Friday, July 31, 2009

Food “desert” or low-paying jobs – which is the bigger problem facing Chicago?

One of the tasks of working public relations is concocting stunts to illustrate whatever particular cause one is trying to promote (a.k.a., being paid to tout on behalf of some corporate interest).

Which means that listening to public relations pitches to write about some issue often involves hearing about absurd act taking place.

YET I GOT my chuckle when I received a press release recently (via the e-mail address provided in the right-hand column of this weblog) informing me that Serafin & Associates took it upon themselves to conduct an informal poll on behalf of Wal-mart.

As described in the release, the Chicago-based PR firm literally called every single residence listed in the Chicago “white pages” to ask whoever picked up the telephone what they thought of the idea of Wal-mart locating their stores within the city limits.

Their “survey” came up with a 74.4 percent favorable rating. In short, three-quarters of Chicagoans do not share the objections of the City Council and other political people when it comes to the company that has long viewed labor unions as a problem that stands in their way of achieving maximum profitability.

Wal-mart is using public relations executives as part of its strategy to get approval from the City Council for a new store they want to build at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue. They’re pushing the angle of the food “desert,” which points out the fact that supermarket chains have long been reluctant to locate their stores in urban areas that do not have a sufficient Anglo population to make the neighborhood economics comply with their preferences.

THIS WOULD BE a case of Wal-mart, which in their newer stores include extensive supermarket sections, being willing to buck the trend by putting one of their stores in a location that most definitely would never be mistaken for one of the suburban or rural communities where one traditionally expects to find a Wal-mart.

By coughing up that statistic of three-quarters support from Chicagoans, it tries to show our political people as being ridiculously out-of-touch with the masses who live here. That is about the biggest sin a political person could ever commit.

But why do I have my problems accepting this statistic? First off, the idea that someone had to pull out the “white pages” and call everybody strikes me as an unenviable task. My own copy of the Chicago white pages is 1,204 pages long (and the Chicago yellow pages is twice as thick).

I don’t envy the thought of whoever had to make those calls.

BUT THIS IS one of those cases where one must really be specific about what question is being asked of those people who are being called and asked their opinion.

For if all one is asking is, “do you support fresh food being available,” then of course the answer is “yes.” I don’t think this telephone survey was that simplistic, but any attempt to portray the Chicago City Council’s past problems with Wal-mart as being that simple is a mistake.

What this really comes down to is the idea that Wal-mart sees Chicago’s inner city and doesn’t see “black” or “white.” They see “green,” as in the color of the money that would be spent by people who would shop at a Wal-mart store bearing a Chicago address.

The problem is that Wal-mart has its history of being rather proud about itself when it comes to engaging in tactics that are meant to undermine the interests of labor unions that would represent the interests of the employees at their stores.

LIKEWISE, CHICAGO POLITICAL people are of a breed that sees the labor unions as an interest that needs to at least be tolerated, if not cooperated with.

So city officials have always been reluctant to have Wal-mart, which has countered by setting up stores in the suburban communities adjacent to Chicago (in some cases, right across the street from the city limits).

If it sounds like I think the hassles Wal-mart is getting is part of the price they need to pay for their past actions with regard to organized labor, then perhaps I’m just too urban in my perspective on life and society to ever be accepted by those who think Wal-mart is a part of what makes this country’s culture so great.

When I see a Wal-mart worker, I see someone who is probably working his (or her) butt off for a low-paying job because circumstances are such that they probably don’t have much in the way of alternatives. Most of these jobs are definitely not paying the kind of salaries that anyone could seriously support a family with.

THIS IS A fact that Wal-mart is trying to obscure by bringing up the food “desert” issue, which is a legitimate one. I have seen the older neighborhoods where going grocery shopping is a significant ordeal because it entails a trip.

It is also an issue that I feel fortunate not to suffer from these days (living all of one block from Jewel Foods supermarket, and within a five-minute car drive from at least four other supermarkets).

But the idea that this problem somehow ought to be used to ignore the serious concerns of Wal-mart employment is ridiculous.

The bottom line is that if Wal-mart were really so disgusted with Chicago politicians that they couldn’t bear the thought of dealing with City Hall, they’d have gone away a long time ago.

INSTEAD, THEY KEEP coming back with proposals because they see the city’s shoppers and they want our money.

If in the process Wal-mart has to make some concessions to the way they usually conduct business in order to get their foot in the Chicago door to sell us goods and get our money, then that is a good thing.

It might very well be that for once, City Hall is looking out for the public’s interests.

We’d better not get too used to it, however. Because it will be just a matter of moments before our aldermen figure out some other issue on which they can benefit themselves.

-30-

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A.L. phenomenon returns to Chicago, but does it really matter any more?

It’s a special four-day weekend beginning Thursday on the South Side, as one of the longest-running trends of baseball is scheduled to be here.

The Yankees are coming.

SURE ENOUGH, THE New York Yankees are in town to play a four-game series against the Chicago White Sox, meaning they’ll be adding to the decades-long trend of infuriating White Sox fans by their very existence.

This isn’t a unique Chicago/New York phenomenon. It is the reaction the Yankees create whenever they go anywhere. The team of Ruth and DiMaggio (one where the great Mickey Mantle has to settle for being second-best at center field) is here to rub their smugness in our faces.

And if by chance the “home” team manages to do something of significance, it gains all the more significance because it came against the Yankees.

In short, these will be four games that will draw significant attention – even if by chance the activity on the playing field turns out to be a complete dud.

IT HAS TO do with those years when the Yankees truly were dominant (particularly that era from 1949 to 1964 when only twice did they fail to take an American League championship). For that older generation, ’64 was particularly infuriating because the White Sox didn’t “choke,” they just got outplayed by New York.

In the case of the White Sox, that coincides closely with an era in which the team had winning records every season (1951-1967). But all that translates into is a whole lot of second- and third-place finishes while the Yankees won the pennant each year.

I literally knew someone who once told me of how he did the math to figure out how the White Sox actually had a better overall win-loss record from ’51 to ’67 (those last couple of seasons were next-to-last and last-place ball clubs in New York). But the bottom line is 14 league championships for the Yankees, with one for the White Sox (and all too many baseball historians remember 1959 more as an off-year for the Yankees rather than anything significant by the White Sox).

So there is that 50-and-older generation of baseball fans in Chicago who will view this weekend as war. Their sentiments are shared in other long-time American League cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, where local baseball history has many instances of the home team being overshadowed by the Bronx Bombers.

I WONDER AT times if the sentiment has developed in a place like Seattle, where the Mariners put together some strong ball clubs from 1995-2002 but have nothing to show for it, while the Yankees of that same time span have five American League championships.

Even in 2001 – the year that the Mariners set the league record for the most victories in the regular season (116, tied with the 1906 Chicago Cubs of the National League), history will record that the Yankees won the pennant that season, not Seattle.

For those of us who are younger, it is a little bit different.

I can remember the teams that won championships in the 1970s, and the late 1990s into the 21st Century versions of the Yankees are still fresh in my mind. But those teams took on a certain negative aura from other fans because of the perception that they were willing to spend big bucks to buy top talent from other teams.

TAKE THOSE “BRONX Zoo” Yankees of 1977-78. They won the World Series both years, and two of their key players were Bucky Dent and Rich Gossage – both of whom were products of the White Sox scouting and minor league affiliates of the early 1970s.

Both of them were lost to Chicago because of the financial issues – the Yankees were able to pay them more in line with what their athletic skills were worth.

So some of us resent the Yankees as the big brooding “thief” of ballplayers.

I can’t say I really feel that way. A part of the baseball fan in me has some grudging respect for that number “26” (as in the number of World Series won) and even 39 (American League championships).

A PART OF me even remembers that day in October 1978 when one-time White Sox shortstop Dent forevermore earned an obscenity as a middle name in the minds of Boston Red Sox fans because of his home run that wound up boosting the Yankees into that year’s division title (and the Red Sox wound up with nothing).

I can’t share in the enmity of Red Sox fans because I see Dent as a Chicago guy worth rooting for.

In fact, I can’t say I hate the Yankees. It just seems to me like a wasted emotion.

It’s particularly wasted because of the modern-day composition of the ballclub, which has become so dependent on giving professional ballplayers their big payday for things they did for other teams that the Yankees have almost become generic.

THEIR BIG FREE agent acquisitions this season were pitcher C.C. Sabathia and first baseman Mark Texiera – who I will always think of as members of the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers, regardless of what they may ever become in the Bronx.

The Yankees have almost become the American League “all-star” team, rather than a real ball club put together in an effort to win a championship. Perhaps the real All-Star Game would be a more interesting affair if the A.L. all stars took on the Yankees, rather than wasting time with the National League.

In all, it makes it difficult to hate the Yankees. I think people who get that bent out of shape about the team these days are being absurd.

At times it seems like the Yankees these days are shortstop Derek Jeter and some generic ballplayers to surround him. It is not like that strategy has worked well in recent years. The Yankees’ last league championship was 2003 (and the last World Series title was 2000).

SO FOR THOSE people who will trek out to U.S. Cellular Field today through Sunday, they will see the vaunted pinstriped uniforms that bring to mind ballplayers such as Yogi Berra, Paul O’Neill and Lou Piniella (whom I will always think looks ridiculous in Cubby blue).

Perhaps if one closes their eyes and stretches the imagination, they can get all worked up into a frenzy over the thought that the Damned Yankees are in town. Because otherwise, it’s just four more ballgames for the White Sox who need every victory they can get after having slumped during their two most recent series against Detroit and Minnesota.

-30-

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A DAY IN THE LIFE (of Chicago): Obama wants Hawaii to end goofy theory

We like to think of Barack Obama as “one of us” when it comes to the strong Chicago ties he and his White House staff have these days. Yet Obama is trying to put to rest the conspiracy theories peddled by his most stringent critics by reminding us all of how he’s a native Hawaiian.

Officials in the 50th State made public documentation that purports to claim beyond a doubt that Obama was born in Hawaii. Checking out the Chicago Tribune website will (http://www.swamppolitics.com/news/politics/blog/2009/07/obama_hawaiianborn_hawaii_insi.html) give one a glimpse of the document that purports to be a birth certificate for Obama.

WITH THAT DOCUMENTATION comes a statement from Hawaii officials claiming that this shows once and for all that Obama was born in Hawaii, which makes him a U.S. citizen (Hawaii had been a full-fledged state for nearly two years by the time of Obama’s birth in 1961).

Of course, those of us with common sense realize two things about this so-called controversy (which is peddled by the types of people who think G. Gordon Liddy is a rational human being).

1 – This “issue” will never go away. No documentation will ever convince those people that Obama is a U.S. citizen. In fact, even if you could convince them, the argument would then change to how the laws are flawed so that someone like Obama could be a U.S. citizen.

2 – It was a mistake to even try. Because now, we’re going to be burdened with rants from the right about how this documentation is irrelevant, if not forged.

FOR THE RECORD, the document released by Hawaii officials contends that our president is the son of Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack H. Obama, who is identified racially as an “African.”

What this shows us is that the records in the computers of Hawaii state government confirm what we have been told all along. But by feeling the need to dignify this issue, one only ensures that it will live on – regardless of the lack of “evidence” to support an argument against it.

Of course, if it weren’t for this issue, there would be those who would find another “critical” problem to obsess over – what kind of beer will Obama serve at the White House when he meets later this week with Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge, Mass., cop who arrested him outside the professor’s own home.

What other issues were of interest on the shores of Lake Michigan between Gary, Ind. and Waukegan?

WILL STROGER WIN BY DEFAULT?: Leave it to the Daily Herald newspaper of Arlington Heights to come to the conclusion that should have been obvious – Todd Stroger may be the big winner by Mayor Richard M. Daley’s choice to serve on the City Council.

Daley picked Robert Maldonado to replace Billy Ocasio, who gave up an aldermanic post to be a top adviser to Gov. Pat Quinn. Maldonado now gives up his Cook County commissioner post to become an alderman.

Stroger benefits in the ongoing political fight to force him to back away from the sales tax increase he pushed for last year to help fund county government. He vetoed that measure next week, and the County Board will consider whether to override him when they meet again in early September (the board takes August off).

The problem (for those who want a repeal of the tax increase)? There were barely enough votes (http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=309759&src=1) to override. Without Maldonado, an override of the veto will fail, which means Stroger will prevail. That is, unless William Beavers, Jerry Butler or Joseph Moreno were to change their mind. Fat chance.

FURLOUGHS AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO LAYOFFS: It seems to be the favorite cost-cutting tactic for government officials. Force workers to take some days off without pay.

If they complain, let them know they ought to be thankful (http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/clout_st/2009/07/daley-outlines-unpaid-days-off-for-top-schools-park-district-and-cta-officials.html#more) to have jobs at all.

Daley on Tuesday said he wants employees of six agencies – the Chicago Transit Authority, the park district and housing authority, the Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago, and the Public Building Commission – to take the unpaid days off similar to how non-union city employees were asked a few weeks ago to take up to 15 days per year without salary.

Getting those 2,000 employees at the six agencies to take the days off is expected to save the city about $18 million, which officials say is necessary if this year’s municipal budget is to remain balanced.

WILL FOOTBALL RETURN TO THE HUMBLE ABODE OF ONE ELWOOD J. BLUES: Excuse me for not getting the fascination with teams being able to play games in the 95-year-old building at 1060 W. Addison St.

It appears there has been talk of having Big 10 football played at Wrigley Field – specifically, the all-Illinois game (http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/college/chi-28-big-ten-wrigley-field-jul28,0,2115854.story) between the University of Illinois and Northwestern University. This comes after the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team managed to stage a game there back in January. Could football return to Wrigley Field after a nearly four-decade hiatus?

It doesn’t shock me that some would rather stage the game in Chicago, and I also understand that the Chicago Park District isn’t exactly the most understanding landlord when it comes to teams other than the Chicago Bears using Soldier Field.

But back in the days when the Chicago Bears played their games at Wrigley Field, the place was known for having a field that was too small to accommodate a regulation football field. With changes made in recent years to bring even more seats closer to field level, there definitely isn’t room now. Or does the sight of a Wildcat football player stumbling into the dugout (or a Fighting Illini crashing into the outfield wall) really amuse that many people?

-30-

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Who should regulate cemeteries?

It is the knee-jerk reaction for a government official. When there is a problem, hold a hearing.

Allow a group of political people to sit in a row with microphones in front of their faces, so they can hear “testimony” from individuals who have suffered. It creates the image that something is being done.

AT THE VERY least, it makes people feel like someone is listening. But is this really the way that anything gets done?

The latest “controversy” to be dealt with in such a manner involves the situation at Burr Oak Cemetery, a historically African-American cemetery in southwest suburban Alsip, where it is suspected that bodies were being dug up so that the land used by the graves could be resold to newly deceased people.

While there is the chance that some of these people were buried at the cemetery under agreements that allowed their bodies to be moved to a mass grave after a few decades had passed, the fact is that nobody seems to know for sure.

Officials investigating the situation say the records at Burr Oak are so bad they really can’t tell who was buried under what terms. And when officials start finding body parts such as bone fragments out in the open, it would appear that the agreement to move to a mass grave was not being kept according to the letter of the law.

IT WOULD SEEM the situation at Burr Oak is a mess. And it would seem that stories emanating from Burr Oak are causing people at other cemeteries to start looking more closely at conditions.

Just this weekend, police began investigating the situation at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens cemetery (also in the south suburbs), where a roughly 10-inch-long bone was found lying on the ground near a burial vault.

All of these stories are providing the motivation for Congress to get involved. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., (whose district includes Burr Oak) headed up a panel on Monday at the Dirksen Federal Building that spent its time trying to look concerned while giving people whose relatives are buried at Burr Oak a chance to tell their tales in public.

Now I’m glad to hear that political people want to be concerned. I’m just not sure what was accomplished with Monday’s hearings, because this strikes me as one of those issues where the federal government is probably the least qualified to do anything to address the problem.

CURRENTLY, THE STATE provides the Illinois comptroller’s office with limited authority to regulate cemeteries. The entity that cuts checks to pay the state’s bills has a few regulators who can impose fines and issue orders if they find cemeteries that are ill kept or otherwise poorly maintained.

When it comes to such instances, we’re usually talking about old graveyards that no longer accept human remains and where the owner either does not properly maintain the grounds, or perhaps so much time has passed that there is legitimate confusion as to who is responsible for keeping the cemetery from turning into a weed field.

The point is that cemetery maintenance is a local issue. It is one that involves people who are actually in the community making sure that the space used for burials does not somehow provide a health threat to the surviving public, and that the deceased’s remains are being accorded the respect they are entitled to.

After all, these were once human beings whose families put them there out of the belief they would have some sort of “eternal rest,” so to speak.

I JUST DON’T see the federal officials answering to people on Capitol Hill as being the best qualified to address the issue.

If anything, this might be an issue where the county governments are the ones best able to provide oversight. After all, they have a sense of being able to look at the “big picture,” while also being close enough to the situation in the communities to sense the local mood.

Yet within Cook County, we have our officials complaining about the cost of the investigations thus far (as of last week, the sheriff’s police said they had already spent $326,000 because of Burr Oak, expected to spend much more, and were already trying to figure out how to get some other government entity to reimburse them for the expense).

That entity is the state, which already has limited oversight authority through the comptroller’s office.

YET WE HAVE a state government complaining about how tight its finances are, and has already managed to show it can’t come up with a balanced budget for the complete fiscal year. Why else will they have to return in January to approve a budget for the rest of Fiscal ’10 – which runs through June 30?

This could very well become one of those areas where the state ought to provide some funding, but will use its financial problems to get out of it – thereby sticking the county with the bill.

In fact, that might be the only logical reason to get the federal government involved in this issue. It is an area where the state and county are likely to battle over who gets stuck with the bill for investigating who did what – and was it criminal in nature, or just venal? But that seems like a poor reason to get the feds involved in a local matter.

In short, this could wind up becoming a classic political situation – everybody wants to appear as though they are concerned about a problem, but they all want someone else to have to deal with it.

-30-

Monday, July 27, 2009

Democrat “youth movement” to counter likely Blagojevich rants from GOP?

It strikes me as humorous that Lisa Madigan could wind up being the “old girl” among the Democrats wishing to run for statewide office in the 2010 elections.

Madigan is 44, and part of the reason she has promising political prospects is because of her age – she’s young enough that she doesn’t have to push for something next year. She has time to run for higher office in future elections.

SO SHE CAN get away with running for another term as state attorney general.

But when one considers the chance that she could soon be outranked by officials who are only 41 and 33, I can’t help but wonder if Madigan risks becoming the “past” of the Democratic party without ever having been its “present.”

For one of the people who has decided he is going to seek the post that it is believed Madigan really wanted to run for (and may very well seek in some future election) is Dan Hynes.

The three-term Illinois comptroller has decided he doesn’t want that office anymore. He wants to be governor, and he is willing to do what Madigan did not – he is willing to challenge incumbent Pat Quinn in a primary election.

ON THE SURFACE, Hynes (the 41-year-old who won his first election to a statewide office when he was 30) has one significant advantage over Quinn – money.

While there is evidence that Quinn’s past problems with raising campaign contributions will not be quite so severe this time around (he has the benefit of incumbency for governor, so some people will give him money just to hedge their bets), Hynes is doing well when it comes to putting together a campaign fund.

Recent disclosure reports indicated Hynes had about $3.5 million on hand, compared to just over $700,000 for Quinn.

So Hynes has the chance to put together a professional campaign operation that could quash Quinn early on and make it difficult for the incumbent governor to compete with the family advantages Hynes has always held (his father is the former Cook County assessor and Illinois Senate president).

BUT I CAN’T help but remember 2004 when Hynes decided it was time for him to move up to be a U.S. senator. The early predictions by political pundits all figured Hynes had the advantages of family that would help him get the money necessary to run a competitive campaign.

It didn’t happen.

That was the primary where business executive Blair Hull wanted to become a politician and thought he could spend his own money to do so. For awhile, it looked like it would work – until we heard the allegations about the way in which Hull treated his ex-wife (look it up, if you want to know what he actually did to her).

Hynes turned out to be such a lackluster campaigner (in part because of his youthful age) that he was unable to take advantage of the Hull collapse. Hence, it wound up being fringe candidate Barack Obama who wound up winning that primary – beginning his trek to national fame and the White House four years later.

HAS AGE AND maturity taught Hynes anything that he can get his act together for what will be an ugly primary against Quinn (who isn’t just going to lie back and surrender)? We will have to see in coming months.

That is not quite the case for Alexi Giannoulias. He is only 33, but has decided that one term as Illinois treasurer is enough. He wants to be the U.S. senator from Illinois.

Even though Obama has made it clear he does not plan to actively campaign for anyone running in Illinois next year, Giannoulias is betting on the fact that he can claim to be Obama’s basketball buddy (when both were at the University of Chicago). He wants the Obama aura to rub off on him and take him to the upper chamber of Capitol Hill.

He’s already going so far as to denounce possible Republican opponent Mark Kirk as being part of the “old guard” of Washington politics. Heck, Kirk, the Congressman from the North Shore suburbs, is only 49.

THERE ARE SOME who would think he is part of the younger generation that could offer change to politics, instead of being a GOP party hack.

But I can’t help but wonder if this is the strategy for the Democrats, who know that every single Republican running anywhere in Illinois is going to keep bringing up the name “Blagojevich” every single chance they get.

Guilt by association. Hope that the mood of the state against Milorod remains so negative that people will vote for anyone BUT a Democrat when it comes time to cast a ballot in the general election to be held next November.

But if the Democrats come up with a ticket of kids so youthful that they can’t claim much of a tie to Blagojevich (in short, if Lisa Madigan literally becomes the Grande Old Dame of Democratic Party politics), it could be a strategy that could help neuter some of the nasty rhetoric we’re bound to hear next year.

AND BEFORE YOU start flooding my e-mail with messages telling me I’m forgetting about Jesse White, who at age 75 is running for re-election as Illinois secretary of state, I didn’t.

It’s just that White has taken on such a “nice guy” persona within Illinois government that he may be the one guy who doesn’t get burdened with much of the ridiculous political rhetoric that other Democrats will face.

After all, the man once played baseball in the Chicago Cubs organization. That has to be enough suffering and agony for any one human being.

-30-

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Some people don’t want to think rationally when it comes to marijuana

No. It’s not true, no matter what the political opposition says.

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger did not vote to legalize marijuana. Nor did he do anything that ought to be thought of as radical in any way, except by people who are determined to demonize the “Sixties” and anything they associate with the so-called “radical left.”

AT STAKE IS the fact that the Cook County Board this week slipped in a measure that caught people off-guard. They voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

By small amounts, we’re talking less than 10 grams, which can be enough to produce a couple of those crudely-rolled homemade cigarettes stuffed with pot.

Now, when the Sheriff’s police patrols the unincorporated portions of Cook County, if they stumble across some people getting stoned while sitting out in an open area, they will whip out the ticket books and write up an ordinance violation – rather than pulling out the handcuffs so that someone can be hauled off to a sheriff’s office to be processed, then released on an individual recognizance bond (no cash posted).

Yes, a ticket. Just like when one gets pulled over for a traffic stop. Assuming the motorist doesn’t do something stupid to tick off a cop during the arrest, it results in a ticket and the motorist gets to drive away – with the heavily encouraged option of not even showing up in court.

THE MUNICIPALITIES WOULD rather you just pay the fine, so they can have the money and you could be on your way.

That is what small-scale pot busts will become. Just pay the fine.

This measure came about because of county Commissioner Earlean Collins, who says her grandson recently got arrested for possessing a small quantity of marijuana. She thinks his criminal charge is a waste of the court system’s time.

Stroger initially hinted he would use his “veto” power to kill Collins’ proposal, but he decided Friday to let it become county law. Even Gov. Pat Quinn doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with this change, although Mayor Richard M. Daley insisted on tossing out some trash talk about how people ban tobacco smoking – but are willing to accept pot.

WHEN I FIRST learned of Collins’ proposal, which was initially overshadowed by the County Board’s approval of a reduction in the sales tax and by actions related to Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, I was not overwhelmed with interest.

The fact is that the 10-gram standard that the sheriff’s police will now adopt is typical of what is used in many municipalities, which have decided that pot busts of a small scale are not worth clogging up the court systems.

Several towns already have their police issue tickets for such small quantities. They want the fines to help bolster their municipal budgets.

So in a sense, it is about time that the Cook County Board “got with the program,” so to speak, and adopted a similar standard.

DOES IT REALLY make sense that someone smoking a marijuana cigarette in an open area next to a suburban town should face a criminal charge, while if he had done the same thing in the suburban town just a few hundred feet away, he’d just face a $200 ticket.

There literally is the situation of south suburban Lansing, which earlier this summer voted to decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia. They did that with the support of the Police Department because they already had the 10-gram standard for possession of the drug itself.

It literally was a case where possession of the drug was a ticket-able offense, while possession of the papers to roll the cigarettes with was a crime (albeit a misdemeanor).

Now for those people who want to get all moralistic and claim that we are somehow giving support to drug dealers, that’s ridiculous.

BECAUSE THE SIMPLE fact is that the tickets are only applicable to the people with such small quantities of the drug that there’s no way they could possibly be selling the drug.

People with more than 10 grams would still face criminal charges, and people with the large quantities that it is clear they were trying to feed off the money that can be made off of illicit drugs.

Nobody is showing anything resembling compassion toward drug dealers.

Those people are still going to be the focus of law enforcement investigations and over-inflated drug busts that are meant to create the impression that “The Law” is being enforced.

POLICE MAY EVEN be able to start focusing more attention on such drug busts, on account of the fact that the General Assembly this year voted to approve what had previously been considered illegal gambling.

Video poker. No longer will the Sheriff’s police be able to burst into a tavern with axes in hand smashing those games that by no means were being played solely for entertainment places.

So what’s the bottom line here? Not only is Cook County getting in line with the way many municipalities are enforcing the law, there’s also the fact that video poker and small drug busts will no longer preoccupy the county sheriff’s time.

Perhaps that means Sheriff Tom Dart can focus his attention on significant crime. What a “radical” concept.

-30-

Friday, July 24, 2009

Parque story more relevant because he was a journeyman ballplayer – not a star

I remember former Chicago White Sox pitcher Jim Parque primarily because he would fiddle around with his laptop computer in the clubhouse and on a few occasions wrote first-person pieces about being a ballplayer that got published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Well, it appears that Parque didn’t forget how to send a piece of copy to the Sun-Times, which on Thursday published his account of how he used human growth hormones (a.k.a., steroids).

THAT MAKES HIM yet another professional athlete to use a substance that some sports fans want to view as cheating (it is intended to bolster one’s strength in an artificial manner).

Much of the attention has gone to the “big names” of baseball – Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmiero, the Cubs’ very own Sammy Sosa. I’m sure there are Cubs fans who would love it if Frank Thomas were found to have used some artificial substance for all that muscular bulk he has, just to shut up White Sox fans who snicker at the Cubs’ expense every time Sosa’s name comes up.

Yet I can’t help but think the Parque account (assuming he’s not leaving any details out) is more significant. Because it tells the story of a guy whose career was basically over, and was using HGH in an attempt to regain the strength he once had.

Not that I think that justifies the use of HGH. By his own admission, he wrote that he knew he was doing something that would be looked down upon when he first injected himself with the substance.

HE EVEN ADMITS to being suspicious of the needles and chemicals when they first came because they didn’t look anything like he expected them to when he first learned about them by perusing the Internet.

But he used them anyway, which makes me think that ballplayers throughout the ages have a similarity about them.

I remember reading “Ball Four,” the ballplayer diary of 1960s pitcher Jim Bouton, who wrote he suspected that if a ballplayer were offered a drug that would boost the speed of his fastball, but at the expense of a year or two of life, the ballplayer wouldn’t hesitate to take it.

Now I know the Chicago Tribune responded to the Sun-Times account by having their former ballplayer – one-time White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell – write a commentary calling Parque a marginal ballplayer who overwrote a story about himself.

YET I THINK the fact that Parque is not is a star is what makes his story more significant. He had the average career – literally, parts of six seasons in the major leagues, without ever making the kind of money that would enable him to spend the rest of his life not working.

Parque didn’t use these drugs to give himself superhuman strength to enable him to break all kinds of records and “desecrate” the baseball record books with tainted accomplishments – which is the image all too many baseball fans want to use when discussing the issue.

After hurting his shoulder and realizing he didn’t have anywhere near the strength he used to, he turned to an artificial means. Which may be “wrong,” but I’m not sure a lot of people in his situation would have behaved differently.

Personally, I will continue to remember Parque for that one respectable season he had – in 2000, when he was one of the White Sox starting pitchers (not the top pitcher) on a team that won the most games in the American League that season, before going down to defeat in the first round of the playoffs against the Seattle Mariners.

OF COURSE, THE Yankees wound up winning the pennant and World Series that year, so perhaps it really doesn’t matter much whether the White Sox won or lost that year.

And as for those people who now are going to want to brand him, I’m going to wonder why they get so bent out of shape on this issue.

I honestly believe that the ballplayers who misuse such drugs are doing harm to their own bodies. In the end, they will pay with whatever physical misfortunes they bring upon themselves.

That is a far worse punishment than any of the talk some sports fans will spew about the need for “lifetime bans” or “asterisks” being attached to any statistical achievements they might have accomplished on the playing field.

AND IN THE end, this issue might be more significant as a story about the modern trends in competition among the Chicago newspapers, rather than as an issue involving steroids in sports.

Parque for the Sun-Times. McDowell for the Tribune.

When was the last time one saw former White Sox pitchers using the opposing newspapers (and their accompanying websites) to tell their story?

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: Extra, Read all about it! Chicago newspapers this week used former White Sox pitchers (http://www.suntimes.com/sports/baseball/1681419,CST-SPT-parque23.article) to try to bolster (http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/black-jack-white-sox/2009/07/former-white-sox-pitcher-jim-parque-and-steroids.html) their readers’ comprehension of steroids in sports.

The one-time first round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox won nearly half the games of his career (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/parquji01.shtml) in that one season the White Sox took a division title.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

EXTRA: Did anybody have Mark Buehrle on Thursday as their ‘pick to click?’

Frank Smith is no longer unique. The man with the anonymous name now has to share his athletic designation with Mark Buehrle.

Both Buehrle and Smith were pitchers for the Chicago White Sox, and until Thursday, Smith was the only Sox pitcher who had ever thrown more than one no-hit ballgame.

SMITH WAS A major leaguer with the White Sox, the Boston Red Sox, the Cincinnati Reds, the Baltimore Terrapins and the Brooklyn Tip-Tops. The latter two teams were in the long-defunct Federal League, which shows you how long ago Smith played ball.

For the record, his White Sox no-hitters came on Sept. 6, 1905 against the Detroit Tigers, and Sept. 20, 1908 against the Philadelphia Athletics.

Now, Buehrle has matched him, with his April 18, 2007 no-hit game against the Texas Rangers, combined with his perfect game (got everybody out) on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Rays.

None of the 14 other White Sox pitchers who threw no-hit games managed to do more than one for the ball club. Their ranks include such stars as Ed Walsh and Ted Lyons, notorious names such as Eddie Cicotte, and such un-immortal talents as Francisco Barrios (who on July 28, 1976 combined with John “Blue Moon” Odom to throw a no-hit game against Odom’s old ball club, the Oakland A’s).

OF COURSE, BUEHRLE also becomes the second White Sox perfect game pitcher ever – not since Charlie Robertson tossed one on April 30, 1922 against the Detroit Tigers.

I’m kind of jealous, since I have never seen a no-hit game being pitched. I have seen some come close, but fail. So naturally, Buehrle pitches his game on a day when I had no time to spare to watch television (let alone go out to the ballpark for a day game).

For the record, I can’t help but think many White Sox fans will enjoy the thought of Buehrle’s first no-hit game more. After all, that was the game in which only one Rangers player got on base – Buehrle walked Sammy Sosa.

And we all got our kicks watching Sammy look like a chump when Buehrle promptly picked him off first base. Although watching DeWayne Wise’s stumbling catch that preserved Buehrle’s achievement comes close to matching that moment.

-30-

Could we soon get an end to Dugan saga?

I’ll file this story under the category of, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

The Chicago Tribune reported that Brian Dugan, the man who has been incarcerated for nearly three decades now for the slayings of assorted girls and women, may now actually plead guilty to one of the “Crimes of the Century” for suburban DuPage County.

DUGAN IS THE inmate whose name has come up for years in conjunction with the disappearance and death of Jeanine Nicarico, who was a 10-year-old girl in 1983 when she was left home from school one day because she felt ill.

When her parents came home, Jeanine was gone. She was found dead days later.

The case became bogged down as two other men were repeatedly put on trial and convicted, then had those convictions overturned on appeal.

DNA technology eventually produced the evidence that let those two men get acquittals, even though some people insist they believe that Alejandro Hernandez and Rolando Cruz had to be involved in the crime somehow.

BUT BACK IN the days when Cruz and Hernandez were a cause celebre for the people who oppose the death penalty, they would always insist that Dugan was the true culprit.

In fact, throughout the years, Dugan has admitted to certain people that he committed the crime against Nicarico.

But he has never been willing to say such a thing to prosecutors, or under any circumstance in which he was under oath – which would make him liable to perjury if he were not telling the truth.

Dugan has always said he might be willing to talk, if he could be assured that he would not face a death sentence (he’s already serving prison terms adding up to life plus 155 years for other incidents against women and girls).

BUT THE PROSECUTORS who were eager to put Cruz and Hernandez to death by lethal injection are adamant in their desire to see someone die for this crime.

So Dugan has kept his mouth shut. Until now. Maybe. Unless he changes his mind in the next couple of days.

For as the Tribune accounts report, Dugan may use a status hearing in his case scheduled for next week to enter a “guilty” plea. But he would want a jury of his peers to then decide what his sentence should be, rather than allowing the judge in DuPage County to do so.

He seems to believe that if the jury merely has to decide his sentence, rather than his guilt and sentence, they might be inclined to give him yet another prison term (which considering that he’s already likely to spend the rest of his life in prison wouldn’t mean much of a change for him).

PERHAPS IT HAS something to do with the fact that prosecutors wouldn’t be hammering away at three-decade-old gory details of Jeanine’s death over and over. He might come up with a clinical explanation that lessens the horror of the incident.

DuPage County officials might be inclined to go along with this deal, just because it would finally bring this case that I remember covering two decades ago as a reporter-type for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago to a close.

How long has this case gone on?

Take into account that if Jeanine Nicarico were alive now, she’d be 36. In fact, I once remember Jeanine’s parents saying one of the hardest aspects of coping with the loss of their daughter was watching all of her youthful friends grow up into adulthood, and wonder what would have become of Jeanine.

BUT THE FACT that DuPage County is willing to go along with this legal scheme does not lessen their desire for a death sentence. They’re still going to push for it – even though the presence of the moratorium brought about by George Ryan and maintained by Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn means that Dugan is not likely to face an actual execution date for a long, long time.

This is one of those incidents that prosecutors are determined to get that “death sentence” for to put what they consider to be an appropriate ending to this case – even if it never results in an execution and merely ends up with Dugan having to move to a more-intense level of security within the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Of course, I couldn’t help but notice that even the newspaper notes the uncertainty of this appeal, as they point out in their story that Dugan could change his mind anytime between now and his scheduled Tuesday court hearing.

Considering his attitude throughout the years, it wouldn’t shock me if this thought of an ending to the Nicarico court battle being snatched away at Dugan’s whim is part of his desire to mess with prosecutors.

WHICH MEANS THIS could all be just an inmate’s game to keep himself amused at prosecutor expense.

After all, he’s 50 now, and has spent the bulk of his life in prison. What else does he have to do these days?

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTE: Prosecutors would be able to bring up gory details of the 7-year-old Somonauk girl and 27-year-old nurse for whom Dugan is already serving prison terms (http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/07/dugan-may-plead-guilty-in-nicarico-murder-case.html) for killing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How much will RINO label taint Kirk?

When I think about the chances of Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to move up on the Capitol Hill scene from a Congressman from the North Shore to a senator from Illinois, I can’t help but remember the U.S. Senate race from Illinois that took place in 1996.

That was the campaign where Paul Simon decided to retire instead of seeking term number three in the Senate. It was the election cycle that turned Richard Durbin as a statewide official, rather than being just the Congressman from Springfield, and set him on the path to his current place as one of the highest-ranking Democrats on Capitol Hill.

MY PROBLEM IS that I haven’t quite figured out the parallels between Kirk’s bid for the Republican nomination for Senate in 2010 and that campaign from 13 years ago.

Is Kirk the equivalent of Dick Durbin? Or is his true parallel the Bob Kustra role?

On a certain level, Kirk and his followers would like to think he is Durbin. An experienced member of the House of Representatives with strong regional support moves up to become a statewide figure.

That is the niche Kirk would love to have. He’d be, without a doubt, the highest-ranking Republican in Illinois if he were to win the primary and general elections to be held next year.

BUT I’M SURE there are Kirk followers who also will be mortified when they read this commentary that compares him on any level to Durbin.

Because there are those political watchers who think that Kirk and Durbin already have too much in common, and that is why they would be vehemently opposed to having Kirk get the GOP nomination next year.

We’re talking, of course, about those people who like to use the label RINO. Republican In Name Only.

They’re the ones who want to think of a social conservative agenda as the mainstream of thought in U.S. society and are the ones who think that compromise on political issues is a sign of weakness.

AFTER ALL, THEY pick people to stand up for core principles on certain issues.

The last thing they want is someone who is inclined to side with Democrats on certain issues.

That is Kirk, when it comes to those “hot button” questions such as abortion and gun control. Kirk lives in the Chicago suburbs. In fact, he lives in the ritzy Chicago suburbs of the North Shore. Who else would kick off his campaign in Kenilworth – one of the wealthiest in the nation?

There are those conservatives who like to think they represent the “common man” who view Kirk as some sort of elitist rich guy who can’t possibly identify with them. When combined with his moderate-to-liberal beliefs on many social issues, Kirk as a U.S. senator is the kind of guy who repulses them.

THAT IS GOING to be his biggest problem in the coming months. A North Shore guy is going to have to show he can relate to the common man. It will be interesting to see how far he takes the act without coming across as too phony.

I’m inclined to think that many conservatives will reject the idea of Kirk, and that his best chance of getting the nomination is if there are a slew of right-wing opponents to take each other down for Kirk.

I know from firsthand experience how the conservatives of the Republican Party are determined to get one who is ideologically their ideal, and would rather lose an election here and there rather than settle for someone who bears their party label but not their ideals.

That is why I think of Kustra.

THE THEN-ILLINOIS lieutenant governor was supposed to be the replacement for Paul Simon.

The party establishment had it all figured out about how he would get the nomination, then use their party strength (this was back in the days when the GOP was still relevant in Illinois) to win the general election.

Kustra was supposed to be the guy who killed Dick Durbin’s national political aspirations before they began.

The only problem is that Kustra got beat in the primary by Al Salvi, a state legislator from Wauconda who had enough personal wealth that he could afford to pay for a primary campaign – thereby overcoming Kustra’s fundraising advantages.

SALVI GAVE THE right the talk they wanted to hear, and that encouraged the conservatives who never trusted Gov. Jim Edgar (because he, too, is so liberal by their standards) to take it out on Kustra. His political ambitions were over (the last I heard, he was a college president in either Kentucky or Idaho).

Is that the fate Kirk is bound to face? He’s going to lose before he can even get a chance at running against Alexi Giannoulias or whichever Democrat winds up getting that party’s nomination for the Senate seat.

It could happen, because the ideological set of the Republican Party is that determined to get “one of their own” as a Senator. Heck, I still remember what happened to Salvi.

After losing in ’96, he tried running again in 1998 for Illinois secretary of state. In his attempt to moderate his rhetoric, he toned down the tough talk on social issues that he spewed two years earlier.

BUT THAT CAUSED the conservatives to turn on him to the point where many didn’t mind in the least that Democrat Jesse White wound up winning that election – and still holds the same office to this day.

So is he Durbin, or is he Kustra? We’ll have to wait and see.

-30-

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Michael Jackson becoming a sore spot

“Oh, be quiet!”

That’s what I want to say to just about every political geek who wants to use the death of Michael Jackson to pontificate on the evils of perversion, or any other ridiculous rant that happens to pop into their heads.

THE MOST RECENT outburst came about because, during a lull last week in activity right before passing a budget for the state, the Illinois House of Representatives approved a resolution praising the “King of Pop.”

The resolution was one of nine that were passed with one vote, and they were all pretty typical of the type of resolutions that commonly get approved by government bodies – symbolic statements of support on some general topic that are meant to create the illusion that the Legislature has a clue about the goings on of the outside world.

Among the other “issues” approved with that same vote was a measure praising the track team at Hillcrest High School in south suburban Country Club Hills. Pure fluff.

Even the Jackson resolution, sponsored by state Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago, was like that. It praises his musical achievements, and makes no mention of the rest of his life. Considering that his only real significance is because of his music, it makes sense to limit one’s thinking about him to that one segment of his life.

BUT THIS RESOLUTION, which passed without opposition last week, is now stirring up resentment this week.

For it turns out that our legislators mostly had no clue what they were voting for. They now say that had they been aware there was something mentioning Michael Jackson and his legacy, they would have opposed it.

Some say they would have gone so far as to bring up his later life eccentricities, and the two occasions in his life when he was put on trial in criminal court on allegations that he committed sexual acts with young boys.

Apparently, it means nothing to these political people who claim they’re standing up for the Democratic ideals upon which our country is based that Jackson was acquitted both times.

AS IN “NOT guilty.” As in a prosecutor was unable to ever prove that he did anything that warranted a criminal conviction.

They still want to think of Jackson as nothing more than a criminal prevert, so to speak. Perhaps they realize that publicly bashing Michael Jackson would have warranted themselves national news attention, and favorable support from a segment of our society.

But because they were so careless as to not be aware of what they were voting on, they lost that chance for attention. Plus, there is now a record indicating they voted in support of something that was positive toward Michael Jackson.

Heaven forbid, they voted for the prevert. Maybe that means they’re preverts themselves. Or maybe they fear that is how their political opposition in the 2010 elections will try to distort the record into saying.

ACTUALLY, I’M GLAD that this resolution did not devolve into a debate on the significance of Michael Jackson, which is what happened when a representative from Texas tried to get Congress to consider a similar resolution. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., refused to let the measure come up for a vote, and many political people insisted on stating their opposition.

It seems that many black people in this country are going to focus attention on the Michael Jackson who started making music at such an early age that he had a decades-long career as a musician – even though for all practical purposes, he was “washed up” after age 31.

To much of the white population, they want to think of those years afterward when he wore the goofy costumes, faced criminal charges and tried to create a “Neverland” (as in Peter Pan) atmosphere at his gaudy luxury mansion.

It is an issue that we, the people of this nation, appear to be split upon. What would have been accomplished if we had yet another “debate” on this affair?

NOT A THING, except that perhaps a politico or two would have strained his throat from spewing nonsense rhetoric.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take the debate among members of Congress, where Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is on record as having called Jackson a “child molester.”

His comments came during the same Independence Day holiday weekend that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., talked about how Jackson was a positive influence on both black and white America.

I’m not sure I agree in full with his observation that the white kids who grew up idolizing Jackson and “Thriller” grew up into the adults who, “followed Barack Obama into the voting booth.”

BUT IT’S NOT the most ridiculous thought I have ever heard come from the mouth of a political person.

And it certainly makes more sense that much of the “trash talk” that we were denied from the “Statehouse in Springpatch” had our state Legislature engaged in a serious and heated debate over Davis’ resolution.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: We didn’t get an embarrassing debate from the Statehouse on the merits (http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/1672383,CST-NWS-jacko18.article) of Michael Jackson.

This is the “controversial” resolution that dares to offer praise to the memory (http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/fulltext.asp?DocName=&SessionId=76&GA=96&DocTypeId=HR&DocNum=544&GAID=10&LegID=48336&SpecSess=&Session=) of Michael Jackson.

Despite the appearance that the Jackson debate has become enmeshed in race, I couldn’t help but notice (http://nwitimes.com/news/local/article_bf2b823c-15cb-51ca-aa5b-19a89b0fd046.html) that the Congressman made his comments before a mixed-race crowd in the Chicago suburbs without stirring up a riot.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I don’t remember where I was 40 yrs ago, but NASA didn’t leave my psyche cold

It is at moments like this that I feel like Homer Simpson.

The occasionally oafish pater familias of the Simpson clan (which has been around for nearly two full decades now) was alive in animated form on that day 40 years ago today when Neil Armstrong left his footprints on the surface of the Moon.

YET IT MADE little impact on his psyche (remember the episode that contained a flashback letting us know that at the moment the rest of the world was captivated at the thought of human beings walking on the lunar surface, a then-teenaged Homer was more interested in listening to his radio – the 1910 Fruitgum Co.’s “Yummy, Yummy” was playing).

It made an equal impression on my psyche as well – I have no recollection of the day. Although in my defense, I was 3 years old, getting ready to turn 4 about a month later.

So I can’t share some heartwarming tale of how a youthful version of myself living then in the East Side neighborhood was inspired to think big and shoot for significant goals and achievements in life.

For me, it was a pair of later Apollo missions (those were the National Aeronautics and Space Administration efforts of the late 1960s to the early 1970s to go to the Moon) that caught my attention.

FOR I CAN remember where I was on the day that Apollo 14 landed on the lunar surface. That was the third successful Moon mission (we all have Tom Hanks and the film “Apollo 13” to thank for teaching us what little we know of the one unsuccessful mission in between).

I can remember being in kindergarten on the day when that mission touched down on the moon. It wasn’t every day back then that a television set was wheeled into the classroom.

And it was definitely a treat that my teacher, Mrs. Pugh, didn’t insist on having us 5-year-olds take our daily nap.

Instead, we got to watch the news broadcasts of the day (Feb. 5, 1971) that Alan Shepard Jr. and Stuart A. Roosa did their attempt to leave their footprints for immortality on the Moon.

I KNOW SOME of us in the kindergarten class at Patton Elementary School in suburban Riverdale (we had moved from the East Side by then) saw nothing more than grainy black-and-white pictures – the way that some people are going to want to denigrate the images that will be reshown over and over again on Monday of the moment that Armstrong put his foot on the Moon.

But one has to admit that it was quite an achievement – being able to take ourselves to the surface of another sphere in this universe. It is Step One in the ongoing process to which we have yet to this day been unable to advance – visits to another planet.

The day that technology is advanced enough to let us send anything more than satellites and probes and other mechanical devices to land on the surface of Mars or any other planet will be a great moment – one that will eclipse the Moon landing because, let’s face it, the Moon ultimately is little more than a giant rock floating in space.

Now some people are going to claim that I’m somehow missing the point by bringing up Apollo 14, rather than focusing on Apollo 11. But when one considers just how few people have ever walked on the lunar surface, I’d have to say it is a pretty exclusive “club.”

WHY SHOULD ARMSTRONG get all the attention?

Of course, federal budget constraints of the 1970s and the impression among many people in this country that there wasn’t much of anything on the Moon worth visiting caused the end of the Apollo project.

NASA has done many space flights since those days, but none of them seem to give off the same inspiring aura of 1969. In fact, ever since 1975, I’d have to argue that the only time NASA comes into the public consciousness is when something goes wrong severely enough that people die.

The reason I mention ’75 is that I remember being a nine-year-old inspired by the whole concept of Apollo-Soyuz.

THAT WAS IN the midst of the Cold War and when people who engaged in rants about “the godless Commies” were actually taken seriously.

So for NASA to cooperate with the Soviet space program and engage in a joint mission had ramifications that went far beyond the meager scientific goals that were accomplished for the couple of days that a U.S. and a Soviet space craft were docked together.

Astronauts and cosmonauts were as one for a few days. The idea of a cosmonaut seeing the inside of a NASA spacecraft wasn’t treated as potential for the leaking of national security in the form of specifications of how advanced the U.S. space program was. It was a time when people for a couple of days put aside politics out of a desire to advance the betterment of mankind.

And if that is the youthful impression I developed of NASA, perhaps it is the attitude we ought to remember on this anniversary of the day that Armstrong engaged in his now classic slip of the tongue that underestimated the significance of human beings walking the lunar surface.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: I may not remember where I was 40 years ago today, but some NASA (http://www.lpi.usra.edu/lunar/missions/apollo/apollo_14/) missions from my youth (http://history.nasa.gov/apollo/apsoyhist.html) left their impressions on my mind.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

DeJesùs vs. gays is all about the spin

It is going to be interesting to see the way that various sides try to take over the way we remember the filling of a vacancy in the City Council.

At stake is the seat that was abandoned when Billy Ocasio gave up the title of “alderman” to be a high-ranking aide to Gov. Pat Quinn.

UNDER EXISTING PROCEDURES, Mayor Richard M. Daley gets to pick the replacement alderman who will finish out the remainder of Ocasio’s term (which ran through 2011). Much has been made of how so many of the current aldermen owe their initial appointment to Daley that he “owns” them.

But in the case of Ocasio’s replacement, it was threatening to become an outspoken partisan political battle.

But this one would not have been “Democrat” versus “Republican.” It would have been “gay” versus “straight,” or perhaps “gay” versus “religious.”

For Ocasio originally said he wanted Daley to pick as his replacement the Rev. Wilfredo DeJesùs. The reverend has developed a reputation as an activist for the interests of the growing Latino population in Chicago (which may account for up to one-third of the overall city population by the year 2020).

HIS ACTIONS AND attitudes largely are in line with what could be considered the mainstream of the Democratic Party, or even liberal interests, EXCEPT …

The reverend also happens to share the religious interpretations of the Bible that are often used to look down on homosexuality. There are those who think he’s liberal to everyone, except gay people.

As a result, gay rights activists were gunning for a fight.

They were preparing to go all-out to let Daley know that if he went along with Ocasio’s preference and gave a City Council seat to DeJesùs, they would be prepared to take it out on him with a political backlash.

WHO KNOWS HOW ugly things could have gotten?

On that point, we’re never going to know. Because this week, Ocasio said he now would prefer if the mayor would pick his wife, Veronica, to get the seat. Several Latino political people are willing to praise this move, claiming she is experienced in her own right (she is an aide to Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.)

That will stir up the anger of the good-government types, who will claim that nepotism is at work and that the last thing we ought to get in Chicago government is yet another political family.

But I can easily envision Daley taking the same attitude that his father did whenever good government types would complain. “How many trees do they plant?” he would ask, implying he contributed to the public good and they did not.

THE GAY THING, however, could have made him look intolerant, while also having the potential to stick and alter his legacy (which he’d like to think is little more than urban beautification).

In the end, the gay activists “won.” DeJesùs will not be an alderman. They may even gloat a bit. I’m sure activists will always try to portray this moment as a victory that shows their growing political influence. But I couldn’t help but notice the way that DeJesus is trying to deny those gay activists any sense that they achieved a political victory at his expense.

The official reasoning given by Ocasio for his change in support (as reported by the Chicago Tribune) is that DeJesùs does not live in the 26th Ward.

That would be a legitimate reason for not giving him the political appointment. But I don’t believe the reasoning given that Ocasio says he did not realize DeJesùs really lived in the neighboring 31st Ward.

EITHER OCASIO IS stretching the truth, or he is truly clueless if he overlooked a detail such as that.

Part of this issue is that many political people have a loose interpretation of residency when it comes to representing a particular community. There are always the instances where someone is prepared to move into an area – if they get a political appointment.

There also are the cases of people who have multiple addresses, which allows one to figure out later which one he needs to use to accept a political appointment.

The latter appears to be the means used by DeJesùs to justify the confusion about his own residency – he says he owns a plot of land in the 26th Ward and is in the process of having a home built upon it.

SO MAYBE HE someday will be a fully legitimate resident of the 26th Ward (the land that once gave us politicos like Vito Marzullo, who upon seeing how Richard J. Daley and the Chicago delegation were treated at the 1972 Democratic National Convention got revenge against national Democrats by turning out his ward in droves for GOP opponent Richard Nixon). For the time being, he isn’t.

The ward may even be better off, as Daley aides say the mayor is considering several people for the aldermanic replacement pick.

It just seems too convenient for DeJesùs to suddenly realize that his residency was an issue. It really seems like he doesn’t want his political opposition to be able to take credit for his failure to get the post.

Which, in the end, makes this an issue of whose political spin will prevail.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: Billy Ocasio’s departure from the City Council and the process of replacing (http://chicagoargus.blogspot.com/2009/05/aldermans-career-path-in-reverse.html) him is turning out to be more drawn out than usual.

The Rev. Wilfredo DeJesùs was “mainstream” Democrat enough to meet with Barack Obama (http://www.nhclc.org/about/news/mar2008_1.html) while leading his own church (http://www.mynewlife.org/Staff.aspx?staff_id=9363) near Humboldt Park.

Friday, July 17, 2009

All talk. No action. That's our Legislature when it comes to Burr Oak Cemetery

Some people believe that any time politicians are in session, the potential for bad policy exists. That may well be true.

But if one has to come up with a positive aspect to having our state’s Legislature remaining in session a month-and-a-half after they were supposed to be finished putting together a state budget, it could very well be that they were present at the Statehouse when the whole fiasco regarding the Burr Oak Cemetery in suburban Alsip came to light.

OF COURSE, A more truthful perspective would be that our General Assembly did nothing but engage in cheap rhetoric on the issue, unless one gets seriously excited about Gov. Pat Quinn's creation of a task force to study the issue further.

Now I know that Illinois law puts some duties concerning the licensing of cemetery owners in the hands of the state Comptroller’s office (I still remember back in 1998 some reporter-types asking then Comptroller candidate Dan Hynes questions about cemeteries, just so they could get vapid answers that would show his government inexperience).

So I have no doubt that Hynes would have joined the mass of people who in recent days seem determined to show that they are cracking down on the vandals who would dare desecrate graves in order to make some more money.

At least that’s the case, if you fully believe the prosecutors who have since arrested four people for the situation at the cemetery that once was one of the few places where black people could be buried – and remains a popular choice for African-American families today.

ON A SIDE note, the statistic that will stick in my mind is the number “27,” as in the number of relatives that state Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, has buried at Burr Oak – which makes this situation a personal cause for him and many other black people.

But the individual legislators would not have truly had their say if they had been back home in their districts on their summer recess from government activity. We would not have gotten the chance to see them pontificate, so to speak, on the issue of cemetery regulation.

We would not have been able to hear them make demands for tougher criminal penalties for people who desecrate a grave – even though such an offense already has the potential for a Class X felony charge.

For those of you normal people who haven’t bothered to memorize all the legalese of the criminal justice system – that is a crime punishable by a prison term that must be somewhere between six and 30 years in length.

IT IS SEVERE. The only more severe punishments given out in Illinois are for those people who are convicted of the actual crime of murder – which has the potential for natural life without the option of parole (unless a zealous prosecutor has managed to get a jury and judge to impose a death sentence).

What amazed me about this past week is that at a time when the Legislature was in Springfield supposedly for the sole purpose of putting together a state budget proposal for the fiscal year that began 17 days ago, many lawmakers seemed just as concerned about Burr Oak.

Hence, we literally had legislators on Tuesday talking about the cemetery reform proposal they were ready to vote on – about 24 hours before they had a budget proposal agreed upon.

I’m not saying that Burr Oak detracted from the budget negotiations (because our political people are capable of dealing with more than one issue at a time), but I have to wonder what the legislators would have done if they had had to wait until November when they convene for the fall veto session to address the issue as a group.

WOULD IT HAVE withered away just because by that time the “crisis” would have become a dim memory to many Chicagoans?

Or would we have had people demanding of Gov. Pat Quinn that he call a “special session” so that legislators could get their moment on the television news programs acting as though they were trying to resolve the problem.

So what is the big reform that the Legislature talked about giving us, but which Quinn said he didn’t want them rushing into “in a haphazard manner – resulting in the General Assembly doing nothing more than giving us cheap political talk?

It basically amounted to getting more government agencies involved with cemeteries, which largely answer to few people – other than owners having to get a license periodically renewed by the state comptroller (who isn’t exactly a cemetery expert).

THE ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT of Professional Regulation (which regulates everyone in Illinois from doctors to boxers) would get some say in cemetery management because, as it turns out, they already regulate the licenses of those people who perform embalming services on bodies prior to funerals.

The Cook County Recorder of Deeds office (which keeps track of who owns every single plot of land in the state’s largest county) would have a chance to require additional maps and records of gravesites in cemeteries.

But it didn’t happen. Some claim it was because of opposition from the Chicago Catholic Archdiocese, which maintains many cemeteries of its own but did not have any representation when the deal was negotiated (largely by members of the Legislature’s black caucus – who are most directly affected by the imagery of Burr Oak).

Others say it will just be a matter of time, that some plan will get approved later this year. Perhaps they are right. Patience will keep us from rushing into something that could cause long-term cemetery hassles.

BESIDES, THIS WEEK was entertaining enough. It gave us the sight and sound of Quinn setting himself up as some sort of cemetery authority, telling reporter-types in Springfield on Wednesday that his father worked in cemeteries for 38 years.

Under what other circumstances would we have heard our “beloved” governor tell us, “I know all about cemeteries. I go to a lot of funerals. I believe in showing reverence.”

-30-

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A ballgame is hardly controversial, except to those who always have complaints

It appears that Barack Obama was not the only Chicago politico who was in the stands on Tuesday for the baseball All-Star Game held in St. Louis.

Some pundits are trying to make an issue of the fact that several members of the General Assembly, including Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, got tickets and went to the game.

WHAT THEY ARE trying to claim is controversial is the fact that negotiations toward a state budget (which is 16 days overdue and counting) were taking place Tuesday during the day, and they were put on hold so that the legislators could leave the Statehouse to make the roughly 90-minute drive to downtown St. Louis for the ballgame.

I have a hard time getting worked up over this so-called controversy, mainly because I doubt it would have accomplished anything to have the legislators remain within the Springfield city limits Tuesday night, except to have them break for the night and have the individual legislators find a bar to hang out in for a few hours – possibly to watch the game on television.

It’s not like the sides were so close to a deal that there was any chance they would have reached agreement, then have the rank-and-file legislators themselves come in to vote to approve a plan that gives the state a budget.

Even if they had stayed in Springfield, we’d still have them returning to the Statehouse on Wednesday to continue their talks - which appear to have resulted in a budget deal for the next six or so months. I’m not sure I really see how any significant time was lost for negotiations by what has happened.

IN FACT, THE only people I can think of who seriously would have a gripe are those Springfield tavern owners who lost a chance to serve some alcoholic beverages to our legislators. They lost some business.

The bottom line is that our Legislature blew its deadline for approving a budget a month-and-a-half ago (this was supposed to be done by May 30).

They blew an absolute, problems will now occur no matter when the situation gets resolved, deadline a couple of weeks ago (the old fiscal year ended June 30).

The fact is that the state is now two weeks (and counting) into the current fiscal year without a budget in place. Whether the final budget proposal gets approved July 15 or July 16 really doesn’t matter any more.

OUR OFFICIALS BLEW it. Only this time, they don’t have the presence of Rod Blagojevich to blame for the inability of all the factions of state government to get their act together and figure out the plan by which the state will spend its revenue and serve the people.

People who are now trying to get all worked up over the fact that John Cullerton sat in the stands at Busch Stadium on Tuesday to see a ballgame sound to me like those who are trying to distract attention from their own screw-ups by trying to create a screw-up by someone else for people to observe.

It’s all a little silly.

Of course, I can remember people getting worked up back on April 13, 1992.

REMEMBER WHEN THE Chicago River sprang a leak and tunnels underground under the Loop became flooded? That was the date that the flood water reached the basements of downtown office buildings and department stores (remember the fish in Marshall Field’s?)

It was also Opening Day for the Chicago White Sox, and then-Gov. Jim Edgar was on hand for the festivities.

Despite the fact that he only stayed for about two innings before returning to his office to figure out how the state could help Chicago cope with one of the most bizarre floods in recorded history (rivers are supposed to overflow, not spring leaks), he got some criticism for not immediately jumping all over the Chicago River situation.

But Edgar wound up serving his two full terms as governor, and only the most hardcore conservative has any serious gripes about the man. Edgar’s Opening Day appearance (the White Sox beat the Seattle Mariners 1-0) is a minor footnote – and that is what ought to become of the fact that John Cullerton & Co. took advantage of the fact that the All-Star Game was played in a city close enough to the Illinois capital city that they could realistically go to the game and return home the same night.

IT’S NOT LIKE they had to hop a jet plane, or make the haul to Chicago (which at about a 4-hour drive is long enough that an overnight stay would be needed). They got back to work on the budget on Wednesday.

And as long as we’re on the All-Star Game (I’m an American League fan, so all is right with the world these days), I also think the people who are trying to make an issue of Obama’s “first pitch” are being absurd.

I honestly didn’t hear the “boos” that they kept referring to. I was listening for them, because I always expect political people to get heckled in a sports stadium (most people, including myself, follow baseball and go to ballgames to get away for a few hours from the realities of life).

Yet all I heard was the usual roar of a large crowd when they see something they recognize. There probably were a few “boos” in there, but I also heard cheers. And as far as the pitch itself, now we know why he became president, instead of a high-priced slugging outfielder for the White Sox.

-30-

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Courts give us payroll, abortion issues

Leave it to a pair of courts at opposite ends of Illinois to give all of us continued squabbles.

The appeals court located in our own city struck down the restrictions that had prevented state laws applying to teenage girls wishing to abort a pregnancy from doing so, while down in the part of Illinois near St. Louis, a judge is considering whether the state is justified in refusing to pay its bills just because there’s no balanced budget in place.

WHEN IT COMES to abortion, there always have been those activists who accept that the concept is legal, but they work to place so many restrictions on it that it can become virtually impossible for women to obtain.

That logic definitely has been behind the whole concept of “parental notification,” where a girl has to be prepared to tell her father (or whoever the legal guardian is) about her intent to end a pregnancy before she can do it.

Of course, that also entails a girl telling the parents about a pregnancy. And the sad truth is that there are situations where the concept of informing a parent has nothing to do with parental responsibility, but is merely meant to be a procedural stumbling block that makes it impossible for the girl to end her pregnancy.

The General Assembly created this law back in the mid-1980s, then updated it in the mid-1990s (back in the days when Republicans actually weren’t irrelevant and were trying to push their own social conservative agenda into Illinois law).

THERE ALWAYS HAS been the legalese about how a girl, if she can convince a judge that telling her parents truly would be a harmful experience, can get a waiver. But no one has ever been able to figure out how exactly this provision should be enforced.

That is why the decades-old law has never been enforced. In fact, a lower court judge previously had ruled there is no way for the concept of a “judicial waiver” to be enforced.

That ruling is what the U.S. Court of Appeals based in Chicago struck down.

Of course, their ruling doesn’t really offer specifics about how a judicial waiver can be enforced. Some would argue it isn’t their place to decide that.

IT IS THE political people (the ones who are gumming up our state government’s operations with their inability to approve a budget for the fiscal year that began two weeks ago) who need to figure this out.

So now, we get to add abortion to the list of ongoing issues – unless someone can get the Supreme Court of the United States to agree to hear an appeal on the appeals court’s ruling, then strike it down.

Even if that were to happen, it would take time – perhaps a couple of years.

So now, we move forward on this issue in Springfield, where the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has become so disgusted with the state that they’re taking it to court.

SPECIFICALLY, THEY WANT to be sure that the roughly 40,000 state workers they represent get their next paycheck (and the one after that and so on).

This is one of those quirks of Illinois government. The state must have a balanced budget in place before any money can be spent.

It’s not that the money intended for this fiscal year’s expenses isn’t there. It’s just that without a specific plan, no one knows how much to spend on any one aspect of government.

It sounds responsible, there must be a budget in place. But it has always caused the quirk when the Legislature and governor cannot agree that the fiscal year begins July 1, and a couple of weeks later new bills start to come in and they can’t get paid.

IN ONE SENSE, Illinois government is the biggest deadbeat imaginable. In some years, we get the situation of state workers having to show up for their jobs, knowing their paychecks will be late.

So now, the union wants the courts to behave as a collection agency of sorts.

The union filed a lawsuit in St. Clair County court (down near St. Louis), and hopes that a judge issues a ruling requiring the state employees to be paid.

After all, they argue, the money is there in state bank accounts. It’s not like anyone stopped collecting the state’s share of taxes on anything in recent weeks.

SO THEY THINK they should not be penalized, which is a different tactic from past years when they merely grumped and groused and hoped that their disgust could persuade legislators to act and approve a budget.

Perhaps it is a sign that even they see the political people trying to resolve the state’s budgetary mess are too entrenched in their own stubbornness to find a legitimate solution to the problem.

And these are the people we’re going to entrust to resolve the situation surrounding abortion and underage girls? If so, then we’re in a mess.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: A pair of court cases have the potential to create many headaches for people across Illinois – abortion (http://www.sj-r.com/breaking/x631626671/AFSCME-files-suit-to-force-state-pay-for-workers) and budgets (http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2009/07/court-revives-ill-abortion-notification-law.html) are never a pretty mix.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Quinn can’t please everybody

In theory, Gov. Pat Quinn made a grand gesture to try to gain support from the General Assembly for a state government budget that’s truly balanced.

He backed away from his demand that the Legislature approve a budget before he would consider approval for a capital projects plan for the state. He went ahead and signed into law the program that will provide $31 billion to pay for assorted public works projects (new roads and government buildings, along with significant overhauls of existing facilities) all across the state.

THAT MEANS A lot of communities will be able to claim they got something from state government – and not some esoteric concept that one has to think a lot about in order to see.

It will be actual concrete and steel. Repaired roads. A new fire truck for the local department. Things that can actually be seen and touched.

It is the first capital projects program since then-Gov. George Ryan pushed for “Illinois First,” which paid for many municipal projects and gained the goodwill of local politicos for Ryan all across the state (even though the ideologues consider the additional money spent for the projects to be as heinous a happening as anything he might have done to free death row inmates or look the other way at unqualified truck drivers getting licenses).

So in theory, Quinn gave people something to take back home. Could it be that they might be willing to turn around on Tuesday when the General Assembly convenes in Springfield and vote to approve a $59 billion budget that includes some sort of income tax hike to raise revenues in order to balance it?

IT’S NOT LIKELY.

Many of the legislators who are inclined to be ideologues when it comes to taxation will still vote “no,” while others may very well find their own issue to be disgusted with.

Gambling.

For it turns out that Quinn’s capital projects plan is paid for in part by making those video poker machines in bars and restaurants (the ones that supposedly are for entertainment purposes only, and not for gambling) fully legitimate.

LOCAL COPS WILL no longer be able to raid some bar’s back room and smash the video poker machines as part of a stunt to make it look as though they’re being tough on crime – because the machines will now be legal.

In theory, the state will tax the money made off the machines, which will produce money to pay for all the construction projects that will take place across Illinois in the next year or two.

But when it comes to gambling, there are always the moralists who would just as soon have it all outlawed. They would have you believe that Illinois became Gomorrah when the first riverboat casinos were allowed – even though many of the communities that have a riverboat casino rely desperately upon their share of the local proceeds to balance out their own municipal budgets.

AND THEY WILL be joined by the law enforcement types – some of whom are eager to keep raiding those bars.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart (who himself was once a member of both the Illinois House of Representatives and the state Senate) claims the social costs of legitimizing gambling is not worth the additional revenue the state might derive by granting video poker the legitimacy of the law.

There will be some legislators who will be more than willing to listen to like-minded police officers in their communities when it comes to this issue.

So did Quinn manage to irritate more people than he pleased by signing this measure into law during ceremonies held at Marshall High School?

IT COULD BE. I know there were some political people who were holding out hope that Quinn might sign into law some form of a capital projects plan, but would use his “amendatory veto” power to delete the provisions that legitimized video poker.

These probably are the same people who seriously think the Chicago Cubs are going to win a National League pennant in the near future. Some people are just eternal optimists.

So what is likely to happen on Tuesday?

We are at the point in the state’s fiscal year where if the Legislature does not act now to give Quinn something he can immediately (like within 24 hours or so) sign into law, there will start to be the obligatory shutdowns of certain state government agencies and programs.

AFTER ALL, STATE law doesn’t allow state government to operate without a balanced budget. There’s also the fact that some of those shutdowns and cuts might not be restored once a budget eventually is passed into law.

That has some legislators thinking seriously about approving a budget for six months (running through December), with the idea being that the Legislature will return in November and pass a spending plan for the remaining six months (January through June) of fiscal 2010.

But that also is the time when many legislators will have to finalize their own intentions on whether they will seek re-election in the ’10 primary and general elections.

If there are legislators who now are feeling too cowardly to vote for what is the right thing to do (rather than the politically expedient), I can just envision how terrified the Legislature will be come the fall veto session.

THIS SITUATION IS going to be an ugly political mess, regardless of how it turns out. It is for that reason that I’d rather see the Legislature take the tough vote now, rather than stretch this mess out any longer.

Not only are the political people better off, all of us would prefer to know now just how bad things will be in the coming months.

-30-