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The big idea behind Chicago Newsroom is that we assemble a small group of involved, knowledgeable people around the table and we yak about the week’s local news. Most often we tap journalists, but you’ll also find historians, political activists, academicians and newsmakers in the mix, too.

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CN April 23, 2015


Stop the presses.

Flint Taylor, the prominent human-rights attorney who has for decades dogged former Commander Jon Burge for torture of prisoners at his South Side police district, had kind words for a Chicago Mayor today. After negotiating with Mayor Emanuel’s team, there was an agreement that Taylor called “historic.” The surviving victims of Burge’s abuse could be given a cash payment, along with a package of “reliefs”. Those include free education at City Colleges, the history of this torture scandal to be taught in the public schools in 8th and 10th grade, psychological care for survivors, a memorial, and a full public apology. “All those things are quite significant, and unusual,” he tells us.

Taylor said the negotiating teams “met five or six, seven times, not only with the Corporation Counsel himself, Steve Patton, but with important people from various parts of the Mayor’s administration. And during that process, I think we came into it skeptical, and we came out of it feeling, yes, at least around that table, there was some real belief that reparations was the human-rights thing to do.”

The package comes before the City Council on May 6.

If you’ve been following the two unrelated high-profile police-killing stories this week, you could be forgiven for confusing some of the details. There’s an unnamed officer who, video evidence seems to show, killed LaQuon McDonald on the southwest side with sixteen bullets. It turns out that McDonald was unarmed. And  there’s Rekia Boyd, who was shot and killed by off-duty officer Dante Servin, who, from his car, fired at a crowd of unruly partygoers outside his house when someone in the group, he claims, threatened him with a gun. The “gun” turned out to be a cell phone. Servin was acquitted this week in a remarkable ruling from a Cook County judge who felt that the charges levied against the officer by the Sate’s Attorney were inadequate and he therefore had no choice but to acquit.

Both of these high-profile cases will have implications for the Police and the Mayor’s office for a long time to come, especially because both involve high-numbers cash settlements with the victims’ families. If you’d like a crystal clear understanding of these cases, listen to WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell at the top of this show. Chip understands, and articulates, the detail in an easy-to understand way, and it’s worth watching.

By the way, Mitchell says we haven’t necessarily heard the last of the Servin case. “Servin’s not entirely off the hook,” he explains. “The Independent Police Review Authority is back on the case now, since the criminal case has been disposed of. So it’s possible he could face administrative charges which could threaten his job, even if he does’t end up in prison.”

And in the McDonald Case, there’s a dashboard video of the killing, recorded by one of the squad cars that responded to the call for assistance. But the police, the Mayor’s office, and reportedly the victim’s family all have insisted that the video not be made public. In addition, the City has not named the offending police officer.

“There have been two reasons put forward by the city officials  for why this dashboard video has been kept under wraps,” says Mitchell. “This is from Mayor Emanuel himself. He called it ‘central to the investigation.’ There’s an investigation involving both local and federal authorities and the FBI is leading it. And second, this comes from Steve Patton – he heads the City’s law department – the City’s contract with the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, prohibits naming the officer.”

And finally, a class-action suit filed this week by six Chicagoans claims that African-Americans were unfairly targeted in the City’s recently-revealed stop-and-frisk program. “We’re talking four times as many here as in New York,” Taylor says, in reference to a similar, but we now know to be smaller, program there. According to the ACLU, in just four months last year, about a quarter-million stops were made here in Chicago, none of which resulted in arrests, but could have involved searches and other police procedures. Of those approximately 250,000 stops, 182,048 involved African Americans.

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CN April 16, 2015


Sarah Karp and Catalyst broke a big story back on July 30, 2013. It took a while, but today, as a result of that story, the FBI is investigating a north suburban company and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett.


It all began at the end of that week’s regular school board meeting, when loads of anonymous issues are crammed into one nebulous action, usually enacted with a unanimous vote. This meeting was no different, but Karp was able to discern that, buried among the routine promotions, transfers and purchases was a pretty big contract. A $20 million contract for which there had been no competitive bidding.

“CPS has not given a no-bid contract that big in at least the five years prior to letting this contract,” Karp tells us. “So in just going through the Board reports it sort of raised an eyebrow – it’s a lot of money, why would you do that? What it turns out to be is a for-profit company located in Wilmette that originally provided training for aspiring superintendents.”

And CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett used to work for them.

That company is called the SUPES Academy. It was run by two individuals, and its stated mission is to help train principals and other higher-up officials in school systems. They function by hiring similar officials from around the county to hold seminars and offer mentoring to less-experienced or struggling school personnel.

Shortly after CPS signed the contract, the seminars began. The first, Karp says, was an unanticipated  mandatory meeting for principals in the middle of July.

“The principals, immediately they were upset about it,” she says. “The thing they really complained about was that the trainers from outside often didn’t  know Chicago well, that often the sessions weren’t specific as to what they needed on a day-to-day basis, that they were supposed to each be given a mentor, and some of their mentors were superintendents who had their own jobs, and  so would just, you know, text them every now and then or email them – hey, how’s it going? Not exactly that close mentor relationship. So principals were saying, y’know, we would really like some professional development. It’s a very difficult job.”

One of the still-unexplained mysteries is why CPS decided to let a “sole-source” contract for something so readily available in this market. Sole-source, or no-bid contracts are usually reserved for purchasing items, such as proprietary software or specific equipment, that can only be obtained from one vendor. Chicago has no shortage of universities and companies offering professional development. And there was no questioning of the action as it passed through the Board meeting.

“They did it in the summer,” Karp explains. “Two weeks after they closed fifty schools. A lot of people did not pay attention…a lot of people were just burnt out. And I think that if you’re gonna try and put something like this in place that might smell a little bit funny, it was actually a pretty good moment to do so. Also, we have an appointed school board. (Bennett) is appointed, there was little discussion and it was passed by unanimous vote. This was just something that immediately smelled funny to me.”

So Karp and Catalyst started to dig.

“After a pretty long FOIA fight, I was able to get the list of people who are supposedly mentoring Chicago Public High School principals and doing the trainings,” she tells us. “And these are superintendents all across the country. And they’re coming to Chicago, maybe for an afternoon or a weekend and they’re getting paid – this is a private organization, so I don’t know exactly how much they’re getting paid – I’ve been told it’s in the thousands of dollars. And if you look at some of their names, their school districts have contracts with SUPES.”

She wrote about one superintendent from Baltimore County who did work in Chicago. “The ethics panel in Baltimore County sanctioned him and made him pay back the money because they said – well, you can’t be working for a place that has a contract with us.”

Barbara Byrd-Bemmet’s contract ends in a couple of months, and the Sun-Times has reported that City Hall sources say the contract won’t be renewed unless she gets out from under this investigation with a clear record.

Over the past several months, the Mayor and Byrd-Bennet have been very public about their claims that the dropout rate at CPS is declining, and the graduation rates are spiking upward. Now we know at least one way in which more CPS students have been graduating. They’re passing through so-called “alternative schools”. Alternative schools have been around for decades, offering specific services for troubled kids.

“They re-enroll dropouts,” Karp says. “They provide a second chance for dropouts.”

But suddenly there are many, many more of these “schools”.

“Under Barbara Byrd Bennett, last year they sort of quietly, again, without much fanfare, decided to bring in all these little alternative schools. Now they call them options schools. Thy’re for-profit, and most of them are computer-based. So it’s basically kids going in on computers and being able to pass classes very quickly.”

In essence, these establishments put kids in front of laptops and serve them proprietary software that replicates the normal high school experience, but in a radically compressed time-frame.

“One week, two weeks, some kids a month, to rack up a credit,” she says. “Most years, kids can get between four and six credits in high school. But we found kids who, in two months they ascended from freshman year to sophomore year.”

And it took some fancy footwork to get these “schools” into a position where their credits could legally be counted toward graduation. “In Illinois, you cannot have a for-profit school,” Karp explains. “It’s against the law. So they had to set them up as units of one of the divisions of CPS. So they’re getting contracted in the same way we’d contract someone to clean the bathrooms. So they’re not schools, technically.”

One of the most remarkable aspects about these schools is the fact that, when their students graduate, they are counted as graduates of their former high school, thereby bumping up the graduation rates of many CPS high schools.

“By the way, the State, when they look at who graduated and they do graduation rates, they do not count kids who get alternative diplomas,” explains Karp. “These kids are getting counted. Chicago Public Schools is figuring out how to count them.”

There are lots of “alternative schools” popping up across the city, some as small and anonymous as a single store-front in a strip mall. And their quality, Karp says, is variable. Catalyst looked into the operations of several.

“One of the most questionable was Magic Johnson Bridgescape, where kids can pass these classes pretty quickly. On the day our story came out, suddenly Rahm Emanuel got $250,000 (from Magic Johnson as a campaign contribution.) Magic Johnson is getting paid to basically brand those schools. He’s getting paid, I think, hundreds of thousands of dollars per school. And the big problem with this is, if it’s just putting a few kids in front of a computer for a few hours, that’s a very inexpensive proposition.” Karp says the critics are starting to ask tough questions. “Why are we spending the exact same amount of  money on that kid, and giving it to a for-profit organization that, we could be doing that ourselves?’

“The Magic Johnson Bridgescape (schools), they’re run by Edison Learning,” she explains.”They are paying, through their budget, four hundred thousand dollars per campus – the campuses have about 200 kids – to Edison Learning to use their software. Now, that’s like two thousand dollars per kid to log on. That’s a lot of money.”

Investigations are continuing, as reporters like to say. And here at Chicago Newsroom , we like to celebrate good reporting.

You can see Sarah Karp’s original reporting on SUPES here. And the joint reporting by Catalyst and Becky Vevea/WBEZ on alternative schools is here and here.



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CN April 9, 2015


Rahm Emanuel had a ground game after all.  At least for the runoff. He saw how it worked out for him in the February general election, not having one, and he apparently didn’t like what he saw.

In fact, now that he’s won a decisive victory, it’s becoming clear that he had, through a network of surrogates, thousands and thousands of workers knocking on doors. And his numbers were impressive.

Early indications, although these numbers are always educated guesses, show Emanuel with 61% of the white vote, 57% of the black vote, and despite Chuy Garcia’s strong showing in most Latino wards, 39% of the Hispanic vote.

“Mayor Emanuel in February relied on the existing ward organizations and thought that they would be able to come through for him,” explains NPR Chicago correspondent David Schaper. “What I think he maybe failed to take into account is, while Mayor Daley did that as well, Mayor Daley ran those organizations. His organization ran those organizations. And in fact, its really the machinery that elected Rahm Emanuel to his congressional seat.”

Emanuel has always been given credit as a gifted political tactician. And, according to Schaper, Emanuel learned a lesson in February.

“Rahm had taken a much more hands-off approach,” Schaper asserts. “He ran the February campaign as he has done for congressional campaigns around the country – more of an air war on television, talking points, trying to win the day in the newspapers, trying to win the news coverage.”

Hal Dardick, City Hall reporter for the Chicago Tribune, says there was another factor in Emanuel’s lackluster performance in the earlier election.

“I think the great irony is that when he did first get elected to Congress he had the Doanld Tomczak army from the water department out there,” he explains. “And that was a real, true patronage army…all those things were dismantled by court cases, as we know. And the Mayor managed to get out from under the Shakman Decree by taking all the steps you’re supposed to,  to get rid of patronage. So the irony is he killed off, in a lot of ways – and this is a good thing- this patronage culture at City Hall, so he had to find another way to create ground troops.”

But let’s not forget the money.

“The money does talk,” says Schaper. “And when you have a four or five-to-one spending advantage, especially in the tens of millions of dollars, it is a huge mountain to climb.”

And just having the money to buy lots of commercials isn’t in itself, enough. Emanuel’s spots had an important secondary function. “There was an undercurrent message in all those commercials, too,” says Dardick. “Yea, I may not be likable. I may be an unpleasant guy, but I’m the unpleasant guy that you need.”

At this writing, it’s still too early to tell what’s happening in four very important ward races. And the money the mayor’s allies spent to support favorable aldermen and defeat his adversaries didn’t always do the job.

“You had Chicago Forward, this new Super-PAC, out there working separately from the mayor but on the mayor’s behalf to elect the mayor and allies of his in the city council,” Dardick explains.”And when all was said and done, a number of mayoral allies, six or seven, in the end will have lost. And the progressive caucus will not have a majority by any  means, but where they went into this race with seven members they may emerge with as many as fourteen. And these are people who are highly critical of the mayor, so you may see a slightly different dynamic on the city council.

Both reporters speculate that, as a third day dawns with several key Aldermen still in limbo, and a number of staunch allies – even with 100% voting records – being defeated, there are aldermen who must be asking – wow. I’ve been this loyal backer of the mayor for four years, and where did it get me?

And what of that suddenly expanded Progressive Caucus? Will it have actual power? Will it begin to set, or at least adjust, the agenda?

“I’m not convinced that they’re all on the same page on a lot of issues,” Schaper speculates. “So it’ll be interesting to see how it forms and coalesces, and to see what kind of committee assignments certain people get. I can’t imagine that this is gonna lead the mayor to all of a sudden invite Scott Waguespack to his budget meetings and his strategy sessions for Council meetings.”

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CN April 2, 2015 Part 2

Mick  Dumke and Ben Joravsky of the Reader are joined by special guest Cliff Kelley, the Governor of Talk Radio (and afternoon host on WVON) for our final wrap-up discussion before election day.  We also talk ward politics, this week in 16, 21 and 29.

Some general themes: Bob Fioretti threw away his accomplishments as a thoughtful opposition leader for $80k. There’s no evidence that aldermen who battle with the mayor get worse services in their wards as punishment. And former Alderman Cliff Kelley believes the Council could be cut immediately to 25 wards and that it would make aldermen more independent, not less.

Quick snapshots on the election: Garcia would beat Emanuel easily if he’d had money early on and a slightly longer head-start. Not enough attention has been paid to issues like police stop-and-frisk in African-American neighborhoods. And the polls, especially the Trib poll, are under-counting Latinos. One panelist says Rahm wins, two say it’s a Chuy upset.

Then, from Ben Joravsky, the most radical reform idea of all: Since the garbage grid system seems to have been one of Mayor Emanuel’s big successes, making services more efficient and less costly, let’s just adopt the grid as our new ward boundaries. Look at that map – it’s compact and contiguous!

Screenshot 2015-04-04 08.48.57

Joravsky says that he’s never seen proof that minority aldermen represent minority constituents any more effectively, etc. So maybe we don’t need to draw gerrymandered wards any more.

Three of Chicago’s most passionate political animals, all at one table.

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CN April 2, part 1

It’s just days before the election results roll in and we know whether the people have elected Rahm or Chuy.

So it’s only natural that, among political animals, attention turns to last-minute polls. And to early voting patterns.  Polls have shown Mayor Emanuel gaining significantly in wards with majorities of white registered voters, and, coincidentally, many of those same wards have shown a doubling of early voters since the February general election. What does it mean?

Syvia Puente, Executive Director of the Latino Policy Forum, thinks  – not all that much.

“People are just going to be gone for spring break, so they’re just getting in their voting early,” she predicts. “So I think it means that turnout will be less next Tuesday, the day of the election. People are just shifting their priorities around for when they vote.”

Nevertheless, more than 20,000 new voters have registered before today, and while that’s not a huge number, it’s enough to have real impact in a close election. The question is, which side registered them?

It’s been pointed out that the Mayor is running with such fervor that he doesn’t look like a candidate who is confident that the polls are right and he’s got a fifteen-point lead.

“He’s certainly sweating more than he’s had to before,” explains Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg. “But I would argue that he’s campaigning really hard. And that’s classic Rahm Emanuel. He always does that.”

“He came on four years ago,” Steinberg continues. “We were in a looming financial disaster, which is still very much with us. However it’s not a disaster that the mayor can fix. It’s against the law for him to fix this problem. The pension issue is just a time-bomb that will destroy Chicago.There’s no question about that.”

Emanuel has been criticized for offering as his most salient plan for pension funding a bill that requires State, and possibly Illinois Supreme Court approval. Steinberg say Emanuel’s options are limited. “Mike Madigan is going to have to solve this,” he explains. “Because  he’s the one with the power to do it. For some unfathomable reason, I would never guess why. Either that or you have to leave it up to God and say no one can solve it.”

Nevertheless, lots of Chicagoans have decided they’re going with Garcia.  And that number might be larger than had originally been thought. Last week, Puente’s Latino Policy Forum commissioned a poll, and because it was built from the ground up as a Latino-orientd poll, it revealed some different voting patterns.

“The poll was conducted bilingually, in whatever language preference the person answered the phone,” she explains.  If they answered “bueno”, the interview began in Spanish. If “hello”, it was English.

“In this poll, it showed that 46% responded in Spanish. And I don’t think any other poll around town has been able to use that methodology…so it really calls into question the veracity and the accuracy of the other polls that are out there.”

And the LPF-sponsored poll showed a clear preference for Garcia in majority-Hispanic wards, Puente tells us.

“What our polls showed is that about 61% of Latinos said they were favoring Chuy. 18% said they were favoring Rahm…but what surprised me is that 20% of the Latino voters surveyed said they were undecided.”

With 40% of respondents not expressing a preference for Garcia, it could indicate that Emanuel is stronger than he appears, since some number of the undecideds may simply be afraid to admit their Rahm preference to an obviously Latino polling firm. But, as everyone at the table agreed, we’re going to know the answer in just a couple of days.

When you have pretty much all of the money, you can define your opponent. By almost all accounts, Team Emauel has done a good job of defining Garcia, and Puente says Garcia is being victimized by it.

“What I’m still having trouble understanding is, I think Garcia has laid out a plan. I think it hasn’t been as well received for what’s in it,” she says. “But we have a mayor who’s been in office for four years, and we’re on the brink of fiscal bankruptcy. Now, he’s saying it’s a 30-year mess that’s been accumulating, and yes, that’s true. But this year we had to borrow two months into next year’s CPS budget to balance this year’s budget. That’s all on this mayor.”

One of my frustrations in reading the papers is that there’ll be three paragraphs on how Garcia doesn’t have a plan,” she continues, “and then two sentences on, well, Rahm really hasn’t given much detail either. So I think that speaks to the broader bias of our newspapers lecturing us on who should be the next mayor, and that they’re not giving equal time or equal critique to each of the candidates.”

But Steinberg is forceful in his defense of Emanuel.

“We needed to close fifty schools and Rahm did it,” he asserts. “If you watched Chicagoland, with Fenger High School, you’ve got 400 kids in a 1600-kid school…because the City’s hollowed out, and because any parent who has any sort of resources either takes them to the suburbs or sends them to a private school because sending their kids to the Chicago Public Schools is a form of child abuse in some places.”

“What we’re doing is a narrative for a public policy solution that we came up with 20 years ago when our schools really were a mess,” Puente counters. “We said, OK, now we’ve gotta start to create charters. That was a policy solution twenty years ago. Moving up now, I think what we’ve seen is charters have in some ways facilitated a disinvestment in our neighborhood schools. And now we’ve got to right the policy ship”

Despite his prediction  that Emanuel will win, Steinberg says there would be benefits to a Garcia incumbency.

“If you look at the arc of numbers in America, Latinos are rising in power, in influence, and are a much larger factor in America,” he asserts. “And if Chuy Garcia becoming the Mayor of Chicago can be part of that story, I don’t think there’s anybody who cares about the city who’d think that’s a bad thing. The problems we’re facing are not some magic thing that Rahm Emanuel has figured out, obviously. On the other hand, if you look at power in Chicago and if I had to bet the house, I’d bet that Rahm wins on Tuesday.”

And what’s Puente’s prediction?

“It is spring break. There’s gonna be tens of thousand of teachers who are gonna be out of school, and a lot of Rahm’s base is gonna be away on spring break,” she claims. “I do think there’s a lot of enthusiasm, Chicago has people coming in from all around the country to work on the election for what it’s beginning to symbolize. But we all know the Mayor is very astute. He’s put in tremendous resources, and I think we’re not going to know.”


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CN March 26, 2015 Part 2


With so much attention focused on the mayoral race, it can be easy to forget that there are eighteen smaller runoffs being held in Chicago Wards. Some of them seem to be foregone conclusions, but in nearly half of these races there’s a hard-fought, sometimes vicious fight going on between evenly-matched opponents.  We’ll take a look at some of each this week with Aldertrack’s Jimm Dispensa. All four wards share something in common: their aldermen were forced into a runoff after failing to achieve 50% of the vote. Three of our featured wards this week hug the western borders of Chicago, while one luxuriates on the City’s east coast.

Ward 18: Lona Lane (I) and Derrick Curtis

Auburn-Gresham, Marquette Park

“Derrick Curtis, interestingly, garnered more votes than incumbent Lona Lane in the General Election,” Dispensa tells us, but that’s not the most fascinating part. “Curtis is her Ward Superintendent and is the Democratic Committeeman. He has deep campaign experience and was responsible really, for working for Lane – passing petitions out on the street. He has the endorsement of the Sun-Times, the Tribune and the Defender.  A lot of organized mail, a lot of feet on the street. The signage in the 18th Ward is pretty extreme. It’s a tough race to call, but the incumbent may be in trouble here.”


Ward 37: Emma Mitts (I) and Tara Stamps

Austin, West Humboldt Park

“More than half of the precincts in 37 gave Emma Mitts more than 50% 0f their vote,” says Dispensa, “so she missed avoiding a runoff by less than a hundred votes. The challenger is Chicago Public Schools teacher Tara Stamps, daughter of famous Civil Rights leader Marion Stamps. And here, unlike in the 18th, where each candidate is being neutral with regard to their mayoral candidate affiliation, here you have a clear alignment between the incumbent and Mayor Emanuel, and a very clear alignment between challenger Tara Stamps and Chuy Garcia.”

“It’s in part because Stamps is one of the candidates that the CTU got behind very early with a lot of money,” he explains. “And Ald. Mitts, you’ll recall, is a supporter of the City’s first WalMart, is a supporter of charter schools, so you saw this sort of natural tension building once a CTU-backed challenger got in the race. Of the 41 precincts in the 37th Ward, I think Tara Stamps got more than 40% of the vote in just three of those precincts…It’s a very strong possibility that the incumbent wins here.”


Ward 41:  Mary O’Connor (I) and Anthony Napolitano

Edison Park, Edgebrook, Norwood Park 

“It’s a huge ward,” Dispensa tells us. “A huge number of votes came out of the ward, about 15,000 in fact. and if you recall, for about 20 years we had one Republican on the City Council back when we had partisan municipal elections. So Alderman Doherty retires after 20 years, puts his own person in the race in 2011 and that person narrowly loses to Mary O’Connor. Now, it’s not clear if Anthony Napolitano, firefighter who’s raised a good amount of money and got 43% of the vote in February, is aligning himself with Alderman Doherty. (Local columnist Russ Stewart says he definiely is aligned.) O’Connor got 48% of the February vote.

O’Hare noise has been a major battle in the Ward, with Napolitano accusing O’Connor of doing nothing about the overhead jets. He accuses the Alderman of being too close to Mayor Emanuel and his policies.

But does attacking O’Connor for her nearly perfect record of voting with Mayor Emanuel  hurt her? “It’s risky,” Dispensa says, “Because it isn’t clear how strong that anti-incumbent mood is in the 41st Ward. The message from the incumbent alderman is, look, we have overcrowded schools in these neighborhoods, in part because middle-class families are choosing public schools, and I’ve managed to get scarce capital dollars to build additions to those schools, so I think that the incumbent is saying it’s not so much that I’m with the mayor 100% of the time. Our community has needs, and I’ve met those needs.”


Ward 43: Michelle Smith (I) and Caroline Vickrey

Lincoln Park

According to Dispensa, “Alderman Smith has raised about $550,000, the most amount of money for any incumbent alderman in a runoff. Her opponent, Caroline Vickrey has raised about $130,000. That’s second or third-most for a non-incumbent challenger. It’s Lincoln Park. It’s the silk-stocking ward. And the incumbent has the endorsement of the former 43rd Ward alderman, Marty Oberman, and former Alderman Chuck Bernardini, as well as the challengers who didn’t make the general election. But Caroline Vickrey has on her side former alderman Bill Singer.”

The 43rd’s reputation as a bastion for independent politics seems to have pretty much evaporated in recent years, he says. “Now it doesn’t seem to be so much about, who’s more independent. Now it’s more about, who’s reaching out to the community in the right way to talk about development?”

And the 43rd Ward is one of the places in Chicago where support for Rahm Emanuel is almost unquestioned. “72% of the 43rd Ward mayoral votes went to Mayor Emanuel,” Dispensa says. “You have both candidates saying we both support Mayor Emanuel.”

“Incumbent Michelle Smith got 42% of the general election vote, and Caroline Vickry got 36%. I think it’s more of an uphill battle for the challenger in this case. I’d say it’s a tossup with an edge toward the incumbent.”


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CN March 26, 2015, Part 1

What happens when you fill the table with panelists who’ve been around a while? veterans of the Harold Washington years? These are people who love and breathe politics, and you get a surprisingly balanced view.

Right off the bat: Can Rahm Emanuel win?

“He likely will, but I don’t think it’s gonna be like fifteen points. I think it will be close,” asserts Beyond the Beltway‘s Bruce DuMont, one of the sharpest political analysts in Chicago.

“I think we have to be careful, because in the field it looks very differently,” adds Maria De Los Angeles Torres, Director and Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at UIC. “Chuy Garcia is charismatic, he connects with people, and  I think we’re not gonna know who’s gonna win the election until the day of the election, because it will be fought in the field.”

“It really is a ground game,” concludes Jacky Grimshaw, long-time political activist and former member of Harold Washington’s Cabinet. “And the union fight – those that are supporting Garcia versus those supporting Emanuel, the the unions that are into giving money versus those that are into giving troops. I think the troops side may be on the Garcia (side).”

Despite his victory prediction, DuMont sees many bumps in the road for the Mayor. And not having many enthusiastic ground troops is a big one. “It’s easy to write a check,” he explains. “It’s easy to make a robo-call. But it’s different from having perhaps thousands of people going into the precincts knocking on doors. I think that’s something that Rahm is not gonna have.” In politics, he says, that energy leading up to the 72 hrs before an election can be so critical.

And he’s seen waning enthusiasm for the Mayor first-hand. He brought up a long-time friend he has in the 19th Ward.  “He doesn’t do anything that Mike Madigan doesn’t approve of,” He tells us. “He doesn’t sneeze until Mike Madigan says you can sneeze. And he shocked me when he told me he was out working the precincts for Chuy Garcia.”

So much of politics is rumor, innuendo and trying to stay a step beyond the other guy. And DuMont offers up just such a theory about what we used to call political power-houses.

“The reality is that, in many of those wards where their political leadership is, they’re only concerned about their own political future. They know the changing demographics of the city, and frankly, in their heart, they would probably just as soon have Rahm Emanuel go down to defeat because it would be their perception, at least in the Speaker’s case, that Chuy would need the Speaker a lot more than maybe Rahm might need the Speaker.”

So there’s that.

But ground-game or not, this election, Torres claims,”Has garnered national attention. The Latino Victory fund – Eva Longorio’s nice outfit, and Henry Munoz, big supporters of Obama, are supporting Chuy Garcia. So I think that’s seen as – it is the fight in the Democratic Party. What’s the next presidential election gonna look like? Are cities re-taking, in a sense, a populist approach to what are popular problems?”

For some time we’ve wanted to hear these folks’ take on he likelihood of a “black-brown coalition” heading into this election. One of the questioners at last night’s forum at Chicago State University asked Garcia, in essence, we – this mostly African-American crowd – are black, you’re hispanic, what are you gonna do for us?

Maria Torres is quick with an answer.

“There was never a black-latino coalition,” she declares. “Let’s be honest about it. There was an alliance of African Americans and progressive Latinos and progressive whites and Asians. (Today) we’re talking about young people that all the polls and all the surveys show are much more tolerant of each other. There’s been a huge influence of African-American culture onLatino and white youth. I think that base out there thinks about things a little differently than what we used to.”

Grimshaw’s response? “There are folks out there who’ve been trying to fuel a black-brown fight. And it’s an artificial fight. Because the situation for African-Americans, middle class, the unemployed – people are creating a false fight in terms of self-interest. The self interests of the African-American community and the Hispanic community are, I think, pretty much the same in the sense that they are all have-nots for the most part.”

So what was to be learned from last night’s candidate forum, in which both men showed up separately, and the audience appeared hostile toward Emanuel?

“He showed up there,” says DuMont. “He knew he was going into a hostile audience. And what I liked about what I saw last night – Chuy was making some political comments, and he was getting his cheers, even though they said ‘don’t cheer’ – what I liked?  He went into the lion’s den and he was aggressive, he didn’t take any crap from anybody, including the moderators and the questioners. And I thought he was a guy in charge, on fire last night.”

Garcia, DuMont believes, didn’t do enough Wednesday night to make Emanuel accountable for the things he hasn’t handled well. So he gave the candidate some free advice.

“There are some columnists who are holding Rahm’s feet to the fire,” he began. “Not the Editorial Boards. But the principal goal of the challenger has got to be to go in there with a machete and literally slice (the incumbent) down. To remind people that, yes, he promised a thousand police officers. Yes he did this, yes, he backed down on this. And if you’re so great with all your wizards, then why has the city’s bond rating gone down on your watch if you’re so great? I think his commercials should be spent a lot more on that than on reminding people about the closed schools – the people who are upset about the closed schools are already voting for him.”

And DuMont went further, calling out the journalists and critics who have excoriated Garcia for not having a fiscal plan fully hatched two weeks before election.

“It is totally unrealistic for any challenger to really be able to say what they’re going to do,” he claims. “Because when they’re a challenger they don’t have access to everything. And whether it’s Barack Obama inheriting what George Bush gave him, or Mayor Emanuel inheriting the mess – the absolute fiscal nightmare of Richard M. Daley, it’s unfair. But it seems to me the news media, especially the editorial boards, they’re demanding from Chuy Garcia far more specificity, and far more knowledge of things – that you don’t know until you step into that fifth-floor office.”

How will early voting affect the mayoral election? 33,520 – a lot – have already done it.

“I think it’s good news for Rahm,” DuMont insists. “Rahm’s voters tend to be early voters because they’re busy, they’re out of town, they’re vacationing, and there’s more of a tradition of them voting than, I think, in the minority communities.”

Torres sees it differently.  “all the ground troops that are out there and are gonna be working on election day, have made sure that they’re voting early,” she says, confident that they’ll be pulling for Garcia.

And the predictions continue.

“I believe that Chuy will likely come back to public safety as the issue leading up to the campaign, asserts DuMont. “Because we don’t know how many people are going to be shot and killed in this city before April 7. But I will bet it will lead the 10:00 news over fifty percent of the time.”

Rahm Emanuel’s “been a bold leader,” he continues. “He’s made a lot of very tough choices. I think the question is, do you want to reward him for that, or do you want him to just take bows and not acknowledge that there’s some pretty bad things that happened on his watch as well?”

The final word – and the final prediction, goes to Jacky Grimshaw.

“We’re getting a property tax increase. The City’s broke. There’s only so much you can do. These additional taxes are Springfield-derived taxes, not local. There’s no way that we’ll be able to pay the pension debt that’s coming due. Or the debt for operating expenses – borrowing for operating expenses…there’s no way that you can get it out of increasing the tax on electricity any more, or cell phones or junk food. You have to have a major source of revenue, and I think property taxes is going to be it. The only question is going to be – how much?”


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CN March 19, 2015, Part 2

Think the Rahm/Chuy race is the only show in town? There’s exciting action in many of the heated ward runoffs. Miguel de Valle, who was himself a mayoral candidate only 4 years ago and has for years been a progressive voice in Chicago politics, says there’s a “power struggle” going on in that vast stretch of largely Hispanic wards from Logan Square all the way to Harlem.

If you watch this show and you love Chicago politics, you’ll be hitting Rewind a lot, because this can be hard to follow. Let’s begin with Wards 31 and 36.

Ward 31
“Ray” Suarez (I) and “Milly” Santiago
Ward 36
Omar Aquino and Gilbert Villegas

“Ray” Suarez, del Valle  says, couldn’t make it to 50%, despite having been in office since 1991, and with the support of Joe Berrios, the County Assessor and Chair of the Cook County Democratic Party. “Between the two of them they have about 2-1/2 million dollars in their campaign funds,” he explains.

His opponent is “Millie” Santiago, a popular former reporter and anchor for Spanish-language TV. “Santiago is being supported by State Rep. Luis Arroyo who also has a candidate in the 36th Ward, ” he explains. “Some folks figure that one of the reasons  why Arroyo jumped into the 31st Ward race was to keep them occupied so that he could elect his guy (Gilbert Villegas) in the 36th Ward, because the guy running against him is a Joe Berrios ally. Did you follow me on that? And Ray Suarez has given $20,000 to the campaign of Luis Arroyo’s candidate in the 36th Ward.”

And our free lesson in Northwest-side Hispanic politics continues.

“So these wards, the 36th Ward kind wraps around the 30th and is right next to the 31st Ward,” del Valle explains. “But the fact of the matter is that there’s a power struggle here. And Congressman Luis Gutierrez has taken sides with Luis Arroyo. And he has supported Millie Santiago. Even though he’s been aligned with Joe Berrios.  Chuy Garcia has been looking for support in these runoff elections, and Luis Arroyo has made a calculation, along with his 36th Ward candidate Gilbert Villegas, that there are a lot of Latino votes there (that Ward went for Chuy in the last election), so they determined that it’s in Villegas’ best interests to line up with Chuy. So Villegas and Chuy have endorsed each other, and Millie Santiago and Chuy have endorsed each other.

“Omar Aquino is  attempting to run an independent campaign,” del Valle continues, “But his father was the Ward superintendent for the 31st Ward, so he comes out of the Berrios/Suarez Organization.”

Got that? But wait, there’s more. Aldertrack’s Claudia Morell adds that  “Jacob Kaplan, the Executive Director of the Cook County Democratic Party, is running both the Suarez and Aquino campaigns.”

There’s no current polling available for either of these races, and del Valle says at least one, the 36th, is too close to call. So the City trucks are rolling.

“Both sides are sinking a lot of money into the races,” he says. “Both sides are heavily working the precincts. And both sides have patronage armies. Just in case you didn’t know, patronage is not dead in the City of Chicago. I’ve noticed an increase in the number of services being delivered in the 36th Ward. Trees being trimmed and other services, so I suspect that there’s a direct line to City Hall in making sure that services are delivered.”

Ward 15
Raymond Lopez and Rafael Yanez

There’s another newly-created predominantly-Hispanic Ward, this one on the South Side. And we do have some polling here. Aldertrack reports that Committeeman Ray Lopez has a 15-point lead over Rafael Yanez in the 15th Ward runoff.  (He came only 100 votes short of 50%, forcing him into the runoff.) That’s bad news for supporters of the Progressive wing in the City Council.

Ald. Toni Foulkes (the former 15th Ward Alderman who moved to 16 and is now in her own runoff in that neighboring Ward) has endorsed Yanez, del Valle says, as has Alderman-Elect David Moore in the 17th Ward.

“Alderman Foulkes is part of that progressive caucus,” he explains. “It’s what I call the real progressive caucus- not the phony progressive caucus. And they’re attempting to add another member here by electing Yanez. They were able to add Carlos Rosas in the 35th Ward, so there are a lot of folks who are counting on Yanez to grow that progressive voice in the City Council.”

Lopez, Claudia Morell tells us, gets support, endorsements and money from powerful aldermen Ed Burke, Joe Moreno, Tom Tunney and Brendan Reilly. “So they are helping him out. And it’s both a good thing for him and somewhat of a bad thing, because now the Yanez campaign is highlighting him as part of the Democratic machine, and that he will put the machine over the needs of the residents.”

And Yanez, she explains, “is closely aligned with Chuy Garcia.Garcia chairs his campaign committee and they knew each other from the nonprofit work that Yanez did. Also Yanez’s campaign manager ran a couple of Garcia’s campaigns back in the day. They’re very close and they’re basically running a joint campaign.

Looks like a proxy battle that reflects the mayoral race.

And finally…

Ward 10
John Pope (I) and Susan Sadlowski Garza

“Environmental issues are taking center stage” in the tenth, according to Morell, “With the  pet-coke issue, and KCBX terminals – which is a facility that transports and houses this petroleum byproduct – in 2013 there was a dust storm of pet-coke and it blanketed the neighborhoods with this black dust. So Ald. Pope proposed and got the council to pass a resolution to oversee and cap the amount of pet-coke that can be in the ward. But all of his challengers this year were for either completely banning it or putting in more restrictions. They don’t think he went far enough and so they’ve really capitalized on that issue. We did a poll yesterday in the ward and it found that Ald. Pope still has the lead among registered voters with about  40% to Garza’s 31% but with 20% undecided.”

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CN March 19, 2015 Part 1


Rahm Emanuel did the right thing.

“The the reality is those schools should have been closed,” says Chicago Defender Executive Editor Kai El’ Zabar. “If you had gone in and seen the circumstances and the situations people were working under. Facilities were eroded. Leaky pipes, rats, roaches. Who wants their children in that? These were socially disadvantaged communities. The parents didn’t have the resources or the wherewithal to complain about the schools so when the time came for them to be closed the teachers didn’t even say anything. Why? Because those were probably the teachers that were in trouble.

“They had been put in those situations – they didn’t want to speak up because they wanted their jobs. So the CTU protected their interests, used it as a playing card to say Rahm Emanuel closed all those schools.The reality is those schools deserved to be closed.”

It was Rahm Emanuel’s direct approach to the schools that helped him earn the Defender’s editorial endorsement.

Miguel de Valle, former City Clerk and 2011 Mayoral candidate, remains unimpressed by Emanuel. But he wasn’t overwhelmed by his friend Chuy Garcia’s performance last Monday in the first televised debate, either.

“This debate kind of reminded me of the Barack Obama debate with Mitch Romney”, he tells us, “Where Mitt Romney just left him in the dust. And Barack Obama came back very strong. I’m kind of counting on that this time around because I think that Garcia has some great ideas. But he’s going to have to work really hard to articulate those and get his message across”

So what advice would he offer the mayoral challenger?

“I’d tell him to be very clear, and just focus in on the issues,” he says. “For example, when the mayor said I haven’t increased property taxes, that’s not true. There have been over $300 million in increases in property taxes coming from CPS and other taxing bodies. It’s important that he get down into the specifics without boring people to death so that he can then become a clear contrast to Rahm Emanuel. When the mayor says he’s doing community policing in that debate I would have reminded people that last weekend there were five murders in the city of Chicago and we’ve had from Rahm Emmanuel about five plans to deal with violence and none of them have really worked.”

The Tribune’s Bill Ruthhart joined today’s panel to talk about some current coverage of the Emanuel campaign. A recent series he and others authored tracked the huge volumes of money the Mayor raised for his two campaigns.

“We found that of all the 30 million the mayor had raised at that point about half that money came from a very small circle of the donors – about 100 donors – and of those, 60% got something from City Hall.

“There’s a more recent example of that kind of thing happening where Magic Johnson and his partner have a press conference last month to give $10 million to the mayor’s summer jobs program. It was right before the election… the company that was set up to make that $10 million contribution, a week later gives Rahm Emanuel’s campaign a hundred thousand dollar contribution. Now that number’s up to $250,000 and what the story also lays out is that this came after one of Magic Johnson’s companies got an $80 million contract with Chicago Public Schools to oversee facilities for the scool district.”

Although Johnson’s wasn’t the only company involved in the mass privatization of cleaning and maintenance in Chicago’s public schools, the overall effort has been criticized by almost everyone subjected to the services.

“Many of these top donors have something at stake,” Ruthhart continues. “We’ve written numerous stories about developers who have approvals pending before City Hall for massive skyscrapers and the Mayor’s calendar shows him going to Lakeshore Drive condos of these folks, meeting with them, having campaign money come in, and the next week doing a ribbon-cutting or some event for the building which still has to go through the approval process… We’ve repeatedly asked the mayor for the better part of two years to discuss his fundraising. He’s refused at every turn. The story today has a very brief exchange in which I caught up with him at a diner in Bronzeville and asked him why it was okay for him to take money from developers and people who have business pending before City Hall. His only brief answer was that he follows the law and he walked away.”

So much more on today’s show: what was the meaning of Carrie Austin’s revelation that property tax increases were inevitable, the craziness over red – light cameras, the impending Supreme Court ruling on pension funding, and an intriguing explanation for why the Defender believes Rahm Emanuel is right for black Chicago, from Kai El’ Zabar:

“One of the problems I think with the more marginalized people is that they have a tendency to look for the Messiah, you know, who’s going to come and take this magic wand and just make everything go away – rather than look at themselves as a collective and how they can sit down and bargain about what their needs and interests are with each candidate.”

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CN March 12, 2015, Part 2


On today’s Chicago Newsroom Part 2, the aldermanic runoffs, we take on Wards 2, 7, 45 an 46 with Aldertrack’s Mike Fourcher.

Ward 2: Brian Hopkins and Alyx Pattison

Fourcher describes Hopkins, former Chief of Staff to Cook County Commissioner John Daley as ” the gatekeeper to the insider’s insider.” Pattison “spent ten years or so working for Congresswoman Jan Schakowski.”  The establishment political organizations will be working”1,000 percent” for Hopkins, while Schakowski’s organization and supporters will be working an equally impressive “one thousand percent” for Pattison.

You can watch the entire discussion at about 3:00 in the video.

Ward 7: Natasha Holmes and Gregory Mitchell

Natasha Holmes was appointed to the position by Mayor Emanuel when Sandi Jackson resigned. Gregory Mitchell is an IT manager. He won second place in an 8-way race with 20%.

You can watch the entire discussion at about 8:00 in the video.

Ward 45: John Arena and John Garrido

John Arena is the incumbent Alderman. He defeated Garrido four years ago by 30 votes. In many ways, that election never ended. This re-match is so heated that the two find themselves on opposite sides of many hyper-local neighborhood squabbles. Garrido is a Police lieutenant and has support from many of the police officers who live in the ward.

You can watch the entire discussion at about 12:00 in the video.

Ward 46: James Cappleman and Amy Crawford

In 2011, the incumbent Cappleman got elected “in part because there was this thinking that, well, a gay former priest social worker must be a pretty liberal guy, and so he’ll work well for this ward…he has turned out to be in a lot of ways a very aggressive personality, and I think more than anything the problems people have with him are more about personality than policy.”  Amy Crawford, Fourcher says, has portrayed herself as a centrist voice between the supporters of former Alderman Helen Shiller and Cappleman. “She’s been somewhat successful at that, actually. The other day she got the endorsement of the third candidate in the earlier race, Danice Davis. Davis was Helen Shiller’s Chief of Staff.” Davis was the only African-American candidate in the race.

You can watch the entire discussion at about 17:00 in the video.

We end our discussion with the revelation that the Board of Elections has certified that Deb Mell won 33 by 17 votes. But it ain’t over yet. Opponent Tim Meegan has filed a suit, so there’s a small chance there could be a re-count.

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