Welcome to Chicago Newsroom

Welcome to the Chicago Newsroom home page and archive.

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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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And don’t forget – you can watch the show every Thursday night at 6:30 on CAN TV 19.

It’s repeated on Fridays at 1:30 PM on CAN TV 19, and again on Saturdays at 7 PM on CAN TV 21. CAN TV is available to all Chicago subscribers of Comcast, WOW and RCN.

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CN December 18, 2014

Is the Chicago municipal election really under way? Well, yes, but not in the most visible way.  At this point, it’s “mostly objections and positioning,” say Jimm Dispensa and Mike Fourcher of Aldertrack, our guests this week.

Aldertrack is a comprehensive data-base of facts and figures about the election, constantly updated. It’s a must-read for Chicago political junkies.

There are a few wards where the incumbents are facing no opposition, some others where the battles are already getting fierce, and seven wards with no incumbents – and huge numbers of candidates.

Election day is two months away, but Jimm and Mike explain how the objection process, at least in Chicago, is often as interesting as the election itself. And it keeps a lot of lawyers very busy.

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CN December 11, 2014


There was a stark manifestation of the growing divide between haves and have-nots in Chicago recently when the CHA revealed the numbers of people who’d applied for its most-recent round of wait-list applications.

“There were 282,000 or so households who signed up for the CHA’s wait lists,” the Chicago Reporter’s Jonah Newman tells us, referring to the lists for both physical CHA housing units and so-called Housing Choice Vouchers.

“And that’s more than a quarter of all the households in Chicago.”

Did you get that? A number equivalent to more than a quarter of Chicago’s roughly one million households applied for housing in CHA’s approximately 18,000 available units, all  of which are currently occupied, or for vouchers.

“But what might be more shocking is that about forty percent of the households in the City meet the income requirements for Chicago Public housing,” he continues.  “So actually the number of people who signed up for the wait list is quite a bit below the number of households who could have signed up. This is despite the fact that we know the average time for someone waiting on the wait list is about 3-1/2 years – 41 months. Most of the people who do sign up for the wait lists probably aren’t going to get housing any time in the near future.”

So who are these people who applied?

Many are homeless. But homeless doesn’t necessarily mean living on the streets.

In this week’s WBEZ series on homelessness Linda Paul, who’s a Chicago Newsroom producer, presented a series of four reports on people who panhandle on Chicago expressway ramps, and Susie An profiled a family living for years in a shelter. But there’s a different group of homeless people who don’t show up in the City’shomeless counts.

“There are so many people who are living very layered,” explains the Tribune’s Lolly Bowean. “They’re living multi-family in one household. They see this as the opportunity to finally apply to get independent housing that they could  afford.”

Since the implementation of the CHA’s Plan for Transformation, most of Chicago’s high-rise developments have been torn down, but replacements have been slow in coming.

“It’s fair to say that the CHA began with over a hundred thousand hard units, and is now down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 occupiable units,” Newman points out. But even of those, “about 2,000 are sitting empty.”

Author, journalist and founder of We the People Media Ethan Michaeli laments the radical downsizing of the CHA as a landlord and its now-dominant role as the distributor of vouchers.

“Public housing was a resource that was being provided to people and it had an effect that radiated throughout the entire economy,” he explains. “We’ve removed public housing as part of the mix.  Part of the maligning of the reputation of public housing was a pretext to demolishing public housing and really reducing the overall number of units. Chicago is, I think, a perfect exemplar of what we’ve done throughout the country. Now, public housing is gone, the problem remains. What are we going to do about it?

And author and WBEZ south Side Bureau reporter Natalie Moore raises a significant social issue. “The problem with the voucher program is that it’s ended up concentrating families in poorer, segregated neighborhoods,” she tells us.

“There really isn’t any political will” to improve the situation, she continues. She refers to a story she did months ago about the CHA’s “super-voucher” program, which experimented with paying higher-than normal rent subsidies to allow some former CHA families to live in well-appointed high-rises at the  lakefront.

“When Chicago knocked down these high-rises we said that we wanted to de-segregate these pockets of poverty, that we did not want to keep people in places where only poor people were living under the same conditions,” says Bowean.” So the ‘super-voucher’ as a so-called program, does allow a very small  number of families to move into neighborhoods where there could be a possibility of better schools, of better jobs, of better outcomes.”

But when stories began emerging about the low-income families being paid with taxpayer dollars to live in luxury buildings, Congressman Aaron Schock launched an investigation. “Then there was this sort of kick-back, and the program was adjusted almost immediately,” she adds.

To Natalie Moore, it was a reminder of the kind of influence – negative and positive – politicians have on CHA policy. “There are so many things to call the CHA on the carpet for, and that is the one thing CHA completely reversed. It made me think, if this plan for transformation is gonna get done, if this reserve’s gonna get spent…nothing’s gonna change with CHA on any of these issues until some politicians with heavy weight come in and say change it.”

Well, didn’t that sort of happen when the Mayor and his new CHA chief, Michael Merchant, opened the wait lists for the first time in years and announced that they would increase the number of available vouchers?

“I do consider the opening of the waiting lists as something that has very suspicious timing,” says Michaeli. “After years of inaction under Mayor Emanuel, suddenly the housing authority is doing something that has the appearance of providing resources to people who need it – several months before the election. And, I’m sorry, it does not wash for me as something that is a sincere effort or something that makes up for the years of inaction under this administration.”

“There’s been a lot of changes in  the last 12 years since the Plan for Transformation was implemented,” asserts Bowean. “This was a long-term plan that didn’t take into consideration the fact that the market may change, the political climate may change, and there’s been a lot of factors that have influenced the way the CHA operates. Yet they’ve stuck with this plan. As a result, we see an agency that, on paper, when you look at their budget and their financials, it can look robust…but then when you look at the number of people being served, that need to be served, and that are not being served, then there’s concern.”

Both Michaeli and Bowean tell us that there have been so many changes at the top at CHA in recent years, and there is such turmoil at the staff level, that it can be difficult to get even the most routine work done.

An important reason why those 2,000 or so units remain unoccupied is that they’re caught up in a policy dispute about  the CHA’s insistence on redeveloping its properties in a roughly  1/3 CHA, 1/3 subsidized housing, 1/3 market-rate matrix. Moore and Michaeli say it isn’t working.

I think there as this idea that, oh, I’m poor and my market-rate neighbor’s  gonna get me a job”, Moore says.” There has to be a serious discussion about how to integrate these neighborhoods with income or with race…because the same neighborhoods have the same issues, and now you’re putting more voucher-holders into those neighborhoods.”

“The whole idea was predicated on exposing residents to other classes to kind of help them improve their lifestyle, as if poverty was a self-imposed condition that wasn’t the result of an absence of resources and support. It was never going to work. Im not even sure the people who proposed it thought that it was going to work,” Michaeli concludes.


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CN December 4, 2014


Our special guest this week: Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Also joining us, Evelyn Garcia, the candidate’s wife, and Hal Dardick, city hall reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

We covered school policy, including charters and an elected school board – and the best way to handle the pension crisis. We also talked about policing, reducing crime, and minimum wage. Among the headlines – Garcia is calling for a moratorium on the construction of new charter schools, and he’s not so sure that a commuter tax or a tax on LaSalle Street will solve the multiple funding crises.

Here are transcripts of Mr. Garcia’s comments.

On charter schools:

“The charter-mania that began over 2o years ago has resulted in the creation of over 120 charter schools in Chicago. Some of them do good work, most of them – the jury’s still out. There’s no case to be made to say that charters are superior to neighborhood schools. There has been a transfer of resources that are going into charters that would have gone to neighborhood schools that I’m very concerned about. Especially if there are no studies that show that charters are superior to neighborhood schools. Given that our education system is under-funded, I think this has had a detrimental effect on public schools.”

“I do understand why parents have signed their children up in charter schools, because they’ve been marketed heavily to think that it is a better alternative. I think some of them perhaps, because they have dress codes and discipline codes, and they’re more selective in their enrollment of children, is what may attract parents to them, but the record is clear. Charters are not superior to neighborhood schools. We need to invest in neighborhood schools. If we don’t invest in neighborhood schools, we’re not providing children everywhere in the City the opportunity to achieve their full potential. “

I think we should have a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools. I think we need to invest in neighborhood schools and make neighborhood schools the center of community. They are existing assets in communities throughout Chicago that have the potential to do lots of things for student, parents and community members at large.”

On the fifty closed Chicago Public schools:

“A lot of harm has been done. Particularly because when those schools were closed young people and parents were told that most of their children would go to better schools when in fact they haven’t. The majority have wound up in either level three schools or level two, and only 21% in level one schools.”

On an elected school board:

“I support an elected school board. I think it would ensure greater transparency, more accountability. I think that if an elected school board had been in place we would not have had the massive school closings in Chicago.

On public-service pensions:

“What type of priorities do you have? Do you care about people? The Supreme Court will likely rule…that we need to keep our word to retirees and that we’re obligated to insure that those commitments are fulfilled. So that will mean coming back and figuring out revenue sides as to how we fund those pensions. It may also include restructuring of the pension obligations so that we can pay them over a longer period of time. But surely we’re only here because of neglect and we’ve kicked the can down the road.”

On finding new revenue for pensions

“I like the progressive income tax. I think they’re fairer to people. It protects low-income people and senior citizens. So something in that realm is where the solutions will be found.

“I’m not convinced that the commuter tax may be the solution.  I can’t see taxing people who are coming into the city to work from places like Blue Island, Midlothian, Cicero and Berwyn. I’m not sure that is progressive taxation. One of the concerns I have about the stock transactions tax is its constitutionality, the fact that the state legislature will have to act on it in order for Chicago to have that type of authority. And from the looks of it, if I read the November election results correctly, we’re not likely to see that type of initiative approved in the General Assembly or by the new Governor. “

“We need to do something bold. Something that we’ve never considered before. In terms of figuring out the revenue side of things, we can’t just be saying we’re against any type of tax. We need to be for progressive taxation because it has the fairest impact on all of society…”

“I don’t agree with trickle-down economics. I don’t believe necessarily in austerity that affects poor people who are earning very modest wages.

On the Mayor’s minimum-wage boost:

“It was a good political move for the mayor. But I think it comes late and it’s too little. I think people see right through it. He only came around to the minimum wage when the polls showed him lagging…I think that a living wage in this day and age is closer to fifteen dollars.”

On whether we have enough police:

“We don’t. The Mayor promised to put 1,000 new cops on the street, and he didn’t keep his promise. We need to increase the number of police officers, but with that will have to come real community policing. Building relationships of trust and confidence so that people feel the confidence to want to come forward and cooperate with the police. They’re the real experts in their neighborhoods. They know where everything goes on. They know who he drug dealers are, who the gang-bangers are, they know where the guns are…unless police officers can establish relationships and know people in he neighborhood things won’t get better.”

On how he’ll convince Chicagoans to cote for him:

“My relationships span across ethnicity, race, and faith. And I think that I can bring that case everywhere to the City of Chicago. The City has worked for a select few under this administration. I think the city should work for everyone in Chicago. And that’s what I want to talk to people about over the next three months as I make the case for regime change in the City of Chicago.”

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CN Nov. 27, 2014


We re-visit the topic of fracking in Illinois this week, since the regulations were officially published within the last few days and the permitting process is now open.

In this program we review some of the arguments made by guests on two previous shows.

Mark Denzler is with the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association, which favors fracking, and Ann Alexander (NRDC) and Dr. Lori Chamberlain (Frack-Free Illinois) oppose the practice.

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CN Nov 20, 2014


The most critical moment when you’re approaching a traffic signal is when the light turns yellow and you have to decide – go forward or stop? All kinds of information factors in. Are there cars close behind you? How fast are you going? And while your brain is calculating all of this, the clock is ticking. Will you get into the intersection before the light tuns red?

In Chicago, unless the speed limit is higher than 30, you have 3.0 seconds to figure it out And if your decision is wrong – and you hit the line at 3.1 seconds – there’s probably a ticket in the mail from one of those friendly red-light cameras.

You might be surprised to know that in most other places in America the yellow light is actually longer. Sometimes a full second longer.

That’s what WBEZ’s Odette Yousef found out when she researched her excellent piece on traffic light timings. Turns out there’s also something called the “all-red” – a moment when all the lights are red, to allow traffic the clear the intersection. Chicago, she discovered, does it very differently. Chicago makes the all-red longer. Look at her graphic.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 21.41.06

The top line is what federal and industry experts recommend. The bottom line is what you encounter every day at Chicago intersections.

“If you look at that whole total as the amount of time you have to clear a intersection they’re pretty much giving you the same amount of time that engineers would recommend,” Yousef explains. “The problem is that they’re misallocating that between the yellow and the red. So if you enter the intersection during the time when it’s actually during the safe period but it’s turned red, you’ll get a ticket.”

So, think fast. Decide quickly. The unflinching robot eye is watching you. And counting. And, says Yousef, it comes down to a conflict between safety and fairness. Nobody’s arguing that Chicago’s system is less safe, just that it doesn’t seem fair.

“There have been studies that say if you extend the yellow light by one second, for example, the number of violations goes down quite dramatically,” she tells us.

Here’s an interesting conundrum. The Lucas Museum, we’re told, has insisted that it must be built on the lakefront. But when the project’s designers showed us their first renderings, the huge, mountain-like building essentially had no windows.

There may be lots of reasons why a building devoted heavily to film might exclude natural light, but couldn’t it then be built just a little bit further away from the legally-protected shoreline?

That’s the issue Friends of the Parks is dealing with, and President Cassandra Francis joined us to talk about their lawsuit against the proposed site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East.

As you probably know, the site the City selected is currently occupied by parking lots for Soldier Field and McCormick Place.  The museum would occupy this space, after, presumably, sinking the parking lots underground.

“What we would call the flawed argument that they are just parking lots is a concept that we would like to revisit,” Francis tells us.  “They’re revenue producing. They are very actively programmed. They were sold by the Chicago Park District when Soldier Field was being built as useful and very viable ongoing uses. We like them because they provide open space in that area, because once you put a building in that area it will be forever precluded, especially a building that is iconic and single-purpose-designed. It would be very difficult for that to revert back to open space in the future.”

Francis advances the idea that, in this situation, parking lots are more beneficial to the lakefront than another structure. In time, she says, they could be “greened”, making them more visually acceptable and adding park space.

Their lawsuit argues that the site is protected from projects like the Lucas Museum in several ways, including both city state and state law.

“The City and the Chicago Park District don’t have the authority to dedicate that land,” she explains, “even though they may, in fact, own it. The use of the land is actually arbitrated by the State for the benefit of the public. And it’s not just Chicagoans. It’s also any citizen of the State of Illinois.”

Citing recent studies from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Francis predicts that, in about the next 25 years Cook County will grow by almost 800,000 residents and that several hundred thousand more people could live and work near the lakefront. That, she says, will create intense pressure to develop the lakefront with buildings and attractions. It’s a battle that’s been going on for more than a hundred years, and it won’t diminish any time soon. That’s why Friends of the Parks doesn’t want to see another major structure at this location.

“If we let this one happen it could very well lead to shoreline sprawl.” she claims. “So the argument of why an iconic museum – we’re thrilled it’s in Chicago – has to be on the lakefront when there’s no windows in a place where we already have way too much traffic congestion, is a challenge.”

An alternative Friends proposes – one which has been articulated very effectively by Tribune Architecture critic Blair Kamin – is to move the project across the street and immediately south of McCormick Place. It could be built on a deck over the
“marshaling yards”, a massive open parking area for vehicles serving the convention center.  Kamin and FOP argue that site preparation would be less expensive, because with decking you’re essentially creating “virgin land”, and that the resulting museum would actually be closer to the lakefront. In addition, the new attraction could stimulate other developments, such as Bronzeville and whatever eventually rises on the old Michael Reese site.

Screenshot 2014-11-22 08.31.28

In this Google shot, you can see the proposed site between Soldier Field and McCormick place (the circular, light-colored Waldron parking deck and the asphalt surface lot to the south) and the alternate site, the long, grey strip immediately south of the Stevenson interchange, with LSD to the east.

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CN Nov. 13, 2014


What do the election of Bruce Rauner, container ships, shopping malls, student loans, unemployment numbers, giant paving machines and Google have in common?

Well, they’re part of the economic theory of everything, perhaps.

Tribune Business columnist Melissa Harris tells us that in today’s world, “All politics is local but all business is global. We are not the maker of things any more. That is a structural change in our economy that we are still grappling with. It does not mean we still can’t be a global leader. It doesn’t men we can’t be the most thriving economy in the world, but it is gonna take a greater investment in education, which this country is currently not making.”

Globalization has raised living standards in many places and lowered them in others. As she recently reported, Americans who were under 35 in 1995 earned wages that were 9% higher than today after adjusting for inflation. Student loans are crushing our youngest generation.

“They now exceed credit-card debt,” she explains. “You’re seeing difficulties acquiring jobs right out of graduation. It starts from the beginning. What people don’t understand is that the money you earn compounds. So if you struggle right from the beginning, you’re gonna be at a disadvantage when you’re seventy and it is nearly impossible to catch up.”

If you happen to be poor, finding decent affordable housing is becoming more and more difficult. And it’s not made any easier when your landlord can’t find money to fix that leaking roof and he can’t ask his already stressed tenants for any more rent. That’s what Micah Maidenburg wrote about in this week’s Crain’s Chicago Business. A DePaul University study found that it’s pretty easy for a property-owner downtown or in one of Chcago’s booming neighborhoods to get that new-roof loan, but in the wide swaths of Chicago that aren’t bathed in money, the banks are lending far less.

“If a bank is making a loan they have to ask themselves, if this goes belly-up and we foreclose and have to take back the property, it’s easier to sell a 20-unit apartment building in Lakeview than it is in the more distressed markets,” Maidenburg tells us.  So it’s not that there’s no money being lent in south and west Chicago, its just that it’s disproportionately less. And that deepens the cycle of poverty.

Melissa Harris tells us that Bruce Rauner’s transition team has been put in place, but, as is often the case, there’s a different, closer-in group of informal advisors who will have great influence with the new governor. They include:

Ron Gidwitz, the multimillionaire who in 1996 sold his family’s business, Helene Curtis Industries, for more than $900 million. He ran for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2006.

William Strong, a longtime friend and business associate of Rauner’s, who helped raise money this year in Illinois for the Republican Governor’s Association.

Phillip o’Connor, a policy expert who served Republican Gov. Jim Thompson as former chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission and director of the Illinois Department of Insurance.

John Gates, Jr., a wealthy business executive. He sold Centerpoint Properties Trust, a real estate company he co-founded, for $3.5 billion in 2006.

So what does this all have to do with paving machines, container ships and Google? Well, the paving machines have put countless road construction workers in the unemployment lines, the container ships are what started the rush to globalization, and Google – well, Google is only a few years away from worldwide domination, right?



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CN Nov 6 2016


What’s going to happen when Bruce Rauner and his new opponent Mike Madigan finally sit down for their first big meeting? How hostile will it be? Not very, speculates Delmarie Cobb, veteran Democratic political strategist and observer.

“They have a record already of working together,” she says. “They worked together on  Stand For Children Illinois, when they raised the threshold for the (CTU) strike vote. And to expand charter schools. And the $98 million to UNO to open schools. So it’s not like they haven’t worked together. It’s just that we didn’t know about it. So now we’re gonna know about it.”

Chris Robling had a very, very good night on Tuesday. As a prominent Republican strategist and ubiquitous commentator on broadcast media and print, Chris is very pleased that Bruce Rauner has become Governor.

“I think that Rauner is genuinely not political,” he claims. “Part of his assertion to the people is – I don’t need this job. And I’m not looking to be something else. I’m not looking to be Senator or use this as a stepping stone to president or something. I’m looking to straighten out the State of Illinois. I think Rauner is gonna do horse-trading because that’s the only way he’s gonna get agreement. But I think that personal political, and, indeed partisan political considerations are going to recede. I think you’re going to see him moving us to fiscal sanity with whatever chits he can exchange.”

“But I think that what you call fiscal sanity is political,” Cobb retorts. “I don’t care that he’s not a career politician or that he’s not taking a salary or that he only wants to be there two terms. What I care about are the issues that he considers dear to him. And those are issues that I don’t think are necessarily the best issues for the majority of people who are in the most need. He did not support minimum wage – he only came around to minimum wage when it was first discovered, and then with caveats. And those caveats are pro-business and they’re designed to create an economic climate in Illinois that will help other businesses and CEOs like himself…He wouldn’t have expanded Medicaid. He’s for the privatization of public education. He’s anti-union. He wants to create opportunity zones, as he calls them, which is a right-to-work state. So when you look at those, those are all political. So he doesn’t have to be political, he is political.

Robling changes subjects. “I would advance this as a general theory right now. The single most significant phenomenon that is facing U.S. politics right now and domestic government is the relationship between politics and the public-employee unions. There’s no question in my mind about it.”

Again, Cobb doesn’t see it that way.  “The biggest impact to the decline of the middle-class is the decline of unions. And as for African-Americans, unions are the backbone for the black middle-class. There would not be a black middle-class had it not been for unions…Those were the jobs that we were able to get. The government jobs, the teaching jobs, those were the jobs we were able to get when we couldn’t get any other jobs.”

But union members are reluctant to stay in their unions, according to Robling.

“In Michigan, in Wisconsin, in Indiana, when those relationships were opened so that union membership was no longer compulsory,” he asserts, “In Indiana it was 93% left the unions, in Wisconsin it was 91% and I think in Michigan it ended up being 92.5 percent. So if unions are doing so well for these individuals, then you’ve gotta reconcile that with the fact that when people have a choice, they leave.”

We talk about the Illinois turnout numbers, especially with regard to the Governor’s race. “There are things Quinn could have done to increase the black turnout and I think that’s where he missed opportunities,” she says.  Only about 16% of African Americans voted,  she says, although Quinn got 93% of it.

So was the black vote in Cook County suppressed deliberately? Well, says Robling, it might have been discouraged by popular talk show host Tavis Smiley.  “This is Tavis’ quote, not mine. He said there is no reason for blacks to turn out in this election. Obama has given us no reason to turn out. He said there is no reason for Hispanics to turn out. If you take a look at the communities, these guys shouldn’t be turning out. That’s not Rauner’s fault.”

And further, claims Robling, Bruce Rauner has a long history of involvement in minority communities. “I don’t think people should sell short Rauner’s involvement in the most challenged communities in the City of Chicago. It goes back more than a decade in terms of his personal involvement and personal commitment and he and Diana spending tens of millions of dollars (on charitable causes in minority communities).”

“Well,” Cobb responds,”I can be charitable and never employ a black person in my life. There is a big difference.”

Bonus question:

What are Hillary’s chances after Tuesday’s elections?

Chris Robling: “zip.”

Does the election help Hillary?

Delmarie Cobb: “Yes.”.


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CN Oct. 30, 2014


Mark Denzler is with the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association, and he speaks for a coalition of industries and interests that want to get hydraulic fracturing started in Illinois as soon as possible.

We asked him a direct question.

“Can you tell me that you believe that horizontal fracturing is not harmful to the environment?”

We got a direct answer.

“Yes. A hundred percent. You’re always going to have issues, no matter what industry you’re in…accidents do occur. No doubt about it. But when you look back at folks who have studied this…Lisa Jackson who was the EPA administrator for President Obama said this can be done safely. Dick Durbin was in his debate last night on WTTW and they were asked about fracturing. He said he’s talked to the last two secretaries of energy…and they said it can be done safely.”

Fracking’s been going on for years, and is pretty commonplace (and often controversial) in a couple of dozen states, so what’s the status of fracking in Illinois?

A law authorizing fracking in Illinois passed a long time ago.

“Today’s an anniversary, not one we celebrate, but it’s been 500 days since the law was signed, and we’ve yet to see the final set of rules,” Denzler tells us. But passing the law was only part of a complex process.

“What happens is the Legislature says, OK, take that law and we’re gonna give it to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources,” explains Julie Wernau, who’s been covering the process for the Tribune. “And they’re gonna turn it into rules and regulations so that that they can actually start issuing permits for fracking. But that process has been lengthy. They had to hold hearings, they had to create a draft of the rules and then people responded to the rules. They commented, they got thousands and thousands of comments, more than they ever have on any rules they’ve ever created. So then they had to create a second draft and come back and say, here’s what we think the rules should be after listening to everybody, and then the Joint Committee is supposed to approve it or ask for changes or just reject them outright, and we’re waiting for this committee to decide.”

They have until november 15 to decide. And if they don’t reach a decision, the whole process starts over again.

What’s different about this process is that it involves not only drilling vertically, but also horizontally.

“Thousands of feet below the surface there are these oil deposits,” Wernau explains. “What they used to do was just go down vertically and get the oil out. Well now they say, how about we go down vertically and look at that whole layer, then go horizontal and frack the whole way? That’s why it’s a lot more oil.”

It’s also a lot more controversial. Opponents of the process appeared on our October 2 show, and you can watch it here. 

Among the criticisms is the  assertion that horizontal fracking, which involves the injection of millions of gallons of water deep into the ground along with various chemicals, sand and gravel, pollutes our drinking water. In the documentary Gasland, a man demonstrates  his ability to light the water from his kitchen faucet on fire, and he blames recently-introduced fracking for the problem.

“Water lighting on fire was a famous scene in (Gasland),” Denzler explains, “And the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission…looked at it and found that it was geothermic methane. It had been the breakdown of natural materials. And people in that area had been lighting their water on fire for a hundred years. I would note there are three towns in the United States called Burning Springs because their waters lit on fire, not because of hydraulic fracturing.”

And Wernau adds that water contamination is usually not caused directly by the drilling.

“There’s some misinformation out there. People think that a lot of water contamination happens from the fracking process. Actually it has a lot more to do with what happens with the fluid that comes back up. If it’s sitting for instance in open pits and there’s a big rainstorm, that’s how groundwater can get contaminated. So a huge part of the law that was negotiated was – we can’t be storing this stuff in open pits. We have to have it contained. Illinois was able to learn a lot from the mistakes of other states that have done this.”

Storage of the fluids that return to the surface has indeed been a major issue in the rule- making process. The drilling interests have agreed to store these polluted liquids in tanks or containers, but the opponents are still claiming that the containment regulations aren’t stringent enough.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that fracking has changed the American economy. Gas prices have come down somewhat, and natural gas, which is often a by-product of oil fracking, has become abundant, lowering heating bills and transforming some industrial sectors. (However, as we discuss on this show, oil drillers are not always required to capture the natural gas, and in many cases this valuable resource is simply burned into the air, wasting this precious resource simply because it’s too expensive for the drillers to catch and transport.)

In the end, the set of rules hammered out between the industry reps and the environmental community does address many of the issues that have been raised in states that got into the game quickly. In this case, Illinois may have devised stronger rules simply because it came later to the process.  But Denzler, who calls the regulations the most stringent in the nation, says landowners and lease-holders in Southern Illinois have waited too long, and that it’s time for fracking to get going in Illinois.

“If you look back in the past five years under the President’s administration, all the job growth, almost all of it – almost 100%, comes from the energy sector. The increased jobs, the increased revenue. So what it’s done for this country over the past five, ten years has been significant.”



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CN Oct. 23, 2014


You’ve probably heard that the Sun-Times endorsed Bruce Rauner last week. And maybe you also heard that Rauner’s campaign raised objections to a story that Dave McKinney wrote about some alleged bullying of a former executive at one of Rauner’s companies. And that the objections ignited a trail of argument and retribution that has ended with McKinney’s resignation.

Chris Fusco, an investigative reporter with the paper, told us that McKinney is a personal friend. “Obviously, everybody at the Sun-Times, myself included, hundreds of stories I’ve dome with Dave McKinney, we all think the world of him.”

The handling of the controversy, and McKinney’s resignation, have cast a pall over the newsroom, he tells us.

“There’s a certain degree of survivor’s guilt going on. It’s like, should we all follow Dave? And I don’t think that’s what Dave wants for us or for the paper. The issues that Dave’s situation raises historically have happened in newsrooms across the country, and this one ended horribly for both sides I think. The question is how do we go on from here, and I think we need to be talking constructively about that. Maybe there’ll be some sort of constructive dialog between newsroom and management about how to do that, and maybe there won’t. But I think our resolve is to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Today’s show celebrates investigative reporting. The Tribune’s investigative reporter David Kidwell has been making waves with revelations that the City of Chicago made a teensy-weensy change when it transitioned between vendors for its red-light system – a change that was, in itself, an effort to distance the administration from a multi-layered scandal involving the old vendor. That change authorized the new vendor to issue tickets when yellow lights were as short as 2.9 seconds, a tenth of a second shorter than the previous deal’s 3.0.

“The City made the decision to change the way it defined what constitutes a traffic ticket,” Kidwell explains. “Before, if a red-light camera ticket came in and the video showed that the yellow light was below three seconds, for ten years they’ve been throwing those out. Routinely. The federal minimum is three seconds. So whatever the reason, the City decided when Xerox took over the contract in February to start issuing those tickets.”

Over the summer the Trib started hearing reports that the City’s eighty-some administrative law judges were throwing out many more “2.9” tickets, and the paper wanted to know why.

“Few people appeal,” Says Kidwell.  But when they do, the judge has to look at several important criteria. “Is the camera operating properly, does the technician sign the certificate, is the yellow light long enough? And the judges were seeing all these tickets and they were routinely throwing them out. They would come in with 2.9 seconds.”

Hundreds and hundreds of tickets were dismissed for various reasons, but suddenly, Kidwell says, “Of all the tickets that were thrown out, more than a third had yellows that were below the standard.”

So in September, the Trib went to talk with the Department of Transportation.

“I was asking them, why the change…why haven’t you conveyed this to your administrative law judges? Couldn’t answer. Well, it turns out on the next Monday they suspended (the setting).  They decided to go back to the way it was.”

But that didn’t do much for thousands of people who got dinged by the cameras.

“77,000 people got tickets that they wouldn’t have gotten under the previous policy, and under the policy that’s currently in effect,” Kidwell says, and “that’s eight million dollars in revenue the city would not have generated.”

“It’s just another example,” he continues, “of inconsistent enforcement that all the experts we’ve talked to, I can’t find an expert who says that any of this is fair…The City is working very hard to avoid the topic of fairness. It doesn’t matter. If you violated the law, that’s your problem.”

This is usually the point at which the experts cluck about the mess that Mayor Daley left behind. But not this time.

“Every time the Mayor is asked about this red-light scandal – the corruption – we did a story about these really weird spikes that were going on all over the city that prompted tens of thousands of questionable tickets that to this day they cannot answer – any time you ask the Mayor about that he always says well, that was a previous administration. I fixed it. Everything’s better now. But this decision, this change in the yellow-light standard, is his. He owns this one. “

Chris Fusco sums it up. “There is big money in road construction, transit, and all the way down to a tenth of a second in red lights”.


With the mid-term election already under way, we asked Fusco about the Most Awesomely Powerful Man in Illinois, the Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan.

“We came up with a universe of nearly 250 people and 1.3 million dollars over fifteen years of people, government workers, who at some point were employed by government who gave to Madigan campaigns,” Fusco said of his most recent investigation of Madigan’s political reach. “Then we cross-referenced that with several campaigns we know Madigan supported, including his daughter (Lisa) and took a look at how many of those people had government jobs. And what we found was a ton of them do. A lot of them were on clout lists that had surfaced during various administrations, and in some cases they just had pretty incredible government deals.”

He cites dramatic examples of Madigan protegees who have attained high positions in just about every branch of local and regional government, often at high salaries.

“The only career politician out there with a patronage army that powerful is Mike Madigan,” asserts David Kidwell. “If you want to look at the impact of it, look at the pension crisis we’re dealing with right now. A lot of that has to do with decisions that Mike Madigan made while he was building this patronage army of government employees all of whom benefit from these pensions.”

So how will the upcoming election affect Speaker Madigan? How will he deal with a Governor Rauner if he’s elected?

“Mike Madigan’s going to be Fine. Just Fine,” says Kidwell. “Whoever takes over the Governor’s office. He controls the budget. The Governor doesn’t. And Bruce Rauner, through all of his talk about taking on government, good luck, sir. He’s in for a rude awakening.

And we end with the Anecdote of the Week.  It’s from Kidwell, about John Bills, the Dep’t of Transportation deputy who got caught allegedly extorting about two million dollars out of RedFlex, the original camera operator. Someone who Fusco describes as “a key guy for Madigan.”

“Bills came up from a lamp maintenance worker to the number two guy in the Department of Transportation with the help of Mike Madigan,” explains Kidwell. “He was a top-earning precinct captain, he had a very strong reputation, on a first-name basis with Mike Madigan, a first-name basis with Mayor Daley, and that’s how he grew up.

But John Bills has gone off the reservation a few times in  his public career, Kidwell explains.  “He contributed $500 to the campaign of Pat Levar back in 2000 when he was trying to go against Dorothy Brown for Circuit Clerk. Mike Madigan didn’t like it. And so John Bills found himself going from a very nice office in City Hall , handed a tape measure, working out of a trailer in the quarry measuring offices for renovations, for a year. That gives you some idea of the reach of Mike Madigan. Took him a year to work his way back into Mike Madigan’s good graces.”

And into that – allegedly – bribe-rich job managing the camera  program that shoveled a half-billion dollars into the City treasury.


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CN Oct. 16, 2014


Mayor Emanuel has put his 2015 budget on the table, asking aldermen to approve a 7.3 billion spending plan that anticipates $61 million in various increased taxes and fees.

But his speech was light on details. In fact, says WBEZ political reporter Alex Keefe, it seemed to be more of a re-election speech, with an eye on his critics.

“We heard him say at several points in the speech,” Keefe says, “something like – Chicago doesn’t work unless it works for everybody, unless it works for every neighborhood. It’s not just jobs in the Loop, it’s jobs in Roseland. It’s jobs all over the city. And I think you see him answering this criticism of being a mayor 1%, of being a mayor for the corporations. So in more ways that one it was an election season speech but really, as far as what’s in the budget…we didn’t get to the nitty-gritty.”

Despite the consistent criticism of Mayor Emanuel’s handling of education issues, Tribune City Hall reporter John Byrne tells us he seems to be running on his education record.

“His budget address Wednesday was an education agenda speech,” he says. “It was running on his bona-fides during his first term, on full-day kindergarten – which we’ve been hearing from him for years, we heard the City-Colleges-give-scholarships-to-kids bit. He didn’t mention closing schools, but the first twenty minutes of the speech were almost all education accomplishments – after school programs for teens – so he apparently is gearing up to make that case.

“It was almost preemptively defensive in a way,” adds Keefe. “To list all of his accomplishments. And there was some look ahead – there was money for services, a lot of stuff about schools, but a  lot of it was just talking about what he did.”

But that additional money for services like pothole filling – is critical, not only for the Mayor’s re-election, but also for the aldermen, according to Keefe.

“He’s doing the holy trinity – you’re giving more money to to tree trimming, killing rats and blasting graffiti. This is an election year.”

That doesn’t prevent some aldermen from pointing out, however, that the process isn’t exactly collaborative.

“We hear this every time during the budget process,” Keefe tells us. “They say, listen, we just got these budget documents for the first time yesterday, and we weren’t allowed to take them out of the room, and this is top-down governing, and they don’t include us in this process, and this budget won’t change.”

But that’s not to say that the Mayor isn’t flexible on some points. “Every year, Emanuel has given something back, from when he introduces the budget to when it passes,” explains Byrne. “And I really believe that to a certain extent he delivers the budget thinking, I’m gonna give this back. So that when we pass it, I can answer those critics. And say, Alderman Reilly came to me and said this garage tax was a bad idea. So we lowered it…I think he introduces a ten-million dollar garage tax increase, as he does this year, thinking to himself, we’re gonna lower that to three million dollars so I can say that Reilly complained about hitting people who want to park downtown and I listened”

Then there’s the pension issue.

“Chicago for decades and decades lowballed the amount that they should’ve paid into pensions,” Keefe says. “In 2010 the Legislature passed this law saying, OK, because you’ve been lowballing them, starting in 2015 (or 2016 if you ask City Hall) you’re gonna have to basically make up for all the stuff you should’ve been paying. And you’re gonna have to do it more or less right away. Well, this is a problem, because suddenly you’re hitting a $550 million wall to pay for police and fire pensions. So the mayor has two choices. One, find $550 million…or two, go to Springfield and change the rules of the game…in order to lower that initial payment and get them on a payment schedule.

“Or,” adds Byrne, “Three, wait until after the election and say, property taxes, guys, I did my best…”

“The bottom line is there’s this booming silence about what’s gonna happen until, maybe after the election,” Keefe concludes.

But the Mayor seems to be moving toward a grand compromise with the Legislature after the elections that would force them to raise taxes and cut pensions, not Rahm Emanuel.

“He and his budget people who came to the Trib editorial board were talking quite a bit about a ‘statewide solution’. Looking at a state sales tax or something like that,” says Byrne.

“This seems to be a tactic in order to get downstate lawmakers to vote on, probably cutting, Chicago police and fire pensions,” Keefe explains. “There’s a police and fire pension problem all over Illinois, it’s not just the City of Chicago, so this could be one legislative tactic.”

And finally, 2015 politics. After Karen Lewis’s terrible health problems forced her out of the race, it appears that Rahm Emanuel will face no serious, well-financed challenger. And no place to spend all his campaign money, according to Byrne.

“I mean, he’s got nine million dollars he’s gotta spend somewhere. What’s he gonna do? Can you spend nine million in campaign money just on beating up Bob Fioretti and Amara Enyia?”

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