Thursday, April 30, 2009

Feds raid Crestwood village hall

I know it’s not really humorous, but I got my chuckle for the day from reading the Chicago Tribune account of how federal authorities raided the Village Hall building in south suburban Crestwood.

Led by agents of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, federal investigators spent the bulk of the day Wednesday at the village hall going through village government records.

IN SHORT, THEY'RE looking for anything irregular that might indicate illegal activity took place with regards to the suburb’s water supply, and the way municipal officials conducted themselves.

Village officials continue to say they have a safe water supply, and were never aware of any potential flaws with their water. That comes despite indications that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency first found problems more than two decades ago, and that no one bothered to inform the public until the past couple of weeks.

We shouldn’t make too much of Wednesday’s raid. It is very common for federal investigators when they suspect there’s a chance of something irregular to go all out with a public show of force. It makes the public think that the federal government is doing something to justify their share of the tax dollars that everybody pays out.

Hence, we get the sight of the Chicago Tribune photograph depicting an agent of the U.S. EPA looking bored stiff while talking to superiors on his cellphone, while in the background, staffers of the Crestwood village clerk’s office go about their daily routine of selling village auto stickers and accepting payments for bills.

YOU CAN ALMOST envision those employees telling the village residents (including the woman who appears to be writing out a check) to, “ignore the guys with the EPA logo on their jackets,” even though those guys are rifling through file cabinets and other records looking for information that could provide a clue as to who truly knew what about the quality of Crestwood drinking water.

Perhaps they were even going about trying to delude themselves into thinking that Wednesday was just another day – instead of being the day that a suburb that even by the standards of secretive government has little to say about itself had its underbelly exposed to the world by the federal government.

For the record, Crestwood officials said they were cooperating with the federal government. No one was threatening to brandish a weapon or use any other force to stop EPA investigators from looking for whatever it is they think constitutes evidence of “environmental crimes.”

I believe them.

THIS IS ONE of those situations where the worst thing a Crestwood official could do would be to try to interfere. Let the EPA probe village records related to water and public works, and there’s a good chance that the end result some year from now of all this activity will be a hefty fine against village government – which means that taxpayers themselves who once got the benefit of cheap water bills will someday have to pay more to cover the cost of the fines.

But if a municipal employee dares to try to interfere, then they make themselves a potential target for criminal investigation. It could literally result in bringing upon oneself a prison term (albeit just for a year or so).

Does any lowly municipal employee want to make themselves the human face of this investigation? Right now, it focuses on the generic concept of a municipality, although I wonder if it should become the legacy of the Stranczek family that has controlled the village president’s post since 1969.

Current President Robert Stranczek is trying to behave as though his usual practice (learned from father, Chester, who ran the town until 2007) of doing what he wants and ignoring what he finds displeasing can still work.

TAKE HIS BRIEF statement made Wednesday from the steps of the Village Hall on Cicero Avenue. “Right now, our drinking water is 100 percent safe and the village doesn’t believe there was anything wrong with it prior to this,” he said, before ignoring questions and going back to hide in his office. He thinks this is the final word.

Unfortunately, this is an issue that will stretch on for years. It is going to be one that we will get sick and tired of hearing. Many of us Chicago-area residents are going to be tired of having to think about Crestwood.

And like I mentioned earlier, the end result of all this is going to be a significant fine against the village – which will result in tax hikes that the local powers-that-be will try to blame on the federal government.

Which means in the end, it will be the public that gets dumped on again.


EDITOR’S NOTE: You have to love the photograph of the EPA agent-in-charge that accompanies ( this story about Wednesday’s federal raid of Crestwood village hall.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wheaton police can’t afford to respond to traffic. What remains, I don’t know

I’m not sure what to make of the recent decision by the police department in Wheaton, Ill., to cut down on the calls they will respond to.

Police say they have a limited budget, and they want to ensure they can afford to respond to serious crimes when they occur. Yet anyone who looks at the crime rate for the seat of government for DuPage County will see this is a town that has little serious crime.

IS THIS JUST a case where the local officials are so strapped for cash that they really can’t afford a police department? I don’t know that for a fact, but it would seem that way.

How serious is the situation in the town that likes to think of itself as the home to the Belushi family and the Rev Billy Graham (an alumnus of Wheaton College)?

WBBM-AM radio reported this week about the Wheaton situation, quoting police officers as saying that as of June 1, they will no longer respond to traffic accidents occurring on private property – unless people are injured.

In which case, the first call should be to the paramedic, with police following along to figure out if someone got hurt because of someone else’s negligence.

POLICE SAY THEY also will no longer bother showing up if someone locks themselves out of their car – unless in can be shown that getting that particular vehicle open immediately will save someone’s life.

In theory, I can understand the motivation behind these particular changes.

Accidents on private property are usually incidents that do not result in any kind of criminal charge, or even a ticket. So perhaps it is justified for police to say they have more important things to do than to send an officer out to the scene – just to collect information for a police report that the insurance companies ultimately want to see.

Police in Wheaton say those motorists should just report the incident to their insurance companies directly.

AND AS FAR as someone locking themselves out of their car (which I did once in DuPage County), perhaps someone should call a locksmith – rather than assuming that the police should handle such activity.

Yet I can’t help but remember the time I was locked out of my car, and a police officer ultimately broke in for me. What made the incident comical was that I was a reporter-type that day, covering a presidential event (George Bush the elder) out in the Chicago suburbs.

So I’m the guy who had a local police officer break into his car, while several Secret Service agents observed to ensure that neither the police officer nor I posed a threat to the president.

I can understand how that was a lot of wasted manpower. I can kind of see Wheaton’s point for not wanting to have to “jump” every time someone screws up and shuts the car door without removing their keys from the ignition.

YET IT’S THE claim by Wheaton police officials that such changes will free up officers to do more important things that makes me wonder. What are these “more important things?”

I have always been under the impression that Wheaton (a municipality of some 54,000 people – about 88 percent white) was a fairly low-crime place where these minor actions comprised the bulk of local law enforcement’s daily activity.

A look at some of the crime “statistics” shows a community where 1 murder and 5 rapes in any given year makes that year particularly violent.

Burglaries and thefts appear to comprise the bulk of criminal activity in Wheaton (with an average year consisting of a few hundred such incidents). There have been times when I have wondered if a place like Wheaton (like many of the couple hundred other suburbs that surround Chicago) would be better off doing away with the idea of a separate police department.

SERIOUSLY, WE OUGHT to county sheriff’s departments more authority, turning them into regional law enforcement entities. If a place like Wheaton, which many people think of as a wealthy suburb (median income in 2000 was $73,385 and median house value was $222,100), is having trouble funding a police department, perhaps someone in a position to do more ought to take over.

I literally have wondered about the logic of every single municipality in Cook County feeling the need to have its own police chief and uniformed officers – particularly since many of those smaller towns usually have only one or two full-time officers, and the rest being part-time cops whose professional competence becomes the butt of local jokes.

But I also realize that having one’s own police department is a sign of independence, allowing each municipality to feel a jolt of pride that it can look out for itself.

Even though a sheriff patrolling all the towns in their respective county could probably do a more professional job of protecting the public, I’m fully aware that no local official is going to be willing to consider doing away with the local police.

SO THAT MEANS this new attitude in Wheaton is likely to become the trend of the future, since Wheaton is far from the only municipality that faces financial constraints in these tough economic times.

We’re going to get police departments that deal with smaller budgets by doing less and less, to the point where someday a call to the police will warrant the response, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Police don’t want to waste time on minor incidents. Is this the beginning ( of a new cost-cutting trend among law enforcement agencies? Here's what Wheaton Police themselves have ( to say about the matter.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Does it really matter much anymore if newspaper circulation on the decline?


That used to be a magic number, of sorts, for the Chicago Sun-Times. Now, it seems to be the figure that the Chicago Tribune will use to justify its significance.

THAT WAS MY initial reaction to reading the reports Monday about newspaper circulation. Insofar as Chicago’s metro newspapers are concerned, the Tribune sells an average of 501,202 copies on a weekday, while the Sun-Times sells 312,141 copies.

The “spin” I saw being put on this happening is that the Tribune experienced a significant decline (about 7.5 percent, compared to one year earlier), while the Sun-Times’ drop was less than half of 1 percent. Could it be that the Sun-Times has bottomed out, and can only go up from here?

Or is the gap between the two newspapers significant enough that the Sun-Times has no hope for the future – no matter now mangled the Tribune’s financial situation becomes due to their tie to all those other media properties across the country?

Actually, it was that Tribune circulation figure of just over half a million copies of the newspaper sold that caught my attention. Because it is so far below the paper’s glory days (I can remember the early 1980s when the Tribune sold about 700,000 copies of the paper on weekdays, and the Sun-Times matched that with about 650,000 copies sold).

EVEN INTO THE years not so long ago, the Sun-Times was able to claim they sold nearly 500,000 copies on a typical weekday.

Of course, we now know some of those claims were bogus. The executives of Hollinger (the precursor to the Sun-Times News Group who own the newspaper) were so determined to claim that the Sun-Times sold “nearly a half million papers a day” that they were tampering with the circulation figures.

The point was that 500,000 was perceived as some sort of magical figure that justified allowing a newspaper to think of itself as one of the nation’s major media properties.

Go below that, and you lose your right to think of yourself as significant. Or so the logic goes.

BY THAT LOGIC, the Sun-Times got pushed into irrelevance with its declines, although I’d like to think the paper just can’t sink much lower. After all, I do see the reality of news consumers in the Chicago area.

No matter how much Tribune Co. likes to think it dominates the Chicago news racket with its paper, television (over the air and cable) and radio stations and all its other properties, I know fully well there are some people who are determined to get their news from anything other than a Tribune-owned outlet.

So if that means I believe there is a significant market in this metropolitan area for a Number Two newspaper, so be it.

But it also strikes me as humorous to now see the Tribune circulation decline to the level that the Sun-Times once considered to be its “bottom line” standard.

IT MAKES ME wonder what kind of rhetoric we’re going to hear from the Tribune Co. types once the circulation takes another plunge and sinks below the 500,000 level. Will we start getting all kinds of spin about how “significant” the quality of their readership (no matter how small) truly is?

Or will the Tribune types start hyping the value of their Sunday editions (the ones that have larger-than-weekday circulations, even if they no longer sell 1 million-plus copies per Sunday)?

Actually, what is to be said about the Tribune’s circulation is that its percentage decline of 7.5 percent compared to one year earlier is totally in line with the newspaper industry average (the Audit Bureau of Circulation says the average newspaper in this country experienced a 7.1 percent drop).

Which would make the Sun-Times one of the “success” stories of the newspaper industry (only a 0.04 percent decline) this year. Except their business has so many other problems that the fact their circulation has more or less leveled off doesn’t seem to be enough to assure their future success.

I’LL BE THE first to admit that these observations of the newspaper industry in Chicago are the mere ramblings of an amateur – albeit one who has worked on the fringes of the Chicago news racket for some two full decades.

I don’t know which paper (if either) is going to survive as a business entity. I’m not sure what will replace them in terms of being able to generate the huge amounts of news copy that winds up feeding the beast for the countless broadcast and Internet outlets that claim to cover the news in the Second City.

And perhaps it is silly to pay much attention to the actual circulation figures these days – since they measure the number of actual copies of the newspaper sold at a time when many people believe that the focus of the industry ought to be increasing the number of eyeballs that bother to check out a newspaper’s website.

After all, doing things to improve the quality of news content in ways that more people will want to read the website will have long-term effects.

THE REALITY OF the situation these days is that newspapers ought to be judged by a combination of their actual circulation and the number of hits on their website. That figure likely would show that more people are reading the copy published by these entities than they were in the days when the number of copies sold was at its all-time high.

Of course, that wouldn’t provide the negative image that some Internet-only operations (the ones that don’t like to admit they’d be lost without newspapers to feed off of) want to use to portray the newspaper industry these days.

So maybe I’m guilty of reading newspaper circulation figures the same way some people get all excited about what was served for dinner on the night that the Titanic sank into the Atlantic Ocean.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The two Chicago metro newspapers now sell barely more copies on a typical weekday ( than the Chicago Tribune used to sell all on its own.

Monday, April 27, 2009

One-time “hog butcher to the world” can’t avoid spread of swine flu virus

For all I know, by the time you read this, Chicago may have its first case of the swine flu.

We’ve all heard the horror stories about the strain that is spreading through Mexico (but which President Barack Obama appears not to have contracted when he was in Mexico City last week), and which officials now fear will work its way through the United States.

CONSIDERING HOW MUCH of a transportation hub Chicago is because of O’Hare International Airport, I’m surprised that some international visitor didn’t manage to leave the Second City a souvenir, of sorts, during their brief stopover.

That’s really all it takes for this thing to be triggered.

I’m surprised to learn that Ohio and Kansas managed to beat Illinois to having confirmed cases of the virus within their boundaries.

According to White House doctors, President Obama appears not to have contracted the swine flu during his recent visit to Mexico City. Photograph provided by White House.

Not that I view this as some sort of bizarre competition. But as of Sunday night, the Illinois Department of Public Health was unaware of any instances of the virus occurring here.

BUT THE CHICAGO Health Department is taking what I consider to be a much more realistic approach to the issue. They’re accepting it as fact that the virus will break out here, probably in the city proper – if not one of the hundreds of suburban towns that surround us.

“There’s no reason to think that we won’t eventually see it in the state of Illinois and city of Chicago,” health Commissioner Terry Mason told reporter-types.

Thus far, there have been 20 reported incidents of the virus spread over five states. Many appear to be people who have traveled in recent weeks, such as the New York high school students who took what should have been a life-long memory trip to Cancùn.

It will be memorable, but not for the reasons they intended.

NOW I DON’T mean to downplay the seriousness of the virus, which has already killed some 86 people in Mexico and has left about 1,400 ill during the past few weeks. If quick actions are not taken, it can inflict serious harm on a person – as well as spread so quickly from person to person.

But part of the reason I’m not panicking is that I have enough faith in our public health systems to cut this potential problem off before it gets too far out of control. In part, that faith is because I choose not to live my life isolated in a cave somewhere, which is what it would take for someone to avoid all the potentially bad things that can happen in life.

And I also have enough sense to realize that Mexico doesn’t have some special claim to this virus. For those people who envision closing the border crossings along the Rio Bravo del Norte/Rio Grande in the name of keeping the U.S. free of a virus, it ain’t gonna happen.

Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano said as much on Sunday, although people entering the U.S. from Mexico are going to have to submit to a few questions about their health before being allowed to cross the border.

FOR ONE THING, in today’s world of international travel, it is the airports that are the true entry points. And there could very well be people going from Mexico to somewhere else (and maybe another place as well) before entering Chicago or the United States.

Officials note that the quarantine facility at O’Hare International is now up and running in case anyone needs to be detained for a time. Homeland Security officials also said airport officials will be watching all people passing through, which is a good thing.

Focusing too much attention on Mexico when it comes to this particular viral outbreak is a mistake. This is a disease that doesn’t particularly care about ethnicity. It will take out anyone it can.

So the nativists who are going to start clamoring for stringent restrictions on travel to and from the land south of the Rio Bravo del Norte are guilty of nothing more than trying to use a potential health risk to stir up fear that backs up their own nitwit thoughts.

SO HOW GOOD are the chances that people in Chicago will someday be wearing those white masks that we’ve all been seeing residents of Mexico City wearing?

It could happen, although that would be the worst-case scenario.

I’d hate to see Chicago have to become as stringent as the Mexican capital, where officials have gone so far as to shut down most public facilities in an attempt to reduce public interactions that could spread the virus further.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Chicago officials are preparing for when (not if) the swine flu (,0,3135647.story) finds its way to our city. Even the Chicago Public Schools are pitching in with the effort of trying ( to find potential viral outbreaks before they occur.

Here’s hoping Chicago does not come to resemble the Federal District of Mexico when it comes ( to daily life in the wake of the swine flu virus.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Perspective on disco era explains much

Rod Blagojevich is nine years older than I am, and it shows in the way we remember our young years.

For the most interesting snippet I picked up on when hearing how Blagojevich was interviewed at the Los Angeles airport by the program TMZ was when our now-impeached governor said, “I came of age in the disco era.”

OF COURSE, WHAT the television program was trying to do was get Blagojevich to submit to a semi-serious interview about his hair (which got blown all out of shape when Blagojevich performed for promos for a reality television program that he may still be involved with – even if a federal judge won’t let him leave the country to perform in).

Our now-former governor downplayed the idea that he spent endless hours primping his pompadour into a specific shape – “It’s towel dry and I just comb it and I’m on my way,” is how he described his hair care routine.

Yet I still can’t get my mind around the idea of Blagojevich taking pride in coming of age in the 1970s “when the brush was like an extension of your arm.” Too many of us remember the gaudy polyester, tacky television and other pop culture nits (although personally, I always thought the 1980s were a more trivial-looking decade).

Admittedly, Blagojevich is not wrong.

HE WOULD HAVE just turned 21 when the film “Saturday Night Fever” was the rage at the movie theaters (instead of filler for cable television channels). I could picture the guy who grew into something of an Elvis buff wishing he could be John Travolta – and not the “Vinnie Barbarino” version, but the “Tony Manero” one.

Couldn’t you just see a youthful Milorod in a white suit trying to work the dance floor, putting his take of the moves on various women? A part of me envisions Rod and Rob (his brother) hitting the discos together, trying to be suave but really coming off as little more than a real-life take on the Festrunk Brothers.

You remember, the Saturday Night Live characters played by Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd who were supposedly from Czechoslovakia and were always trying to hit on “the foxes” by being “wild and crazy guys” – but were really a couple of nerdy nitwits.

Of course, none of these women would have been the future Patti Blagojevich. She would only have been 11 around this time.

BUT WHEN ONE considers that moment in time, perhaps it is no mystery why he turned out the way he did.

By comparison, I was only 12 when Saturday Night Live was all the rage (and my aunt Christina insisted it was a wonderful film – I watch it now merely as a period piece of the late ‘70’s, nothing more). I even remember the idea in 1977 that disco music was supposed to be the hot trend – although it was more like the hot fad, so ridiculously out-of-date by Jan. 1, 1978.

I get the feeling that if I had met Blagojevich back in ’77, I wouldn’t have been too impressed with him. Anybody who cites his habits from back then to justify combing his hair a lot would have literally been a real-life Tony Manero (who in the film has a scene where he gets upset that his father hits his hair to try to emphasize a point).

“I spend a lot of time on my hair,” Manero said. “Don’t hit my hair.”

DID THE BLAGOJEVICH family around that same era have to experience the sight and sound of Rod doing his Manero impersonation of that same line?

Perhaps this attitude also helps to explain just why Blagojevich turned into that most pathetic of people – a fan of the Chicago Cubs.

The cross-town White Sox, after all, are the team that once had the “Disco Demolition Night,” where on a June evening in 1979 they filled a bin with vinyl records and caused an explosion – blowing shards of wrecked musical recordings all over the playing field and instigating a mini-riot that caused the Detroit Tigers to get one extra victory that season (the White Sox had to forfeit a game).

To this day, some people try to claim that the mere thought of holding such a promotion is somehow offensive, and that White Sox fans should be looked down upon for being the kind of people who would encourage the heavy metal meatheads of that era to think their nasty thoughts about disco music (which is good for a couple of moments of dance, but little else).

AS I WRITE this commentary, a mental picture pops into my head of a then-22-year-old Blagojevich being in the stands at Comiskey Park (I don’t think he really was, but imagine this with me).

When the record bin explodes after a youthful Steve Dahl got the crowd worked up into a frenzy, Blagojevich would have been among the throngs that charged out of the stands and onto the playing field.

But instead of running around like a drug-induced doofus, Blagojevich would have been the one trying with one hand to pick up shards of disco records in an attempt to “protect” the music. His other hand, of course, would have been trying to cover his head. “Don’t hit my hair,” he would have been shouting to the unwashed masses that night.

This may not have really happened, but it is totally in character. And that could explain way too much about how Blagojevich turned out the way he did.


EDITOR’S NOTE: I still remember a time a reporter-type asked former Gov. Jim Edgar how much hairspray he used on his own apparently-perfect coif. He didn’t show as much humor ( in his answer as Rod Blagojevich showed with his retort.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ashley Bond is now an afterthought

Ashley Bond is a native of suburban Streamwood who devoted a significant portion of her life to competing in pageants in hopes of bolstering her chances of success in life. Getting crowned Miss Illinois USA back in December was a sign that she had succeeded.

But now, the woman (right) who represented Illinois at the Miss USA pageant held earlier this week will only have as a claim to fame that she was in the same building when her pageant colleague, Miss California USA Carrie Prejean, put her high-heeled foot in her mouth while trying to talk about gay marriage.

THAT IS THE same Miss California who now claims she lost the Miss USA title (won by a blonde from North Carolina) solely because she expressed her honest opinion, which she claims is backed by the Bible.

Miss California (she may have a real name, but I honestly think most people just think of her as the California blonde) is trying to portray herself as some sort of victim, being penalized for using her right to free expression.

Actually, what she’s being penalized for is being obnoxious enough to think that she can speak out against others, but that no one has a right to criticize her perky self.

It all goes back to Sunday when she was questioned (admittedly, by a snotty weblog publisher who likely is reveling in the stink he managed to create) about whether gay people should have a legally legitimate ability to marry.

IF THE LADY from Southern California had merely said something along the lines of “I do not approve of gay people being married” or “I think marriage is for heterosexuals,” I think she would have managed to tick off some gay rights activists who would have created a stir for a day or two, before moving on to the new “flavor of the month” issue of concern.

But it is the fact that she persists in presenting herself as a victim that is what is most offensive to me, and it is why I am enjoying the thought of her getting dumped on by some of the pompous self-righteous types who populate celebrity-hood in Hollywood.

Her answer to the question itself on Sunday went as follows.

“We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, I think in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that’s how I was raised.”

FIRST OFF, WE don’t live in a land where people can choose types of marriage. Despite the actions of some states, marriage is largely defined these days as a heterosexual thing, and there are groups working to ensure it remains that way.

I also have a problem with her thought that opposition to gay marriage was “how I was raised.” That sounds too much like the talk of the old Southern segregationists, who always claimed that Jim Crow and the way of life that separated black people was just the way things were in their part of the country.

But what really ticks me off about her answer, and the reason why I finally felt compelled to write about the Miss USA competition at all, is the latter part of her answer.

That clause about, “no offense to anybody out there.”

I’M SURE SHE will claim she was just using good manners. I claim she is trying to tell people she doesn’t want to hear anyone object to her. This pageant winner thinks she has the final word on the issue.

In short, she’s telling them that she automatically pronounces their opinion wrong, and doesn’t want to hear it.

What she is going to learn is that she doesn’t, in the same way that I don’t either. I’m sure I will get vociferous responses to this commentary from people – both to tell me I’m wrong and I’m right, or that I’m boring them and can’t I find something socially relevant to write about.

Like I said, if she had merely said she objects to gay marriage, I’d defend her right to express that thought – even though I personally would think she is nothing more than a twit for believing that. (My own thoughts on the issue are that the only marriage I ought to be concerned about is one involving myself, everybody else’s is none of my business).

BUT IT IS the fact that she tried to pre-empt criticism of herself that bothers me. That irritation is compounded by her continued talk and use of the Bible to defend herself – citing those same provisions that the social conservatives always use when they want to denounce homosexuality in general.

She even went so far as to tell Fox News Channel that she now sees the question about gay marriage as “a test’ by God, to see if she would stand up for her principles on the issue.

Personally, I think God (however one perceives him) has more important things to do than to act as a beauty pageant judge, asking questions of the contestants. But she thinks she passed, as though we’re all now supposed to reward her for thinking that certain people in society have to accept her criticism and keep quiet about it.

That kind of attitude is one I find “un-American.” It bothers me to the point where I find it distracting that the beauty pageant that really amounts to little more than the Donald Trump Show (he’s the producer of the spectacle that dressed all the contestants in bathing suits that looked like skimpy lingerie) has become bogged down in this rhetoric about gay marriage.


EDITOR’S NOTES: First, Miss California claims that she should be the “last word” on the issue (, then she says God is testing her faith by having someone (,2933,517228,00.html) question her. Personally, I have a hard time imagining God (or anyone else) using Perez Hilton for such a divine purpose.

I’d rather pay attention to Ashley Bond than this California controversy (, or even the winner from North Carolina.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A nice gesture, or petty politics?

Whenever I hear an elected official start to rant and rage about the salaries they receive, I get worried. Because invariably, they engage in high-minded talk that is not backed up by their actions.

They try to turn minor actions into content worthy of the lofty rhetoric they like to spew. In short, it is perfect proof of the old cliché, “Talk is cheap.”

THAT IS WHY I don’t think much of the Republican-led efforts to talk up the concept of having our state legislators reject the 2.8 percent cost-of-living adjustments to their salaries that they will receive when the new state fiscal year begins July 1.

Now the reality of our partisan political situation in Illinois these days is that Republicans don’t have the ability to do anything unless their Democratic Party colleagues decide to let them.

So when Republicans in the Illinois House of Representatives tried to push for a measure to reject the pay adjustments meant to keep salaries up to date with inflation, they failed.

It’s not like there’s a vote of Democrats voting to keep the salaries. Actually, what happened was that Democrats used their potential for rigid control to keep the issue from even being voted on.

FOR THE RECORD, history will show that the issue was never addressed. Which might as well be a rejection, insofar as people who want to put a halt to anything resembling a pay raise are concerned.

This is going to come across as a defense of Democrats for being willing to take a boost in their pay (which varies among legislators depending on seniority and the types of committee assignments and leadership posts they hold).

I would guess that the people who are now going to spew rhetoric beating up on Democrats for not putting the interests of the people ahead of their own paychecks are also going to dump on this commentary (and me personally) for being some sort of Democratic Party lackey.

What this commentary actually is, is an attack on people trying to twist an issue to create some cheap rhetoric to gain some petty political points for themselves.

FOR THAT IS how I perceive the whole issue of legislative pay raises/cost-of-living adjustments – whenever it comes up.

Bill Black, the state representative from Danville who led Wednesday’s failed attempt to force a vote on the issue – admits that denying the cost-of-living adjustment to legislators would only save state government about $2 million.

At a time when state government has a potential hole in its budget of more than $9 BILLION, $2 million is petty change. It wouldn’t even come close to filling the financial gap that exists.

Black told the Chicago Tribune that it makes a nice gesture, letting political people return to their homes to tell their neighbors that they did something personal to try to balance the budget.

I’D ARGUE THAT all it does is create a “fact” that political people will distort and spin to a ridiculous excess to try to claim they did something, when all they did was tossed a (figuratively-speaking) penny or two at the problem.

Some supporters of the move said it is “pathetic” for legislators to think of taking money. I’d argue that what is pathetic is trying to claim this insignificant financial gesture would mean anything in terms of resolving the state’s financial problems.

Besides, the idea that this is an issue where Democrats are greedily taking higher state salaries just isn’t borne out by history. Anybody who has paid attention to the Statehouse Scene throughout the years knows it doesn’t matter which political party is in control.

Salaries for legislators increase over time, just like they do for any other line of work.

I DON’T RECALL the mid-1990s era when the Republican Party controlled all of Illinois government being a period where the GOP used its influence to go through the convoluted procedure by which a pay raise/cost-of-living adjustment could actually be denied.

That process involves having both the state Senate AND Illinois House approve an identical resolution that specifically says raises recommended for state government employees by a non-partisan commission should be rejected.

Invariably, each chamber would come up with its own resolution, giving people a chance to make high-minded pronouncements about not granting pay raises in tight financial times. But the Senate and House then fail to approve each other’s resolutions – so the pay hikes would take effect as recommended by the commission.

In short, the past has been filled with cheap rhetoric whenever it comes to the political pay hike issue. Wednesday’s talk was just as worthless.

IN FACT, REP. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, may very well be the only person who said something of substance on the issue. He told the Chicago Tribune that he noticed the same legislators who talked it up last year about rejecting pay raises had no problem actually accepting the 3.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment they received for the state’s current fiscal year.

If anything, that makes Dunkin and his colleagues who supported the pay boosts more credible in my mind. At least they’re being honest about the money.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Does anyone really think that an extra $2 million would put a significant ( number back to work of the 9.1 percent of Illinoisans who are out of work?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No “go” for Blagojevich

U.S. District Judge James Zagel is a party pooper.

That trite talk is about the best way I can describe my thoughts about the federal judge who on Tuesday refused to grant permission to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to leave the United States while he faces a criminal indictment.

WE ALL (EXCEPT for perhaps the 1 percent of the population that lives in a cave and will come out when the feds try to put together a jury of Blagojevich’s peers) know about the “reality” television program that considered our now-impeached governor to be a “celebrity.”

They wanted to put him into a jungle in Costa Rica with some other dubious celebrities (I’m sorry, but I have never heard of “Speidy”) and see who could make the biggest fool of themselves – in exchange for $80,000 per episode.

It would have been entertaining in a perverse sort of way (just like most of the pop culture these days) to see our perfectly pompadoured ex-gov try to pretend he knows how to use a machete without cutting off any of his own body parts, or to show off other outdoors skills.

All of this would have been so he could come up with some money that would ensure his attorneys (whoever they wind up being by the time he goes to trial) get paid something for their work.

BECAUSE AS THINGS appear now, the federal government is using all its powers to ensure it confiscates just about everything of value owned by Blagojevich. He needed the money badly enough to subject his reputation to this character suicide.

But after Tuesday, it appears that it won’t happen. Zagel rejected the request by Blagojevich’s attorneys to let him leave the United States in order to tape the program this summer that NBC plans to air later this year.

It’s not for the usual reason. Nobody seriously thinks that Blagojevich is delusional enough to think he can refuse to return to the United States once outside the federal borders.

For one thing, I can’t help but think Costa Rica wouldn’t hesitate to boot him if he even tried seeking political asylum. For another, I can’t envision Patti Blagojevich (who was a strong influence in Blagojevich’s decision not to live in Springfield while he was governor) being willing to live in Central America.

ZAGEL SAID WITH a straight face he thinks Blagojevich should be in the United States to work with his attorneys in order to prepare his legal defense. To that idea, I have to retort, “Who’s Kidding Whom?”

The reason Blagojevich has gone through as many attorneys as he has thus far is that they are finding him to be a quirky individual who is determined to be his “own man,” even if it means going against their legal advice.

Just because Blagojevich is present in the room with his attorneys does not mean they are going to have much in the way of influence over him. Milorod is a man who is going to say and do whatever he wants. The idea that keeping him off television is going to somehow result in a more serious legal defense is a laughable concept.

In short, I would have got a kick from seeing the man I first met as a lowly state legislator from the Ravenswood and Lincoln Square neighborhoods turn into a celebrity freak (unlike someone like Dan Rostenkowski, who after serving his prison stint has become a political pundit with a quirkier-than-usual “Only in Chicago” type of story).

IT COULD HAVE turned into a weekly show of how low our political people can sink themselves in an attempt to remain in the public eye.

In fact, there’s really only one entity I can see benefiting from Zagel’s ruling, and that was the executives at NBC who seriously thought Blagojevich was “celebrity” material for a television show about celebrity survival skill stories.

When I first heard the stories that Blagojevich and one-time Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan were among those “celebrities,” my honest reaction was to wonder what Nancy could be thinking by allowing herself to be seen with Blagojevich.

Her later denial that she ever gave the show any consideration was a totally believable statement in that she realized how much Milorod would drag down her reputation.

I CAN’T HELP but think that this particular attempt at a “reality” show has the potential to drag down the whole genre – exposing these programs for the trite content and unrealistic tales being told.

If Blagojevich could have been a part of such a program, then it could be argued that his presence did accomplish something for the public good – less stupid television.

Instead, Zagel has ensured that a Blagojevich-less program will only include some pseudo-celebs (people everybody thinks they’re supposed to have heard of, but never have) and will probably come and go unnoticed.

And we’ll never get the answer to that eternal question, “How would the Hair have held up in a Central American jungle?”


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Crestwood’s tainted water “cover-up” not a surprise to political observers

The idea that government officials in Crestwood, Ill., were less than open with the public with regards to the quality of their drinking water supply is not the least bit surprising to anyone who has paid attention to the municipal activity in the 200-plus towns that surround Chicago.

While just about every government entity has its moments when it tries to keep quiet about their activity, Crestwood is a place where municipal officials have turned secrecy into an art form.

THIS IS A place where officials take the attitude that people don’t have any right to information about law enforcement activity in the suburb. Anybody who has ever had to deal with Crestwood police know they follow the lead of municipal officials in thinking that a police report is not a public document.

I’m not talking about getting police to elaborate about incidents in ways that would give the public a greater understanding to what degree there is crime in Crestwood. I mean the actual sparse reports themselves.

While municipal officials theoretically have periodic “press conferences” to answer questions about police incidents, they are worthless unless one is aware of what incidents have been reported so that questions can be asked about them.

In fact, the whole attitude behind Crestwood government throughout the years has been one of, “None of your business!” The town had as its long-time mayor Chester Stranczek (1969 to 2007), and his son, Robert, now heads municipal government.

CRESTWOOD IS TYPICAL of other suburban towns in one aspect – the reason it has a longtime mayoral family is that there really isn’t anyone else interested in taking on the job.

Whenever anyone tried questioning Chester (or now tries questioning Robert), they get a response something along the lines of, “This is the way we do things in Crestwood.” No one has been willing to stand up to that approach.

So with that being the prevailing attitude, does it really come as a shock to learn that not only did Crestwood officials have a clue that there was something wrong with a portion of their municipal water supply, they were more than willing to ignore it.

Maintaining the status quo allowed them to provide drinking water to their 11,000-plus residents at a rate lower than any other town in Cook County. And to the powers that be, they figured that people would be more impressed with paying a lower water bill than they would be to receive better drinking water.

LOWER TAXES TRANSLATED into happy voters. And that was all that mattered to Crestwood officials.

So I can’t help but wonder how the powers that be in Crestwood are reacting to the Chicago Tribune, which on Sunday came up with a story about how municipal officials ignored the concerns of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency about water quality.

It’s probably something along the lines of “liberal media” and “Springfield meddling in our business.”

State officials are focusing their attention these days on trying to understand why the Illinois EPA did not take it upon themselves to notify Crestwood residents about the possible harm from their water supply, which had levels of vinyl chloride and other soil and groundwater pollutants dangerous enough to be carcinogenic (that’s cancer-causing).

STATE OFFICIALS TOLD the Tribune that Crestwood was first notified more than two decades ago that chemicals from a dry-cleaning solvent had leaked into the well from which Crestwood got about 20 percent of its water supply.

That might be a legitimate question, although I would expect someone within the state agency had an ideological problem with overriding the responsibility of the municipality. After all, it should have been the village itself that took action on this issue.

This puts Crestwood in an awkward position. They’re used to being able to ignore things like this, not have to respond to questions. In fact, Stranczek the elder went so far as to tell the SouthtownStar newspaper that he still can’t talk about the issue, citing that old reliable municipal claim of “pending litigation.”

“If there is a lawsuit, our lawyers will be very unhappy if I talk about it,” he told the Tinley Park-based newspaper.

SO FOR THOSE people who think they can show up at the next municipal meeting in Crestwood and “demand some answers,” the answer is likely to be “forget it.” This is going to be one of those issues where no one is going to give a direct answer – and the people who live in that town are now going to get a chill when they turn on the water spigot.

“Is this water from the tainted 20 percent, or from the 80 percent that probably is good,” they will ask themselves, even though it appears that officials stopped using the tainted well about 17 months ago.

It would be nice if this incident started some sort of pressure from the “outside” that forced Crestwood municipal government to be more open about the way it behaves.

Not that I’m optimistic. This is the suburb whose claim to fame in recent years has been the village “sign.”

IT SITS IN front of the village hall on Cicero Avenue and usually contains some “pithy” slogan, which is updated periodically. The slogans are usually the conservative political thoughts of Chester Stranczek – who paid for the sign out of personal funds so he could specifically control its message.

Do you really believe a municipality where leaders are determined to ram their thoughts down your throat (remember a few years ago when the “sign” touted English as the U.S. official language?) is going to willingly admit it was more interested in scoring political points from voters by talking about cheap water, than worrying about the water’s quality?

This is one of those cases where “big government” (as the social conservatives rant about it) is what it will take to get the right thing for the residents of Crestwood.


EDITOR’S NOTES: In what has been an ongoing debate in Crestwood, the village does not maintain a website (who wants any information easily accessible to the public?). So this highly unofficial website ( will have to suffice.

The state says Crestwood promised they would only use their local well water in an ( emergency.

The political behavior of Chester Stranczek ( has gained attention overseas.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Obama wants to show off his Sox

It’s not at all unusual for political people to want to make appearances with athletes – particularly professional ones.

In fact, there are times when the government officials we elect to do “the people’s business” go all goofy when they’re in the presence of a ballplayer.

BUT IT USUALLY takes a championship ball club of some type to warrant a trip to the White House to meet the president. It doesn’t have to be a pro championship – remember the Northwestern University lacrosse team that created a stir when some of its members wore “flip flops” to their appearance with George W. Bush.

The idea of giving a White House tour to every sports team that just happens to be passing through the greater Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area just isn’t done. Until now, that is.

For it turns out that the Chicago White Sox will get a White House tour (their first since early 2006 when their World Series-winning team got to meet with Bush) on Monday. That’s what they get for being the “favorite” team of President Barack Obama.

With the White Sox making their only trip to the Washington area this week for the 2009 season, officials decided this was the perfect chance for the president and his aides (many of whom are merely doing a D.C. stint during their Chicago-oriented lives) to turn into the equivalent of 10-year-old boys who meet some ballplayers.

THE IRONIC PART is that officials were not sure if Obama himself would be able to show up for the event. After all, he just got back from a few days in Latin America doing business that tries to improve the United States’ relations with our hemispheric neighbors.

A part of me would hope that Obama has more important things to catch up on in his first day back at work in the White House than shooting the breeze with manager Ozzie Guillen or having his picture taken with outfielder Jermaine Dye.

But when it comes to Obama showing off his Chicago ties, it won’t shock me if he manages to break away from business for a few moments. Will we get some sort of photograph of Obama at his Oval Office desk, with the White Sox gathered around?

It won’t shock me in the least.

WHAT I’M INTERESTED in seeing is how the White Sox ballplayers themselves react to this appearance, which is causing them to give up what would otherwise be a day off in between their successful series winning three of four games against the Tampa Bay Rays and what they hope will be a couple of wins against the Baltimore Orioles.

Most ballplayers I have ever met are usually self-absorbed about athletic matters – giving little thought to the rest of the world.

While I don’t expect any of them to deliberately snub Obama or try to make a mini-protest while at the White House, it wouldn’t shock me if a ballplayer or two said he needed to catch up on sleep and decided to stay in his Baltimore hotel room – rather than make the bus trip to the District of Columbia for the private tour.

I have to wonder if the ballplayers who were with the White Sox back in the spring of 2006 when the team played the Los Angeles Angels at their suburban Anaheim stadium and got to visit the Playboy Mansion remember that day more fondly than they ever will Monday’s activities.

SEEING HUGH HEFNER’S then-trio of girlfriends lounging around the pool with a lot of other women is bound to catch their attention span more than seeing the office where Rahm Emanuel works.

And even if they get into the Oval Office, it is more likely to be a big deal for Obama than the individual athletes.

I’m sure there’s a part of Obama that would have loved to have taken the team up on its offer to have him throw out the ceremonial “first pitch” on Opening Day April 6. It would have made the White Sox’ season starter one of the more unique openers in Major League Baseball.

Instead, only hard-core White Sox fans of a certain age (50ish) could appreciate having Billy Pierce do the honors – he and current Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle have started more Opening Day games (seven each) than any other Sox pitchers in the team’s 109-year history.

AND NOW, OBAMA will be able to say he had his “White Sox” moment for the season, since there’s a very good chance that he won’t be able to make it out to the ballpark for any actual games this season or the next three (seven, if the nation’s electorate decides in 2012 to pick up his four-year option for another term).

So what will be the highlight of the White Sox doing the White House?

Will we get a ballplayer engaging in witty repartee with the president? Will one of the Sox get a bit klutzy and manage to break some antique that belongs to the American people?

Or will Ozzie manage to get into the Oval Office and have his picture taken at the president’s desk? Just think of how many shudders that image would cause all around the globe if Guillen’s sense of gab were to be put in a position of national authority?


EDITOR’S NOTES: If only the American League still had a team in Washington, it ( wouldn’t require using a trip ( to Baltimore to schedule a visit with the president.

The White Sox like to boast a bit about Barack Obama’s willingness to be seen wearing ( a White Sox cap.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A DAY IN THE LIFE (of Chicago): $845?

I couldn’t help but laugh earlier this week when I saw that figure. It is the grand total of campaign contributions received by Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., during the first three months of this year.

A lot of people have been hitting hard the other figure that came out concerning Burris – the notion that 62 percent view him unfavorably and do not want him to run for re-election. That figure doesn’t concern me much. I would be shocked if it weren’t so high, considering how all the public talk about Burris has focused on the means by which he got the Senate appointment.

BUT BURRIS, WHOSE ego historically has been so bloated that I can’t believe he doesn’t view himself as a legitimate candidate for a full six-year Senate term in the 2010 elections, has to be shuddering at the thought of that latter figure.

Adding a grand total of $845 to his campaign fund means that he is irrelevant to the people who are considering opening up their checkbooks and giving a financial jolt to the political people whom they’d be inclined to support.

I almost wish I could have been on hand at the moment that Burris himself was forced to confront that figure. It must have been devastating to him.

I can already hear the spin that the Burris people will put on this figure. It’s early. There’s still time to raise money for a political campaign that most people haven’t given much thought to yet.

THEY WOULD BE correct, to a point. It is early. The serious fundraising that will be done by the campaigns of officials who want to run for statewide office in Illinois in 2010 will be done in the later part of this year.

I expect even Burris will get some donations from people who will want to maintain the goodwill of the incumbent junior senator from Illinois. There’s no way his disclosure reports for the rest of the year will be equally pathetic.

But if Burris has any sense, he will take this pathetic joke of a campaign fund figure into account ( and give serious thought to the concept that he’s the filler for what is left of Barack Obama’s term in the U.S. Senate – and nothing more.

About the only person who could look at this positively is Gov. Pat Quinn. He finally has a Democrat who is a worse fundraiser than himself. What else is in the news along the shores of Lake Michigan?

THERE IS NO NEW ROYKO: How far have the voices of Chicago journalism sunk? I can’t help but think it must be pretty low, since Jimmy Breslin has signed a contract to write ( a book about our now impeached-and-indicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Not that I have any problem with the work of Breslin, who wrote his columns for four decades for just about every New York newspaper except the Times. I used to enjoy them, and forgive him for his final column that got everybody’s hopes up by predicting a John Kerry victory in the ’04 presidential election.

But the idea of a New Yorker being used to tell a story of Chicago and Illinois political matters is galling. I’d like to think that one of this city’s columnists who routinely pontificate on such issues ought to be capable of producing what should be the “definitive’ Blagojevich book (since his own tome is going to be little more than an attempt at revisionism).

Just think of how embarrassing it would have been for this city that likes to think it has a literary character in its working class roots if “Boss” (the Richard J. Daley story) were written by someone other than Mike Royko?

WHO’S LEFT IN THE NEWSROOMS?: The Chicago newspapers lived up this week to one of the long-lasting traditions of competitive journalism – if you want to learn about the business operations of a newspaper, you have to read the competition.

The Chicago Sun-Times couldn’t help but come off as gloating as they reported the story (,CST-FIN-trib14.article) that the competing Chicago Tribune was preparing for yet another round of layoffs, including some of the editorial talent that attempts to make the publication worth reading.

In all, the Tribune prepares to let some 90 people know they no longer have gainful employment. It comes at a time when Tribune Co. CEO Sam Zell goes around publicly saying his purchase of the media company was “a mistake.”

Yet leave it to the Tribune to engage in a sense of payback in reporting that the Sun-Times News Group is doing its own layoffs to reduce the payroll by 15 percent. None of those (,0,4201502.story) are Sun-Times people. The newly unemployed are the journalists (including some high-ranking editors) who staff the suburban newspapers that likely would be doing respectably financially if they weren’t tied into the morass that has become the Sun-Times.

WHERE’S LISA DERGAN?: Scott Podsednik, the base-stealer who hit the Game 2 winning home run of the 2005 World Series (I still have the Sports Illustrated cover of him swinging the bat just after at the moment of impact with the ball), is now a Charlotte Knight.

Which of course means that he’s back in the Chicago White Sox organization, and could wind up playing ball on the South Side if the Sox’ center field options all fizzle out.

The hope is that he gets sharp playing a few games for the Sox’ International League affiliate. Not that he’s done too much thus far. As of Friday night, he was hitting .125 ( with two strikeouts in two games.

On the one hand, if Podsednik actually winds up getting called up to the White Sox, it would mean the on-field activity is pretty sad. But it could also be cheery to the U.S.
Cellular Field ambiance if Podsednik brings Miss July 1998 (a.k.a., his wife to Chicago for the summer.


Friday, April 17, 2009

High-speed rail a nice dream

It’s nice to hear that President Barack Obama is willing to consider the concept of high-speed railroad connecting our cities. It really would be a better alternative than having to use airplanes for short trips, and more relaxing than having to drive.

Is there really a purpose to catching a flight from St. Louis to Chicago (I can’t envision anyone seriously wanting to make that trip in reverse) when a train on significantly improved tracks could travel that route in not much more time?

SO IT WAS encouraging to learn that Obama wants $8 billion put aside, with the chance of $5 billion more during the next five years. Money will come from the economic stimulus package that is supposed to give the U.S. economy a jolt and put people back to work.

I’m curious to see where in this country the federal government first experiments with the idea. I understand officials in California think a line connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco (and potentially shooting north up to Portland and Seattle) ought to be the first, while others would like to see the Washington to New York corridor be the first line for trains that could travel in excess of 100 mph (as opposed to the official Amtrak speed of 79 mph, but in some places on decrepit track they have to slow down to as little as 10 mph).

But let me throw my plug in for Chicago, the one-time hub of the railroad transportation system back in the days when most people took trains and still a significant city due to O’Hare International Airport’s role in U.S. flight connections.

I could easily see Chicago as the center of a railroad spider of sorts, with the arms shooting out in all directions and connecting the city to places such as St. Louis, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison, Detroit and Indianapolis (along with a series of medium-sized towns that lie in between).

MY PERSONAL BIAS would be a route connecting Chicago to St. Louis. That trip (along with visits to places that lie along the route) is one I would make if the travel time factor could be reduced.

Now for those who argue that Amtrak already has service connecting those municipalities, I’d have to ask if you have ever taken that particular trip.

Personally, I haven’t traveled that route on train in about four years – the last time I made the trip to Springfield for a couple of days.

I remember my train left Chicago on schedule and arrived at the train station about one block from the Statehouse in Springfield only about 10 minutes later than the scheduled time. Amtrak worked that day the way it was supposed to.

WHICH MEANS WE are talking about a 3.5-hour-long train ride.

I know from personal experience from the seven years I lived in Springfield that I could make the same trip by car (on an interstate highway that parallels the tracks used by Amtrak for much of the route) in about three hours.

I’d like it if a train ride could cut the amount of time spent en route. And for those who will argue they like to drive, I find hours of driving to be headache inducing. I’d enjoy it if the trip to a place like Springfield were only a 1.5-hour-long ride.

And if a trip to St. Louis only took about two hours (as opposed to the roughly 4.5 hours it now takes on Amtrak), perhaps I’d be more inclined to travel to that city (a personal disclosure: the last time I went to St. Louis was when Pope John Paul II visited there in 1999) and find aspects I’d enjoy.

WHENEVER I HEAR of high-speed rail, I think of it as a nice ideal. But not one in which our political people seem inclined to take the actions that would allow for something to happen someday.

Then again, they don’t act all that quickly on any issue. The idea of a third airport for the Chicago area has been under consideration for nearly three decades, yet we’re not any closer to seeing shovels upturning earth to allow for construction to begin.

High-speed rail is one of those things I would use if someone were to take the initiative to build it. Yet too many political people seem to think that it shouldn’t be built unless people make some sort of commitment to its use.

So in that sense, Obama’s government-speak on Thursday before leaving for a trip to Mexico City was a positive.

NOW, IT’S JUST a matter of figuring out where the federal government will start. Obama would only say that 10 corridors across the country have been identified. Who’s to say what will occur first.

It would be nice to have one of the first high-speed lines (which would require significantly upgraded railroad track from the aging track now in use) in the nation. I’m just hoping this issue is one of those where Chicago gets the benefit of being the president’s “hometown.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: Will Barack Obama remember Chicago (and his Springfield days) when ( federal transportation officials decide where to put the first high-speed rail line in this country?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

How low will Milorod go?

It’s hard to say who has sunk further in the public perception.

Impeached governor Rod Blagojevich has his attorneys quibbling with federal prosecutors in order to get permission for Milorod to leave the country so he can participate in a “reality” television show.

OFFICIALS WITH THE show would dump him and eight other so-called celebrities into a jungle in Costa Rica – then see how many can pick up survival skills to make it out in one piece.

Among the other eight celebs is Nancy Kerrigan, the one-time Olympic skater whom most people remember for her getting her kneecap bashed by friends of rival skater Tonya Harding.

I’d be inclined to say that Blagojevich has sunk lower – he’s reduced to being comic relief on a television show. People will get to ponder how anyone could come up with such a pompous pompadour while he tries to use a machete without cutting his own hand off.

But you could make an argument that Kerrigan has it worse, since it seems the only gig she can get these days is one that pairs her up with our ex-governor Milorod.

TO DATE, I have gone out of my way to avoid watching Blagojevich’s more trivial attempts to sway the American people that he is an honest guy who was set up by prosecutors and picked upon by his Illinois political colleagues.

Other than seeing a couple of minutes of Blagojevich with David Letterman, I have only heard about how Rod is making a spectacle of himself.

And usually, I go out of my way to avoid watching anything billed as a “reality” television show, because I find the situations that the participants are put into to be about as far removed from reality as one can get.

Seriously, we’re supposed to believe Blagojevich trapped in a Central American jungle with an Olympic ice skater?

BUT THERE IS a part of me that hopes U.S. District Judge James Zagel winds up granting Blagojevich the court order that would permit him to leave the country so he could participate in the creation of “I’m a celebrity. Get me out of here!”

And it is because I could see the parallels between Blagojevich’s attempt at reality television, and that tacky sitcom from the 1960s, “Gilligan’s Island.”

We could debate for decades whether Kerrigan is better suited to be Mary Ann or Ginger. But in my mind, there is no doubt Blagojevich himself would be Gilligan – the goofy character portrayed by Bob Denver whose ineptness at just about everything prolonged that group’s stay on that deserted tropical island.

Couldn’t you just picture Blagojevich trying to portray himself as somehow hipper than thou with all that Elvis dreck, only to wind up getting blamed by the group for everything that goes wrong?

AND PERSONALLY, I have the perfect ending. How about replacing Kerrigan with Harding? Perhaps she’d be more than willing to take out one of Milorod’s kneecaps. It would certainly be more dignified than some of the stunts she has engaged in throughout the years in order to earn a buck.

Ultimately, that is what this is all about for Blagojevich – the money.

He will have the potential to be paid $80,000 per episode. There’s always the chance that his colleagues on the show will shorten his payday by making him the first person they “vote off the island,” so to speak.

But if he can last for a few episodes, he might very well make enough of a stash of cash that his attorneys can relax about the concept of their work for him turning out to be pro bono.

SERIOUSLY, WITH THE way that federal prosecutors are determined to claim that Blagojevich’s very existence in Illinois is a criminal act, they are going to find a way to confiscate every penny of the couple of million dollars he had remaining in his campaign fund.

If that winds up being declared as the “ill-gotten gains” of a criminal lifestyle, there’s little other chance that he would have any money to pay any attorneys – no matter how cheap they’d be willing to work.

Most people put in positions of having to defend themselves against government corruption charges usually wind up having to put their houses up for collateral to get a loan to pay the attorneys. I still remember one-time Illinois Treasurer Jerry Cosentino lost his house as the compromise for legal representation that kept him out of prison (he lived his final years of life with his daughter).

But the feds also have said they want to seize the Ravenswood neighborhood residence that the Blagojevich family calls home. So even that option is cut off to him.

ANYBODY WILLING TO represent Blagojevich is going to want top dollar just because they will be putting up with his massive ego.

How many other people would be willing to put up with a client who undermines their efforts to portray him as a serious public official by trotting off to the Costa Rica jungles?

Blagojevich isat the point where he will do anything for money, although it won’t shock me if the federal prosecutors try to find a way to confiscate any cash he gets from appearing on the television program.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Blagojevich will leave his mark on the Dirksen Building in coming months

It was truly pathetic to flip past MSNBC Tuesday morning when the cutesy news anchor (not one-time Chicago news type Tamron Hall, but one of her colleagues) was talking to the “reporter” camped outside of the Ravenswood neighborhood home of Rod Blagojevich.

The cable news station wanted to get the “shot” of Blagojevich skulking out of his home on his way to the Dirksen Federal Building, where he was scheduled to be arraigned on the 16 criminal charges (for now) that he faces in U.S. District Court.

BUT IT TURNS out that Blagojevich managed to get out of the house without being seen. So what us morning television watchers who were hoping to get a significant tidbit or two of news got to see was a reporter standing in front of an empty house, with speculation taking place between reporter and news anchor about how Milorod could have snuck out of the house.

(He probably went out the back door and had a car meet him in the alley, but that is a different issue).

There also was much speculation early in the day as to whether federal officials would consider Blagojevich to be a significant enough person to let his vehicle enter the underground garage – which would allow him to get into the building without having to walk through the main entrance where various television types were set up in hopes of getting that “shot” of him looking incredibly guilty on his way to court.

Tuesday was a news day of significant manpower (and women too) being used to try to get various set shots of Blagojevich, and have somebody in place in the courtroom at the exact moment that the one-time Illinois governor said the words “not guilty” to the criminal charges he now faces.

FOR THAT IS all that occurred on Tuesday. I could have written the straight news lead first thing in the morning, before it even happened. It would have gone something like this:

CHICAGO, April 14 – Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty Tuesday in federal court to 16 counts that he engaged in illegal behavior while in office – including an attempt to “sell” a U.S. Senate seat to whoever was willing to donate the most money to his campaign funds.

Tuesday was a purely procedural step that begins the legal maneuvering that is likely to take up the bulk of the next two years of Blagojevich’s life (I honestly believe we will have a trial underway at about the time of the November 2010 elections. Call it a gift to the Illinois GOP, if you will).

Even if Blagojevich’s intent is to someday negotiate a deal and plead “guilty” to some sort of charge so as to avoid a trial (and I don’t have any knowledge that he intends to do that), the process requires that he plead “not guilty” at his arraignment.

ONCE HIS CASE is assigned to a trial judge, then the serious talks can begin between federal prosecutors and whoever winds up serving as Blagojevich’s legal counsel.

My point in engaging in this diatribe is to say that much of the “real” news about Blagojevich that we’re going to know before a trial is the information that is already out there.

Once a trial gets underway, then testimony will cause illicit details (and some things that are not illegal, but just embarrassing) to seep out, bit by bit.

But until then, we’re going to be in a series of legal hearings to determine the extent to which the federal prosecutors can hammer Blagojevich with every trivial tidbit they can dig up, and to what degree they must show legal restraint.

I JUST CAN’T get worked up at the legal minutia, even though as a one-time courts reporter (including little stints filling in at the Dirksen Building’s press corps) I find such details intriguing.

People need to keep in mind that Tuesday’s hearing was never going to result in disclosure of some major detail that would result in Blagojevich actually getting that 20-year prison sentence that some people gleefully like to speculate about.

Neither are any of the court hearings that are likely to come up this year.

In fact, there’s really only one reason to pay any attention to the court activity of coming months – and that is Blagojevich himself.

THIS IS THE man who has shown a willingness and an ability to turn his surroundings into a circus. After stints on “The View” and David Letterman’s late night talk show, it is obvious that the man has little shame.

Some of us would like to see if he actually stops to try to make some sort of statement to TV types, perhaps one laced with obscure (to the masses) poetic references. Perhaps he will put on an elaborate attempt to dodge cameras. That would give us the sight of Blagojevich being chased down the street, and some future network news anchor tripping, then being stampeded by the masses.

I’m wondering if Blagojevich can surpass Joey Lombardo. He’s the Chicago outfit guy who back in 1980 attempted to cover his face while passing news cameras. But instead of using his hat or his jacket, he used his copy of the Chicago Sun-Times, which had a hole cut into its pages to allow his eyes to see in front of him.

Can Milorod top “the Clown?” We’ll have to wait and see.


EDITOR'S NOTE: The Brothers Blagojevich ( officially declared their innocence Tuesday in U.S. District Court for northern Illinois.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cubs' goat talk a bit annoying

Normally, we Chicagoans have to wait until October before we start hearing about goats in conjunction with the Chicago Cubs.

We all get reminded of the fact that Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, wasn’t allowed to take his tavern’s namesake goat into Wrigley Field for the 1945 World Series – for the mere reason that the Cubs considered the livestock to be a health hazard.

TO LISTEN TO Cubs fans (an irrational breed), the Cubs should have exposed their World Series fans to the animal. But because they followed common sense, they are now “cursed.”

I guess Cubs fans just can’t accept the fact that the reason their team hasn’t won a World Series in 101 years (or a National League championship in 64 years) is because they stink. They weren’t good enough. The other ball clubs were better.

Easier to bring up ridiculous talk about curses, which comes up whenever the Cubs manage somehow to finish the baseball season in first place and wind up in the National League playoffs. Somebody has to come up with THE reason that the Cubs can’t manage to win two rounds of playoffs for a league championship and a chance at a World Series victory.

But at least the goat nonsense was usually reserved for season’s end.

BUT NOW, CUBS fans seem determined to share their silly tales that they like to think of as team tradition by coming up with excuses to spew them year round.

It was Opening Day (although the heavy rains threatened the playing of baseball on Monday) at Wrigley Field, and team officials found a goat’s head hanging from the statue near Addison and Sheffield streets that shows longtime St. Louis and Chicago baseball broadcaster Harry Caray in all his glory.

Only instead of some clown putting a can of Budweiser brand beer in Harry’s outstretched hand, somebody dangled the goat’s head.

According to news reports, nobody believes that someone sacrificed a goat in order to sever its head and make some stupid point outside of Wrigley Field. Officials note the number of small grocery stores that cater to ethnic populations in Chicago. They say it most likely was purchased from a butcher who had no clue what the people buying it intended to do with it.

AT LEAST I hope there’s not some ethnic butcher who likes the thought of his product being dangled from the Caray statue at Wrigley Field.

But as police note, somebody pulled this exact same stunt back in 2007. So perhaps the real question is, “Why was there no goat’s head in ’08?”

The other question is, “Is this destined to become a new Chicago Cubs tradition,” along with that silly one of throwing balls back onto the playing field.

Are we going to have to endure yearly reports of goat heads being found in the vicinity of the ballpark on Opening Day, and a whole bunch of clucks somehow thinking that it is “cute” and enhances the lovability of the boys in baby blue who routinely get beat up upon by the nine missing children who were last seen by their mother near Wrigley Field.

WHAT ALWAYS STRUCK me as being most ridiculous about this “goat talk” in conjunction with the Chicago Cubs is that it really is nothing more than free advertising for the Billy Goat Tavern – which remains in existence and has expanded to multiple locations.

The old proprietor Billy Goat Sianis (nicknamed that because of his beard) is long gone, just like anybody else who actually remembers the days when the Chicago Cubs weren’t totally hopeless.

But his nephew, Sam, is more than willing to repeat the old stories about how his uncle put the hex on the Cubs as punishment for not letting the goat into the ballpark, even though Billy Sianis bought a ticket for him.

Then again, Sam Sianis has shown a willingness to do just about anything that will give his business free publicity. I still remember those advertisements the Illinois Lottery used to run that featured various people around Chicago, implying they played the lottery.

SAM SIANIS GOT his full-color picture on countless billboards and in magazines and newspapers because of that. And now, every time somebody tells the story of the goat and the Cubs, we get to hear once again about the activities of Oct. 6, 1945.

The Billy Goat Tavern gets free publicity. And once again, the Cubs give away some attention to somebody else’s business interest.

You’d think that if the Billy Goat were getting this much attention, the Cubs would insist on somehow being compensated for it. After all, it is a tavern getting advertising at the expense of the Cubs’ athletic reputation.

But then again, this is the team who lets their home stadium be named for a chewing gum company (don’t forget that the Wrigley family put their name on what was once Cubs Park to give their business – not their family – free publicity) without demanding compensation.


EDITOR’S NOTES: How much free publicity has the Billy Goat Tavern gained throughout the years (,w-dead-goat-wrigley-field-cubs-curse-041309.article) due to the tales of the Cubs’ goat hex?

Sam Sianis is in the same ranks ( as bluesman Buddy Guy, and athletes Jim McMahon and Mark Grace.

Monday, April 13, 2009

EXTRA: Pirates find reason to be upset

For those people who want to think that President Barack Obama somehow mishandled the situation of a sea captain being held captive by “pirates,” get real.

Some pundits are saying that because the thugs who think being called pirates somehow adds a touch of class to their criminality are threatening revenge against U.S. citizens because Steve Phillips was rescued and three of their members are now dead, this is a botched operation.

BUT SERIOUSLY, WHO believes that these thugs would not have found a reason to be upset and threaten revenge against the United States regardless of how this latest incident would have been resolved.

We ought to be thankful that Phillips was able to be returned in one piece to his family.


When do dogs top pirates? Bo knows


As in Diddley (well, sort of).

THAT IS THE name the Obama family plans to give to the dog they plan to acquire this week, bringing an end to months of speculation that Barack Obama was somehow trying to back out of the deal he made with his daughters (that they’d get a dog if he won the ’08 presidential election).

Sure enough, that story is snatching its share of attention, both from animal lovers who want to go on about how cute is the doggie in the White House window, and from those people who are determined to disparage anything connected to Obama.

Reading various website commentary sections has subjected me to wisecracks about the Obamas getting a “sissyish” looking pet (a Portuguese water dog) that will cause world leaders to hold the U.S. up to ridicule, or claims that Obama is using the dog to detract from his refusal to take solid action to free a sea captain who has spent the past few days in the custody of “pirates.”

Of course, the fact that Navy Seals managed to perform a rescue operation on Sunday that resulted in Richard Phillips being freed kind of undercuts that argument. But never let irrelevance prevent a crackpot from shooting his mouth off anyway.
How many people would have gotten a kick out of White Sox fan Obama naming the family pet for the one-time Sox designated hitter? Photograph provided by the White House.

IN SHORT, THE Easter Sunday newscasts were dominated with stories of local Easter egg rolls, the piece or two of a local mass being held, the pirates and the dog.

This is the state of news judgment, as it exists in these early years of the 21st Century.

Now I’m not much of an animal lover. I have never had a dog, nor have I ever wanted one.

But there is something about this particular story that catches my attention, and not just because of how they picked the name (no, it’s not for Jackson or Schembechler).

IT COMES IN part as a tribute to the maternal grandfather of the Obama girls, who was nicknamed Diddley because of his love for the original Bo’s music.

Perhaps this means “Say Man” or “Bo Diddley” (the song, not the man) will become the official theme music of the Obama administration. Perhaps it literally is a political statement that they tried to find a dog from a shelter, and will still make a financial contribution to a shelter to show their support.

Or maybe this is just an otherwise slow news day being filled with content that gives us a little bit of perspective on the family life of the new first couple (who still have another 3 years, 9 months, with an option for four more years, on their time in the White House).

So for all those people out there who are ranting and raging about the “butt-kissing news media” (most of their phrases are much more tacky) willing to write anything that makes Obama look good, I’d have to argue what else was there.

YOU CAN’T VERY well do entire newscasts devoted to priests and ministers giving their Easter sermon. And it’s not like the “pirate” story got lost in the shuffle.

I have seen the Associated Press account of the gun battle between the Navy and Somali pirates turn up on many sites. It is getting its share of attention.

What intrigues me about this story is that it appears the rescue wound up straying into the jurisdiction of Kenya – which is the ethnic homeland of Obama himself.

For those who wonder if Kenya will be willing to prosecute the surviving pirate (three died in the gunfire), I have to wonder if the presence of Obama is enough to ensure that some action will take place.

NOW I DON’T mean to trivialize this story, but I have had my problem with the way it has been perceived for the past few days – mostly because of the repeated use of the word “pirate.”

Some people are probably envisioning a modern-day version of Captain Hook, and somehow thinking there is something quaint about having pirates in the 21st Century. What we’re really talking about here are thugs, petty criminals whose reason for operating at sea is because they think it allows them to elude anyone’s legal jurisdiction.

The captivity of Phillips, in many ways, is little more than a petty kidnapping and hostage situation. It is the kind of incident that people would normally lambaste news organizations for overplaying.

That is why I have a hard time thinking of it as some major international scandal.

IN THAT CONTEXT, I find the selection of a new White House pooch to be a more interesting story.

But the bottom line is that both of these stories gained as much attention as they did because it was a Sunday. What else was happening?

There was a reason that Pat Quinn used to make his major pronouncements at mid-day Sunday. It ensured that news organizations would be so desperate for fresh news copy that they’d cover him – no matter how minor his action turned out to be.

If either of these stories had occurred even 24 hours later (such as Monday morning), they would have been rendered to the recycling bin after getting a brief sentence or two mention.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Kenya officials ultimately will decide what happens to the ( surviving pirate/thug.

Somebody at the Washington Post lost his/her chance to think he/she “broke” a major story ( when the celebrity-oriented website ( came up with pictures of Bo first.