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December 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.




Happy New Year!

  Just a note to let Precinct7 readers know that your ABC7 Political Reporter is attempting to unplug through the end of this year. 

  The plan is to recharge the batteries for the January "sprint" to the 2010 primary election on February 2nd.  But hey, with so much going on its hard to turn off the engine, especially when I'm staying around Chicago for the holidays.

  But here's wishing you and yours a truly wonderful holiday season and the very best for the new year!!!


U.S. Senate Deja Vu?

  For this reporter, there was one hour during the past week that set the tone for the Illinois democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate.  It happened during the candidates' debate at Chicago's Union League Club.

  Front-runner Alexi Giannoulias wobbled.  David Hoffman established himself as a contender.  Cheryle Robinson Jackson smiled.

  Illinois Treasurer Giannoulias, according to the latest Chicago Tribune Poll was favored by 31% of voters surveyed during the first week of December.  He's followed by on-leave Urban League president Jackson (17%), former Chicago Inspector General Hoffman (9%) and Chicago Attorney Jacob Meister (1%).

  While Ms. Jackson would seem to pose the most imminent threat to his front-runner status, Giannoulias launched what appeared to those watching as an unprovoked attack against Hoffman who Giannoulias said had "railed against Wall Street Banks" while using profits from shares in those banks to self-fund Hoffman's campaign.

  Hoffman responded saying he was "thrilled" that Giannoulias brought up the subject of banks and quickly counterattacked.  He resurrected the allegations that the Treasurer, when vice-president and chief loan officer at the Giannoulias family-owned Broadway Bank, made bad real estate loans that caused the bank to be "now one of the worst-performing in the country". 

  Giannoulias told Hoffman not to attack his family.  But Hoffman pointed out that the bank vice-presidency was Giannoulias' "only other job" in life besides Illinois Treasurer and that job performance was fair game. 

  While the Broadway Bank reportedly is in worse shape today than it was in 2006, the allegations about the loans Giannoulias made as vice president are old news that he survived during his campaign for Treasurer.  So the debate watchers and reporters were left to wonder why the candidate "opened the door" for Hoffman, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who feasted on the red meat.   Also, by throwing the first punch, Giannoulias came across as someone other than the nice guy hugging factory workers we see in his TV Ads.

  At a post debate news conference, Hoffman said Giannoulias attacked him because he (and not Jackson) poses the real threat to Giannoulias' "lead" in the race.  Giannoulias, who left the Union League Club without comment, said later in the day that he fired first to "set the record straight" about statements Hoffman had made elsewhere during the campaign.

  Watching all of this with her ever-present smile was Ms. Jackson.  It is the unspoken but certain strategy of her campaign that the path to victory for an African-American female like herself requires having two white men like Giannoulias and Hoffman to have a close, one-on-one contest within the primary election.

  Remember Carol Moseley Braun?


Mark Kirk's "Stalker"

  Illinois pols of both parties agree on the likely outcome of at least one major race in the upcoming primary.  Mark Kirk will win the republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.  Right?


  Kirk will have to wait until after the February 2nd democratic vote to have an opponent.  Right?


  For months, wanna-be Senator Kirk has faced one of the toughest political operatives in the country.  Her name is Kathleen Strand.  She's the senior vice president of a political consulting outfit called The Dover Group which has been hired by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to give Kirk as much grief as possible during his "lead pipe cinch" primary campaign. 

  Strand is a Chicago native who since 2003 has worked various democratic campaigns in 12 states.  She solidified her rep as Hillary Clinton's communications director during Clinton's improbable comeback victory in the 2008 New Hampshire Primary.  Now, Strand watches and records Kirk's every political move and word.  Whenever she thinks the moderate northshore congressman has changed his position on an issue (usually moving to the right to placate the more conservative statewide republican base), Strand speaks, writes, telephones and e-mails "flip-flop" alerts to the political universe.  Her latest "outreach" is a web page called "Two Faced Kirk" (http://www.dscc.org/twofaced/) complete with a YouTube video. 

  I met Strand, a University of Missouri journalism graduate, last summer outside a DuPage County republican event that featured the congressman around the time he announced his Senate candidacy.   Initially, I mistook the slim blond standing in the parking lot for some kind of Mark Kirk groupie.  Big mistake.  She was banned from doing her thing inside the building by hotel security but it didn't stop her from holding court outside on Kirk's now-infamous change of heart on cap and trade legislation.

   I left telephone and e-mail messages with the congressman's communications director for a comment on Strand's "campaign" but did not get a reponse.  Perhaps the Kirk strategy at this point is to ignore Strand and she'll go away.  She hasn't.

   So as Democrats Alexi Giannoulias, Cheryle Robinson Jackson, David Hoffman and Jacob Meister slug it out to determine who gets to carry their party's U.S. Senate banner in 2010, they needn't worry that Mark Kirk is getting a "free ride" in the republican primary.

   Political "stalker" Kathleen Strand is making sure that he doesn't. 


Poll Buzz

  Even the candidates who led their races in the Chicago Tribune Poll released last week advised caution when reading the numbers.  They realize that the majority of voters surveyed during the first week of this month were more focused on the upcoming holidays than campaign issues.  The contenders are far from convinced that the reported rankings of candidates should be used as predictors of how they'll finish in the February 2nd primary elections. 

  But the statewide and Cook County telephone surveys are revealing in other ways:  

  Apparently, seven years after his last run for governor in 2002, former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan has enough name recognition statewide to give him a big "lead" (26%) in the race for the republican nomination for governor.  Ryan has done no television advertising and has run a relatively low-key campaign compared to former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Andy McKenna.  Despite spending over a million dollars on broadcast television ads, McKenna has to be disappointed at finishing a distant second at 12%.   In third place, according to the Trib, is Senator Bill Brady (10%).  Last summer and earlier this fall, various internal campaign polls had the Bloomington home builder leading with 15-20%.  Clearly, Ryan's late entry has hurt Brady so expect the only downstater in the race to launch an all-out attack on the "comeback kid" from DuPage County.

  On the democratic side, the newspaper's pollster was calling voters between December 2nd and 8th, during the same week Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes finally appeared to  be getting some traction in his challenge to unelected incumbent Pat Quinn.  Earlier in the week, Hynes won the endorsement of the 103,000 member Illinois Federation of Teachers.  He also, for good or bad, was making daily news with his criticism of Quinn's government for its short term borrowing and general handling of the state's train wreck of a financial situation.  Its likely that the 49% of respondents who said they favored the Governor had not experienced the energized Hynes who was the choice of only 23% with 21% undecided.   The 2-1 margin is similar to a Simon Institute survey in September and October (Quinn was favored then by 33.9% to Hynes' 16.5%)   So seeing a second independent poll with their guy not having closed the gap has to be disheartening for the Hynes campaign,

  Finally, the Trib's survey of 502 Cook County voters on the Board President's race was more interesting for its social commentary than its ranking of candidates.  Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown (29%), Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (20%), and incumbent President Todd Stroger (14%) were favored over Water Reclamation Board Chairman Terrence O'Brien (11%) with 26% of voters undecided.  O'Brien is the only caucasian in the race with three African-Americans.  So if you can believe what people told the Trib pollster, racial politics will not determine what happens in Cook County.  Wouldn't that be something?

  But lets see another survey in mid-January...and a couple of weeks later on February 2nd,  the only poll that counts.



"No-Shows" Help Tell Reform Story

  One thing you learn covering hundreds of political news conferences during an election year is that you have to pay attention to who doesn't show up at a particular event.  Governor Pat Quinn's ceremony to sign the campaign finance reform bill--staged at the Thompson Center on the one year anniversary of the arrest of Rod Blagojevich--is a classic case study.

Some notable "No-Shows":

Patrick Collins

  The former Assistant U.S. Attorney who chaired the Governor's Reform Commission has called the legislative effort to shape his group's recommendations into law a sham in so many words.   He and other disillusioned commission members note that the limits on campaign contributions apply to everyone in private and public life EXCEPT the legislative leaders (Madigan, Cullerton, Radogno, Cross) who can spend as much as they want on favored candidates in general elections.   It has been argued for many years that the legislative leaders have used money to control the votes of Representatives and Senators in their respective caucuses to the detriment of the lawmakers' actual constituents.   And because the new law puts a lid on the donations of everybody else, argue the critics, it has the effect of actually increasing the power of the leaders.

Mike Madigan

  The Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, state Democratic Party Chairman and without question, the most powerful politician in Illinois.  When asked why Madigan and the other leaders were not at the signing ceremony, Governor Quinn mumbled something about them being "very busy people" and that reporters should make nothing of their absence.  Right.  Republican State Senator Bill Brady--a candidate for governor who "happened" to be standing outside the news conference--advanced the theory that Madigan and Cullerton didn't show up because they didn't want to answer reporters' questions concerning a law written and passed in their chambers that affected everybody but them.

John Cullerton

  The Illinois Senate President.  See the above.

Republican Lawmakers

  There were none standing in the crowd watching the Governor sign the bill topping off what Quinn kept calling "The Year of Reform".   Bipartisanship remains a pipe dream even when it comes to the corruption issue.   The overwhelming majority of Republicans in both chambers agree with Collins and other critics that the campaign finance reform bill has only made the legislative leaders, Democrats Madigan and Cullerton especially, more powerful than ever.   Its truly amazing how the Illinois Republican party that brought us crooks like George Ryan and Stuart Levine and criminal suspects like Bill Cellini is now styling itself as home to the movement to reform Illinois politics. 




On The Ropes (3)

  At noon today, the Illinois AFL-CIO could not reach a decision on whether to endorse Governor Quinn or Comptroller Hynes in the February primary.

  The Hynes campaign's chief "spinmeister" Communications Director Matt McGrath called it a "stinging rebuke" for the sitting governor. McGrath added, "make no mistake, this is a direct reflection of the the Governor's lack of leadership and inability to create jobs."

  Quinn's Communications Director Elizabeth Austin noted that the Governor has already been endorsed by labor organizations with memberships totalling over 450,000 workers.  She also said the Quinn camp considered it a "victory" because Hynes was unable to nab the endorsement, given the fact he'd already been endorsed by so many of the AFL-CIO member organizations.

On The Ropes (2)

The Moody's investor's service on this date downgraded Illinois' general obligation bond rating (the governmental equivalent of a credit rating) from A-1 to A-2.  It means the state will have a more difficult time borrowing money and when it is able to make a deal, the interest rate is likely to be higher.  

  Governor Quinn hasn't said if this will impact his ability to make a short term loan for the end of this calendar year.  But this is more bad news for the embattled governor.

Quinn "On The Ropes"

  Having been the aggressor for most of the primary campaign, Governor Pat Quinn appears to be backpedaling these past few days.

  First, there's this "cash management" loan business.  Quinn told us in late October that the state needed to borrow $900 million dollars to pay its bills through the end of 2009.  By law, an Illinois Governor may short-term borrow without legislative approval.   But the State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and the Comptroller Dan Hynes must both approve the transaction for it to be completed.   

   Quinn now says the amount the state "needs" has fallen to $500 million.  Giannoulias indicated he'll likely approve the deal but Hynes, who is challenging Quinn for the democratic nomination for Governor, says no way.  The Comptroller says the state is already too far in debt.

  In other words, Hynes has Quinn on the ropes.

  The Governor says Illinois, with a $4.5 billion backlog of unpaid bills, needs the money for "cash flow" purposes.  He says thousands of state vendors, many of whom provide social services to the poor and elderly, are waiting 3-5 months to be re-imbursed and without an infusion of cash they won't be paid until early 2010.   In the most desperate cases, some agencies might have to layoff workers, suspend services to clients or shutdown altogether.

  Let's see.  A "meltdown" of Illinois social services agencies in January...during the campaign stretch run.  Not good for the gov.

  A sign that Quinn has lost his campaign balance happened yesterday, when the Governor missed the grand opening of a shelter for homeless veterans on the city's southside.   He stood up former Illinois and now-Federal Veterans Affairs honcho Tammy Duckworth who flew in from Washington for the ceremony.  Quinn, perhaps the hardest-working advocate for veterans you'll find anywhere in politics, was a no-show because he was held over by west side African-American elected officials who had just endorsed him.   Sources say the black pols had the Governor cornered demanding specifics on minority participation in the $31 billion capital bill Quinn signed last summer.  The conventional wisdom is that Quinn cannot win the February 2, 2010 primary without the overwhelming support of African American voters.

  And you can add another setback for Quinn:  The 103,000-member Illinois Federation of Teachers has endorsed Hynes.  The union will provide campaign cash and troops to the Comptroller who, unlike the governor, has vowed not to lower pension benefits for teachers hired in the future.

  So we'll find out in the next few weeks if fightin' Pat Quinn is able regain his political footing and counterpunch.   For the first time in the democratic primary campaign...Dan Hynes appears to have some momentum.


The Democratic Senate Hopefuls On Afghanistan

  Finally, there's a substantive issue on which to differentiate the democratic primary candidates for Illinois' U.S. Senate seat:  Where do the four contenders stand on President Barack Obama's plan to increase by 30,000 the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan?

  At a news conference 36 hours before Obama's Wednesday night speech, Cheryle Robinson Jackson repeated her opposition to Obama's "surge" strategy.  Not only is the former Chicago Urban League president against sending more troops to Afghanistan, she wants those already there brought home.  Jackson called the regime in Kabul "corrupt" and says American taxpayer money used to wage the Afghan war would be better spent creating jobs in the U.S..

  The presumed frontrunner in the primary campaign, Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, supports the President.  "We are dealing with perhaps the most complex, dangerous region in the world - a region from which the attacks of September 11th were launched, and where nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of fanatics and terrorists", wrote Giannoulias. 

   Chicago attorney Jacob Meister remained "steadfast" in his support for Obama and "commended the President for his careful consideration of all the strategies that could be pursued in Afghanistan."  

   Finally, former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman writes on his website that he is "skeptical" about more troops to shore up the Karzai government when there are serious doubts about the recent Afghan elections and the validity of the regime in Kabul.  He worries about the increased risk of substantial American casualties while not calling for the removal of U.S. forces already there.  Hoffman writes that he "still needs to be convinced in order to support this plan", while not rejecting it outright.




Praise The Lord And Get Out The Vote!

  U.S. Senate candidate Cheryle Robinson Jackson rolled out the big guns this week.  The on-leave Chicago Urban League president was endorsed by 22 African-American ministers who represent the city's largest black churches and denominations. 

  In the racial politics of Chicago and Illinois, democratic candidates are eager to proclaim that they have the support of "black ministers".  After all, African-American voters have accounted for as much as 35-40% of the turnout in past statewide democratic primaries and the conventional wisdom is that "church-going" black folks are the majority of those who go to the polls on election day.

  The problem is that politicans will produce their own cluster of "black ministers" to stand behind them at news conferences to endorse a particular candidacy or cause.  What some people don't realize is that many of these "influential" black clergy actually lead tiny, storefront congregations.  These are the preachers cynically called "rent-a-revs" by the political operatives who recruit or hire them when their candidate needs to make an appeal to African-American voters. 

  The black church leaders who attended the Jackson endorsement breakfast included the host Reverend Dr. Byron Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God, the Reverend James Meeks of the Salem Baptist Church, The Reverend Stephen Thurston of the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church and other leaders of larger congregations that in aggregate, they estimate, total well over 100,000 members.

  Jackson's strategy to win the U.S. Senate seat is beginning to sound familiar:  As the only African-American and female candidate in the democratic primary, she will attempt to "corner" the black vote and sound enough feminist themes to win a substantial number of women voters.  Meanwhile, her strategists hope Alexi Giannoulias, David Hoffman and Jacob Meister will divide what's left of the turnout to allow Jackson to "come up the middle" and win. 

  It's the same Illinois primary strategy that worked for a similarly obscure and underfunded Carole Mosely Braun in 1992, who would become the first African-American woman to serve in the United State's Senate.