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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 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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CN Sep 11, 2014

Karen Lewis might run against Rahm Emanuel. In fact, some knowledgeable people are saying firmly that she will indeed run. She’s already committed $40,000 of her own money to the effort.

You won’t be shocked to hear that Lewis didn’t announce her candidacy on today’s show. That’s okay. We asked her to the table today to discuss the deeper policy questions that she’s been dealing with for the past four years in the hope that we might better understand why she’d like to be Mayor.

A major topic was the so-called student-based budgeting that CPS implemented over a year ago, which assigns funding to schools based on their student census. This policy has been blamed for undermining traditional neighborhood elementary and high schools by reducing their budgets as students are drawn into other schools.

“We were opposed to it from the beginning because every place that has tried this has moved away from it,” she says. She tells us that student-based budgeting “is incentivizing principals to hire brand new teachers.”

Lewis believes that, as each principal is forced to compete with every other principal, the ever-dwindling budgets force principals to dismiss more experienced teachers in favor of younger, cheaper ones.

Schools and principals, she says, used to be able to hire the best person for the job. “But now they’re looking for the cheapest person for the job.”

And that has removed a whole layer of natural mentoring within the school, she claims, as older, more experienced teachers are being forced out because they cost too much.

“I’m sure there are people from the neo-liberal side of the spectrum who are really happy about this,” she says, “because they believe that this should be a free-market experiment. But there has to be a plan put into place, not just a marketing plan. Principals are told they need to have marketing strategies now.”

Lewis says that so many of the problems at CPS have deep roots and have been ignored for decades.  Issues “that we don’t want to talk about, and we don’t want to have honest conversations about. We don’t want to have discussions about how segregated this city is.”

Magnets and selective enrollment schools, she says, were created in part to ease segregation, and many have been spectacularly successful. But they also creamed some of the most desirable students of all races and ethnicities, removing them from the local schools. “So the issue then becomes, what do we do for the rest of the children?”

And her conclusion is that CPS simply has to make its schools better. And that takes money. And there’s money to be found on LaSalle Street. She explains in some detail how a transaction tax and a commuter tax might work. She insists that the small amount – less than a dollar – that would be appended to each trade, the average of which, she claims, is several hundred thousands of dollars, would be virtually unnoticed by the investment banks and hedge funds making the trades, and would not be paid at all by the exchanges themselves. Nevertheless, her proposed tax could, she claims, raise a lot of money.

“We’re talking about generating ten to twelve billion dollars a year for the entire state. That’s a nice chunk of change.”

Also, some talk about the fight for the $15 minimum wage, the end of command-and-control management, and why CTU chose Pat Quinn over Bruce Rauner.

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CN Sep 4, 2014


Our panel on this, our fourth anniversary broadcast, spent some time kicking around the upcoming big elections – U.S. Senator and Governor. But there’s a sense that the 2014 mid-terms, so critical for the country, are little more than a warm-up act for the big contest – Municipal 2015.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” asks Communty Media Workshop’s Emeritus Spirit Thom Clark,” if there was actually a civic discourse about important urban issues we need to deal with as opposed to the screaming match?”

Ben Joravsky, Chicago Reader columnist, believes that the mayoral election will be a chance to revisit four years of Mayor Emanuel’s schools policies. He recalls some of the public hearings prior to last year’s schools closings. “We just had this sense of the urgency in the room,” he says. “That we’re losing this chance, this opportunity to do good things, innovative things with our public schools, and this last four years have been utterly chaotic. So I think that’s the pre-eminent issue of the day in the City of Chicago.”

In recent weeks there have been numerous stories advanced by CPS touting improvements in scores and graduation rates. In fact, CPS has claimed that its graduation rate is now the highest ever.

But, says Catalyst-Chicago’s Sarah Karp, just reporting the raw numbers is a kind of false way to tell the story.

“Over the past five years CPS has opened a huge number of alternative schools, many of them not-for-profit,” she explains. “And the kids that get their diplomas from these alternative schools don’t show up in the graduation rates at all, because they’re assigned back wherever they went for their freshman year. So if you started out at Manley High School but you graduated from Camelot Safe Academy you’re showing up in Manley High School’s five-year cohort graduation rate.”

That can artificially inflate the graduation rate for some schools, she says, adding that some of the alternative schools are able to fast-track students through the high school program in as little as 2-1/2 years. “A lot of it’s computer based, coming in and hurrying up,” and that can be a source for the rising graduation rates.

Clark agrees that education policy will play a huge role in the next City election, especially if Karen Lewis decides to challenge the mayor.

“I think educational professionals feel dissed,” he says. “And disrespected, and under-valued and under-cut. And what they mostly hear are all the bad things that they’re not getting done, or they’re being paid too much. And when you bring in the gubernatorial thing…it’s even worse. It seems like one of the candidates would just as soon fire any unionized worker, whether they’re teachers or laborers or whatever, because unions are just bad, bad. So I think we’re at a crossroads.

“When Emanuel came into office,” says Joravsky,  “he had this public relations strategy to make the schools look as bad as he possibly could, so that in four years he can announce how much he’s improved them. And so much of this propaganda that we get is so transparent and blatant. So I definitely think we’re at a point where there’s no correlation between what we’re told officially about our schools and what’s really going on with the schools, and people see that.”

So could Karen Lewis seriously threaten Rahm Emanuel?  Thom Clark: “I suspect that if she decides to run, that she will surprise people, and I think that even if she can only raise a million or two, she’ll be able to offset Rahm’s ten million. Because he’s gonna have to spend some of that to keep Joe Moore and other people in office.”

Karp, though, thinks there could be a down-side for Lewis in the race. “What happens to the contract negotiations next year if she  loses?” she asks. “If she loses big, I know there’s a lot of teachers who are very concerned. Right now they certainly have the upper hand. Do they lose that if she loses big?”


But what about the aforementioned statewide races this November? A recent Sun-Times poll found Dick Durbin only 7 points ahead of Jim Oberweis, something that surprised lots of veteran observers.  “An incumbent Senator should do better than that, particularly against a milkman who’s to the right of most Tea Partiers,” says Clark. “I don’t believe the poll. I see the poll results as more of an anti-incumbent kind of result, and I also question that polling service.”

The big TV money is rolling now, and Pat Quinn is responding quickly to Bruce Rauner’s negative ads with attack ads of his own. Karp thinks they may have some effect.

“Those Quinn ads are just hitting him,” she says. “And they’re feeding on a lot of the angst of normal human beings. I mean it’s all -‘he’s making money and you’re not. And only an evil man would do that!’

Thom Clark thinks there may be a force at work that could strongly affect both the 2014 and 2015 elections. He recalls how community activists registered over 100,000 new voters prior to Harold Washington’s election. “Now, the Grassroots Alliance is 25,000 toward their goal of 50,000 new registered voters. That’s what will help Karen Lewis, if they succeed in doing that. And people don’t know that’s going on behind the scenes. The Democratic party in this city is stale. They have not been doing their basic precinct work.”


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CN August 28, 2014


Should the news media cover each and every murder that happens in our city?  Can five or six murders that might happen in one weekend be reduced to a kind of box-score?

Our guests this week answer that question a bit differently.

“I agree that the box-score approach to covering violence is inadequate,” the Reader’s Mick Dumke claims. “But I don’t necessarily think that it, in itself, should be jettisoned. You could argue that it’s important to cover each murder.”

WBEZ’s Natalie Moore argues against it.

“I think there has to be an intense discussion about why we want to cover this,” Moore asserts. “I’m not sure every murder should be covered.”

It becomes an issue of resource-allocation for ever-shrinking news shops, she says. “There are (newsrooms) that aren’t covering state government, city council, neighborhood issues. So even if it’s profiles of people who got shot, I don’t know how useful that is. So for me, its – what are we trying to tell residents in this city? And with us being segregated, what happens is that it becomes, well, that shooting is there. I don’t wanna go there. And there’s a fear I’m seeing within black communities. We’re starting to internalize what we are being told…this is all people are thinking about because this is all they are being fed. And now we’re fearing our community. We’re fearing young people. And that’s happening not just to white people. I think it’s happening to black people.”

Dumke adds that for him it’s a matter of perspective. “The media should be present in these places so they understand the community before and after violence occurs,” he says. (Violence) happens, and we should cover it when it does, but part of the problem is that that’s the only thing that gets covered about those neighborhoods.”

“I think it’s a journalist’s job to try to provide understanding and context,” says Moore. “We lack an understanding in this city, which is why I think this Jackie Robinson West story has resonated with so many people. So many people have been emotional, just seeing these little black boys being celebrated and not maligned makes people want to cry.”

The ball players, she says, “are shouldering race relations.” She laments the pressure placed on all these young athletes because their series was going on during Ferguson.

“They’re from Washington Heights,” she explains. “They’re from Chatham, from Morgan Park. These are not poor inner-city youth. They have families who – you don’t just win baseball games. There’s discipline. You have to have good grades, sacrifice.”

There as news yesterday that 11th District Commander Glenn Evans was relieved of command after allegedly putting his gun barrel into an arrestee’s mouth. (Originally reported by WBEZ’s Chip Mitchell.) Evans was highly regarded in police circles, and had McCarthy’s full support until the indictment was announced yesterday.

“In most of these situations it’s a law-enforcement officer’s word against a criminal suspect’s word about what happened,” Dumke explained. “So you ask if this is an anomaly, well, statistically it is an anomaly, for any police officer. And to be fair there are a lot of bogus complaints that are routinely filed against police officers…but most of them are not sustained. An investigation occurs and they don’t find enough evidence to take any action. So that fact that you have a high-ranking police officer…temporarily relieved of command is striking.”

We asked Natalie Moore if the loss of one of Chicago’s highest-ranking African-American Commanders could leave the command staff with too few blacks.

“This came up in Ferguson,” she said. “The lack of black police officers, and I get that you should have people who live in the community, who understand the community, but just because you’re a black police officer doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a good police officer. Sometimes I think there’s a police culture that supersedes race. And being one commander down, do I think that’s going to have an impact right now, no. I think if that commander were staying that would be a bigger political liability…”


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CN August 21, 2014


Has Rahm Emanuel distinguished himself as the Transportation Mayor? Has he shown he knows how to shake money out of the Washington money trees?

“He has,” says Tribune Getting Around transportation reporter Jon Hikevitch, “But he’s been fortunate, too. He has his obvious connections to the Obama administration, particularly his very close friend Ray LaHood (who was until recently U.S. Transportation Secretary.) And, almost equally important, Emanuel has benefitted greatly from Governor Quinn’s Illinois Jobs Now capital improvement program. That was a $31 billion program over six years.”

The problem is that all this transportation money may not flow much longer. That State program is over for now, and as for the feds – “It doesn’t look real good for the near term. The federal transportation bill expires at the end of September and it’s very unlikely it’ll be reauthorized as a multi-year bill.”

And the need is overwhelming. The CTA’s unmet capital needs total more than ten billion, and Metra needs billions more.  One project alone – the reconstruction of the tracks and stations north of Belmont along the Red and Purple lines – will cost 4.7 billion alone.

But the mayor was able to announce a start to the project recently.

“Yea, he’s got $35 million dollars from the feds for that 4.7 billion project, so it’s for planning, it’s for engineering,” Hilkevitch explains. “But the City was smart in being able to work with Senator Durbin to define that pot of money.  It was perviously reserved for what are called new-start projects. That’s like building new light-rail projects in he sun-belt. And Durbin was able to create his core-capacity program to help old, urban areas – and this money was dedicated to the Red and Purple modernization. It’s the only project so far that has received money  from that pot.”

So planning is underway, but the City still has to find about 4.67 billion of that 4.7 billion if it’s going to build a new Red-Purple all the way to Linden.

There’s also the extension of the Red Line to 130th Street, which has moved  beyond concept stage and into design now that routes have been more or less settled. But, again, beyond planning, there’s no hard money identified for the project. That could become an issue during Mayor Emanuel’s re-election campaign.

“He said during the campaign that he would have it started within a couple of years of his election. That wasn’t a realistic promise and he certainly hasn’t been able to keep it.”

Mayor Emanuel also campaigned heavily on the idea of building bus-rapid transit in Chicago. He moved quickly to introduce a conceptual plan for Ashland Avenue, but the reviews were, at best, mixed.

“The City is going for what’s considered the gold standard in bus rapid transit on Ashland,” Hilkevitch tells us. “It’s a 160 million dollar project. You’d have bus stations in the median of Ashland. You’d take away one traffic lane in each direction and the idea is you’d have these buses operating almost like rapid transit…it reduces traffic capacity by 50%. The City’s argument is that this is such an attractive mode of transit that people would get out of their cars and onto these BRT buses. I’m not so sure that’s the case. In other cities we’ve seen cars where there are BRT lines skating through residential streets to try to avoid the reduced lanes and it’s causing safety issues.”

Like the Red Line north project, three’s one major glitch. “The City doesn’t have any money for this project, so it’s on the slow track,” he says. “It’s not dead. I expect to see some modifications to it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the City goes ahead, both on Ashland and on Western.”

Bike lanes are always in the news. But there was a minor revolt recently in Jefferson Park after the City revealed its plan for a reconstructed section of Milwaukee Avenue that proposed converting one traffic lane in each direction into a protected bike commuter lane.

“Commuters and merchants don’t want it. They say bikers share the road now, it seems to work,” Hilkevitch tells us. “The City says not quite true. We have almost an accident a day on Milwaukee, over a thousand injuries over the last five years including one fatality, so they see it as a safety issue.”

So the Milwaukee plans are back on the drawing board.

But not all the transit issues are City-related. In fact, there’s a growing need for transit far away from downtown. The Center for Neighborhood Technology recently looked at transportation in the entire metro area, and in their report they found lots of “transit deserts” all over suburbia (and some in the City, too).

“Four out of the five major suburban job corridors – just clusters of thousands and thousands of jobs – there’s no transit out there,” says Hilkevitch. “So you have people who are doing two, three-hour one way trips just to get to low-paying jobs using transit or they’re buying cars they can’t afford and spending an inordinate amount of their income on gas and parking.”

So, after one term, how does Rahm Emanuel stack up as a transportation mayor? Better or worse than Kennelley, Daley, Bilandic, Byrne, Washington Sawyer or Daley?

“I think it’s about the same,” says Hilkevitch. “Certainly this mayor is all about sound bites and publicity. And some of these projects are Emanuel’s, they are new. Others are things that he inherited that were in the pipeline for many years.”

“The message is that we can’t rely on Washington. And whether it’s doing smarter public-private partnerships or increasing local revenue, we really have to do it on our own. Other states – California, Virginia, whether tolling, raising gas taxes, they’re doing it. Los Angeles approved a referendum for forty billion dollars in transit improvements.”


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CN Aug 14, 2014


Chicago Public Schools has announced that it’s making FY 2015 a smidge longer – like about 60 days. That’s so it can double-dip on tax revenue to fill this year’s budget hole. But, you ask, won’t that make FY 16 that much shorter, and thereby create a whole new, and even worse crisis the year after Rahm Emanuel’s presumed re-election? Well, says, Catalyst-Chicago’s Sarah Karp, we’ve sen big, fat crises many times before.

“Like when Rahm came into office before, it was the exact same thing,” she explains. “He said, oh, we have no money. We can’t pay your 4% raises, and it’s a choice between raising class sizes or we’ve got to give these greedy teachers a raise. And what’s interesting is if Rahm doesn’t become Mayor, and someone else becomes mayor, how that person will deal with it.

Of course, that person could, conceivably, be Karen Jennings Lewis. But more on that later.

“There is a genuine budget crisis,” says the Sun-Times Editorial Page’s Kate Grossman. “There’s no question. We on the editorial pages have supported reducing the pensions for CPS teachers as much as we hate to do it. It’s unsustainable. It’s not the teachers’ fault. CPS screwed them, and the State screwed them, but they don’t have enough money. And if you want to make sure the pension system remains solvent, you either flood it with new revenue, or you cut pensions. Or maybe some combination. But something has to give.”

The new 6.8 billion budget isn’t just about massive budget holes and tricky ways to fill them. It also lets us in on some significant changes within the system that will affect Chicago Public Schools for years to come. At the heart is “student-based budgeting”, something that was introduced last year and is now having profound effects at the school level.

For example, says Grossman, under the new plan, about $6,000 follows your kid to whatever school she attends.

“The problem,” Grossman explains, “is whatever the amount is, is not enough, and so when a student chooses school B over school A and her money leaves, it was never even enough at your original school, so the loss of those dollars is really devastating. And it’s this downward cycle. If a school starts losing enrollment, they were probably already struggling anyway because they were under-resourced. Then they lose money so they lose programming and teachers, and then they can’t recruit more kids, and it has a really devastating impact.”

“What Chicago’s been moving toward,” she continues, “is this choice system, away from the neighborhood-based schools. You can chose a charter, you can choose a magnet, selective enrollment, magnet fine arts, lots of  choices. And having this student-based budgeting is the linchpin of letting that system flourish. If you think about it, that allows for choice, right? You take your dollars and you can choose. In theory it’s a great idea,but in an under-resourced school system, it’s devastating for schools that lose enrollment, often through no fault of their own.”

Many consider charters the culprits, draining students away from traditional schools. In actuality, Karp says, they only account for about 20% of the student loss, but there are other factors that funnel money from neighborhood schools to the charters.

“CPS, on top of the student-based budget amount, gives charter schools a lump-sum extra,” Karp asserts. “Their argument is that there are a lot of in-kind services that traditional public schools get, and we need to make up for that. But it’s about $2000 more than the base budget that the charter schools are getting. And that money increased this year compared to last year. so there is a reason why charter schools, on top of their enrollment, which is increasing, are getting more money. So it’s about priorities, and ideology too.”

And it’s starting to get down and dirty. “It is a fight for students, says Karp. “We’re hearing from principals who have teachers going door-to-door. And the charters are going door-to-door. I’ve been offered seats for my children at schools that I didn’t even apply for. It’s basically like – please, is your child breathing? Bring him…”

Grossman tells us about a story she did last year on Lakeview High School. “It’s a neighborhood high school that’s really trying to break into that upper tier,” she explains. “They got an early-college STEM Program, so they got a big investment in new science labs and all that – but at the same time, because of student-based budgeting, and because of budget cuts, their budget got whacked…so that really undercut their effort to create a successful STEM program. It turned out that they had to cut teachers, and so you kind of layer these things on top, but what’s the foundation?”

As we’ve discussed previously, neighborhood high schools are really taking the brunt of the new budgeting. They’re shrinking dramatically. “There’s really not a stated plan for neighborhood high schools,” Karp tells us. “What is the plan for Bowen or Corliss, or Hope, or Robeson or Marshall? I suspect that there are some people who think that there should be selective enrollments, magnets, charters, and alternatives. And that neighborhood high schools are going to be akin to alternative schools, and maybe run by private operators eventually.”

There’s an effect that all of this competition from new schools is having academically, too. “Charter schools are really pulling – whereas there’s always been selective schools and magnet schools – they’re pulling that tier of middle, C-students out of neighborhood schools.” Karp says.

And Grossman worries that, as others leave, these old high schools are left with an increasingly difficult, challenged student body. “These are a very distinct student population that has very intense needs that you have to deal with, not punish them for it,” she says.

“What do you expect? You look at the kids who are coming into the building,” explains Grossman. “They’re coming in so far behind grade level, then you whack these schools because the kids are low-performing. It’s outrageous to me to blame these schools when you’ve drained away all of the higher-performing kids, and this is who they’re educating, and then you blame them for what we’ve handed them. I think that’s profoundly unfair.”

We talk briefly about Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s future with CPS. Both journalists believe that she’ll stick it out through the March 2015 municipal election, but may not last long after that. There’s some agreement that Mayor Emanuel needs her to be with him through the campaign, and that her departure would send a bad signal.

And Grossman offers a somewhat surprising assessment of  CEO Byrd-Bennett. “I think she’s certainly not a big fan of charter schools.  She’s  a big supporter of neighborhood schools. I don’t know how much she’s going to be able to do in that regard, but she’s a former principal. She knows the score about what happens when you drain all the top kids.”

Turning to politics, how will CPS be affected after the inauguration of Governor Rauner? Well, says Karp, “The State has this Charter School Commission, and I would be nervous that Chicago would suddenly get all of these charters that they didn’t want. It would be like the wild-wild west – schools opening without CPS knowing anything about it – it would be crazy.”

Unless, that is, our new Mayor, Karen Lewis, puts a stop to it. Is Mayor Lewis a far-fetched idea?  Karp says she’s starting to believe it’s possible. And what about the Sun-Times Editorial Page’s Grossman? “Yea, I think the people would vote for her,” she concludes.


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