for a primary Olympic Stadium in Chicago.

Critics complain that other Chicago streets should have received repairs first because they are in worse shape. But would we really be better off if those South Side streets near the stadium site had not been fixed up.

I doubt it’s a matter of Olympic-related streets being repaired out of order. Likely, nothing would have happened if not for the Olympic impetus.

THERE’S ALSO THE fact that this particular group is going to get far more attention than it deserves, just because the Olympics officials will be in town.

On what do I base this observation?

I note their presence on Facebook, where they describe their site as “a spot to bring together all those opposed to Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.” Yet all they had (at least as far as Sunday afternoon is concerned) is 740 “members.” That’s out of the many millions of people who decide to waste their time on their computers with Facebook.

So excuse me for thinking these are a few hundred people who can’t see into the future far enough for the potential benefits that an international spectacle as the Olympics could bring to the metropolitan area.

BECAUSE THE BOTTOM line is that the Olympics themselves will lose money. That fact is well documented from past Olympics. But that is if you base your perspective solely on the gate receipts raised from tickets sold to the events themselves.

An event such as the Olympics is more about using the presence of the athletic events in our hometown to provide the motivation for many improvements to the community.

Even if the construction is originally done just for the two weeks of the Olympics, they can then be reused for decades to come for purposes that will improve the quality of life in our city.

For that reason, we all ought to be in favor of the idea.


EDITOR’S NOTES: If you’re absolutely determined to grouse about the 2016 Olympic Games, here is a Facebook site (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=19962749751) and a weblog (http://nogames.wordpress.com/) for you.

Is Barack Obama truly the key to the Olympic Games being awarded to Chicago some seven years (http://www.suntimes.com/sports/olympics/1501045,daley-obama-chicago-olympics-032809.article) from now?

The “Just Say ‘No’” types will always exist (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/28/AR2009032801758.html?hpid=moreheadlines), regardless of the issue.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ayers returns “home” to DuPage, but some fear he will taint minds of the young

When I first learned that Bill Ayers, the one-time anti-war activist during the Vietnam era who took his opposition to explosive (literally) extremes, was scheduled to speak in a couple of weeks at a far west suburban high school, I thought it only appropriate.

Because Ayers himself was a one-time kid from DuPage County, growing up in Glen Ellyn. Some of his critics like to dredge up the fact that he is the son of a former Commonwealth Edison chairman – as though the fact that he did not grow up impoverished means he has no right to a social conscience.

SO THE IDEA that he will speak to students at Naperville North High School on April 8 strikes me as a perfect match. To those of us from the rest of the Chicago area, there isn’t that much difference between Naperville and Glen Ellyn.

He’s going to be speaking to students who are living a 21st Century version of the existence he grew up in. He can identify with them. And if he can help plant a social conscience in some of them, then perhaps his talk next month will have served some purpose.

Thus far, however, all it is doing is ticking off the social conservative nitwits who object to young people being exposed to his way of thought – believing instead that freedom of expression is all about expression of their beliefs only.

I’m hoping that Naperville high school authorities don’t wimp out when it comes to Ayers. I hope he manages to give his talk (which will be exclusively for students in select social studies classes), rather than be silenced by authorities who decide they’d rather have nothing resembling controversty.

TOO MANY COLLEGE campuses of late have cancelled Ayers appearances because of the conservative outcry.

Ayers will be forevermore remembered for the way in which the conservatives tried to link his activities of the 1960s with the Weatherman with the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama (the two live a few blocks from each other, and have encountered each other on occasion).

In short, Ayers was supposed to be the 21st Century version of Willie Horton – the one-time Massachusetts prison inmate who committed crimes while on furlough, giving GOPers an “issue” to use against presidential opponent/Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

But it failed.

THE PUBLIC HAS evolved to the point where the kind of stupid rhetoric that linked Horton to Dukakis in many peoples’ minds did not work last year. To many of the people who comprise the electorate, the sound of GOP types screaming “Bill Ayers!” every time Obama’s name came up merely made them sound desperate – even moreso than their later choice of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential running mate.

If anything, that is what I think is behind the rhetoric that gets spewed whenever Ayers’ name comes up now.

People who are bitter that they couldn’t “take down” Barack Obama by bringing up someone who was opposed to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War are upset that our society has changed so much.

If the United States were truly the nation that they wish it was, then the Obama campaign would have withered away at the very thought of Ayers (if it hadn’t self-destructed at the previous mention of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright).

INSTEAD, MANY OF us think of Ayers’ anti-war activity as something out of the past – even though one must be honest and admit that the current University of Illinois at Chicago education professor engaged in acts that went far beyond symbolic gestures such as burning a draft card or participating in a march or sit-in somewhere.

Since it was tied to a military action that many of those of us who are of age to remember it (I was only 2 years old when my uncle Carlos was drafted into the U.S. Army and served his year in Vietnam) don’t remember fondly, somebody like Ayers serves as evidence that the “hawks” didn’t win – even though they try to rewrite history to claim that they prevailed and that anyone with an anti-war background is tainted goods.

Now I know some are going to claim this is just an issue of balance – the students of today ought to hear from some of the ‘60’s hawks just as much as someone of Ayers’ background.

But I remember my high school social studies classes as being so generic in their approach – usually intended to provide as little sentiment or substance as possible out of fear of offending someone.

STUDYING HISTORY, POLITICAL science, sociology or any of the other social “sciences” is about studying issues and concepts that have no single correct answer (there is no equivalent to “1 + 1 = 2” to social studies, and that is what makes them intriguing). This ought to be a case of letting Ayers have his say, then letting students figure out for themselves what they think.

Because the cynic in me can’t help but thinking that some of those students will have a shallow view of our society that they may just view Ayers as another old man who once was somebody (these kind of people probably think the ’08 Obama election is ancient history).

Ayers’ appearance would come, and go, and probably not stir up any resentment on the high school campus – except for the social conservatives who are determined to soil the pot’s content so as to gain more attention for their own perspective.

Because that’s what all the protest we’re going to hear is truly about – people who are upset that anybody is paying attention to anyone other than themselves.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Bill Ayers will “do” the Naperville experience (http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=281691) in the coming days.

Not everybody is (http://www.illinoisfamily.org/news/contentview.asp?c=34326) as willing as I am to have Ayers speak at a high school in the county of his childhood.

Some people want to (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123819009072860721.html) continue to fight the battles of the ‘60’s.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Daley, cops have too much history, they can’t “play nice” with each other

It looks like we can count the Chicago Police Department among the groups of people who are determined to make a scene next week when International Olympic Committee officials come to Chicago to take an official look at the city – which is in the running to host the Summer Olympics of 2016.

There are many activist groups upset about what they see as the city’s willingness to make improvements to aspects of Chicago that will be seen by the IOC, but not to any place that would actually benefit residents.

THERE ARE ALSO those people who are just malcontents and don’t want Chicago to take on any kind of large-scale event because they’d rather live on a small scale – almost as if Chicago were nothing more than Indianapolis or Peoria.

Then, there will be the police, who are upset these days that Mayor Richard M. Daley withdrew a pay raise that was being proposed as part of a new contract between the city and the police department.

Fraternal Order of Police President Mark Donahue told the Chicago Tribune that police officers may picket City Hall on Thursday – the day that a 16-member evaluation commission will arrive in the city for a five-day visit.

It’s just an “informational” picket, which means that it will be off-duty cops working the line and holding up signs with crass slogans against Hizzoner. Cops on-duty will be providing the full law enforcement services we would expect of them.

NOW I UNDERSTAND this is a free country, with freedom of expression being a primary right of the public. These police officers have a right to express their displeasure with the mayor.

If they want to make a public spectacle of themselves while trying to mess with the mayor and his dreams of the world focusing its attention on Chicago for a couple of weeks in August 2016, they have that right.

But I would hope that people take into account that this matter with the police is a constant back and forth between the department and the mayor. The idea that this ought to have any bearing on the city’s bid to get the Olympic Games – instead of Madrid, Rio de Janeiro or Tokyo – is absurd.

This latest complaint is about the fact that Daley had his negotiators back away from talks of including a pay raise. For all we know, those talks will resume at some point in the future.

THE WITHDRAWAL FOR the time being was meant to send a message, since it was timed for the week following the “no confidence” vote the union representing Chicago police officers took against the job performance of Supt. Jody Weis.

The officers were upset that Weis ultimately gave in and provided a federal court with a list of officers who had multiple complaints of abuse and brutality filed against them during their time with the police department.

Of course, had Weis not turned that list over, a judge was prepared to hold him in contempt of court and possibly order him jailed.

The fact that Weis insisted on making a blistering statement in court while turning the list over, saying that he thought his actions would harm the privacy concerns of his police officers, matters not to the rank and file.

IT ALL GOES back to the fact that Weis was not some kid from Beverly or the East Side neighborhoods who entered the Police Academy after graduating high school and worked his way up through the department from overnight patrol duty to the top ranks.

Instead, he’s former FBI. He was brought in by Daley specifically because he is a law enforcement type who was familiar with Chicago’s circumstances and problems, but not a part of the C.P.D. culture.

Of course, many of these officers are the types who think the problem is having some “outsider” come in and try to tell them what to do.

If anything, new Illinois State Police Director Jonathon Monken will have an easier time coming from the outside of that law enforcement agency, even though he’s only 29. But he is a veteran of the Gulf War and a graduate of the Army academy at West Point.

WHICH MEANS HE’S a part of the military culture that many police officers wish they could be included in. It is the reason why many former military personnel become police when they re-enter civilian life.

Weis is a “G-man” whose former colleagues occasionally wind up investigating local police for their wrong-doings on the job.

My point in reciting all this is to say that the police dispute with Daley goes back so many incidents that it is difficult to say who provoked who – other than to note that both sides would quickly place blame with the other for “starting it.”

Is the picket a response to the pay raise being withdrawn? Or was the pay raise a response to the no-confidence vote?

WAS THE NO-confidence vote a response to Weis’ unwillingness to go to jail in defense of a law enforcement culture that he was supposed to be shaking up? Was all this brought on when Daley had the unmitigated gall (in the minds of police insiders) to bring in an outsider to head the department?

Was the need to bring in an outsider made necessary by the department’s past actions? Or was it evidence that Daley doesn’t understand what the police need to do their jobs?

See how confusing this childish mess can be? I have a headache and my fingers are sore just from typing out the back-and-forth portion of this commentary.

So what should the International Olympic Committee think when/if they see the sight of officers bearing picket signs, and possibly engaging in anti-Daley chants? I’d hope they would realize that all cities have their people willing to stir up trouble, and not pay too much credence to what amounts to a temper tantrum by the police union.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Novice Blagojevich spews political propaganda in his initial talk show rant

I didn’t bother to listen to the inaugural radio performance by Rod Blagojevich when he did his part to desecrate the portion of the airwaves once populated by Larry Lujack and Lil’ Tommy.

That doesn’t mean I don’t know what the now-impeached governor of Illinois had to say. It was all so predictable.

HE USED THE 50,000-watt powerhouse of the Midwestern U.S. to once again try to portray himself as the good guy who would have been looking out for the interests of the taxpayers – had the Illinois Legislature not gone so far as to boot him from the Statehouse office he so rarely set foot in during his six years in office.

I just didn’t want to hear it. Not only that, but I have generally found talk radio to be the bastion of people with way too much time on their hands.

I can’t help but think that this description applies to anyone who seriously spent time listening to what Ramblin’ Rod had to say.

I may go so far as to read the book Blagojevich eventually has published, but that has the advantage of being something I will read once – then put aside and possibly never think about again.

TO LISTEN TO Blagojevich on the radio means giving a commitment of time. There are people who gave up a couple hours of their life; two hours they will never get back.

And if Blagojevich turns his one-time fill-in role on Wednesday (for Don Wade and Roma, two other radio types to whom I pay little attention) into a permanent gig, he will be asking the public to give him regular commitments of their time.

All I know is that the Rod Blagojevich I knew in the mid-1990s who was a state legislator from the Ravenswood and Lincoln Square neighborhoods was barely interesting enough to sustain an occasional interview of about two minutes length.

Even though he has since served in Congress and as governor, I doubt his intellectual capacity has developed so much that his thoughts on the great issues will be worth hearing.

AFTER ALL, THIS is the guy who openly admitted to being lucky to get “C’s” in college. If we seriously believe that Barack Obama represents one extreme of the intellectual capacity of the modern-day politico, then Blagojevich has to be considered the other end of the spectrum.

How long can we listen to rhetoric such as, “I was hijacked from office,” and, “it was a political fix and I predicted that” before it becomes stale and un-listenable?

In fact, about the only hope for Blagojevich to become a successful radio talk show host is if he turns himself into a serious political pundit. If a one-time governor who also has been a member of the Illinois Legislature and Congress (and who married into a family with strong City Hall ties) were to be willing to use his first-hand knowledge of electoral politics “the Chicago Way” to educate the public about the way things really work, then his radio program would become “must listening” for political observers and other people who want a better comprehension of public affairs.

The fact that Blagojevich on Wednesday used a portion of his radio “audition” to criticize Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposal to boost the state income tax is a step in the right direction.

IN FACT, BLAGOJEVICH isn’t totally absurd when he says things like it being the worst thing Illinois could do to small business owners to even think of raising that tax. He may even be correct in saying he was “hijacked” from office.

The problem is that nobody cares. Blagojevich suffers from the bloated (even by the standards of those people who think highly enough of themselves to run for elective office) ego so much that any full-time radio gig for him would ultimately devolve into little more than a commercial for his book.

It could turn out that giving Blagojevich so much airtime to advertise himself could have a negative effect in terms of his book sales. Will we feel like we’ve already heard everything Milorod has to say without reading all about it again?

And how long before it would wind up hurting the ratings of whatever radio station ultimately decides to take him on?

FOR EVEN IF WLS-AM decides against giving him a regular slot on the air, there’s always the chance some other radio station decides to take him on out of hope the quick shot in the ratings helps boost their overall profitability.

I only hope that whatever station hires Blagojevich gives him a limited slot – perhaps one day a week. I accept that someone will be depraved enough to hire him, regardless of what contempt for the idea I may express in this commentary.

But for Wednesday, we got to hear him at the radio station named for the World’s Largest Store. While I realize WLS went on its crackpot talk radio format several years ago, I can’t help but wonder how much of a stain was put on the legacy of the station that now bills itself as “the Big 89?”

I honestly believe WLS was giving us more worthwhile programming back in the days when they featured “Animal Stories” and people called in to try to win “Supertramp” concert tickets, compared to anything that was said on Wednesday.


EDITOR’S NOTES: I “read all about it” when trying to learn exactly what (http://www.pantagraph.com/articles/2009/03/25/news/doc49c8e33d60bd6515324829.txt) Rod Blagojevich had to say. I don’t think I missed much.

For those of you who absolutely feel the need to hear Milorod for yourself, WLS’ website has preserved (http://www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=32332) the program – for the time being.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

EXTRA: Obama’s “Open for Questions” likely to provide comedy sketch material

On the surface, President Barack Obama will use modern-day technology offered via the Internet to give the American people a chance to speak directly to him – and answer their questions about the economy.

But in reality, I can’t help but think the only people who will get anything of substance out of this session will be the writing staff for Saturday Night Live. I see little more than a comedy sketch for Saturday night coming out of the “Open for Questions” sessions.

THAT IS WHAT the Obama people are calling their new stunt, by which people can make a brief video (30 seconds or less, please) of themselves asking a question about the nation’s economy.

Other people can vote on what they think of the question. Come Thursday, people who go to the White House web site will be able to see video snippets of Obama providing answers to some of the questions.

Now the reason I think Obama is setting himself up for parody is because I can picture the sketch of questions by incredibly uninformed people being answered in pompous fashion by our president.

This whole stunt (http://www.whitehouse.gov/OpenForQuestions/) reeks of an attempt to ignore the questions of people with some background who might have enough knowledge to ask something intelligible and go for the babble of someone who is clueless.

IT ALSO WILL allow the president’s handlers too much control over deciding which “questions” represent the concerns of the people, thereby making them worthy of the president’s response.

Admit it. The stunt is little more than an appeal to people who spend far too much time on their computers, rather than trying to understand the real world around them. I can’t help but wonder if Obama learned of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s use of YouTube videos to spread the city’s “message,” and decided he wanted to try to one-up Hizzoner?

And this sketch literally would not be original.

I remember a sketch that first aired more than three decades ago, back when the program was still known as “NBC’s Saturday Night.” It was an attempt to portray then-President Jimmy Carter as a somewhat pompous know-it-all.

IN THAT SKETCH, Bill Murray portrayed legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite as the host of a radio call-in show, who interviewed Dan Ackroyd’s Jimmy Carter impersonation and took calls from (as I recall) a postal worker who couldn’t understand how to properly work mail-sorting equipment, an obnoxious person (voiced by Garrett Morris) who made crude comments about first lady Rosalyn, and a stoned person who needed to be talked down from his drug-induced “trip.”

This would be a case where I doubt the current crew of writers could top the spirit and humor expressed in that original sketch.

And that one was humorous because it was such a parody of Carter’s desire to be intimately involved in the most minute details of the federal government operation.

An Obama sketch based on the “Open for Questions” session would be too literal to be funny.


Common attorney could give Vrdolyak & Blagojevich too many similarities

Perhaps I have a bizarre sense of humor, but I find the thought hilarious that a political person of Serbian ethnic background would think it wise to follow the lead of a Croatian.

Yet the world of Chicago politics and our judicial systems could give us that very sight – as it is being reported that now-impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is considering hiring a new attorney to represent him when he goes on trial for federal corruption charges some time in 2010 (or maybe later).

BLAGOJEVICH, ACCORDING TO the Associated Press, is considering hiring Terence Gillespie. He’s a prominent criminal law attorney, and one of his most recent clients was former Cook County Democratic chairman-turned-Republican Edward R. Vrdolyak.

I can’t help but think Blagojevich took a look at what happened to Vrdolyak last month when Gillespie was successful in arguing on behalf of “Fast Eddie.” What many political observers were convinced would happen (and which many long-time activists openly wished for) was that Vrdolyak literally would get three to five years in a federal prison.

The idea of a 71-year-old man being sent away and possibly dying in prison was their sick wish, and they were deprived of it. Gillespie convinced U.S. District Judge Milton Shadur that Vrdolyak deserved probation and community service as punishment – instead of prison time.

Now some people might argue that Vrdolyak will not have a pleasant retirement. But life at his bungalow-surrounded mini-mansion in the East Side neighborhood is a better way to end life than time in a minimum-security prison.

AND I CAN’T help but think that Blagojevich wants the same result.

Now Blagojevich is of Serbian ethnic background, while Vrdolyak has always taken pride in being possibly the most powerful Croatian politico ever in Chicago. People with a strong sense of the “old country” would argue that a Serb and a Croat could never have anything in common.

But the level of disgust with which some people regard the two men is definitely a common trait.

Vrdolyak is the man who, to a certain generation who can remember political life before Richard M., turned Chicago into “Beirut by the Lake.” He’s the man who led the opposition motivated by race against Mayor Harold Washington, creating the concept of Council Wars back in the mid-1980s.

HIS LATER CONVERSATION to the Republican Party and his willingness to be an advisor, of sorts, to former Cicero Mayor Betty Loren Maltese (currently serving her own prison term for what federal prosecutors contend were her alliances with organized crime) has created a mass of Chicagoans who regard Vrdolyak in the lowest regard.

In fact, one of the few people who could be held in even lower regard than Vrdolyak is Blagojevich.

His being hit with a criminal complaint while federal prosecutors seek a grand jury indictment (which is considered a stronger-level criminal charge) allowed Illinoisans of all types who long held Blagojevich in professional contempt to unleash their disgust.

Impeachment and removal from office isn’t enough for many people of this state. They want Blagojevich in prison, and would probably enjoy the thought of him being attacked by other inmates.

WHETHER IT’S THE pompous pompadour, the whacked-out use of poetry or his often-stubborn belief that the rest of state government existed to serve him (which explains his demeanor when dealing with supposed allies in the Democratic caucus of the Legislature), there are people who won’t rest until Blagojevich “goes down” for the count in court.

Could it be that deep in the recesses of his brain, Blagojevich knows (but won’t publicly admit) he has a very good chance of being found “guilty” of something when he goes on trial? Does he want an attorney who can get him a “Vrdolyak-like” deal of minimal punishment?

In fact, the very idea that Blagojevich may hire an attorney competent enough to rebut the charges that likely will confront him in a federal courtroom has some people disgusted. One reader of the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., used the newspaper’s website to add a comment implying Blagojevich does not deserve legal representation.

So what happens now?

WE’LL HAVE TO wait and see if Gillespie takes on Blagojevich as a client.

For Gillespie is a law partner in Chicago with attorney Edward Genson. He’s the attorney who got an acquittal for rapper R. Kelly on charges that he was committing statutory rape against teenage girls and videotaping the act.

For awhile, he was even the attorney willing to represent Blagojevich. But Genson quit a couple of months ago when it became apparent that the same ego that allowed Blagojevich to so blithely tell Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, to “shove off” also would allow him to ignore his attorney’s legal advice.

Will Gillespie be influenced by his law partner to avoid the professional and legal headaches that come along with representing a former governor whom the federal prosecutors have made it clear they have little interest in cutting a deal with?

OR WILL GILLESPIE figure that professional and legal headaches are a part of the job in the “rough and tumble” world of criminal law?

No matter how much some people want to believe that Blagojevich deserves to be represented by someone who advertises his law practice on matchbook covers, there is a good chance that Blagojevich will have the kind of lawyer who is capable of punching back when the U.S. attorney’s office hits him with their best shot.

And there’s always the chance that Vrdolyak and Blagojevich – the Croat and the Serb – will wind up having in common a certain level of disgust from the public at the thought of how lightly they were punished by the courts for their alleged misdeeds.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sanchez not lying when he says he merely did government business the city way

The only aspect of the verdict against former Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez is that he wasn’t found guilty of all seven counts of mail fraud (the vague, all-purpose charge that says something improper was sent through the U.S. mail) pending against him.

He actually beat the rap on three charges. But Sanchez was still found guilty of four others, and that’s more than enough for federal prosecutors to crow about how much safer the streets of Chicago are now that another corrupt politico will be sent to prison.

THE JURY SPENT the past few days deciding they didn’t buy Sanchez’ claims that he merely was following the hiring practices of city government of the past. And if it turns out that his superiors hired people who did campaign work in order to get jobs picking up trash and spreading salt (at high union wages), then he should not be blamed.

“I just did my job the way I was supposed to do it,” Sanchez told reporter-types after the verdict against him was read.

Now this isn’t a defense of Sanchez’ conduct on the job. He probably did do things and engage in actions that prosecutors once looked the other way at. The true offense is that more political people decades ago were not prosecuted, not that Sanchez is now.

But there is one aspect of Sanchez that truly does fit into the idea of a guy just trying to do his job within city government in a way that makes him fit in.

THERE ARE THOSE who make a big deal about Sanchez’ political title, head of the now-defunct Hispanic Democratic Organization, which in theory was no different than a group such as Illinois Democratic Women or the Indo-American Democratic Organization.

It was a group that tried to increase political involvement of a group that didn’t fit into the traditional Irish-American demographic that for decades has dominated activity at City Hall.

Those people with a nativist streak in them like to imply that this shows Latinos are somehow inherently corrupt that the group trying to promote their political involvement would somehow get so tainted by allegations of political hiring.

Sanchez himself tried to play off such sentiment, saying sarcastically that his efforts to hire Latinos for city government jobs was being turned into “a federal crime” by the prosecutorial crew for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago.

BUT ANYONE WHO watched the Hispanic Democratic Organization at work would realize how ridiculous such claims were.

Because in some respects, the Hispanic Democratic Organization was the biggest obstacle faced by some Latinos who wanted to be involved in Chicago’s public affairs.

Sanchez used his political influence to promote the interests of Latinos who were willing to accept the idea of Richard M. Daley as the “sun” upon which all of the Chicago government “universe” rotated around.

Hispanic Democratic Organization political workers would do their bidding and turn out the vote for candidates willing to back Daley. If it happened that a Latino candidate fell into that category, then it would work.

BUT THERE WERE cases where Latinos wishing to run for office had to fight against the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which smart alecks always claimed really stood for Hispanic Daley Organization.

In some cases, the group went so far as to back Anglo candidates against Latinos, if it were told to do so to promote the Daley interests.

Of course, this really follows the general trend of electoral politics in the city wards where a predominantly Spanish-speaking population exists. It is all too typical for the local elections that too many political observers think of as being between two anonymous Latinos to actually be between a Daley-allied Latino and (in the eyes of the Democratic organization) some Spanish-speaking smart aleck who dares to speak out against Hizzoner.

This trend was enhanced by the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which gave political muscle to one side. But it is by no means brought to an end by the conviction of Sanchez.

MY POINT IS to say that in certain aspects, it is true that Sanchez and the Hispanic Democratic Organization (which has withered away in recent years and become irrelevant) was merely reflecting the general attitude of the Daley administration.

Sanchez isn’t exaggerating when he says he was merely doing things the way they are done at “the Hall.”

Does this mean that I believe Richard M. Daley ought to be facing criminal indictment himself? I’m not willing to go that far.

But the idea that a major segment of Chicago political corruption has been brought to a close by the conviction of 61-year-old Al Sanchez (who could now be looking at up to two decades in a federal prison) is ridiculous.

THE GENERAL CONCEPTS espoused by Sanchez exist in other officials currently on the city payroll, and likely also the Cook County and Illinois government payrolls as well. So the actual effect of the Sanchez verdict could be minimal, unless federal prosecutors are determined to continue their efforts throughout the City Hall culture.

Actually, there is one other potential affect of the verdict. The streets of Chicago during the winter seasons could get very sloppy.

To many Chicagoans, Sanchez was the guy from “Streets & San” who got interviewed on television newscasts whenever it snowed. He was the guy who decided how much salt got dumped on city streets, and which side streets got plowed first.

Because to many city residents, so long as he did that job competently, they were more than willing to ignore all this other political talk that came up during the trial. If anything, the willingness of city residents to tolerate such activity in exchange for a clean street or two may be the real crime.


EDITOR’S NOTE: A crook or a victim? Al Sanchez was hardly the only person behaving (http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/03/al-sanchez-corruption-trial.html) the way he did while doing “the people’s business” at City Hall.

Certain Latinos benefited from the creation of the Hispanic Democratic Organization (http://www.ipsn.org/hired_truck_scandal/hdo_grows_into_political_powerho.htm), while others had their political aspirations squashed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Is Obama history book edit in vain?

Back when I was a history student at Illinois Wesleyan University in the mid-1980s, I took a course sequence that was meant to give us a thorough take on U.S. history. I still remember the last day of the course just before final exams.

On that day, our final lecture for U.S. history was about the conditions of the late 1970s that led the country to lose faith in Jimmy Carter and quit thinking of Ronald Reagan as some sort of right-wing nut along the lines of Barry Goldwater. In short, on that day in the spring of 1985, Reagan was elected president.

I RECALL THE moment because the professor, Jerry Israel, concluded his lecture by making a joke about how he had actually managed to “complete the course.” Unlike some students who joke that their history courses don’t make it much past the Second World War because the academic year runs out, ours made it up to the (then) current president.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this,” the professor told us – his point being that the amount of time in a semester made 1980 about as current as he could ever get, but future events would become history that ought to be included.

For all I know, there is a generation of current students who get taught about the coming of Reagan-ism, but don’t much get into what was accomplished during those years. Let alone anything that happened in the past couple of decades.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this moment from my lackluster academic career (anybody who knew me in college probably remembers me as the guy more concerned with covering a story for some publication rather than getting straight A’s in all my courses) when I learned that the publishers of history books these days are going to special efforts to ensure that the new editions of U.S. history textbooks appearing in schools across the country this autumn WILL include the November 2008 election of Barack Obama as U.S. president.

ONE BOOK GOES so far as to take a photograph of the Election Night rally at Grant Park and caption it as, “An Historic Moment.”

The New York Times reported that U.S. history books currently published by McGraw-Hill will have an eight-page supplement added to them to account for the significance of Obama’s election as president on the culture of our country.

And textbooks published by CQ Press for use in college-level courses in history and political science are being amended to include accounts of the Obama campaign on our society.

Now I can’t help but wonder how effective such reprints (even though they strike me as being similar in spirit to a newspaper “replate” meant to get a few current details into print while things are still happening) will be in truly educating the public about what has happened.

BECAUSE THE SIMPLE fact is that we don’t really know the significance of the Obama presidency yet. Insofar as the campaign season of 2008, it was nice to see a majority of the electorate willing to put aside racial preferences that in the past have been exclusively for white men to give the one-time senator (both state and U.S.) from Illinois a chance at working in the Oval Office.

But anything these last-minute edits will include is going to be superficial, if not downright trivial.

About the only lasting interest these particular editions of history textbooks will have in terms of serious scholarship is to look back upon them years (if not decades) from now, to see how close (or far) our initial impressions of Obama came to reality.

After all, there are a lot of things that come up during a campaign season that get played as “major” controversies (I would classify every word written about Bill Ayers in such a way) that in the light of history wind up being trivial tidbits best either ignored, or downplayed.

BUT MY BIGGEST interest in this matter is literally the time factor. I’m not exaggerating when I say most people of my generation took history courses that barely made it up to the Allied victory against Germany and Japan.

The fact that I had a college professor who made it up to all the way within five years of the current time (and up to the current president) seems like a near miracle.

It makes me wonder if those people who are determined to run down the political legacy of Bill Clinton’s presidency are wasting their time, because most teachers won’t have enough time in the academic year to get to the 1990s. Monica Lewinsky could literally fade away into obscurity.

And the idea of making it far enough to even consider Obama? Who’s kidding whom!

WHICH IS REALLY a shame. Because I always thought my history courses from school were the most interesting ones I took (even though my teachers until college usually managed to run through the material in a lackluster manner).

They are about our society, and us as a people. People who run down history as an academic subject are saying, in a sense, that we are boring subject material.

It is why I still get giggles when I recall someone I went to high school went who complained about having to take any history courses. “It would be okay if we could spend the semester studying the ‘60’s, but who really cares what happens before then?”

I suppose it would be cute to spend an entire summer studying the music of the Jefferson Airplane, trying to comprehend the affect of LSD on the masses and maybe even work in a day or two about civil rights and anti-war protesters.

THE ONLY QUESTION about that era that I have is how could the masses ever have been deluded enough to think “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was a record worth buying in such large quantities that it became a hit?

But without a comprehension of what came before and how it fits into the overall character of our nation, such details are little more than trivia.

It is just as trivial as trying to fit in a couple of paragraphs about Obama into a history book and passing it off as serious scholarship. History courses ought to focus their attention on telling students about how this country got into the condition it was in so that an Obama election would be seen as something significant.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Publishers of history textbooks also plan to refer students to the websites (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/education/22textbook.html?_r=1) they maintain as a way of providing more information about the Barack Obama presidency as it occurs.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Catholic church takes moral side on immigration, so the nativists are upset

We’re going to get a bizarre sight in Chicago on Saturday, and quite possibly one in Joliet as well.

Federal officials who are pushing for reform of the nation’s immigration laws to something more realistic and appreciative of the fact that these newcomers make a significant contribution to the nation have been holding rallies across the nation – billing it as a tour, of sorts, for immigration reform.

THAT TOUR IS now in Chicago. Catholic churches on the North Side and in Joliet will be the site of events in which people will speak out in favor of federal policies that do not deliberately split families up.

The event in Chicago proper will be at Our Lady of Mercy Church, and Cardinal Francis George himself will take it upon himself to speak out on the matter. His aides told the Chicago Tribune that the Cardinal will ask for “compassionate, comprehensive immigration reform.”

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Joliet, which lies just outside the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese, people will get the same rhetoric. Both churches are going to be filled with people who want to show compassion for fellow human beings.

They particularly want an end to deportations that have the potential to split families (some of whose members are U.S. citizens), at least until a more sensible federal policy on immigration is developed.

WHICH IS WHY the nativists are all upset.

They literally plan to picket the Our Lady of Mercy Church because Cardinal George’s vision of “morals” on this issue goes so counter to their own. For all I know, they may have people working the picket line outside the church in Joliet.

Considering that one of the city’s casinos was closed Friday due to a major fire, there may be little else for certain people to do with themselves on a Saturday night in Joliet.

I guess this means that to the social conservatives, immigration has become an issue just like the death penalty – one where they want to believe that their church leaders have run amok and are now touting an immoral policy.

AFTER ALL, THE Catholic church these days teaches that executions are immoral (the church believes that modern-day incarceration is secure enough that a life-prison term is an adequate substitute punishment for the most heinous of crimes).

Now, are they going to argue that people wanting to make a life in a new country are also somehow immoral? Or is it just people of certain ethnic backgrounds who they don’t think have much of a right to think of a new life in the United States?

Either way, the concept stinks.

It will be the ultimate of ironies to watch a batch of people whom I would guess think of themselves as being more religious than the norm of our nation taking on the head of the Catholic Church in Chicago on Saturday.

IT IS EVIDENCE of how pathetic the debate over immigration reform has become.

This is an issue where we as a nation may never reach a consensus. This is going to be something where somebody will have to develop the political will to address the issue and do what needs to be done, regardless of whose sensibilities get offended.

And for those people who think “what needs to be done” is an increase in the number of deportations, I have to say they’re absurd, as well as impractical.

We are going to have to accept the fact that these newcomers offer a significant labor force that this country can use, even though many people want to resort to stupid jokes about “foreigners” taking jobs from citizens.

HOW ELSE TO explain a comment one nitwit put on the Joliet Herald-News newspaper website, which said that one result of the 875 Empress Casinos employees being put out of work by the fire would be the return of 850 people to Mexico?

And for those people who want to think that these newcomers from non-European nations come from too different of cultures to fit into the “American Way,” I’d argue that the American Way is really about having our nation’s culture constantly adopt to include aspects of other ethnicities.

Trying to cut off the immigrant flow into this country is such an Un-American concept, it’s despicable.

That need for a political will to address immigration in ways that allow people already here and contributing to our society to have a way of legitimately (and openly) staying in this country has nothing to do with “amnesty” (the word the nativists are trying to make as foul as “liberal”).

SO IF PRESIDENT Barack Obama follows up his talk of earlier this week (the chance of an immigration reform proposal put forth and approved into federal law by year’s end) with action, it’s not a sign that he’s selling out our nation to a batch of foreigners who are committing a crime by their very existence in the United States.

It has everything to do with Obama recognizing the reality of our times.

And that also is how the stance taken by Cardinal George and the Catholic church ought to be perceived. To picket the Cardinal because he’s trying to show compassion for fellow human beings is about as immoral a stance as I can imagine.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Cardinal George will be taking a stance for, or against, morals when it (http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/03/rally-to-seek-halt-on-immigration-raids.html) comes to immigration, depending on how sensible or how (http://www.nwi.com/articles/2009/03/18/community/illinois/docb82ca3c90416f7518625757c005fb437.txt) twisted your sense of morals are.

Will Barack Obama follow up his positive rhetoric of earlier this week with (http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/politics/national/stories/DN-immig_19nat.ART.State.Edition1.4a87ba7.html) political action?

Friday, March 20, 2009

A DAY IN THE LIFE (of Chicago): Leave it to Chicago Cubs to go “wrong” way

When it comes to professional baseball and the spring training camps they operate every March, there has been a definite trend. Ball clubs that historically took up shop in a Florida city have moved west – to Arizona.

It has reached the point where the teams of the American and National leagues literally are split equally between the Grapefruit League (Florida) and the Cactus League (Arizona).

OUR VERY OWN Chicago White Sox were among that trend – leaving Sarasota, Fla., for Tuscon, Ariz., a decade ago, then shifting to a new stadium and training camp in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale (home of the almost Super Bowl champion Arizona Cardinals).

Even teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, which had historic ties to having a training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., joined the trend – as they also share a training camp with the White Sox.

Yet now, the Chicago Cubs – a ball club that has long been in Arizona and historically has sought the southwestern U.S. such as Scottsdale, Ariz., and Catalina Island near Los Angeles for its training camps – is looking to the east when it comes to establishing a new springtime home. Sarasota's Payne Park was once the springtime home of the Chicago White Sox. Would the Cubs really "desecrate" that city in the minds of older Sox fans with their presence? Or is this just a negotiating ploy? Photograph provided by Sarasota County History Center.

It turns out the Cubs are talking with a Florida city about the possibility of relocating there as of 2013. In a sense of irony, they are looking at Sarasota, which would mean they literally would set up shop in the city once used by the White Sox – unless the Cubs can con Sarasota into building them a new facility (which is always a possibility).

ADMITTEDLY, THE CUBS could just be engaged in a negotiating ploy to pressure their current spring training city of Mesa, Ariz., to come up with better facilities. Team officials admit they like the conditions of HoHoKam Park, but have their problems with the other athletic facilities used by the Cubs and their minor league affiliates for training camp.

But it reminds me of a film by the late actor John Candy (who always bragged during his life of being a Cubs fan). One of his final films was the cowboy comedy “Wagons East!” about western folk who decided to go to the Atlantic coast in search of a better life.

All I know is that the next time anyone tries to bring up the existence of U.S. Cellular Field (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29767575/) as evidence the White Sox extorted Illinois for a new stadium, we can now say that the Cubs are just as capable of playing political hardball for new facilities. In fact, just about every sports team (with the possible exception of the Florida Marlins) is good at extorting government.

What else was notable in the world, as perceived from the shores of Lake Michigan?

AL SANCHEZ – PUBLIC SERVANT OR PUBLIC ENEMY?: A part of me has always questioned the vigilance with which some people wanted to monitor the Hispanic Democratic Organization.

The group that on the surface promotes Latino political empowerment in Chicago was really about promoting Latinos who were willing to be supportive of the electoral interests of Richard M. Daley. And I don’t doubt that the criminal charges pending against group members have some basis in reality.

Yet a part of me can’t help but sense that people who were always willing to look the other way at political corruption in Chicago are now willing to crack down on Latinos getting caught, because they’d just as soon drive them out altogether – even though Chicago is a city with a Latino population of 26 percent, one could argue that Latinos are not a large enough presence at City Hall.

So is HDO head and former Streets and Sanitation commissioner Al Sanchez a benevolent (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-sanchez-trial-20mar19,0,291060.story) Latino politico (as his defense attorneys argued this week) or just a corrupt political hack? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

HOW DARE THEY REPAVE THE STREETS: I’m starting to wonder if the reason some people are adamantly opposed to having the 2016 Olympic Games in Chicago is because they know they will not have much of a say in dictating where improvements are made.

The City Council became a battleground this week because of aldermen who were upset (http://www.suntimes.com/news/cityhall/1485873,w-streets-olympic-repave-031909.article) about a recent repaving of streets surrounding Washington Park – the South Side site being considered for an Olympic Stadium

International Olympics Committee officials will be in Chicago in early April, and the critics say city officials rushed the repavement to make the site look good, even though there are other streets on the South Side that could have used repairs just as badly.

I have always thought the benefit of an Olympics in Chicago is that it could pressure city officials to make long overdue improvements, even if the motivation for those improvements was to make the city look good for outsiders, rather than to benefit residents. But now, these aldermen are going to realize that the traditional right to veto any projects in their ward is going to be trampled on, if an international project like the Olympic Games were to come to our city. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that.

SIX BITS FOR THE BRIGHT ONE: Ten more days until one will have to cough up an extra quarter to buy a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times.

As is usual when it comes to the business news of a newspaper, the competition reported it first. The Chicago Tribune let us read all about it Thursday that the paper now costing $0.50 will go up in price as of March 30.

I couldn’t help but notice that the Tribune told us that it was just the Sun-Times raising its price – not any of the suburban publications that the company also owns. Yet most of those papers were already charging $0.75 on weekdays for a copy of the paper (http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/towerticker/2009/03/chicago-suntimes-raising-singlecopy-price-to-75-cents.html), as was the Tribune.

Some news readers will claim that the Sun-Times ought not be charging the same price as the Tribune. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this will be the justification for the Trib to suddenly decide its newsstand price ought to go up – at least to $1 per copy. For the bulk of the past 18 years, the Trib has cost more than the Times (first $0.50 vs. $0.35, then $0.75 vs $0.50.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quinn “budget proposal” gives Illinois electorate some clues to ’10 elections

FROM A CAR RADIO IN SOUTHERN CHICAGOLAND – I heard the budget address of Gov. Pat Quinn on the radio, listening Wednesday to the one-time political gadfly’s words of wisdom about government finance. All I could think of, however, was 2010.

As in the statewide elections scheduled for next year.

IT WAS IN between some quick shopping and other tasks that I heard Quinn use his budget address and his proposal to boost the state’s income tax by 50 percent (it’s really 3 percent to 4.5 percent, but all too many people hear 50 percent and think it’s going from 3 percent to 53 percent, which probably says something about the quality of education in the Land of Lincoln these days).

While many people will be enamored with the rhetoric about people with incomes of less than $50,000 (and I definitely fall into that category) having a chance at paying less in taxes (and his quip about people who raise thoroughbred horses getting better tax breaks than people who raise children is a memorable one), the part that most caught my attention was his introductory comments.

You know, the ones where he referred to the political corruption tag that Illinois has been hit with in recent years, calling it the worst crisis Illinois has faced in modern times.

I couldn’t help but notice that Quinn followed the lead of his one-time superior, Rod Blagojevich, in referring to the political activity that has resulted in criminal charges, some convictions, and even a bit of jail time for some people.

WE GOT TO hear about George Ryan

Quinn couldn’t help but remind us that Ryan the Republican is the one currently doing time in a federal correctional center, even though he followed up by reminding us that Blagojevich the Democrat was impeached and now faces his own criminal charges that could someday have him do a stint at the minimum-security federal prison in Oxford, Wis.

Our governor of seven weeks literally went so far as to label political corruption “a bipartisan issue” in Illinois.

He then went into a lengthy account of some of the things he has tried to do during his brief time living in the Executive Mansion in Springfield, all of which remind those of us who pay much attention to state government and partisan politics that Quinn is the ultimate “goo-goo,” working for many years with all those good government-type groups that put up an elite view of what our governments should stand for – and which the political establishment often has ridiculed as impractical.

SO WAS ONE point of significance of Quinn’s first budget address that it gives us clues as to the kind of campaign rhetoric we’re going to be inundated with during the next year and a half.

The Illinois Republican Party would like to have some of its members hold elective office within state government, while Democrats are desperate to prevent the clownish political behavior of Blagojevich from tainting their candidates in the 2010 elections.

Republican officials have made it clear they view 2010 as a chance for political payback for the hostile rhetoric they endured from Democrats in 2002 and 2006. GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jim Ryan had to put up with claims he was just another George Ryan, because they shared the same last name (although not any actual family tree).

Four years later, Judy Baar Topinka had to endure that grainy video used in Blagojevich campaign ads that showed her dancing with George Ryan at an Illinois State Fair of the past.

THERE ARE MANY Republicans who are just itching for a fight to claim that every single Democrat on the ballot has the middle initial “B.” As in, Pat Blagojevich Quinn. Lisa Blagojevich Madigan, Richard Blagojevich Daley. And so on.

So is the Democratic strategy going to be to toss out the name “George Ryan!!!” every time a Republican brings up the name “Rod Blagojevich!!!?” Commercials depicting Ryan video going up against footage of Blagojevich and all those poems meant to make him sound well-read – I can sense the headache coming on already.

Is it going to be to claim that no political party has a monopoly on government officials whose behavior might have been inspired by some desire for the public good (I believe Blagojevich when he says there’s no way he’d have ever proposed an income tax hike in today’s enonomically-troubled times), but crossed over the line into illegality?

Are they hoping that people figure one balances out the other, and that they just go ahead and vote for the political party that has the status quo in their region of the state? If that happens, then Democrats can prevail because of the growing dominance of the Chicago metro area over the rest of Illinois.

OR IS THIS more a sign of Quinn’s strategy, since there is significant evidence to indicate that the current Illinois attorney general who has desires to be governor some day could beat Quinn in a Democratic primary next year. Let’s not forget Lisa Madigan has her share of supporters, and the campaign money on hand to bolster her political reputation in positive ways.

The Quinn strategy could literally turn into “Give a goo-goo a chance,” as opposed to the daughter of the long-time Illinois House speaker, or anyone else who has ties to the political establishment of Illinois.

Some might think I’m crass for thinking of partisan politics at a time when the state confronts a potential $9 billion hole in its budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Perhaps we should ponder whether an income tax hike is appropriate at this time.

But the activity of the next few months will provide significant evidence as to whether we will still be dealing with “Governor Quinn” in 2014, or whether political observers by then will be struggling to remember who it was that got to finish off the Blagojevich term – making Quinn as obscure to some political people as the name Samuel Shapiro is today.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Twenty-five rounds of applause from legislators whenever Pat Quinn suggested maintaining funding (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bin/news.pl?id=33364) for projects or job creation, versus no applause for talk of tax increases. I suspect this plan will look nothing like its current form when the General Assembly finally approves a budget for the 2010 fiscal year.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why am I not surprised!

The man who used to give out “Tax Villain of the Month” honors to whomever he felt was wrongly raising taxes (and to him, EVERY tax hike was immoral at heart) is saying that all the political rhetoric of a $9 billion budget deficit is “a bunch of baloney.”

It doesn’t shock me to learn that National Taxpayers United of Illinois head Jim Tobin is adamantly opposed to the idea of an income tax hike. He told WBBM-AM radio that the income tax rate as it currently exists (http://www.wbbm780.com/Tobin--Ill--Financial-Picture-Not-So-Bad/4043024) is generating some of the largest amounts of money ever in state history.

IN MY MIND, I can already envision the Tobin-inspired flier, depicting a picture of Gov. Pat Quinn standing behind jail cell bars for having the nerve to propose boosting the state income tax from 3 percent to 4.5 percent.

While I wouldn’t agree with its sentiment, you have to admit that such a flier would be an intriguing political sight – particularly in light of Illinois’ history with gubernatorial incarceration.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Tobin is head of the group that declares itself to be the state’s largest (http://www.ntui.org/) anti-tax group.

What will be lacking in Internet-only newsgathering organizations is news

I don’t know much about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a daily newspaper that died Tuesday. It has been more than two decades since I read a copy, and even then only because I briefly roomed with someone in college who was from Washington state and who read the paper religiously, preferring it to the top-selling Seattle Times.

But the Post-Intelligencer could very well be at the head of the latest “trend” in news organizations wishing to have a life.

THE POST-INTELLIGENCER will cease to exist, but a website at http://www.seattlepi.com/ is going to continue. Although it is going to be a far cry from the website that currently exists.

Of the roughly 150 editorial staffers who worked for the Post-Intelligencer until now, about 20 will still have jobs producing a website that attempts to provide copy about public affairs and other issues – and will carry on the image and try to be a link to the history of the newspaper.

Some have speculated that Hearst Newspapers (the outfit that long-ago ran the Herald Examiner in Chicago) is using Seattle as a guinea pig of sorts. If they can successfully create an Internet-based newsgathering organization for that Northwest U.S. city, they could try to convert their other papers in cities such as San Francisco and San Antonio into web-only operations.

And if Hearst could pull off such a change in corporate culture, could we soon see other companies trying to do the same thing?

ARE WE DESTINED sometime in the next year or two to see http://www.suntimes.com/ be turned from a website that publishes the content of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper to a website that publishes its own staff’s content?

Is Lynn Sweet destined to become the national political pundit based with a website, rather than a Chicago newspaper?

Or is she, along with many other experienced reporter-types, destined to become high-priced “talent” who are a drain on a fledgling web site’s profitability?

Heck, a part of me realizes that my long-term future in the news business depends on whether I can convert this website (and its sister site, The South Chicagoan) into a moneymaking operation – a long-shot concept, at best.

IN THEORY, IT wouldn’t bother me too much to write primarily for my two websites, or to have reporter-types writing for a web site – rather than for a newspaper. Although I personally prefer reading copy on the printed page (rather than getting a headache reading off a computer screen while also having to click from part 1 to part 2 to part 3 and so on for a story of any length), I have come to enjoy the larger potential audience of readers from more than just those who live in the circulation area who can access a newspaper’s copy off of the website.

The problem with this vision is if these operations are never able to get themselves beyond the level of small-scale outfits that can come up with a couple of stories per day – rather than the dozens of stories on many different subjects that newspapers in significant-sized cities come up with every day.

In short, the reason that large city newspapers come off as more impressive than small city publications is because of the staffing level, and the ability to swamp all over a story of any significance with a thorough staff.

A small paper with a small staff often looks cheap, either because they only come up with a couple of stories at a time or because they demand so much copy from each staffer. The mark of a cheap newspaper is one where there are five stories published on a page – and four of them will carry the same reporter’s byline.

THAT IS WHAT I fear will become of some of these web-only news operations. Will seattlepi.com truly be able to carry on the same legacy as the Post-Intelligencer with a staff barely bigger than some of the most isolated country daily papers?

And to me, part of the thrill of some of the newsgathering organizations that are withering away these days is that they could cover stories on so many different topics. Too many of the websites that do manage to attract any kind of significant readership are focused solely on one subject area.

That’s fine if you’re looking for the news of that one subject. But there are going to be some of the most significant beats that don’t carry over because few people will want to create a website devoted exclusively to that subject.

Even some of the subjects that do attract readership will suffer some. Take sports.

MOST OF THE sports-related websites I see these days give people a chance to rant and rage about how their local papers don’t bother to pay the ballplayers the proper respect. (How dare they actually look for news and refuse to defer to the athletes in question).

It is the newspapers (not even the television newscasts) that actually have the daily beat writers who travel with the teams. I could picture the sports scene in Seattle needing enough people that it would eat up the bulk of that staffing level of “20” that is destined to be the overall staff of seattlepi.com.

For those people who think that devoting less effort to sports is an improvement, I’d argue it is a drawback because it is an element that often drew people into the newspaper as a whole – and in its own way provides a cultural amenity to a city.

Be honest. When the White Sox won the World Series four years ago, it was a moment that will be remembered (fondly by Sox fans and with disgust by those people deluded enough to root for the Cubs) as a moment in Chicago history.

AND THERE ARE people to whom the Chicago Bears are more important to the city image than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Art Institute of Chicago (some of the same people who will more than willingly pay $68 for the crummiest seat in Soldier Field for a Bears game are complaining about the Art Institute’s $14 admission fee).

In its own way, even a newspaper manages to become a cultural perk of a city. People like my one-time roommate (whom I haven’t heard from in more than 20 years) were willing to think of papers like the Post-Intelligencer as a part of their personal character in a way I can’t envision anyone caring about a particular news-oriented website.

Now I will be the first to admit that many of the newspaper industry’s financial problems are self-inflicted. Their desire to be monopolies and control so many markets with so few companies means that many took on debt that left them vulnerable to the economic troubles this country now faces.

So there may be some accuracy in the belief that the newspapers have no one but themselves to blame for their troubles. But that doesn’t mean the lesser level of thorough news coverage that we will have access to (and which no website will ever replicate) won’t be missed – even though most of us won’t realize what we have lost until it is too late to save it.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A decade since Death House last used, so why can’t it be retired permanently?

I must confess to being oblivious at the time to the fact that I witnessed a potentially historic event when I was in far Southern Illinois in the early hours of March 17 a full 10 years ago.

I was among the press pool admitted to the Tamms Correctional Center, where the state keeps its death chamber for executions. As a result, I was among those who saw the death by lethal injection of Andrew Kokoraleis – who the way things look now could be the last person ever put to death legally in Illinois as punishment for a crime.

MOST OF MY memories of that evening involve making the long trip to the prison, which is located in the land where the locals think of themselves as living near Kentucky, not Chicago. You drive straight south until you hit Marion and Carbondale – then get hit with the realization that you still have one more hour to drive.

The execution of Kokoraleis – who allegedly was among a group that was killing and mutilating women as part of pseudo-Satanic rituals – was a routine matter. At least it was routine as death ever can be.

After spending the bulk of his last day of life reading a Bible, Kokoraleis recited from the books of Exodus and Proverbs as the mixture of three drugs was pumped into his veins. That caused him to go to sleep, then quit breathing before suffering a fatal heart attack that caused him to be pronounced dead at 12:34 a.m. a decade ago today.

The other aspect I remember was interviewing the father of the woman for whose murder Kokoraleis was put to death. Despite the claims of death penalty proponents that executions give family members closure, they don’t. This father said he was now determined to pray that Kokoraleis suffered in Hell – a truly cheerless thought.

AT THE TIME, the only thing really notable about the Kokoraleis execution was that it was the first to be performed at the brand-new Tamms prison. Much was made of the fact that this facility was designed for lethal injection, rather than the old deathhouse at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet – which was designed for electrocution and where condemned inmates were wheeled on a gurney to a spot underneath the fan that used to suck up the smoke that would emanate from the inmates strapped to the Electric Chair.

But now, it would appear that the death of Kokoraleis will be remembered for being the only execution to ever take place in Tamms, and the last in Illinois.

Because it was shortly after struggling with the death of Kokoraleis (even though he had no doubt personally about his guilt) that then-Gov. George Ryan imposed the moratorium that prevented death row inmates from actually having death dates scheduled for their executions.

It was the first step toward his end-of-term clearing out of “death row” on Illinois. None of his predecessors – Rod Blagojevich or Pat Quinn – have been willing to un-do the death penalty moratorium for Illinois.

SO NONE OF the roughly two dozen prison inmates in Illinois currently serving a death sentence are in danger of dying (except due to natural causes) anytime soon.

That has the people who oppose capital punishment (of which I will confess to being in their ranks) thinking that the state ought to just do away with a capital crimes statute. Why bother to go to the higher expense of maintaining the security necessary for condemned criminals if they’re not going to die?

It would be cheaper to just put them into the general population of Illinois’ prison system, which some death row inmates admit is a thought that scares them more than dying. After all, prisons are filled with criminals who can get violent rather easily.

Despite the notion that the idea of abolishment makes sense, it is not one I expect to see anytime soon. I don’t expect the Legislature to vote favorably on the bill by state Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, to do away with the death penalty.

IT MAY HAVE got a committee’s recommendation, but I will not be the least bit surprised when it dies a lingering (and quiet) death, at the hands of Illinois House leadership.

The simple fact is that capital punishment has become an issue upon which its supporters get irrationally fixated on. Even if the procedure isn’t being put to use, they still want it on the books.

That means the idea of acknowledging reality and making the law comply with actual practice isn’t going to happen.

It doesn’t matter how many people show up to protest at the Statehouse in Springpatch, or at the Thompson Center state government building.

THE PROTEST HELD last week at the state Capitol to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of the death of Kokoraleis was cute, but it didn’t do much of anything to sway the minds of the political people who have a say on this issue.

And personally, I would have taken the group a little more seriously if they had held their anniversary commemoration on Tuesday – the actual date – rather than last week Thursday when it might have been convenient for their group.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Some activists would like to make the execution of Andrew Kokoraleis (http://www.wgil.com/localnews.php?xnewsaction=fullnews&newsarch=032009&newsid=143) a significant turning point in their fight to abolish capital punishment in Illinois.

The thought of being in prison (http://daily-journal.com/archives/dj/display.php?id=436940) can scare even the most so-called violent of inmates.

The death of Kokoraleis turned a Greek Orthodox bishop into an activist opposed to (http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/1465652,CST-NWS-death08.article) the death penalty.

For what it is worth, following is the dispatch I filed for United Press International from Tamms, Ill., in the early hours of March 17, 1999, following the Kokoraleis execution.

Kokoraleis dies following legal dispute


TAMMS, Ill., March 17 (UPI) – Illinois officials put Andrew Kokoraleis to death for the 1982 ritual slaying of a suburban Chicago woman.

Kokoraleis, 35, died by lethal injection early today, following a final day of legal appeals that briefly saw an Illinois Supreme Court justice try to postpone the execution indefinitely.

Kokoraleis spent his final day of life Tuesday at the Tamms Correctional Center, where he was under constant observation by prison officials.

He did not request a final meal, and spent the bulk of the day talking with his brother Nicholas and reading a Bible. Prison officials described his demeanor as “cooperative, calm and polite.”

Kokoraleis said he was at peace with himself, and asked the forgiveness of the family of his victim, Lorraine Borowski.

“I am truly sorry for your loss. I mean this sincerely,” Kokoraleis said.

As a lethal combination of three drugs was injected into his left arm, he quoted from the Bible, reading passages from the books of Exodus and Proverbs.

The drugs took about four minutes to take effect, putting Kokoraleis to sleep before he stopped breathing. Kokoraleis was pronounced dead at 12:34 a.m.

Kokoraleis became the first person put to death in the state’s new execution chamber at Tamms. Previously, executions were carried out at the Stateville Correctional Center near Joliet.

Kokoraleis died for the 1982 slaying of Borowski, and Elmhurst woman whom prosecutors say was butchered as part of a pseudo-Satanic ritual by Kokoraleis and three other men.

Prosecutors say as many as 18 women were killed in such a manner, and Kokoraleis was serving life prison terms for other slayings.

His attorneys argued he was not involved with the Borowski slaying, claiming he confessed to it only because he feared a beating by police.

Their appeals centered on the notion that more time was needed to thoroughly investigate the case.

Death penalty opponents also tried filing motions to delay the execution on the grounds that a review of Illinois’ death penalty law is needed, in light of the fact that 11 death row inmates in the past decade were later absolved of the crimes for which they were condemned.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan, in rejecting clemency for Kokoraleis, admitted concern about that aspect, saying he “struggled with his decision.”

But in the end, Ryan said, he denied clemency because “some crimes are so horrible and so heinous that society has a right to deal the ultimate penalty.”


Copyright 1999 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Will income tax issue become a 2010 campaign issue dangling from Quinn neck?

Richard Ogilvie is the last Republican to serve as Cook County Board president, and also was a corruption-fighting county sheriff who rose through the ranks of politics to become our state’s 35th governor.

Yet the only thing many people old enough to remember his days in government back in the 1960s and early 1970s have to say about him is that he’s the ba$#@&d who had the nerve to raise our taxes.

IT’S TRUE. OGILVIE’S one term as Illinois governor was the time when Illinois imposed its first statewide income tax. This state went for more than 140 years without such a tax.

The intellectual type political observers will note that state finances were a mess, that the income tax was necessary and that it would have been fiscal irresponsibility to not support creation of the tax.

It didn’t matter. That tax made Ogilvie politically vulnerable the same way a heavy snowstorm took down the Chicago mayoral aspirations of Michael Bilandic just a few years later.

He lost in 1972 to Dan Walker, who gave Pat Quinn his first position on the state government payroll. And now, Quinn appears willing to follow in the footsteps of the man who ran against his one-time boss in that long-ago election cycle.

QUINN IS NOW admitting that now-impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich was correct when he said the Legislature without him would be inclined to raise peoples’ taxes. Not that anybody cares.

The statement issued by Blagojevich on Friday that basically reeked of an “I told you so” attitude was treated as the rants of a lunatic – rather than anything to which serious attention should have been paid.

Quinn last week said his budget proposal for the state fiscal year beginning July 1 would have to have something that produces serious amounts of extra cash – or else there would have to be massive cuts in everybody’s spending.

On Sunday, he said during a WGN-AM interview that an increase in the income tax that has its historic origins in the Ogilvie administration is the “least bad option” to balancing out a budget.

HE ALSO ENGAGED in the rhetoric used by any political person when a tax increase of any type is being considered – he tried to give the impression that this is a tax increase on somebody else, but not on you.

“Families that are middle class, I think, will have no higher taxes or lower taxes,” Quinn said during his radio interview.

So this is a tax hike purely for the wealthy people of Illinois. It’s a nice piece of rhetoric. I’m just not sure what to think of it until I know a specific definition of what constitutes “middle class” as opposed to “wealthy.”

One observation I have made during my years as a reporter-type is that everybody thinks THEY are the norm of our society. If only everybody else were just like them, we’d be just fine.

AND NO MATTER how much income one has, it is the people who make more than them who are wealthy. Even if they are wealthy, they don’t think they should be put into that classification.

So there are going to be many people who will grouse and gripe when they come to realize that in the world of Pat Quinn, they are the rich who will have to “pay up!” in order to help the state balance out its financial situation.

If the Chicago Tribune has managed to report accurately, Quinn on Wednesday in Springfield will say he wants a 50 percent boost in the personal income tax rate (from 3 percent to 4.5 percent). Quinn has implied he views an imcome of about $56,000 as the cut-off point.

In short, I can picture a lot of people just barely over that level who will say that the struggling economy ought to be a time to give taxpayers a break financially. They are going to raise a stink.

I REALLY WONDER how many members of the Illinois General Assembly will have the nerve to vote “yes” for this Quinn proposal, because they’d be risking their own political futures. I can already envision the Republican rhetoric of next year – Democrats are the party of corruption and higher taxes.

It may be ridiculous, but the current political climate of Illinois is ridiculous enough that many people may be inclined to believe this.

Even if the Legislature does manage to rebuff Quinn on his desire for the income tax increase (similar to how a then-Republican Legislature dumped on former Gov. Jim Edgar’s late 1990s hope to revamp public education funding), would the voters still hold it against him.

Could this be the issue that ensures Quinn gets to do nothing more than finish off the final two years of Blagojevich’s second term as governor?

IF ANYTHING, I’M going to be paying special attention in coming months to the public and private actions of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the woman who reportedly wants to run for governor herself someday and whom some consider to be Quinn’s major competition come next year’s elections.

Will she become the vocal opposition of a tax increase – even though the state’s finances are enough of a mess that no one (outside of the anti-tax extremists such as Jim Tobin – does he still do his “Tax Villain of the Month” releases?) would argue that the state doesn’t need the money.

Because if she plays this situation properly, this could be what ultimately results in her getting the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor come 2010, and allows her to overcome any “impeachment related” tendencies of the Illinois electorate to vote Republican.

In short, Quinn may be giving the attorney general the political ammunition she needs to ensure that we get the sight of “Gov. Lisa Madigan” taking the oath of office on a cold day in January, 2011.


EDITOR’S NOTES: We’ll learn for sure on Wednesday what Pat Quinn has in mind (http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/03/quinn-calls-tax-hike-least-bad-option.html) with the state’s income tax and resolving the more than $9 billion shortfall the state faces for 2009-10.

Richard Ogilvie’s legacy, as laid out (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE7D71039F932A25756C0A96E948260) by the New York Times.