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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 Feb. 26, 2015


471,464 Chicagoans had their say this week. And what most of them said was they weren’t very happy with the status quo. And then there are the 949,968 registered voters who didn’t show up. What were they saying?

It’s big news that Rahm Emanuel failed to capture fifty percent of the votes cast for Mayor, and will now face a runoff with Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. But what may turn out to be much bigger news in the weeks to come was the astounding number of ward races that followed the Mayor into runoffs-ville.

Given that almost all of these races affected aldermen loyal to the Mayor, and that many of the surviving challengers are  individuals who were backed, at least in part, by the CTU or other forces unfriendly to the Mayor, it’s possible that Rahm Emanuel, if re-elected in the runoff, will face a more unfriendly Council.

(21:40) “People are upset,” says Miguel Del Valle. He lost to Rahm Emanuel in 2011. “They’ve had it with the fact that their alderman many times votes at the rate of a hundred percent with the mayor…The voter feels powerless. And this was the only way that they could express that.”

Del Valle has not been a fan of the past four years of Chicago politics, and has endorsed Garcia. He believes that Rahm Emanuel has failed to connect with ordinary Chicagoans who spend more time in the neighborhoods than downtown. He said it all crystalized on election night with one camera shot.

(5:05) “When I saw it on the screen I didn’t know which headquarters it was, and then I saw people in the audience with hand-made signs with the names of neighborhoods on them,” he tells us. “And I said, oh, that’s Chuy’s campaign. And then the camera showed “Rahm for Chicago”. This is pure speculation on my part, but I think that those folks were scrambling that night to show that their candidate was for the neighborhoods, because they knew that the numbers showed the neighborhoods of the city, not downtown, have lots of concerns about how this mayor governs.”

Much has been made in recent days about the remarkably low voter participation – possibly the lowest ever for a municipal election. But Garcia points out that it’s not all apathy. For many, there’s been a let-down since 2011, and sometimes disillusionment manifests in lower turnout.

(10:12) “Emanuel now is a known quantity,” he explains. “There was promise. The president came in…reminded everyone that he was his Chief of Staff, he was his guy, so there was an outpouring of support…but it didn’t work this time around, because Emanuel is a known quantity. So the promise of the Emanuel administration wasn’t realized in the black community. Instead (they) got closed schools, red-light and speed cameras, a rise in unemployment, and an increased level of violence…so you see that a lot of black voters spoke by staying home. Those…are the ones that Chuy Garcia has to reach now.”

But wil Garcia be able to make a convincing argument that he can solve the crushing fiscal  crises Chicago faces? Author and Chicago Magazine blogger Carol Felsenthal isn’t sure.

(3:52) Unless he is really well prepared, and really well managed, when those two guys get up on stage together, I think Rahm will be careful not to attack him personally…but he’s going to say I want your numbers, I want to know what we’re gonna do about the pensions…”

Even if he wins a second term, Felsenthal says, she believes Rahm Emanuel won’t change his style.

(6:20)  “He said something interesting yesterday to reporters. That was – I’m not gonna change who I am. I am who I am and I’m going to give the city the benefit of my experience and my understanding of budgets and the hard choice that I’ve made”

So how does a relatively unknown County Commissioner face off with Mayor Emanuel in fifty wards in 39 days? Well, says Del Valle, he convinces people in lots of diverse neighborhoods that he understands their issues.  For example, the far northwest side, which voted in Emanuel’s favor, but below 50%, as you can see on this map developed by Daniel Hertz.

Screenshot 2015-02-26 19.49.04

(15:00)  “O’Hare airport noise,” he offers. “Expansion of charter schools. How they take away resources from local neighborhood schools. Overcrowding in some other schools. These are the kinds of issues that Chuy has to really crystalize in order for them to see that he is going to represent their interests in City Hall. Because what this map tells you is – where is Emanuel’s base? It’s downtown. It’s important that Chuy be able to hold this map in front of people and tell the story of the neglect of the neighborhoods.”

And in Chicago’s African-American communities, Del Valle says it’s important for Garcia to drive home his record of alliances with black politics and politicians. “Chuy has a long history of working with the black community. But a lot of folks aren’t aware of that history. That’s why he’s gotta get out there,” he says.

So is this race more about style than substance? Are people more offended by the Mayor’s brusque style than by his policies? Political activist and and strategist Delmarie Cobb, who worked with two successful aldermanic candidates in this election, says it’s definitely about the substance.

(19:50) “They wanted us to believe that it was about personality,” she says. “That’s the part I resented the most about this entire campaign. They wanted to meld it down to nothing more than personality. You know, I’m just a little rough around the edges and I’m abrasive. And it wasn’t about personality. The man has a tin ear.”

So for Mayor Emanuel’s opponents, this was a victorious election. It not only held the Mayor at bay, but it introduced a level of optimism not heretofore seen in his detractors. And that’s what Cobb wants to build on in the coming five weeks.

(8:30) “This all changes now,” she declares. “It’s the same as when Harold Washington ran. Now you can see the possibility. There’s a path to victory. You did not see the path to victory prior to Tuesday because somebody had thirty million dollars and you thought, oh…this is a slam dunk. All of a sudden it’s open to possibilities, and I think you’re gonna see people come out, and the vote is gonna change.”


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CN Feb. 19, 2015

The question on the table just a few days before the mayoral election is: are kids in our public schools today better off than they would have been five or ten years ago as a result of Mayor Emanuel’s policies?

And there’s nobody better equipped to help us with this discussion than WBEZ’s Linda Lutton,who’s been reporting on schools for over a decade and has produced reports for national radio and print publications. She’s one of Chicago’s most senior, and most knowledgeable, education reporters.

So let’s start with choice. Since the earliest days of Mayor Daley’s “takeover” of the schools twenty years ago, he and his schools chief Paul Vallas put a high priority on choice. Charters, schools-within-schools – all kinds of approaches were tried, and Mayor Emanuel has continued the tradition. Today, if  you have a child in Chicago’s public schools, you have more choice than any parents have ever had. You can decide, to a large degree, where, or where not, to send your kids. So what are families deciding?

(13:35)  “While we have a choice system that in theory says kids and parents will always be looking for the best option,” says Lutton, “what we find in fact – a consequence of that choice system – is that students begin to sort themselves out based on prior achievement. It’s fascinating to consider that under an expanded school choice system that basically says your zip code doesn’t matter any more, it doesn’t matter that you were born in Englewood, you can go to any school you want to. Under this system we have more racial segregation than we had before in a system rooted in neighborhood schools.”

Early in Supt. Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s tenure, she ordered the testing of all high-school freshmen shortly after arriving at their new schools. This gave Lutton a massive data-base with which to compare how students with given achievement levels were selecting their high schools.

6:30 “We know we have these high-performing, hard-to-get-into selective test-in high schools,” Lutton explains. “And we’ve understood that we are creaming off our very top students. But my question was to what degree was it happening further down the food-chain?”

There seem to be at least two strata lower down in the hierarchy, she explains. The next one down is sometimes referred to as the “B” schools – places where kids who didn’t make the top scores can go. More importantly, they’re schools  where the higher scoring kids in low-performing schools can go to escape. And that’s making it even harder on the lowest-performing schools.

8:30 “If you are a lower-achiever, the places where you can go are drastically reduced,” Lutton claims. “You don’t qualify to test for the test-in schools. A lot of people don’t know this, but a lot of our vocational programs actually have a minimum “stanine” requirement. We have whole schools that fall into that category. So your choices are reduced. We’ve also had charter schools that have set up barriers. Charter schools are supposed to be open to anyone. That’s not exactly what has been happening in the case of some charter schools, including our largest charter high school network, the Noble Street Network.”

Lutton’s reporting has led her to the conclusion that (20:30) “The number one determinant of the culture and climate in a school is the achievement level of the students. It’s not the poverty. It’s not race. So when you have a school that’s all low achievers you have a school where it’s very difficult to set the culture that promotes learning.”

And when a lower-eschelon school’s highest achievers migrate elsewhere, an already difficult existence becomes even more challenging.

(21:50) “We know about the sorting that’s pulling out the top kids and putting them in the Lane Techs or the Northsides or Paytons.  But what we didn’t understand and we have a much better picture of now – is that schools that are demographically identical and in the same neighborhood are attracting wildly different kids,” she says.

For example, compare Kelvyn Park High School and its neighbor, a Noble Charter high school. Fewer than ten kids in the incoming freshman class were above the system-wide average. But at Noble, there were two classrooms filled with above-average kids.

“Same neighborhood,” she asserts.”Same demographics. and the conclusion we’re coming to too often, is to say, well, look at the Noble Street school. They’re doing better with the same kids. Their ACT scores are higher in four years. Their college rate is higher. But what we haven’t looked at is where those kids started.”

And this mid-level creaming is not an insignificant issue. (7:40) “Right around a quarter of our high school students are no longer being educated in district-run schools. They’re in charter schools,” she tells us.

Because the system has adopted “student-based budgeting” which purports to allocate the same amount of money to each child in the system, those schools with rising proportions of low-achieving students, and simultaneously dropping enrollments (some of Chicago’s oldest classic high schools have fewer than a hundred freshmen this year) the schools are caught in a death-spiral of dwindling enrollment and funding.

(12:15) “That is the biggest issue, I think, that the school district will need to grapple with. Have we created a system that simply segregates out our lowest-performing students and keeps those kids all in one school?”Lutton asks.

By aggressively providing increased choices to parents and kids, the system has facilitated a massive “sort”. Students are associating more and more with their own achievement-level cohorts, and have become increasingly unexposed to children of other abilities and demographics. Lutton says CPS officials have told her that was never their intent, because they believe education works best when there’s a cross-section of kids in the same environment. But it won’t happen unless the system works to achieve it.

(15:210) “If you care about integration of any kind – whether it’s academic integration, economic integration or racial integration, that doesn’t happen on its own, Lutton explains. “We have to have a policy that says – we want economic integration, and here’s why. And here’s what we’re going to do to promote it. It takes an intentional policy focus. Policies that push kids into situations that they may not choose on their own.”

Having said that, Lutton’s not weepy-eyed about the classic neighborhood high school. (17:20) “We’ve begun to sort of romanticize neighborhood high school,” she explains. “And I want to point out that comprehensive neighborhood high schools in Chicago, you have to go very far back, prior to white flight, to get to a point where you can say, comprehensive neighborhood high schools worked well for lots and lots of kids.”

We close the show with a prediction: Will CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett stay in her job, presuming an Emanuel second term?

(26:15) “I took a bet once (on the First Tuesdays Show with Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky), and I bet no. I don’t think she lives in Chicago, actually. Now I haven’t gotten enough evidence to prove that, and I guess no other reporter has. But I think reporters should look at whether we have a CEO who may not live in the City.”

You can read the Big Sort, and see its richly-detailed charts and interactive data-bases HERE.

(The time-codes above are shown to help you find the quotes in the video.)

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CN Feb. 12, 2015


It’s just possible that as of this date, Mayor Rahm Emanuel still hasn’t garnered enough support to avoid a runoff after the Feb. 24 election. The Reader’s Ben Joravsky is sticking with his prediction that the four other candidates will amass just enough votes between them to deny the Mayor the 50%-plus-one votes that he needs. And pension activist and blogger Fred Klonsky agrees, asserting that most polls still find Emanuel at around 40-45%. Aldertrack’s Claudia Morell adds that their own polling also shows the Mayor “not near” the magic 50%.

But it should be added that another credible poll has already pegged him at 50%. So he’s pretty close, and he has two more weeks, and about 20 million or so to spend on TV. Your humble host says flatly that Emanuel, if he’s not already there, will win comfortably in two weeks. Mr Joravsky diplomatically points out that the same humble host boldly predicted a solid win for Pat Quinn. So our confident prediction of victory for RE might be the worst news they’ve received yet.

Governor Bruce Rauner, after remaining largely silent as he carefully analyzed the fiscal mess that plagues our fair state, is now ready to begin prescribing medicine. So what’s the first installment in his “shared sacrifice”? “Go after public employees,” Klonsky says.

Where are the most interesting, heavily contested aldermanic races? Morell says Aldertrack is watching lots of them.

We begin with Ward 16, where the sudden and tragic death of Joann Thompson has sent an already hot race into hyper-drive. Thompson’s staff is seeking to keep her name on the ballot, and conventional wisdom has it that there’s an effort to have her win the election outright, in which case the Mayor can appoint her replacement. Toni Faulkes, the principle opponent, has significant support from CTU and other unions. And as Klonsky points out, the situation has drawn the attention of Stand for Children, the organization he calls “the corporate education reform group that’s part of the Rahm attack on the other progressive aldermen,” adding, “They have obviously decided that they have an interest in keeping her name on the ballot, allowing Rahm to appoint an alderman afterwards.”

There’s the 33rd, where Deb Mell may actually face a runoff, despite the tireless efforts of her famous father, Richard Mell.

And the 11th, the ancestral home of the Daleys, where Patrick Daley Thompson seems certain to win outright. “Yea, says, Morell, “We have him in as non-runoff.”  Is the era of the next Mayor Daley about to begin?

There’s plenty more discussion about other Wards, including 24, 45, and 17.

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CN Feb. 5, 2015

Our thanks to Thom Clark for leading this week’s discussion with the Tribune’s John McCarron and Salim Muwakkil of WVON and In These Times.

On the table this week: issues that might be factors in the Mayor’s race. These include ways to find more revenue to help close some of the municipal pension funding gaps, such as transaction taxes and casinos.

The panel splits on its support for Mayor Emanuel’s red-light cameras, and on the merits of slicing off a piece of Washington or Jackson parks for the potential Obama Library.



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CN Jan 29, 2015

Rahm Emanuel’s headed for a runoff. He’ll get close to the 50% prize, but he won’t win it. That’s the opinion of 75% of the veteran, experienced reporters around our table today. NPR/Chicago’s Cheryl Corley and the Reader’s Mick Dumke say the run-off’ll happen, but WLS AM’s John Dempsey dissents. He thinks Emanuel will win outright.

We begin with today’s Sneed story that 70 locals in 15 labor unions are about to endorse Rahm Emanuel.S o how did the guy who started off in such opposition to the City’s trade unions win them over?

“The British statesman Edmund Burke said in politics there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests,” says Dempsey. “I can’t imagine that the ironworkers love Rahm Emanuel or love his warm and fuzzy personality. But he is the pro-business mayor. The guy who wants to build more buildings, and that creates more jobs for the building trades unions. He is the person who they feel best represents their interests.”

Mick Dumke isn’t all that impressed. “When is  the last time these unions have not endorsed an incumbent mayor?” he asks. The fact that this is getting a huge splash says more about Rahm’s campaign style and his needs at the moment than it does about a changing dynamic.”

Another major development this week is the Tribune Poll which shows a fairly dramatic turnaround in African-American support for the Mayor in just a couple of months. Cheryl Corley says this might be the result of a careful calculation.

“There was a lot of disappointment and anger when those 50 school were closed.'” she explains. “You have a certain amount of time where you can try to shape or change peoples’ opinions. I think all of that campaign money and all the commercials where you have black individuals coming on and saying – Rahm’s the guy – that he’s making the change.”

Cheryl was the host this past weekend of the Chicago Women in Action mayoral forum in which each candidate sat  at the table answering questions Cheryl presented from audience members. What surprised her about the candidates? “They really answered the questions that these people wanted to hear,” she says.

So at this point in time – less than a month from election day (and only ten days from early voting) Rahm Emanuel seems to have all the advantages. In fact, he raised another $800,000 just this week alone.  His opponents are not well-known individuals.  There appears to be very little interest in the race at all. And the mayor probably benefits if voter turnout is low, because he needs to win 50%-plus-one of all votes cast, and if no opponent is setting the electorate on fire, it might be easier to win half of a really low turnout. And today Greg Hinz reported that voter registration is up by an insignificant one percent over 2011.

“The opposition early hasn’t had time to build a legitimate campaign – fundraising, the voter registration, the infrastructure. They’re sort of doing this along the way,” Dumke points out.

And there’s agreement around the table that a runoff – even one that Emanuel eventually wins – is a benefit to all Chicagoans. John Dempsey gets the last word: “He has done some very, very controversial things. And he needs to be in a serious race. And this is not a serious race, what we’re seeing right now. ”


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CN Jan. 22, 2015

Great discussion today between Ethan Michaeli and Glenn Reedus. Maybe you heard about the police officer Gov. Quinn pardoned, but didn’t understand the back-story. You will after watching this.

Also, some penetrating conversation about housing, the Obama Library and the mayoral election.

Thanks to Ethan for an excellent discussion – and for allowing yours truly to step away for the week.

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CN Jan. 15, 2015

(note: we’ve included time markers, so you can go directly to that point in the video).

Fox 32 Chicago’s Mike Flannery is Fired Up.

He was in Springfield for Bruce Rauner’s inauguration on Monday. He tells us that he spent some time combing through the transition document Rauner’s team prepared, and it looks like there are some tax increases in store for service providers.

Here’s how Mike describes it:

13:00 He campaigned last year promising that he would consider and probably propose an extension of the sales tax to services. The boom in downtown Chicago has in large part been driven by these corporate headquarters – Mayor Emanuel boasts that thirty of them have relocated downtown since 2011 when ho took office – one of the things that attracts them to Chicago is the corporate headquarters ecosystem that’s downtown. The lawyers, the accountants, the human relations people, the business consultants, the merger and acquisitions experts – they’re all right there, within walking distance. And they’re also largely untaxed.

In his transition report, released last week, they talked about the kind of money that could be raised from the different categories. If the State sales tax were applied to lawyers, to attorney fees, something like $167 million dollars could be raised each year. And they listed eight or ten other services in descending order of revenue – something more than $600 million. So the question becomes, would local governments also apply their sales taxes? In downtown Chicago it’s about 9.25%. That would be a source of revenue for the Board of Ed, for the City, for the pension funds. So there’s a lot of money at stake.

18:01 I think we’re gonna get this service tax. We’re gonna get the sales tax extended…Governor Rauner has indicated that he doesn’t want to add to the big pile of unpaid bills. he wants to balance the budget. It’s a couple of billion dollars or so out of balance and next year its gonna be even worse, in the fiscal year that starts in July.

And if the lawyers and their clients will have to pay, so will a lot of other people, Flannery thinks.

19:00 I’m sympathetic to the teachers’ union argument, and the other public employees’ unions argument that it’s the pension theft bill. Quinn referred to it when he signed it as a pension reform bill. But something is coming from Rauner. He’s talked a lot about sacrifice. I think he used the word about 5 or 6 times in his inaugural address. So we’ll see.

Pat Quinn left on a sour note as he issued a slew of executive orders on his way out the door. 

10:20  There was one raising the minimum wage for the employees of state contractors to ten dollars an hour. Really? You’ve been governor for almost eight years and you did that in the last eight hours. That said, the one that really requires more discussion is the one that requires the governor of Illinois, every May 1, to disclose his or her complete income taxes. It’s been done voluntarily by, I believe, all of the governors that I’ve covered since Dan Walker. It is disgraceful that Bruce Rauner has refused to disclose his full income taxes…He’s the richest guy ever to be elected to office in Illinois – ever to be the State’s Chief Executive. He owes that to us.

That said, he’s in. He’s got tough, tough decisions to make.

We talked at length about the public hearings this week regarding  the building of an Obama Library in Jackson or Washington Park. 

3:01 The people I talk to on the south side – white, black – they’re desperate for that Obama Library. And the idea that it would go in the general area where the president worked and lived- the South Siders really want it.

And the University of Chicago, which is pushing the south-side proposal, explained why it wants the parks option.

7:30 The University says that they heard from the community -we don’t want residents displaced. The University does indeed have a ton of dough – they’ve got billions and billions in endowments. They’ve got these smart Nobel Prize winners who help bring in billions and billions of dollars. So they could have bought up any part of the neighborhood.

The University’s gotten a bad rap – In Woodlawn there have been generations of complaints about displacement there, and they don’t want to repeat that to the north of the campus.

So the parks option seemed easier for the U of C, Flannery says, because it wouldn’t displace residents. But the quietly-nagging question involves the Obamas themselves.

3:51 It appears they’re not going to be living here. I think they’ve moved on. That’s the sneaking fear everybody’s got, and it’s the old Chicago paranoia. But Bill Clinton didn’t go back to Little Rock. Didn’t go back to Hope.

Turning to the Chicago elections, can Rahm Emanuel grab the 50% + 1  vote he needs to avoid a runoff?

24:10 I don’t know. I think it’s really hanging in the balance. And I think the fact that he agreed to five debates showed that he’s feeling heat. Let’s give him credit. Rich Daley didn’t do any at all in the last elections.

24:40 To know Rahm Emanuel is not necessarily to love him, is it? They talk about Ronald Reagan having been a “Teflon politician”. And maybe Richie Daley to some degree. Nothing sticks. Somehow Rahm is a Velcro politician. Everything sticks…the idea that he’s the one – that it was Rahm in 2011 who suddenly made Chicago two different cities.


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CN Jan 8, 2015


Tom Geoghegan likes to challenge conventional thinking. His new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us, argues that America’s labor movement has to completely re-think its strategy, and that, if it doesn’t succeed, we could lose the last meaningful opportunity to rebuild America’s embattled middle class.

In his Chicago Newsroom appearance, he says that both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that “education, education, education” is the path to a more prosperous life. Yet, he says in his book that 32% of Americans 25-64 have four-year college degrees, and that leaves the vast majority of the country in what he calls “a high school nation”. He argues that much more has to be done to lift the economy for these, the center of the American demographic

Here are a few quotes from Geoghegan, along with time posts to take you directly to that section of the discussion.

“Debt” is a major theme of your book. Why?

350 Henry Ford used to pay people five dollars a day to make the cars so they can go out and buy the cars. I analogize the situation as – today, business is paying people four dollars a day and lending then one dollar at 20% interest to do the buying. An economy that isn’t rewarding people based on their increased productivity is an economy that is going to rely on people going into debt. And even countries going into debt, including our own – trade debt. And an economy that keeps going into debt is going to have periodic shocks like 2008-9.

You say politicians always cite “education” as the panacea for getting good jobs. But in today’s labor market, there seem to be more college-educated people than the market needs. 

13:35  College graduates are working as temps. Working at high-skilled jobs. They don’t even have employers, really. They’re independent contractors. They have 98,000 dollars in college debt. And we’re not talking about Macy’s, we’re talking about big companies like Abbott Labs and so forth. Corporations have so little stake in people. They don’t even have to fire these people. People are on their own, nobody’s investing in them, and they’re going nowhere. They’re stuck. That’s what we’ve gotta change. That’s what a labor movement can change.

You use the word “disruption” a lot in the book. You especially want to disrupt the Democratic party.

19:50 We need more disruption in the country. You saw that in the fast-food thing, which shot up minimum wage to the top of the political agenda. The Chicago Teachers Union strike. And it’s not necessary always to win. You can win by losing. Martin Luther King knew that. Go out there and lose. Force the national political parties, and especially the Democratic party, to declare itself.

You argue that organized labor should move toward a “members-only representation model”, which means representing only those people in a plant who want to be in the  union. How would that work?

23:40 I don’t mean to be scathing here, or condescending. But let me be condescending and scathing. Most people are sheep. It’s not that they’re against (unions), it’s just that – I’ve got my life to live, I’ve got other things to do, I can’t do this. I wish you guys well, but count me out. That’s where most of the country is. That’s why you’ve got to create a kind of labor model where you can take advantage of the people who are militant. Because I can tell you one thing, as a union-side labor lawyer. All this talk about the United States and their workers’ disengagement – well, most are, but a lot of them aren’t. We have a lot of terrific working people who have the sense of others, who want some meaning in their lives – they’re out there, and they’re all over the place. They’re not fifty-percent-plus-one, but they’re 20%, they’re 30%, let’s take advantage of their energies.

Isn’t the central problem that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around? We don’t make much any more in the US, and what we do make is largely made by machines in vast, automated factories

26:58 Technology is dynamic. It’s always dynamic, and there’s always technology that creates jobs. Let me put it this way. We are skewed toward technology that doesn’t employ people. Because we don’t like to employ people. We have maybe 12% of our workforce in manufacturing. Germany has 25% of their workforce in manufacturing. They’re much more technologically innovative than we are. In the US, the whole impetus is towards that kind of technology that doesn’t employ people.  We’re skewed away from the kind of technology that requires skilled people, with innovation coming up from working people at the bottom.

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CN December 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

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CN December 11, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

So who are these people who applied?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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