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January 2010

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.




Black Pols: Muscle or Myth?

  Former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones is retired and he says out of elective politics for good.  But that doesn't mean the 74 year old southsider doesn't still know "the game".  After nearly 36 years as a state lawmaker and before then a democratic precinct worker and aldermanic aide, Jones knows the political landscape of Chicago's African-American community as well, if not better than anyone alive.

  So when "the president", as he is still respectfully called, says the credibility of the city's black political leadership is on the line, people should take the warning seriously.

  "Everybody's on the line" honked Jones in his legendary nasal baritone, "Everybody!"

   Jones realizes that while virtually every black elected official in the city of Chicago has endorsed Governor Pat Quinn in the democratic primary, challenger Dan Hynes could carry the black wards next Tuesday or run strong enough in them to win the primary.  Hynes strategists point to an independent poll suggesting the 41 year old Illinois Comptroller is leading by a stunning 45-38% margin among African American voters.

   The governor's roster of black endorsers, including U.S. Congressmen (3), state reps and senators, city aldermen, county commissioners, suburban mayors, etc., are still reeling from Hynes' controversial "Harold Washington speaks from the grave" campaign ad.  Will black voters heed the iconic Washington's 22-year-old taped warning about Pat Quinn's incompetence...or will they follow the advice of their living and breathing elected leaders and support the governor's election.

  The African-American pols know that they will "wear the jacket" if they can't carry Quinn.  Not only are they up against Dan Hynes' wily political operatives, they're in a fight for their own credibility with the ghost of the revered Washington.  

  And finally, there's the irony that eats away at them:  candidate Hynes is the son of Tom Hynes, who "back in the day" was one of Harold Washington's most bitter political enemies.

  This is serious stuff.

   Just ask Emil Jones.   



All Mud, All The Time!

  I was channel surfing this early today, landing on a morning news program, and noticed that during the commercial break there were five (5) consecutive political ads.  In four of the five commercials the sponsoring politician had something bad to say about his/her opponent.

  Perhaps its the compressed election season that happens so early in the year...or maybe the fact that there are so many contentious races...but it appears that "negative" is the way to go for 2010 primary candidates.  And negative might be too mild a description for some of the attacks that target an opponent's overall character.  The Dan Hynes  and Pat Quinn back and forth in which they question each other's competence is an example.

  On the republican side, gazillionaire Andy McKenna's TV ads went negative months ago.  Back then, the tone was "hairy" and humorous with the easy target being ousted former governor Rod Blagojevich.  But these days McKenna's dollar-driven darts are aimed at contenders Senator Kirk Dillard and Jim Ryan.  Dillard, who began the campaign promising not to go negative, released an anti-McKenna piece this week. 

  "I gotta defend myself", the Senator explained.

   Political consultant Delmarie Cobb says she counsels her clients to present themselves in a positive way and to connect with voters who will support their programs.  She told me that historically, only candidates who believe they are trailing in races have used negative advertising as a last resort to make up ground. 

  But in 2010, those that polls suggest are "frontrunners" are just as likely to go negative to fend off challengers.

   Cobb also said that negative ads are risky politics, especially late in a campaign when the ads get to a point that all you hear from the major candidates are horrific descriptions of each other. 

   When voters no longer hear about anyone worth voting for...they simply don't come out to vote. 


Saved By a "Deep Bench"

  I had several phone callers and e-mailers this afternoon and tonight asking why I was not in Washington covering President Barack Obama's state of the union address tonight.  The answer is that in this extraordinary political year, the 2010 address happens only six days before the February 2nd Illinois primary election.  The ABC7 news managers and I agreed that there's no way the station's political reporter could abandon campaign coverage for two days (including travel to and from D.C.) to attend the speech.

  The major parties here have two "too-close-to-call races" for Governor underway, the reported undecided vote in the democratic U.S. Senate contest means it could turn any which way and who knows what could happen in the four-way democratic primary for Cook County Board President.

  What's comforting for all of us at ABC7 is that the state of the union coverage is in the very capable hands of my colleague Ben Bradley.  His reports today previewing the night at the Capitol were excellent and we expect the same in his post-speech coverage. 

  As they say in the world of team sports, we've got a "deep bench"!


Early Vote Losers

  Anyone who "early voted" in the democratic primary for Illinois governor between January 11th and 20th made their decision without seeing candidate Dan Hynes' "game-changing" ad featuring 1987 video of the late Mayor Harold Washington.  Washington "speaks from the grave" explaining how he fired Pat Quinn for incompetence as director of Chicago's Department of Revenue.

  What voter would not want that information as he/she makes a decision between now-Governor Quinn and Hynes?  Is Quinn, as Hynes charges, as incompetent today as he was 23 years ago?  Is Hynes, as Quinn's supporters counter, a disrespectful, grave-robbing political "desperado" who would inflame decades-old racial tensions within the party to win the primary?

  Other early vote losers include those who cast ballots for DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom in the republican gubernatorial primary.  He dropped out last Friday and threw his support to former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan.   Not only did the Schillerstrom early-birds waste a vote for Bob, they've already fired their single ballot-bullet and cannot do as their guy recommends and opt for Ryan.

  And don't forget those early voters in the Cook County Board President's race who cast their ballots before the hub-bub surrounding "Jeans Day" in candidate Dorothy Brown's circuit clerk's office. 

  Just wanted to point out that after all the kudos given early voting in Illinois, the system is not without this major drawback: 

  Cast your ballot too early...and run the risk of a less than fully-informed decision.



An Ad Too Far?

 Strategists for Dan Hynes might be asking themselves if the Harold Washington "speaks from the grave" commercial was really necessary.   If you believe the latest independent poll on the governor's race, the democratic primary challenger had some major momentum underway without it.

  The campaign's use of a 1987 video clip of the late Chicago mayor excoriating Pat Quinn for incompetence now threatens a racial divide that could be the determining factor in the February 2nd primary and/or the November general election. 

  The latest Chicago Tribune poll, taken before the Hynes brain trust dropped the controversial ad, indicated that among those surveyed, the Illinois comptroller (40%) had already moved into a dead heat with now Governor Pat Quinn (44%).  Further, the survey said that Hynes had been more than holding his own among African-American voters, trailing the incumbent by the same four-point margin that is within the poll's margin of error.

   Apparently, the Hynes campaign got major traction among black voters (whose neighborhoods are most affected by violent crime) with its series of ads blasting the budget-challenged Quinn administration's program to "early release" state prison inmates to save money.  The commercials were reminiscent of the late republican strategist Lee Atwater's 1988 "Willie Horton" ads that took down democratic presidential frontrunner Michael Dukakis. 

  I call Hynes' post-racial, politically correct series a "Half-Willie" because it used mostly white crooks in the scary commercials.  Thanks guys.

Did the Ad "Blackfire"?

  The city's three African-American Congressmen, who had already endorsed Governor Quinn, have expressed outrage that the iconic Washington's voice and image is being used in an ad supporting the son of Tom Hynes who a quarter century ago opposed Chicago's first black mayor at every turn.  The congressmen, with an assist from the Reverends Jesse Jackson and James Meeks are beating the drums to get out the pro-Quinn vote with a vengeance. 

  While racial politics has lurked in the shadows of this campaign for months, the Hynes ad gave Ouinn's supporters in the black community a reason to play the race card outright, for a "revival" of the 1980's spirit that is a tried and true method to motivate the city's humongous African-American vote.

  The question is, which voices will black voters heed?  Those of their most powerful elected officials?

  Or the one that speaks from the grave.




Obama's First Year: Lessons Learned

  Remember just before he took office, when President-elect Barack Obama predicted that he and the soon-to-be first family would return to sweet home Chicago every few weeks or so?  Since moving into the White House, the Obamas have spent only one weekend--Valentine's Day last year--in their Hyde Park mini-mansion.

  When Mr. Obama made his prediction, he apparently was clueless about the changes in his personal life that the presidency would demand.  On that first and only trip home, the President learned that there was no way his south side house and neighborhood could accomodate the personal staff and multi-layered security required to travel with the leader of the free world.  And that's not to mention the big city traffic nightmare caused by every movement of the presidential motorcade.

  The point is that the first twelve months of Barack Obama's presidency has been a learning experience from the very beginning.  Here are three other lessons learned:

1) Presidential politics is labor-intensive.  The round-the-clock energy of barackobama.com that kept our blackberries chirping during the 2008 campaign waned after the January, 2009 inauguration.  It virtually disappeared last summer and at best has remained low-level ever since. 

  That's not the case with the "tea partiers" whose conservative, anti-Obama messages inflame millions of electronic mailboxes several times a day. 

  Wanna know what happened to the the President's 62-36% 2008 general election majority in Massachusetts where the democrats lost the late Ted Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat this week?  Obama's now relatively moribund political apparatus got outhustled from start to finish, plain and simple.  The consequence is that the President's healthcare reform agenda, the major policy initiative of his first year in office, is in serious jeopardy.

2) Stay out of local politics.  I remember cringing when the President answered the Lynn Sweet (Sun-Times) question last summer about the racially-charged controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.   The White House "Beer Summit" looked as silly as it was.  And guess where the presidential involvement in the silliness got its biggest play in the news?  Did I hear Massachusetts?  Connect those dots.

   And hopefully, never again will Barack Obama put the prestige of the presidency on the line for hometown political boss Richard M. Daley.  That's what he did when he flew to Copenhagen to beg the International Olympic Committee to stage its games in Chicago in 2016.  

  At the urging of the mayor, his Chicago-bred advisers (Jarrett/Axelrod/Emmanuel) put Obama in a situation where he had no control over the outcome.  The President of the United States is not supposed to beg any foreigner for anything much less lose the appeal.

3) Hiring friends is risky.  Chicagoan Desiree Rogers' friendship with somebody in the Obama's inner circle has to be the explanation for how she got her job as White House social secretary.  Rogers' profound lack of experience and qualification for the post is the easiest explanation for why she failed so miserably in her first attempt to manage a state dinner.  The "party crashers" incident caused the administration several weeks of embarassment and provided fodder for anti-Obama editorialists that distracted the electorate from the real issues facing the country.


No Respect

  Jacob Meister was conspicuous in his absence at last nights candidate "forum" at WTTW-TV for three other contenders for the democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.   The station snubbed Meister, who earlier Wednesday filed what amounted to a discrimination complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.

  As reported in this space Tuesday, the region's "window to the world" public television station used a nearly two month old poll to determine that Meister lacked the support of five per cent of voters to participate in the program.  The station discounted the fact that since the Chicago Tribune survey, Meister had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on his campaign, including the purchase of time to air over two thousand commercials on broadcast and cable television. 

  The complaint contended that since Meister was a qualified candidate, the only reason the station could have used to bar him is the fact that Meister is gay.  The FCC did not respond to the mid-afternoon discrimination allegation in any way that would make a difference in WTTW's decision.

  Meister campaigned last night in Woodstock.


Axelrod On Hotseat For Mass. Mess?

  So where was President Barack Obama's political guru David Axelrod Tuesday when tea partiers "crashed" the Massachusett's special election?  Let me guess, "Axe" was sitting at the end of the table in some political war room at the White House, the object of any number of sullen stares, one of them belonging to the President himself.


  The most liberal state this side of Vermont?  In an election to replace the late Ted Kennedy, the "Lion of the Senate" and "Hero of Healthcare Reform"? 

   Obama did not go to Massachusetts until last Sunday to campaign for democrat Martha Coakley who lost to republican state senator Scott Brown.  Axelrod apparently prepared his boss for the embarassing loss that could endanger the President's healthcare reform agenda.  He told The Huffington Post  before the vote that the administration could have been more helpful to the Coakley campaign at an earlier point in the race.

 "The White House did everything we were asked to do," Axelrod said. "I think if we had been asked earlier, we would have responded earlier."

  But dude, who's in charge of a campaign so critical to the President's agenda?  I can't believe its some local pol in Boston!

  There was an obvious disconnect between Axelrod, the Coakley campaign and what was left of Obama's 2008 in-state political apparatus that carried Massachusetts for the President by a landslide (62% - 36%) less than 15 months ago.

   Early finger-pointers target Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine for the meltdown in Massachusetts but expect panicky dems around the country to set their sights on Axelrod within the next few days.

  They will ask if he is the White House senior political adviser only because of his Chicago roots and his performance during the presidential campaign?  Is he the best man for the job now?

  One more thing:

  Clearly, the aforementioned "tea partiers" as they call themselves carried the day in Massachusetts.  For one night in one state they proved what they've been saying for months about the effectiveness of their conservative grassroots organizing effort.  Their success will inspire groups in other states with the same anti-Obama agendas to jam polling places on election days.

  Yesterday, the President's troops were asleep in their political barracks.

  They'd better wake up. 


Here Comes The Judge!

  Jacob Meister is not your "garden variety" candidate upset that he's being left out of an important campaign debate.  That's why the democratic U.S. Senate hopeful will ask a federal judge to intervene and force WTTW-TV to include Meister in its televised forum Wednesday night.

  Executive producer Jay Smith told me last Friday that because Meister was not the preferred candidate of at least five per cent of people surveyed in a Chicago Tribune-sponsored poll during the first week of December, the Chicago attorney was not invited to participate alongside Alexi Giannoulias, Cheryle Jackson and David Hoffman.

  WTTW, the public television station that promotes itself as the region's "window to the world", is not only relying on a nearly two-month old survey, it also discounts the fact that Meister's campaign has spent most of a million dollars, has opened six campaign offices around the state with 33 paid staff members, has aired over two thousand broadcast and cable television ads, and has distributed thousands of printed pieces.  And during the final weeks of the campaign, you'll see Meister's spectacled mug and name on rolling CTA bus billboards.

  When I talked to Smith last week, he wouldn't budge on the "five per cent" rule, no matter how many weeks ago the race was measured. 

  "Its not about how much money (Meister) spends, its about bringing our viewers candidates who have a reasonable chance of winning", said Smith during a telephone interview.

   When did some pollster with a seven week old telephone survey of 800 "likely" voters and a TV producer on Chicago's Northwest side become the arbiters of who has a "reasonable" chance of winning an election?

  Something else to consider:  

  Usually at this stage of a primary campaign, there would have been several pre-election polls commissioned by several different news organizations around the state during the weeks leading up to an election.   But this year, most media outlets are seriously cash-strapped (or bankrupt) and are simply not buying polling information the way they used to buy it.  That's why there aren't more recent numbers for Mr. Smith and WTTW to consider.

  But polls will not be the issue for Meister's lawyers.  They will argue that WTTW is violating election rules set down by the Federal Communications Commission to guarantee fairness in campaign coverage.

  It'll be interesting to hear what a federal judge will say about this.



Preckwinkle's 304 Year Old "Endorser"

  Toni Preckwinkle's rolling out the big guns or should that be the "old guns" in the democratic primary race for Cook County board president.  The 4th Ward Chicago Alderman, a former school teacher, is joined by none other than "Benjamin Franklin" in her latest TV ad to begin airing later today.

  The spot begins with former schoolteacher Preckwinkle in the classroom reminding the kids (and voters) what Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac said about "a penny saved is a penny earned".  Its an obvious reference to the candidate's promise to rollback the remaining half cent of the one penny increase in the sales approved by the county board in 2008. 

  Its cute.

  But hey, the bigger story is that Preckwinkle apparently has enough money for TV combat with Water Reclamation Board President Terry O'Brien.  The commercial is Preckwinkle's second and perhaps evidence that she can go "dollar to dollar" with O'Brien down the stretch.  

  So far, President Todd Stroger and Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown are no-shows when it comes to broadcast television advertising.