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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 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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CN Aug 7, 2014


Who knew that in these austere times, our public housing authority was the most cash-flush agency around? No deficits here – they’e sitting on more than $350 million in reserves.  How’d they do it? By not issuing all the rental vouchers the feds were giving them money for.

The Tribune’s Lolly Bowean tells us about that audit the Center for Budget and Tax accountability released last week.

“The CHA had $432 million dollars kind of tucked away in a reserve fund. Liquid dollars in cash on hand that many in the public didn’t know about, didn’t understand how their budgets operate, or how an agency can be this cash rich,” she tells us.

“In their most recent figures CHA said they manage about 40,000 housing choice vouchers,” Bowean says. “These are federally funded certificates that subsidize rent in the private market for low income residents. So residents pay about thirty percent of their income, and the rest is covered voucher. The voucher does limit the amount of money that they can use in the private market to rent an apartment or house.”

But here’s the problem. The CHA had enough money to pay out at least 13,000 more vouchers than it did, despite the crushing need for housing financial assistance. The CHA simply elected not to do so. But nobody’s exactly sure why.

At the same time, Lathrop Homes on the northwest side sits almost empty, mot of its 900 units idle, as the CHA tries to decide what to do with the development. And, as Bowean explains, the CHA is tied to a federal process from a long time ago.

“There was a formula that was developed because the thinking at the time, fifteen years ago, was that concentrating poor people all in one housing development or in one community just didn’t work,” she explains. “Because not only did it limit the opportunities that they had access to, but some of those communities became centers of violence and crime. So the Plan for Transformation was san effort to break up those pockets of poverty and spread people out to “opportunity communities” where they could have access to better schools, that they could see people getting up and going to work every day and they could be integrated into a larger community.”

And that formula called for an equal division of public housing, subsidized housing and outright market-rate units. But, she says,  the Lathrop area is unique in that it already had that going for it.

“But unfortunately,” she says, “When it comes to government there’s a kind of standard formula. There’s not as much room for humanity and human decision as some of the residents and activists in the community would like.”

So the CHA has been in a kind of stasis. Not rehabbing Lathrop and other similar developments has held critically-needed units from the market and put more pressure on the voucher system. And meanwhile those who do get vouchers are often in a Catch-22. They don’t really get to enjoy those “Opportunity communities”. As Bowean puts it, “Eleven hundred dollars for a three-bedroom unit in Chicago – what neighborhoods will that take you to?”


So Chicago had a baby on Monday. A little corporate bundle of joy called CPUB, or Tribune Publishing. A baby born into corporate poverty, and a baby whose mommy corporation basically wrapped little TPUB up in old newspapers and left it on our doorstep.

Lynn Marek of Crain’s explains that CPUB came into the world owing $350 million.

“Coming out of bankruptcy, you had private equity firms and hedge funds owning the Tribune Company,” she explains. “And these are companies that typically have an exit plan where they make more than what they invested. So, coming out of bankruptcy, these folks immediately started asking – where is it that we’re gonna make the most money and the highest profits with this particular company?”

And guess what? The money folks figured out that newspapers weren’t the things the Tribune owned that were going to be money-makers in years to come. So they built a new corporation, Tribune Media, and that entity got to keep all the valuable stuff.

“So you had some of these more valuable assets stay with the broadcast operation,” Marek explains, “and the eight newspapers and a handful of local niche publications and some digital news services are off on their own at this point. So it’s kind of sink or swim time for the newspapers.”

So how does this happen? How can the 150-plus-year-old Chicago Tribune get treated like yesterday’s news? Well, says Marek, “Tribune Media, the former parent, gets to kind of set the rules as to what the spinoff looks like. And the parent company decided you are going to pay us a dividend of $275 million. So Tribune Publishing knew it was going to have to pay that as part of the spinoff.” (And they borrowed an extra $50 million just to have some cash on hand.)

So, as Marek tells us, the money folk want  their payback. “They’ve been sitting with it, some of them, for four years patiently awaiting the end of the bankruptcy. And now it’s time to cash out,” she says.

Jack Griffin, the new publishing CEO, has a plan.  “But it’s a vision that so many newspaper companies have had for about the past ten years – this whole, ‘we’re gonna shift to digital and we’re gonna find new ways to make money.’ But that’s a holy grail that so far has been a little out of reach for your average metropolitan newspaper,”says Marek.

And there’s one more thing to consider. Jack Griffin used to work at a magazine publishing company. And, says Marek, “He really found a way to delve into something called content marketing, where you take the newspaper’s storytelling expertise, and you don’t have the journalists get into writing it, but you do have another staff at the newspaper help advertisers create these campaigns.”

Could we see a lot more sponsored content at the new Tribune?


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CN July 31, 2014


Have you ever had an encounter with one of these?

Screenshot 2014-08-03 18.05.54

Well, perhaps you thought it was making sure you didn’t blow a red light. But depending on the date, it might also have been ratting you out for creeping through the intersection without stopping during a right-turn-on-red.

In fact, according to the Tribune’s David Kidwell and Alex Richards, there was this one little rogue camera at Lincoln and Kimball/McCormick. Here’s the way Kidwell describes its odyssey: “For months, if not years,” he explains, “It was only ticketing people going straight. People trying to beat a red, whatever. And it was issuing one, two tickets a day. For six months, only a hundred tickets. Then, for twelve days in the beginning of 2012, 563 tickets – 560 of them for right-turn-on-red.

Alex Richards, after the Trib’s arduous legal battle with the City, was presented with the prize: a database of every ticket issued from 2007 to March of this year. He and his team went about assembling an activity graph for every camera. They looked vaguely like EKGs.

“And that heartbeat, if it were yours or mine, we’d be in the intensive care unit,” Kidwell states. That’s because there’d be months of fairly routine activity punctuated with wild spikes at random times. Usually only for a few days, then the camera would return to normal. Self healing cameras, or some tampering by humans eager to get the ticket numbers up? Nobody knows for sure, because the company running the cameras never checked.

“Before you install a red-light camera you’re supposed to define a problem, Kidwell asserts. “You just don’t sprinkle cameras everywhere and wait for the money to roll in. And if they have a problem that people are having accidents because of right turn on red, then you put a camera there to address that problem.”

And presumably, you’d let the public know if the function of the camera had been changed.

So if the City of Chicago had defined a problem – namely people causing crashes by rolling through red lights, where would these cameras be, and how many?  Did the City need to install 350 such cameras to address this perceived problem?

“The City’s Inspector General, the City’s top watchdog, in 2013 at the insistence of several aldermen, asked the city exactly that question, and he could not come up with an answer,” Kidwell tells us. “And his audit was very critical of the city for a complete lack of records on how they choose where they put these cameras.”

But they did raise a lot of money. Almost a half-billion dollars in the seven or so years they’ve been in operation, Richards and Kidwell tell us.

“We found these spikes where cameras that normally issued 2, 3, sometimes one ticket a day for periods of years, suddenly were tagging drivers at rates of up to 56 a day. And then as suddenly as they went up, they’re right back down to normal again,” Kidwell explains. And, remarkably, after the graphs began taking shape in Kidwell’s software, he and his colleagues realized something. “I think we were the first to actually see this in action,” he says.

Kidwell relates the most incredible story of John Bills, who a almost set a a new standard for bribery, if the charges stand up at trial.

“John Bills was the person at the City, a mid-level bureaucrat who was assigned the task of taking over this thing, putting it together, and bringing a company to town,” explains Kidwell. “And we began investigating tips that he was involved in a very cozy relationship…as early as 2012. We started writing stories about that and now, as it appears, the company has acknowledged that they paid him up to two million dollars in bribes. Lavish vacation trips, condominiums, cars, cash payments through a consultant that he helped hire…what’s interesting about this case is that there has been no correlation drawn to the oversight of this company, yet, and these ticket spikes. But he was the person watching the store during a lot of these spikes…He was the City’s point-man on that contract, he was the one who had all the contact with this company at this time.

It’s important to point out that Bills didn’t overlap much with Rahm Emanuel. He worked almost exclusively for Rich Daley. But there’s an interesting second chapter.

Rahm Emanuel decided he wanted speed cameras. And the logical company to install them was Redflix, the company that already put up the red-light cams.

“When the speed camera contract was still being decided,” says Kidwell, “Redflix had quietly hired a former Rahm Emanuel campaign manager on one of his congressional campaigns, a guy named Greg Goldner, as a national consultant to help promote these cameras. And when John Bills retired from the city, he went to work, on Redflix’s payroll, for Greg Goldner, on that consulting deal.

As we know, after the revelations in the Tribune’s stories, Mayor Emanuel vowed to fire Redflix, but it wasn’t until this past March that the company actually turned over operations to their successor.

One of the ways in which the ticket numbers spiked so dramatically during those short bursts might have had something to do with the duration of yellow lights.

“According to the photographic evidence in the red-light camera photos, yes, in some instances they did appear to be shorter (or longer – there was a variance that shouldn’t have been there.) Every photo has the yellow-light time added there,” Richards tells us.

But in that infamous episode at Lincoln and Mccormick? Of the 560 questionable tickets, about half showed a four-second amber light, and about half had only three seconds.

And if you’re fascinated by Rahm Emanuel’s personal style, it’s worth the time it takes to read this transcript of Kidwell’s interview with the Mayor as he was trying to get documents that explained how decisions were made about the locations of the cameras. Especially the part where the Mayor reaches over and turns off Kidwell’s tape recorder.

Read Kidwell’s and Richards’ series here.

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CN July 24, 2014

On today’s show – a bit of a history lesson, largely from a few decades ago.
You’ve probably entertained this thought yourself – why is it, a hundred years after slavery, that black America still seems so far behind? In educational achievement, employment and just financial stability, African Americans consistently lag behind other ethnic and racial groups.

Well, let’s run a scenario. Let’s say your parents or grandparents were unhappy in Logan Square  in, oh, 1965, and they were able to scrape together a little down payment and buy one of those new ranch-houses in Niles for 39,000 dollars. When they passed away in the 90’s they were able to hand you and your sister that house, now worth about 270k, and a couple of IRA’s, enough to get you and your sister started on a fairly stable life, despite the economic downturns.

But now let’s adjust the scenario. You’re black and living in west Lawndale, and you, too have worked hard and saved a little bit of money. But there are no federal loan programs for you, because the banks and the government drew a red line around your neighborhood on a map. So the only way to buy that little house on 61st street was to buy it on contract from the seller. You make your payments for years, but you have no equity and the owner (who, by the way isn’t really the owner, but a predatory real estate dealer who got the house by scaring its former white owners out and picking the house up for a few thousand dollars) – that owner is free to ladle on all sorts of charges and fees, and makes no repairs on the house, so if you do make it through the contract sale, chances are you’re pretty much broke, and the neighborhood is filled with foreclosed or low-value houses, so you’ve spent your money and you have almost nothing to show for it.

That’s our question for today. What happens when generations of a family cannot accumulate wealth and pass it onto their kids? Is there anything that can be done to turn that situation around? What about a form of reparations? Not for slavery, as if that weren’t enough, but for the racist, predatory economic policies that were created, not in distant history, but in most of our lifetimes, and validated by our own local and federal governments? Can we do something about that?

Our conversation today is inspired by a striking piece in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called the case for reparations.

Our panelists are Hal Baron – historian, activist and former Director of Policy for the Harold Washington administration, and Salim Muwakkil, WVON host and senior editor at In These Times.


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CN July 17, 2014


So why’d she do it? Why did Toni Preckwinkle, sitting atop stunning poll numbers and rising support all over the city, decide not to take on Mayor Emanuel?

“There’s this whole network of very powerful, very wealthy people who’ve made it clear they want Rahm Emanuel to remain as mayor,” explains the Reader’s Mick Dumke. “So you have to kinda step on all of their toes and say, to hell with all of you, I’m taking him on – and then potentially divide the Democratic party. From what I can tell that is the biggest reason why she said, no thanks.”

And WBEZ’s Natalie Moore says there’s some truth to Preckwnkle’s claim that she has much more to do as County Board President. “We can’t under-play how important the County Board position is,” she tells us. “Her work is very important at this time about incarceration and who’s being locked up.”

“She almost single-handedly has managed to make the release of defendants from Cook County Jail a popular issue,” Dumke adds. “That was a third-rail issue for a long time, so let’s give her credit for all that.”

But there’s simply no denying the role money will play in the Mayoral election. Toni Preckwinkle, Dumke says, would’t have needed as much money as Emanuel, but “you’d have to cross all these powerful business people, these very powerful interests.”

And many of these business leaders have been funneling money to Mayor Emanuel from the beginning, despite the Mayor’s supposedly strenuous contribution regulations.

“A lot of these people do have business ties to the city one way or another,” Dumke explains. “They may not be getting contracts per se, but they’re sitting on the boards of banks that get bond work worth millions of dollars. They do business with people who do business with the city. Maybe their lobbyist isn’t allowed to contribute, but they contribute instead of their lobbyist. And the bottom line is – the guy can raise a lot of money.”

Karen Lewis has emerged as the one visible local leader apparently willing to run against the Mayor. But will she?

“I wouldn’t be surprised if she sits down and weighs all the options and decides that this isn’t the best route for her,” says Moore. “But I think the attention she is basking in gives her some political capital she can use in ways that aren’t just running for mayor.”

“She’s in a pretty good spot,” Dumke adds, “because I think she could, even by making a modest showing, impress a lot of people. She’s always described as fiery and people say she’s angry all the time, and, you know, that’s actually not true. If you hear her speak…she’s really articulate. She’s really smart. I think she would actually impress a lot of people.”

But Lewis is often characterized as a polarizing figure.  And that, says Moore, could set off a media firestorm. “This could be a battle of personalities and not about the substance. And if that does happen, I think reporters will start foaming at the mouth. Karen Lewis is painted, even in the national media… if you see someone calling someone the murder mayor, that’s going to be a turn-off and seen as hyperbole. But that tends to be what’s recycled about her, and not how she stands on issues.”

But Dumke points out that in at least one logistical sense, Lewis is well positioned. “She’s already got a grass-roots game that the mayor needs money to buy. The mayor actually does not have a ground political game. He’s a new politician. It’s money.”

Violence – particularly gun violence – continues to dominate the headlines in Chcago, especially during the recent July 4 weekend.  We asked the panel whether additional police could have improved the situation.

“The mayor and the police chief get too much credit and take too much heat when there’s violence,” Moore asserts. “I don’t think that these are policing issues. This is an issue of economics, this is an issue of poverty, an issue of segregation.”

“The number one violence issue in this city isn’t even gun violence,” she continues. “It’s domestic violence, if you’re listening to a police scanner. So we make decisions about what kind of violence to cover. We don’t really have a conversation about that.”

Since our show tends to be about both the issues and the media that covers them, we talked about the interconnection between the street violence and the coverage it gets.

“I believe that the way the media covers violence in this city is completely wrong,” Moore declares. “I’m so sick of the Monday morning count. There’s no empathy. It turns into this – Chicago, what’s wrong with you? – and then it becomes a national story. Chicago is not the murder capitol of the world, of the country, of even the midwest. But how do you say that to someone who’s experienced gun violence? People don’t want to look at stats. It’s this emotion, and the media is feeding into it, and it’s sexier and easier to do these counts than it is to talk about the issues. The most violent areas have a lot in common. Foreclosures, vacant property, food deserts, high poverty – all the worst outcomes you can have.”

And Dumke sums it up: “The gun factor is the lit match you’re throwing onto dry kindling.”


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