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January 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.




Governor Fall Guy?

By pushing back the date of his budget address from February 18th to March 18th, Illinois governor Pat Quinn has bought some time to prepare for his first big political as well as gubernatorial challenge. Not only does Quinn have to get legislative leaders to agree on a plan to close the massive budget deficit (some estimates as high as 5 billion dollars), the new governor must also avoid being tagged as the "fall guy" responsible for the likely tax increase in the spending plan. During his first 24 hours as governor, Quinn said it was not time to discuss plans he might have to run for a full term in 2010. But University of Illinois political science professor Dick Simpson said, "the past pattern has been that if the governor increased the income tax he is no longer elected governor". To secure his viability as a candidate, Quinn could insist that the legslative leaders of both parties join him at any tax increase-related announcements. It also might be a good idea to invite Attorney General Lisa Madigan, long-rumored to be a 2010 democratic primary challenger for what is now Quinn's job.

Rod's World

Just an observation from Springfield after watching the governor's "rolling" news conference aired live from the Northside tonight: You might consider what the governor said about all the good he'd done for the people of Illinois and what a bum rap he got from the house and senate...IF...there had been any sign of support for him. There have been no demonstrators at the capitol on behalf of the governor at ANY point during the house hearings or during the senate trial. You'd think that all those people he claims benefited from his governance would be here to let the lawmakers know what a great guy Rod Blagojevich is. And the fact he was impeached in the house by a 117-1 vote (the only "no" vote cast by his sister-in-law) and convicted in a 59-0 senate shutout, its clear Blagojevich has no political support whatsoever. The man on live TV Thursday night must have been living on another planet. Rod's World?

Pat Quinn Update

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn has arrived in the Capitol Building. He is conferring with aides inside his office which is on the capital's second floor around a corner from Governor Rod Blagojevich's office. Quinn arrived in Springfield on the state shuttle plane shortly before closing arguments began in Blagojevich's Senate impeachment trial. Senators are expected to vote to oust the Governor from office late this afternoon, effectively elevating Quinn to leadership of the state's executive branch. Quinn spokesman Bob Reed told me this morning that Quinn "is not wearing a new suit for the occasion nor did he get a haircut" for the swearing-in ceremony. The event will be televised live on ABC7, on this website and on other media around the country.



Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn told me this afternoon that Rod Blagojevich had ordered staff members in the Governor's office NOT to cooperate with Quinn's staff in arranging for the transition of power should Blagojevich be convicted in the Senate impeachment trial.   While the governor's spokesman said he was unaware of such an order, staff members who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that such an edict had been issued.  

But Quinn also said that after the Governor departed for his New York City media tour on Sunday, on Monday and Tuesday of this week the cooperation level increased considerably.  Apparently, soon-to-be-unemployed Blago staffers are trying to ingratiate themselves with the soon-to-be-governor. 

Hey, times are tough! 

Rod's Road Trip

After spending two days in New York City chasing Rod Blagojevich from one media outlet to another, where he did "in-depth, no-holds-barred" interviews, one part of the embattled governor's media strategy became apparent. Myself and cameraman Jim Mastri, the only Chicago television journalists to follow Blagojevich to New York, were forced to settle for a few minutes of below-freezing questions "on the fly" as the governor came and went. Inside the temperature-controlled and well-lit studios (where we were not allowed) the hosts of the national talk shows got all the time they wanted.

The problem is that most of these folks, as well-intentioned and practiced as they are, know relatively little about Illinois politics compared to Chicago reporters. And during their sophomoric attempts to grill the governor, they revealed a shocking ignorance of the history and many "back stories" attached to the Blagojevich case. Believe me, there's a lot more to ask the governor about than the alleged sale of a Senate seat. Why didn't they delve into his relationships with felonious friends Tony Rezko, Chris Kelly and Ali Ata? How about the wife's real estate business? Campaign cash? The bottom line is that the governor got a pass on most of the stuff that Chicago journalists have reported going back years before Barack Obama gave up his Senate seat.

The guv's new media guy is former TV reporter-turned-publicist Glenn Selig of Tampa, Florida who ushered Blagojevich around New York City. He also does p.r. for Drew Peterson, the Bolingbrook cop of missing and murdered wife fame who's also become a regular on the Big Apple talk show circuit. Selig's one of the sharpest flaks out there right now and I have to believe he knew Blagojevich had a better chance to "stay on message" if he was interviewed by people who could not have more than a limited understanding of Illinois and Chicago politics.

While the governor has conceded publicly that he'll be ousted from office no matter what he says to the national media, the unspoken hope in his camp is that the time in New York City will help humanize his image. His lawyers pray that just one person who sympathizes with Rod Blagojevich ends up on the jury selected for his eventual federal trial.

As you may have seen in my report from New York Tuesday, I asked Blagojevich why he wouldn't sit down and do an interview with a Chicago reporter, namely me. He said on the air that he would and he added the word "absolutely".

Let's see if he's telling the truth.


"Humanizing" Rod Blagojevich

    During a recent conversation with his 5-year-old daughter, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich says she asked him, "Daddy, will you still be governor on my birthday?” Blagojevich says he tried to explain to the little girl that being governor is not the most important thing in life. 

    The governor told the story after being asked about the effect of the impeachment crisis and the federal corruption investigation on his family. 

    Sources close to the governor tell me that the long-term purpose of the impeachment week media blitz is to "humanize" Rod Blagojevich.   They concede it will have no affect on the outcome of the Senate trial, but it might have some impact on the jury to be selected for Blagojevich's criminal trial.


Andy Shaw

    One thing I'll always remember about my just-retired colleague Andy Shaw, is how difficult it was to have a conversation with the man during the workday.  It seemed Andy always had a phone pressed against his ear.  And for those of us trying to get a word in edgewise, it became more of a problem after the perfection of cellular technology allowed him to continue in the hallways, edit rooms and elevators of 190 North State Street.   And yes, I've even heard parts of Andy Shaw phone calls in an ABC7 men's room.
     After confirming last summer that our longtime political reporter planned to retire, I tried to talk him out of it.  After all, he's got a ka-zillion contacts, knows Chicago politics up, down and sideways and is in such perfect health he's able to run five miles a day.  And most important,  I was aware of the role Andy had played in our success as Chicago's top-rated television news organization.        
     But he insisted he was serious about leaving and that's when I approached the bosses here at ABC7 and told them that if Andy did retire, I wanted to take over the political beat.   As one of the senior reporters at ABC7 with 17 years at the station and 35 years in the profession, it was logical and necessary that the most tenured members our staff step up to fill such a critical role in our newsroom.   (Keep in mind that seven months ago, none of us knew that a Chicago guy would be elected President and the Governor of Illinois would be impeached)  
     So yesterday, after reporting from Washington on Barack Obama's first full day as President, Andy Shaw bid farewell to the ABC7 viewers he served masterfully for over a quarter of a century.    All of us will miss his political intelligence as well as his "energizer-bunny" approach to the mission.  
     But during my years at ABC7 there is one thing I've learned about this place that stands above everything else:   We are the consummate example of a team effort.  Anything you've ever seen on our news programs reported by myself, Andy or any other individual standing in front of the camera represents the work of dozens of seasoned professionals.  And because those managers, producers, technicians, photojournalists and newsroom support staff are still here, I could not be more confident that we will continue to provide the best political coverage in Chicago.


Inaugural Balls

    As the presidential motorcade moved between inaugural balls Tuesday night, the sobering reality finally, finally hit home:  Barack Obama no longer belongs to Chicago and Illinois.
   Hundreds of millions of Americans in all fifty states and perhaps billions of people around the globe now look to U.S. President Barack Obama to lead a resurgent movement for world peace and prosperity.   And to think that only four years and three months ago he was an Illinois senator from the city's Hyde Park neighborhood representing "only" 210 thousand people who live in the state's 13th legislative district.
   I had a sobering moment at the the presidential "Homestates" Ball a few hours after the swearing-in ceremony.  (Obama's home states are Illinois where he has lived as an adult and Hawaii where he grew up).  Well over a thousand of his friends, political associates, contributors and well-wishers from Illinois (mostly Chicagoans) were in the ballroom waiting for their first contact with the new President.  The first couple, insulated by their secret service bubble, arrived and spent only 15 minutes onstage before moving on to the other inauguration night balls on their itinerary.  Everybody in the room I talked to understood it would have to be this way.  But dealing with the day and the moment it actually happens is another thing.
    Notice during the coverage inauguration day, the network news anchors had fewer mentions of Chicago and Illinois.   This morning, as I read stories about the event in the Washington Post, New York Times and papers from a few other overseas capitals, there was much more reporting about the new president's prospective domestic and foreign policies and much less mention of his heartland roots.
     Finally, one more point of perspective:  The overwhelming majority of people in Illinois and Chicago heard the name Barack Obama for the first time barely five years ago.  Remember, his media campaign for the U.S. Senate did not begin until early 2004.   Since then, his ascent to the presidency has been a whirlwind unprecedented in American political history.  
     But all the above said, nothing can temper the pride most Illinoisans feel at having another of their own take the helm of the greatest country on earth.   After all, the first lawmaker from the "Land of Lincoln" had a memorable  run during his years in the nation's highest office.


Crowds descend on D.C. Mall

There's virtually no first aid immediately available for the throng on the National Mall awaiting the Obama swearing-in ceremony. 

By 6am EST, the crowd size was estimated to be at least in the hundreds of thousands while the temperature remained in the mid-20's.  There only are government buildings for two blocks both North and South of the Mall and all of them are closed to public access.   As already widely-reported, the only toilet facilities are "porta potties" (5,000 of them, which is about 1 for every 400 people)

Shortly after 7am, a woman and her daughter showed up at the ABC compound, the mother concerned that the child may suffered frostbite.   We let them warm themselves for a while before they left to look for first aid, which again, does not appear to be readily available on the mall.



Ever seen that part of a war movie when soldiers parachute onto a raging battlefield?  Bullets are flying in every direction while bombs explode in the darkness. For the paratroopers, the first few minutes on the ground in search of their bearings are absolutely the most critical.  In the movie, our hero survives the chaos, locates his unit and lives to fight another day!
  Well, yours truly has a similar role in a in a recurring political  epic playing these days on ABC7 News that might be titled "Drop Zone Illinois".  With Andy Shaw's eminent retirement, I have taken over the Political reporter's job that he mastered for 25 years, "parachuting" into the coverage of several of the biggest stories in Illinois and Chicago political history.
  I've got to believe my 35 years as a professional journalist (the last 18 at ABC7) have prepared me well for the challenge and my confidence is rooted in the knowledge that I am supported by the on and off-the-air team at the top-rated news organization in Chicago. 
  "Journalist of the Year" Andy Shaw has been the best.  But we want our political coverage at ABC7 to be even better.  That's how  you and "Precinct7" are involved.  The precinct is the basic point at which citizens in our democracy engage the political process.  I hope that this space becomes the new age version of the proverbial "smoke-filled room".   I'll drop in frequently with on and off-the-record stuff that I get from the pols themselves and hopefully, many of you will add your opinions and what you know and hear.

  By the way, headed back to Chicago from Springfield where yesterday, the newly-sworn State Senate technically began the Governor's impeachment trial.  Is this process moving fast or what?  Too fast to be fair?