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November 2009

They Run for the Money

  Have you noticed how quickly Illinois politicians move when it comes to raising taxes or fees?

  Take the Illinois Tollway Authority, for example, and how speedily it "closed" this week's decision to nearly double the rates drivers pay to use the system's highways.

  Board Chairman Paula Wolfe reminded me that her members had considered a toll increase to fund a $12 billion capital program since early 2010. 

  But public hearings on the 87.5% proposed hike did not begin until August 18th and the series of 15 sessions were crammed into the next five days ending on August 23rd.

  Incredibly, the Board met  two days later on the morning of August 25th to "vote" its approval of the 15-year program as if the members had given any real study or consideration to the public testimony, most of which was orchestrated by self-interested labor unions and roadbuilders.

  While covering what critics called the "done deal" at the Tollway's palatial Downers Grove headquarters, I could not help but think of the Chicago Public School Board's decision a day earlier to approve a "maximum-allowed" increase in the city property tax.

  On August 5th, only one week after Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Chicagoans were being "nickeled and dimed" by taxers, the CPS Board appointed by the Mayor proposed raising property taxes.  The new levy would cost the owner of an average home ($250,000) an additional $84 a year.  The increase would generate $150 million dollars of the district's projected $712 million deficit.

  Taxpayers barely had a chance to see the CPS budget on line, let alone on paper, before public hearings were scheduled five days later on August 10th, 11th and 12th. 

  Emanuel's Board voted and approved the tax increase unanimously August 24th. 


  The Tollway Authority and Chicago School Board may have learned from the "clinic" Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and the democratic legislative leaders held earlier this year on "the need for speed".

  Remember last January when the General Assembly reconvened for its "lame duck" session? 

  In a scant 48 hours ending before dawn on Jan. 12th, the democratic-controlled House and Senate had raised the Illinois corporate and personal income tax rates only hours before new members could be seated.  The next day, January 13th, the Governor signed the bill, which was retroactive to January 1st.


  Taxpayers never knew what hit 'em.

   Keep in mind that high-speed taxation is happening in Illinois as newly-elected state and city "reform" politicians use the word "transparent" to describe their new modus operandi.

  Its transparent, all right.

  Taxpayers should see right through it.




Conventional Warfare

  If Chicago loses the 2012 National Restaurant Association Show and the nearly $90 million spent by the event's 50,000-plus attendees, don't blame the McCormick Place unions.   Las Vegas, with its oversized inventory of 140,000 hotel rooms, is offering the biggest tradeshows and conventions a rockbottom $92.50 per night average room rate, according to "Sin City's" Convention Authority spokesman Vince Alberta.  

  A Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau spokeswoman, Meghan Risch says the average room rate here is about $140.00 per night.  That's nearly $50.00 higher than what Vegas presumably is offering the NRA.  The trade show has been a staple in Chicago for more than half a century.  Last year, it attracted 54,000 exhibitors and buyers to McCormick place and they reportedly pumped $86 million dollars into the city and region's economy. 

  Earlier this month, Chicago lost the 2012 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society convention to Las Vegas and the 2012 and 2015 Plastics Industry Trade Show to Orlando.  Local news reports on those losses focused on the high cost of union work rules at McCormick Place as the major reason the events left Chicago.  But convention authority spokespersons in Orlando as well as Las Vegas discounted facilities costs as factors.  They credited their cities' marketing successes to "promotions" they have offerred, i.e. lower prices for travel-related expenses such as hotels and airfares.

  Las Vegas and Orlando are pulling out all the stops to attract conventions.  The real estate collapse that economic experts say is at the root of "The Great Recession" (as Mayor Daley calls it) has devastated the economies of both Nevada and Florida.  They are desperate.

  Let's see:  The National Restaurant Association Trade Show needs how many hotel rooms?  They can get 'em for $50.00 less per room in Las Vegas?  Casinos, floor shows, too?

  Do the math.


Insult to Injury

  I've worked in the building at 190 North State Street for ABC-7 or ABC News since the late 1980's and known many of the people here for over two decades. 

  To make a point, let's say that one of my long-time colleagues suffered a sudden and violent death that attracted local media attention.  Then a reporter from some other outlet was allowed into to the building to interview grieving co-workers two days after the colleague's passing, asking how that death might affect the Neilsen ratings.  When the reporter got to me, I would pause for about three seconds, call the person an insensitive jerk and ask him/her to get out of my face and out of the building.

  Wednesday, for constitutional reasons, Mayor Daley could not tell such a questioner to get out of city hall.  But he did walk out of a news conference after the reporter for WFLD-TV (FOX) asked Daley for comment on an un-named theorist's opinion that the Mayor's political career might be harmed by the death of his long-time ally, School Board President Michael Scott.

  "What? Death? Its a personal thing.  It has nothing to do with my public career.  That's an insult to me," Daley said.

  The reporter, Tera Williams, was unborn or no more than a toddler when then-State's Attorney Richard M. Daley met west side community activist Michael Scott.  Scott was a deputy campaign manager for Daley's unsuccessful 1983 run for mayor and since Daley's election in1989 has been appointed by hizzoner to numerous boards and agencies including two different appointments as Chicago School Board President.   After nearly three decades, what may have begun as a political association, certainly evolved into a more personal relationship.  Only 24 hours earlier, the Mayor choked back tears as he described having a "family" relationship with Scott.

  "Because someone that you love dies, that changes your public career?  What a silly question to ask anybody," continued Daley Wednesday.

   "Don't you have any respect for people anymore.  I know you want to make a lot of money.  You want to be on TV.  But do you have any respect for anyone?  I guess you don't.  Its kind of a sad comment.  You owe me an apology."  Then Daley walked away staring angrily at Williams as the rest of the press corps watched in stunned silence.

  The FoxChicago website did not list an age for Williams but it did say she'd worked in Chicago since 2006.  The young woman apparently did not know much about Daley/Scott history.  I know that the more experienced reporters in the room would never have asked the Mayor a question like that.  Not Wednesday.  Never before Scott's funeral.

  But hey, I've made goofy mistakes in the nearly 30 years since I was 30 and she's got plenty of career left to get it right.

  She can begin by offerring Mayor Daley the apology he rightfully says he's owed.


Michael Scott's Gun

  If you believe that Chicago School Board president Michael Scott shot and killed himself as the Cook County Medical Examiner has reported, then also believe that Scott was not an adherent to Mayor Daley's anti-gun crusade.   Police say a .380 caliber semi-automatic pistol, illegal within the city limits, was found under the body of the 60 year old real estate developer whom the M.E. said died from a single bullet fired into the left side of his head.

  For the entirety of his 20 years in office, Daley has defended the city's law prohibiting handgun possession and called on tougher state and national statutes to regulate the manufacture, sale and registration of pistols and assault weapons.  The mayor insists its a matter of "common sense"; if an automobile must be registered after manufacture and again after its sold, why not require the same for handguns.  Daley wants assault rifles banned altogether.

  How many times did Scott, whose political support of the mayor goes back to Daley's first, failed 1983 campaign, stand in the background at news conferences as his patron pleaded passionately for gun control?   Surely Scott read, watched and heard news reports on the mayor's support for and sponsorship of gun "turn-ins", Daley's "no-questions-asked" effort to reduce the number of firearms in Chicago.

   The Medical Examiner is suggesting that Michael Scott had an illegal, unregistered handgun in the car with him late Sunday/early Monday.  He reportedly left his near west side home, picked up a pizza, visited his sister at a South Loop care center before driving to the Chicago river's edge underneath the Kinzie Bridge.  

    Was the Chicago School Board President another city gun criminal?  

    He was, if you believe the Cook County Medical Examiner.



Echoes Of Our Past

    Some observations about the Jeanine Nicarico murder case, former DuPage County State's Attorney Jim Ryan's role in it and Ryan's apology this week:

     The 10-year-old victim was kidnapped, raped and killed on February 25, 1983 fueling outrage in DuPage County, which back then included more cornfields than subdivisions and strip malls.   The initial "investigation" continued for the next 13 months until March of 1984 when innocents Rolando Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez and Steven Buckley were indicted.  Cruz and Hernandez were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1985, while Jim Ryan's prosecutors discounted the confession of the real killer Brian Dugan.  While the charges against Buckley eventually were dropped, the two Latinos would spend more than a decade on death row for a crime they did not commit.

1980's Racial Politics

   The horrific crime happened only three days after Harold Washington won Chicago's 1983 democratic primary, eventually to become the city's first African American Mayor.  Remember "Council Wars" and how racism became the new rage in the region?  As the Nicarico case unfolded, overwhelmingly white DuPage Countians were reading, hearing and watching the developments in one of the most racially-charged political environments in local history.  There were very few blacks living in DuPage during the early to mid-1980's, but the Latino community there and throughout the area took great offense at Ryan's prosecutors' relentless efforts to convict Cruz and Hernandez while ignoring the confession of Dugan, who is white.

  Meanwhile, the "Reagan Revolution" was in full swing.   Republican Jim Ryan, elected DuPage's new state's attorney in 1984, was the poster boy for the local movement's "law and order" component.   To be fair, he actually inherited the flawed investigation from his predecessor who supervised and approved most of the work product that led to the the cases against Cruz and Hernandez.

  Was it racism, political ambition, incompetence or a combination that pressured Ryan not to call off his prosecutorial dogs?   As State's Attorney, he spent ten years until his election as Illinois Attorney General in 1994, trying to fit a square peg into a round hole as he publicly stated his belief time and again that Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez were guilty and deserved to be executed.  Even during his failed campaign for governor in 2002, after Cruz and Hernandez had been exonerated by the justice system and freed, he did not apologize for the erroneous prosecutions. 

Fast Forward

  The 63 year old Ryan is running for governor again after spending the last seven years teaching political science at Benedictine University.  On November 12th, the day after Dugan was finally sentenced to death for the Nicarico murder, Ryan e-mailed the apology for his role in the injustices committed against Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez.  In a one-on-one interview with me shortly after he announced his candidacy, he told me he is wiser after the experiences of the past 25 years.   Those experiences include not only the mistakes in the Nicarico case but also more personal tragedies than most of us will ever endure.  Ryan is a cancer survivor, he and his wife Marie have suffered the losses of two children (one by illness, another by suicide) and Marie's near-fatal heart attack.

  Ryan wants Illinois voters to consider his apology as evidence that he is a changed man who now realizes that politics do not define an officeholder's success as a human being.   He claims to have a better, fairer sense of right and wrong.   And even more stunning, the former unyielding, "lock 'em up and throw away the key" prosecutor also says if elected governor, he will NOT lift the state's moratorium on the death penalty until after more reforms of the rules governing the use of capital punishment. 

  Jim Ryan is apparently tired of running from his past.  He's finally turned and confronted it.



Show Us The Money

   So where does the state of Illinois find $15 million dollars to pay the interest on loans taken by the Regional Transportation Authority?  The RTA will sell $166 million in bonds, perform a regulatory "sleight of hand" to transfer the money to the Chicago Transit Authority, as part of a grand scheme to stave off a fare increase on CTA busses and trains.

   Governor Pat Quinn called the interest payments "debt service" and estimated they would cost Illinois taxpayers "about $5 million or so in the first year, roughly $10 million in the second year." 

   I'm no wizard of finance and was a mediocre math student in high school.  But how does the governor of a state with a $10 billion deficit and at least a three-month backlog of unpaid bills promise to pay the interest on a financially-strapped public agency's loans?  And isn't this the same governor who late last month told us that Illinois itself needed a $900 million "cash management" loan just to make its payroll during the final weeks of 2009?

  A few hours before Quinn announced the transit "deal", a Washington-based think tank called the Pew Center on the States released a report listing Illinois among nine states most at risk of "fiscal calamity".  When I told the Governor about the report during the news conference, incredibly, he said 'that's what I've been saying since January 29th" when he was sworn in.  During his nine months in office, Quinn has tried unsuccessfully to get the General Assembly, mired in election year politics, to pass a tax increase to generate revenue to fill the budget hole.

  Still, it raises eyebrows and questions when the "broke" state announces new spending, even if it is "only" $15 million. 


Don't Ask, Do Tell

   Jacob Meister says Americans won't concern themselves with a political candidate's sexual orientation, if they believe that candidate can help improve the economy and create jobs.  The 44 year old Chicago attorney is running in the 2010 Democratic primary to represent Illinois in the United States Senate.  If elected, he would become the first openly gay member of what some have called "the most exclusive club" in the country.

  Mostly with borrowed money, Meister's campaign this week began airing the first broadcast television commercials in the four-candidate race.  In the 60-second ad airing in the Champaign, Springfield and Peoria markets, he can be heard saying that economic issues trump the corruption concerns in Illinois.  Meister talks jobs, jobs and more jobs.  Visually, the video is as diverse as any political commercial you'll see.  But there is no mention of the candidate's sexual orientation. 

  We didn't bring it up either.  Meister and his media director Karen Craven raised the subject of sexual orientation after we had finished our on-camera interview with the candidate.  Jacob estimated that the state's lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered (LGBT) voters numbered as high as 800,000 and could form a "base" for his campaign.

  For him and his handlers, the key at this early stage of the campaign is to get people talking about Jacob Meister.  And if people want to talk about Meister's sexual orientation, that's fine as far the campaign is concerned.

That means somebody's paying attention. 






Man of His Word

  U.S. Congressman Danny Davis did exactly what he said he would do.

  It was last spring that the 68 year old Davis told this reporter and others that he would not run for Cook County Board President against three other African-American candidates.  When the sun came up Monday morning, November 9th, there were three other black candidates filed to run on the February 2, 2010 ballot.  So Davis, who claimed he led public opinion polls he commissioned on the race, opted out citing a need for "unity in the community".  The seven-term congressman will run for re-election in the 7th Congressional District. 

  The remaining board president candidates including incumbent Todd Stroger, Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown, city Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and Water Reclamation Board Chairman Terrence O'Brien are scrambling to get Davis's support for their campaigns.   The congressman, promising to eventually annoint one candidate in the race, said that O'Brien has just as good a chance as any of the African-Americans.

  President Stroger, who met with Davis 24 hours before the Congressman made his announcement, believes he has an inside track for the endorsement.  Stroger points to the fact that he's the incumbent and that unlike the city and state governments, Cook County has a balanced budget.  Its also noteworthy that unlike the city and state, there have been no federal corruption indictments in Cook County government during the administrations of Todd Stroger or his father who preceded him in office.  (In these parts, that's sayin' something)

  The Davis announcement also broke up a political logjam surrounding prospective candidates for the 7th District Congressional seat.  State Senator Rickey Hendon will forget Congress and run for Illinois Lieutenant Governor.  State Representatives La Shawn K. Ford and Annazette Collins will run for re-election to the state legislature and the dynamic community activist the Reverend Marshall Hatch will put aside elective politics and tend to his flock at the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

  Two others, businessman Jim Ascot and Deputy Recorder of Deeds Darlena Burnett will continue their longshot campaigns against Davis. 



What Was Quinn Thinking?

  I almost choked on my cinnamon roll at Ann Sather's restaurant this morning when I saw Governor Pat Quinn sitting with Alderman Dick Mell.  Mell and a half dozen other northside Chicago pols were about to endorse the Governor in the 2010 democratic primary. 

  I was like, doesn't Quinn know that Mell is the father-in-law of Rod Blagojevich and the guy who "sent" the impeached former governor?  Why would Quinn (or Mell, if he really wants Quinn elected next year) give the governor's primary and/or possible general election opponents another "bone" to chew? 

   The posse for Quinn's primary challenger Dan Hynes was quick to pounce on the Mell endorsement.  They issued a release calling the 33rd Ward Alderman the "political patron of Rod Blagojevich, and a man synonymous with Chicago Machine politics."  Continued Hynes' communications director Matt McGrath: "It would never even occur to us to seek the endorsement of the single individual most responsible for inflicting this state with Rod Blagojevich."

   McGrath didn't stop: "The rest of us are once again left to wonder about Pat Quinn's true convictions and commitment to anything beyond his own election."

   After about five minutes at the podium praising Quinn the way he has not praised a gubernatorial candidate since his son-in-law in 2002, Mell said he had a budget hearing at city hall and did not hang around for questions.

   I left a half-eaten cinnamon roll on the table.


The GOP Numbers Game

   All you need is 200-250,000 votes for a chance to win the highest office in the nation's fifth largest state!

   That's the conventional wisdom shared by most of the strategists in the seven-candidate primary for the republican nomination for governor of Illinois.  Barring any dramatic changes in the political climate, the February 2, 2010 republican vote is projected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-850,000.  That's about 10-15% more than the 735,810 who cast ballots in the party's 2006 primary.  (944,379 voted in the 2006 Illinois democratic primary)

   Four of the seven candidates have run statewide before, have at least some name recognition and will certainly carve for themselves at least a piece of the republican pie.  No one I've talked to believes anyone will get a majority.   And the winning plurality, if all seven remain until the vote, could be as low as twenty per cent.

   That's part of the reason so many candidates believe they have a legitimate chance to win.  Former Attorney General Jim Ryan jumped into the race on the final day to file.   The 63 year old cancer survivor remembers the 1.5 million votes he tallied in his losing 2002 effort to Rod Blagojevich.   Ryan and his strategists realize that if just one of every six people who voted for Ryan then vote for him in the upcoming primary he'll be nominated. 

   Then there's DuPage County Board President Bob Schillerstrom.  In his 2006 race in the state's second largest county, he got 194,691 votes.  Said Schillerstrom: "I go into this race with the biggest base.  The candidate that gets 200,000 votes in this primary is going to be the winner.  And I'm the only candidate out there that's gotten that many votes in the past (since Ryan)."

  Bloomington State Senator Bill Brady got just over 135,000 votes (18%) in his third place finish in the 2006 gubernatorial primary and is hoping to use that number as a base on which to build a winning plurality.  Former Party Chairman Andy McKenna scored 97,238 votes in the 2004 U.S. Senate Primary.   Kirk Dillard has won only his state senate seat in the past.  Businessmen Adam Andrzejewski and Dan Proft have never run for public office. 

  The seven republican candidates, all of them repeating a "no tax increase" mantra, sincerely believe that ANY of them could beat either Pat Quinn or Dan Hynes in November of 2010 using that issue alone.  But first, one of them will have to win their party's primary.

  And there's an idea of how many votes it will take to do that.




Ryan's Return!

  If Jim Ryan can pull off this one, it will go down as one of the biggest comebacks in Illinois political history.   The 63 year old former attorney general and cancer survivor has announced his candidacy for governor, growing the field in the republican primary from six to seven.

  In the 2002 general election, Ryan ran unsuccessfully against democrat Rod Blagojevich.  Not only did his campaign occur as the federal noose was tightening around the neck of the outgoing republican governor George Ryan, the fact that Jim shared the same last name with the unrelated George didn't help.

  Since 2003, Jim Ryan has taught political science at Benedictine University.  As he tries to re-assemble the scattered remnants of his political apparatus, he has virtually no money to mount a statewide campaign and for now, will count on residual name recognition to get him through the February 2, 2010 primary election.  Ryan and his aides realize that as little as 20% of the vote might be enough to win a seven candidate race.

  But a seven year absence from the political stage will not lighten Ryan's baggage.  If anything, its gotten heavier.  Ryan's friend from law school and largest donor ($790,000) to his many political campaigns was Stuart Levine, who has pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges including several in which he conspired with democratic party fundraiser Tony Rezko.  During Rezko's trial, Levine admitted to being a drug user and at one point testified that "In no part of my adult life was I not involved in criminal activity".   Ryan, who was the DuPage County state's attorney from 1984 to 1994 and the Illinois Attorney General from 1994 to 2002, says he had no idea his longtime friend and benefactor was a criminal and drug addict. 

  Then there's Ryan's erroneous prosecution during the 1980's and early 90's of Rolando Cruz and Alex Hernandez in the Jeanine Nicarico murder case.   Ryan's DuPage prosecutors were relentless in their cases against the two innocent Latinos.  They either overlooked or discounted evidence against Brian Dugan, who was eventually charged and convicted.   One result of the fiasco has been that whenever Ryan has run for whatever statewide office, Hispanic opponents raise the Cruz and Hernandez prosecutions as reasons NOT to vote for him.

  When Ryan makes his formal announcement today in Springfield we are told he will not take questions from the news media.  But his people have promised a one-on-one interview with the candidate Wednesday.   We hope to have excerpts from it during our ABC-7 News programs tomorrow afternoon.