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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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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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CN Oct 9, 2014

As the February municipal elections  get closer, we ask our panel: Will Mayor Emanuel emphasize his accomplishments in education? Will he run on his record?

We begin our conversation with the latest enrollment numbers, and they’re not looking good. Wendy Katten of the advocacy group Raise Your Hand:

“We do know that CPS projected last year that they would have 405,000 students,” she explains. “Those were projections based on some data that they had. And now we’re at 397,000. So we know their projections were way off, and that 6,000 students have left the system in two years.”  It’s too early to know for sure, she says, but she expects that the enrollment declines will be all over the city.

Panelist Sarah Karp from Catalyst Chicago: “This speaks a lot about Mayor Emanuel’s performance because the fact that parents aren’t signing their kids up for the schools – whether they’re signing up for private schools, whether they’re leaving for the suburbs – it shows a vote of non-confidence.”

Panelist Lauren FitzPatrick (Sun Times) gives an example. “I talked to the Local School Council Chair at Portage Park Elementary,” she tells us. “They were not really affected by the closings, it’s on the northwest side. She lost dozens and dozens of kids. And talked about how some of the families – you know the economy’s a little bit better, so some of them moved to Catholic schools because they could afford to do so, some just up and left the city because they could afford to do that now.”

And the charter schools seem to be feeling the squeeze, too. “We’re hearing from people that they’re getting calls from charter schools right now – come to our school, we still have openings – come on!” says Karp, “So that leads me to believe that there’s some issue there, where they didn’t make their numbers either. And I think that when CPS projected the 397,000, they were thinking that those charter seats were filled. Now if they weren’t filled, (the overall CPS enrollment) might be less than 397,000.”

In fact, says Katten, when her group analyzed the charter enrollments last year, they found about 11,000 open seats city-wide.

Hancock High School at 56th and Pulaski is relatively young and has recently received a lot of federal money to upgrade its programs and facilities. But now CPS wants to turn it into a selective enrollment school, so it would no longer be a neighborhood high school. That’s a big deal for the local community, and they were taken by surprise when the announcement was made.

“Very few people knew that they were talking about it,” says FitzPatrick. “Alderman Marty Quinn (13) had been making a case since at least March, publicly, that my kids on the southwest side need access to selective enrollment too, because we’re putting them on buses and els and they’re spending 2 and 3 hours a day just getting back and forth. Some of them aren’t going to the selective enrollment schools they’re getting into because the parents are saying the commutes are just too far. So if we’re going to have selective enrollment in the city and everybody else has access, we need one too.”

But, she says, it’s an unfortunate choice for the community. “What’s going away here? What are we giving up in order to equalize access to selective enrollment?” The feds just finished all the upgrades, and “They’ve got a dynamo of a principal. She’s got a great, working school that’s open to anyone who lives in the neighborhood.”

“So it’s essentially a school closing, in my view, of a neighborhood high school that’s working for kids,” adds Katten.

The local kids who would have attended Hancock from this point forward will have less attractive options in very crowded nearby high schools, says Karp. “Are you gonna take kids out of a school where they have space, it’s a decent school, and send them to a place where they’re stuffed in like sardines?”

FitzPatrick tells us that she had a conversation a leader of the Network for College Success at the U of C, which had partnered with Hancock to help bring about dramatic improvement at the school.

“Hancock is what you want,” the Network’s co-director told her. “Hancock is what the district should be replicating. Selective enrollment and choice are things you want when the system isn’t working. When you don’t have good choices, then you want more choices. But when you have a great choice right here, selective enrollment is not what you want, and how nice is it to just know that your child can walk across the street or three blocks away from home, and your child’s going to be perfectly fine and get a wonderful education.”

“I understand the point of view of the parents on the southwest side who feel left out,” adds Katten, ” but…I think more people have to ask why do we need selective high schools, and how do they work towards the overall health of our system? Looking at other districts around the country, I don’t think anyone has what we have in terms of sorting and stratification. I don’t think this is a healthy maneuver for the overall well-being of our city.”

In other high school news, Sarah Karp reported this week that many of the selective enrollment schools have been very successfully raising their own money with student fees. In fact, last year, Whitney Young managed to bring in $680,000 in additional cash. “It calls into question, what is a free education, and it exacerbates the inequality between schools, because when you get $680,000, even though they have a ton of kids there, you can buy a lot of stuff…and it makes the education different.

And by comparison, Manley High School, which serves a vastly less affluent population only a couple of miles away, raised only eight thousand dollars, mostly for its football team.

“The overall issue,” concludes Katten, “Is that no one is talking about how to improve funding in our state and our city for education. So we’re stuck with all of these gross inequities.”

And speaking of budgeting, CPS quietly announced this week that the so-called student-based-budgeting, which allocates a fixed amount of money to each school based on its student population, won’t be observed this year at schools where populations have declined.

“They’re saying that whatever we, CPS, projected you to have for your budget this year, whether you lost kids or not, you’re gonna get to keep your money. They did this last year because it was kind of the trial run of the whole thing. So you could see – this could be how bad your budget might be. (Barbara Byrd Bennett) said this past summer – this is it. and she had her total teacher/principal voice on, too. You knew she was serious. This is not gonna happen again, so learn what you can, and move on. It’s coming and it’s gonna be ugly. And then all of a sudden, it’s not going to be ugly. It’s not coming.”

This raises - dare we bring this up – the nasty prospect that there might be an election-year tinge to the decision, since the new budgeting plan was roundly criticized by parents of kids in the traditional neighborhood schools.

“We see things change year-to-year,” says Katten. “We saw ‘longer days”‘money given to the schools. Every school got a position and then they were yanked away the next year. Then you got half back the following year. So this is a year-to-year thing based on the timing, I believe, of campaign cycles.”

So Lauren FitzPatrick has some sage advice for principals and parents.

“This is the year to ask for things.”

 

 

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CN Oct. 2, 2014

 

Hydraulic fracturing. It’s directly or at least indirectly responsible for moderately lower prices at the pump, lower-than-normal heating bills and hundreds of other benefits where cheaper oil or natural gas affect our lives.

But cheaper comes at a price.

Fracking has been raging away for years in places like North Dakota, Wyoming and Pennsylvania, and now it’s coming to Illinois. On this week’s show we talk about what the future of Illinois fracking looks like – from the perspective of two people who oppose the practice. (We’ll hear from proponents on our October 30 show).

Before the first high-capacity wells are drilled, the State has to pass and put into effect a series of rules that define how the legislation will be enforced. And that, as with all things fracking, has been controversial.

Ann Alexander, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a negotiator who attempted to argue for the most stringent regulations possible.

“Illinois was basically an oil and gas free-for-all,” Alexander tells us. “We were operating under a pre-World-War II statute about oil and gas development. Very limited regulation, and it was not remotely equipped to deal with this much more modern, expansive technology of hydraulic fracturing.”

The loose coalition of fracking critics succeeded in getting the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to write regulations requiring storage tanks for waste water,  public hearing processes and clear access to information for emergency first-responders. But neither Alexander or Dr. Lora Chamberlain with Frack-Free Illinois (and our other guest) think the process resulted in rules as strong as they’d like.

“We call fracking industrialized, extreme extraction. People in Illinois are familiar with   little mom-and-pop pumpers dotting the countryside – that’s not what fracking is. Fracking is deeper, farther, bigger,” says Chamberlain.

“We’re talking between 2,000 and 6,000 feet, they will drill down. Then they can horizontally drill – they turn their drill bit – and they horizontally drill a mile, we know of  ten-mile horizontal fracks in the Bakkan (in North Dakota).”

And this activity, our guests assert, must be subject to strict oversight and scrutiny.

“People are being subjected to proximity to what is a hazardous industrial operation,” says Alexander. “But you have to look at the particular hazards here…When we talk about high-volume hydraulic fracturing it’s particularly problematic given the volume of inputs and outputs. First of all, you’re putting really large volumes of toxic chemicals into the ground…Now the water issue has received a lot of attention as it should, but I think we also need to be mindful of the fact that there are significant impacts on air quality.  You can have ponds that are emitting volatile organic compounds which include carcinogenic ones. You have the various equipment. And just to give you a sense of what’s going on, in rural Wyoming where there really is essentially no industrial activity except fracking, they have ozone “bad days” that are worse than what happens in downtown L.A. …So this is something to be taken seriously. We’re messing with both our air and our water, and with chemicals that may or may not be getting into our water supply.”

In many ways, our guests assert, it’s the workers who face the most immediate health threats.

“Benzine, Toluene, Ethylene, Xylene, these are carcinogenic volatile organic compounds. Hydrogen Sulphide in a large enough amount can sicken people immediately, and the workers are really getting hit. It is seven to eight times more dangerous on the frack field than any other job in America right now.”

A major issue for these activists is what happens to the millions and millions of gallons of water that become severely polluted during the fracking process.  The water is injected into the well under extreme pressure, but when it returns to the surface it becomes a complicated disposal problem.

“You can kind of think of the shale layer as the carbon filter of our planet,” Chamberlain explains. “So all the toxic heavy metals and radioactive particles have landed in the shale layer.  And up they’re coming with this waste stream. There’s also plowback water that flashes back. If you put in four million gallons under high pressure, some of it flashes back. That’s highly toxic, but what gets really bad is that the rest of the water gets pumped out as they produce the oil or natural gas. It comes up with the oil and they have to separate it out. And it’s really toxic and possibly radioactive.”

Often, this toxic water is simply re-injected deep into the ground in its polluted state without any attempt to process or filter it. So that water is removed permanently from the natural water cycle.

“And you’re doing that in areas of the state that may be more prone to earthquakes,” Chamberlain says, adding that this has already been an issue near frack fields. Oklahoma, she says, is now having more small earthquakes than California.

Then there’s the issue of flared gas.

Screenshot 2014-10-02 19.12.50

This NASA photograph shows a night-time oddity. One of the most rural parts of America, a section of remote North Dakota, is lit as brightly as Chicago or Manhattan. That’s because the fracking wells, built solely for the purpose of extracting oil, also produce billions of cubic feet of natural gas. But the drillers aren’t interested in it, ironically because it’s so abundant. It doesn’t fetch enough in the marketplace to justify building the infrastructure to capture and move it. So enough gas to heat a couple of large American cities is simply burned into the air every day. It’s not only an unjustifiable waste of a precious resource, but it also adds to atmospheric greenhouse gas, thereby contributing to climate change.

“One of the things we fought for very hard in the statute, and we still don’t have anything close to a perfect solution, is a requirement that they capture their gas,” Alexander tells us. “We think it’s important that the first-line presumption be that, if you generate gas, you capture it.  You use it. We don’t waste that.”

There’s no sure way to know how much gas will be found in Illinois until the wells come on line. But, says Chamberlain, as things currently stand, there’s an exemption in the bill that says if it’s not economically feasible that they can go ahead and burn it.

The new rules will go into effect on November 15 unless something unforeseen happens, and permit applications will be processed shortly thereafter.  Proponents say fracking will bring billions of dollars in economic activity to Illinois, and they confidently predict it will create 47,000 jobs. The opponents vigorously dispute both claims.

Negotiations will continue on the regulations. NRDC, Frack-Free Illinois and others say the rules aren’t strong enough, and they’ll keep up the pressure to strengthen them. Proponents say the rules as they currently stand are so onerous that drilling companies are already planning to skip Illinois completely because the rules have made drilling to expensive.

Ann Alexander gets the last word. “We were determined to get the best protections that we could in the context of that process, but they’re far from perfect. This is not a bill that is going to make fracking safe. It’s a bill that’s going to decrease around the edges some of the biggest risks associated with fracking.”

 

 

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CN Sep. 25, 2014

 

Here are a couple of facts that WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell has reported about the now stripped-of-his-powers Commander of the Harrison District, Glenn Evans:

“He has had at least 52 excessive force complaints in his 28-year career. If we’re talking about misconduct it’s many, many more. I think it’s over a hundred. We’ve documented seven excessive force complaints since 2009 among the 52.  We know the police department has suspended Evans from duty at least eleven times for a variety of things ranging from missed court appearances to a domestic altercation in 2005, to verbal abuse. But we also know that the two longest suspensions, both fifteen days, both early in his career, followed excessive force complaints.”

Evans represents a real conundrum for the Police Department and the Mayor’s office.  There’s abundant evidence, unearthed by Mitchell and a host of other reporters who’ve joined the story, that Evans has created a trail of brutal and excessive-force incidents. But he also has vocal support from large parts of his community for his tireless and “aggressive” policing, and he’s won the admiration of both the Mayor and  Supt. Garry McCarthy.

“He’s been on the Chicago Police force since 1986,” Mitchell tells us. “We’re talking about a 28-year career. He spent at least half that time in a blue shirt. He was a patrol officer. And from there he was quickly promoted through the ranks to the point where Supt. Garry McCarthy promoted him to command a south side district, Grand Crossing, and from there transferred him this March to the Harrison District, which at the time, and I believe continues to have, the most crime of any of the 22 police districts.”

The most visible and well-publicized complaint against Evans involves Ricky Williams, who has claimed that Evans forced the barrel of his service revolver into Williams’ mouth, and possibly down his throat. Tests have shown his DNA on the gun, and on August 27, criminal charges were announced against Evans. He has subsequently been indicted by a grand jury for 9 counts, including aggravated battery and official misconduct.

“The City has paid out $225,000 in recent years for excessive force lawsuits,” Mitchell explains, adding that “At least three other federal lawsuits are pending so that figure is almost certain to increase. One of those is Ricky Williams, whose complaint led to these criminal charges.”

But the charges don’t appear to have diminished his community support. “This is something that makes him very popular among some cops and some community residents in both the districts that he has commanded,” says Mitchell. “He takes pride in actually going out on patrol himself. This is not a desk-jockey. He’s a very aggressive police officer. The question of course is, does he step over the line, does he use excessive force?”

“He has a posse of people who are very tight to him to limit camera and reporter access to him,” Mitchell continues. “I was at the monthly police board meeting last week, and these folks from the south side, mostly retirees from the Park Manor neighborhood, showed up en masse, dozens of people, and many of them took the mike to talk about what a hard worker he is, how attentive he was as a commander. When people would complain about something, he would be out there, literally himself, resolving the problem, they say.

All of this puts McCarthy and his boss, the Mayor, in a tight spot. “He has to own this crime issue,” says Tribune City Hall reporter Hal Dardick. “And his top guy, McCarthy, put this guy in this commander’s post. And the Mayor was out there backing Supt. McCarthy, saying, you’re getting a handle on this, you’re doing a good job. And one of the things McCarthy keeps mentioning is this guy Evans who was being aggressive in getting crime down in the districts he was leading. So it goes right back to the Mayor, the Mayor has to take responsibility for this.”

It’s not exactly the narrative Rahm Emanuel wanted just a few months from his re-election effort. “If he’s convicted and this proves true, it harkens back to an old era of police brutality in this city…is this the reputation the Chicago Police Department wants to have?” Dardick asks. “They’re paying out huge awards for police misconduct, brutality. The whole John Burge case is still lurking in the background. And this mayor apologized for that era. And now, as  they’re trying to move forward are they again sanctioning, tacitly, this kind of conduct? It’s a real quandary.”

What’s even more tricky for Rahm Emanuel is that he and/or his staff appear to have been aware of the situation. “That transfer from Grand Crossing to Harrison — the toughest district, on the West Side — took place in March,” Mitchell explains. “The DNA test, with Rickey Williams’ DNA . . . on the gun, came back in April. And then quickly a recommendation from the Independent Police Review Authority to strip the commander of his police powers. . . . The mayor’s office was briefed on that. And the commander remained in his post for months. We started reporting on it in July. . . . And they left him in until the criminal charges were announced on August 27.”

But, as Dardick points out, Evans was a case that perhaps should have been reviewed long before these charges.

“This guy was out there working 20 hours a day and sleeping four hours and coming back and doing it again,” says Dardick. “I might be a little irritable myself if I was working like that. Someone maybe should have said look, you’ve gotta create your priorities.”

 

Is the City Council ready for reform? Well, for the first time, it seems headed for a vote that could significantly strengthen the oversight of aldermanic activity.  But even Hal Dardick admits that he sometimes gets eye-rolls from his editors when he tries to sell them a story about it.

“Currently the City Council has its own inspector general. Its own internal watchdog. A legislative inspector general named Faisal Khan,” he tells us. “He was hired a couple of years ago, but he was given incredible limitations on what he could do. Prior to that the City’s Inspector General could not look at aldermen or their staffs. So basically they were left to police themselves, and we all know how well that worked out.”

“About a month ago,” he explains, “(Khan) asked for more power, to look at campaign finances as the elections were approaching. And the City Council said, y’know what, we’re gonna give that to the Board of Ethics, which hasn’t done a lot over the years.”

Khan didn’t have much support in the City Council. In fact, Dardick tells us many aldermen “despised” him. So there was already a base of aldermen ready to try something different.

“There was always a minority of more progressive aldermen who said there should be one IG for the entire City, who should have the same powers to investigate, and shouldn’t have to get prior approval to investigate, should have an adequate budget, and aldermen should be subject to the same rules as the Mayor and everyone who works for him,” Dardick adds.

That led to what Dardick calls “a strange confluence” of interests that led to support for some kind of new direction. And they seem to have agreed on handing the investigative powers to the City’s Investigator General, Joe Ferguson.”So now they have a majority of aldermen signed on to this ordinance,” Dardick says. “And they’re all headed into an election and they don’t want to look like they’re trying to thwart ethics. And the mayor is trying to promote reform and he can say, well, I encouraged these guys to do this.”

There are still lots of questions to be answered, and nobody knows if this awkward coalition will hold. “If you had robust inspector general, you could expect to see, in some cases, criminal referrals,  people getting fired, people getting disciplined, you’d see them getting fined, and you’d also see these cases held out to the public, and that would influence the electoral process, which is perhaps what aldermen fear the most,” he says.

“But if something like this were to pass and he were to get the power, it really would be a new era,” Dardick says.

No, really. A new era.

 

 

 

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CN Sep.18, 2014

 

Just how much do you know about Bruce Rauner? Can you imagine him busily “fixing Illinois”?

Does he have the skill-set to manage a sprawling state government and get its staggering budget shortfalls under control?

Carol Felsenthal spent months interviewing scores of people for the provocative Chicago Magazine piece “Will the Real Bruce Rauner Please Stand Up?

“He’s been considering a run for governor since, as best as I can tell, about 2003,” she tells us. “And what pulled the trigger for him was watching Bill Brady lose to Pat Quinn in 2010. And Rauner thought – well, I’m a neophyte but I could have easily won that race – and likely he could have.”

As we all know, Bruce Rauner is a very wealthy man. So we asked Felsenthal to please, in the simplest manner possible, explain how he made all those billions. She said the story really gets going when he meets Stanley Golder, who recruits him to his private equity firm – the firm that would eventually be called GTCR after Rauner became a partner years later.

“They came up with this idea that was probably Stanley Golder’s idea but it was carried out brilliantly by Bruce Rauner,” Felsenthal asserts. “They’re not interested in prestigious or sparkling business arrangements, cool or edgy companies, or being on the frontier of anything. They look for  scattershot mom-and-pop businesses, one here, one there.  They go out and they acquire a funeral home in Phoenix, and a funeral home in St. Louis. And they get hundreds of these, put them together in a business where they can have economy of scale…then he’ll find other people to run subsidiary businesses…so instead of having a local or regional business you have a national business. The company goes public. It’s sold. They often-times will come away with a profit of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Sometimes Rauner’s efforts to appear modest with his work clothes and old cars infer a narrative that he came from very poor beginnings.

“This idea that he had a log-cabin background,” she says. “His father was a University of Michigan graduate and an electrical engineer who worked for Motorola as VP. They were solidly middle class people. Bruce was born in Wrigleyville. Very quickly they moved to Deerfield. His log cabin was a bi-level house. There were five styles, built on cornfields, kind of crummy. But then they moved into a bigger house that was nice enough to make the Tribune Home of the Week.

After that, the family moved to Lake Forest. He told Felsenthal in an earlier interview that he’d attended public schools. “He mentioned two public schools in Deerfield but then didn’t tell me about Lake Forest. He deliberately kept it out. So he’s not a guy from nothing. After Dartmouth, he goes to Harvard Business School. He’s a double Ivy-League graduate.”

We ask Felsenthal if there’s reason to believe that a man who has made millions buying and selling companies is especially well-suited to run a government.

“Bruce Rauner has disdain for politicians that is somewhat out of control,” she tells us. “And politicians I’ve talked to, boy do they resent it.” Rauner, she says, doesn’t seem to care about politicians’ past accomplishments.  “Bruce Rauner thinks you just erase that,” she continues.  “You toss it in the garbage and you run the government like a business. And he won’t give you details about how he’s gonna do it and he said he wouldn’t have done that in a business situation either.”

As a business leader he was a tireless worker. And Felsenthal says he’s campaigning with the same energy, visiting scores of African-American churches in Chicago, Rockford and other places with the knowledge that in order to win he’ll have to peel off a portion of the black vote from Pat Quinn.

“He campaigns seven days a week. He never seems to be bored with it or tired of it. He loves campaigning. A great retail politician, loves answering questions, loves being in the  center of attention.”

“Bruce Rauner is downstate all the time.” she adds. “Of course, he has Ken Griffin’s private plane, which is thousands of dollars in in-kind contributions.”

Political animals have wondered for a long time about how Rahm Emanuel’s personal friendship with Rauner will come into play in the Governor’s race.  Felsenthal has her own theory.

“My belief is that Rahm Emanuel will be a happy guy if on November 5, what will likely be a close election ends up with Bruce Rauner the winner, because…I think that Rahm and Rauner would see themselves as two masters of the universe who, working together could really shake things up and change things.”

“There’s no love between Pat Quinn and Rahm Emanuel,” Felsenthal claims. “After that terrible Fourth of July weekend, (Quinn offered State Troopers to Chicago). Quinn said he’d be happy to do it, but he hadn’t talked to Rahm. Then later he realized how odd that sounded that the two wouldn’t be in constant contact, and he said, oh, we talk all the time. But, no they don’t.”

And does Rauner have higher aspirations than Governor?

“Sure, he wants to be president,” Felsenthal says. citing friends close to Rauner.

So in the end, does Felsenthal believe that Rauner would make an effective Governor?

“The thing that worries me about Bruce Rauner is he doesn’t like unprofitable. He likes to take something that’s unprofitable and turn it profitable. You can’t do that in government.”

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