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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 April 10, 204

 

Those giant piles of black refinery ash, commonly know as petroleum coke or “pet-coke” that have been plaguing residents of Chicago’s southeast side apparently won’t be going away. At least not for a while.  But it didn’t seem that way a few weeks ago.

“Everybody was jumping over themselves,” says Tribune environment writer Michael Hawthorne. “Mayor Emanuel, Attorney General Madigan, congressmen, Senator Durbin, everybody was upset about these giant, dusty, black piles. So the Mayor talked very tough, organized some television interviews…and he talked very tough about how he was going to drive these companies out of the City of Chicago. He was very clear about what he wanted to do.”

So he introduced ordinances to enclose the piles. and he said the City was going to zone them, to make sure they don’t expand. And he made it clear the City wouldn’t allow any new ones.

But Hawthorne gives us an update. “Then the City Council has a zoning committee meeting last week, and they present this little handy piece of paper called a substitute ordinance.”

Substitute ordinances, especially ones nobody in the community knew were coming, usually aren’t introduced to make community protection stronger. This one was introduced by John Pope, the area’s Alderman. Again, Michael Hawthorne.

“Alderman Pope getting up and talking about this is the toughest pet-coke regulation in the country. Then you hear the fine print – oh, by the way, if you burn it in the City of Chicago, you can keep storing it in the City of Chicago. So essentially a giant loophole that you can drive one of these barges through, full of pet-coke.”

Community representatives were of course unhappy, and as of this week “Alderman Pope was forced to pull back, and they’re going to discuss this again later this month.”

But why this unexpected substitute? Did the Alderman decide at the last minute that pollution in his ward wasn’t such a bad thing?

“This is not the Alderman,” explains Hawthorne. “This is the Mayor’s office. They acknowledge that. This is the City. This is their substitute ordinance, they did this.  And it’s like anything else in the city. Nothing happens unless the Mayor wants it to happen, right?”

“What we’re seeing here,” he adds, “is the reality of the old part of the neighborhood. Steel was made, chemicals were made in that part of the city for a long time, and a lot of that went away. There’s been talk of transformation, but some people would rather keep the old ways.”

Complicating matters, says Henry Henderson, Midwest Director for NRDC (and founding commissioner of the City’s Department of Environment) is the fact that the State of Illinois had already issued a permit for the site that allowed storage of eleven million tons of pet-coke.

“It’s what one comes to expect in terms of what goes on on the southeast side – that this is an area that can be dumped on,” he says. “This is an area where the community can be ignored. And frankly it’s time for that to stop.”

So, as of today, this is the status. The pet-coke is coming from the BP Whiting refinery just across the border. At this point, that refinery is almost exclusively processing the heavy, gooey “tar sand oil” from Alberta. It’s what Henderson calls “the dirtiest fuel on earth”. The by-product of this intensive refining is the aforementioned petroleum coke. There’s no City ordinance to control the storage or movement of this product. And BP has just completed an upgrade that will allow the refinery to generate two million tons of petroleum coke every year.

Some have speculated that the reason the City is pulling back is that there are industries that want to burn this material here in Chicago. And journalist/author Kari Leydersen asks whether Mayor Emanuel might be favoring industries that say they’ll create jobs.

“Is it that the Mayor doesn’t want to do something that’s seen as anti-business in general?” she asks, explaining that two  operations may want to burn the stuff on the Southeast side. One is Ozinga, a concrete company that wants to build a processing plant, and the other is a facility that would burn pet-coke and coal to create a kind of artificial natural gas. “It’s my understanding that neither Ozinga or the coal gasification plant would do that much for the city in terms of jobs and taxes,” she  says. But it seems confounding. What really is the deeper motivation for the City pressing for this?”

Henderson, who has a long history of involvement with the southeast side, compares this battle with a decades-long fight over landfills in the area. “In 1990, the laws of Chicago were so lax, that it sucked waste activity into the city to the burden of communities…you have exactly the same thing happening today with the fossil-fuel industry here,” he explains.

Getting the Canadian tar-sand oil to American refineries requires delivery infrastructure, and the Keystone XL pipeline is considered vital to the process. Henderson doesn’t want it.

“It’s a pollution delivery system to the Great Lakes,” he tells us. “This is the sort of thing the President should be looking at when he’s thinking about this pipeline. Is this in the national interest?…This is the community where he began his public career. The people he sat across the table from. You can see the impact of this dirty fossil fuel coming here. The dirtiest fuel on earth – Canadian tar sands – creating a further dirty waste stream fetching up in peoples’ backyards and making it impossible to live where they want to live.”

And Leydersen adds that, no matter what, the pet-coke being created at Whiting will eventually find its way into the atmosphere. “Say this ordinance didn’t pass, but they still kept storing the pet-coke here. A lot of it’s being shipped to China and then being burned in China, so the carbon dioxide’s gonna come out somewhere regardless.”

Henderson ends the discussion on an upbeat note.

“We have the opportunity to invest in alternatives. The investment creates jobs. One of the largest, growing parts of the U.S. economy is clean energy. We need to stay focused on that rather than being amazed by the blank stare of the fossil fuel industry.”

 

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CN April 3, 2014

 

Remember when something called “the Internet” began ripping the newspaper business model to shreds?

Well, there’s reason to believe that mobile platforms, and their associated smart-devices, are about to give broadcast radio its turn in the buzz saw.

In-dash broadband receivers are bringing multimedia into more and more cars. The devices in our pockets are getting faster and smarter. And a new breed of broadcasters is quickly gearing up to provide a different kind of “radio” – one that’s programmable, customizable, localizable and almost completely at the control of the listener.

That kind of listener-driven service has been around for a while in the music world, with services such as Pandora, but now the news-folk are getting into the act.

“The Internet jumped very quickly in bandwidth in the early 2000′s”, Rivet News Radio‘s Charlie Meyerson explains. “From text and photos to being able to accommodate video. And simple audio got a pass because video was the new shiny thing. We’re kinda backtracking now, and media entities large and small are saying – oh, we missed something.”

That helps explain how he and others came to start Rivet, which is a mobile-platform-based audio service that streams, Pandroa-style, to your tablet or smart-phone. It sounds just like radio, but it’s actually hundreds of smaller stories and audio clips, stitched together in real time in an order and priority that you request. So if you want heavy business news or sports, you can get it. And because your phone knows where you are, so does Rivet, and it tailors things like traffic reports just to your location.

Jon Hansen is the newly-appointed News Director at the just-initiated DNAInfoRadio, the companion to DNAInfoChicago. Like Rivet, it’s a 24-hour service, but its focus is very local. And, as with this new breed of audio services, it’s customizable.  “We have 30 reporters out in the streets, in the neighborhoods, telling all the local stories…and they thought, let’s continue to find ways to get our stories out there. So I am the  broadcast filter,” he tells us.

You’ll simply have to watch (at about 9 minutes in) to hear Jon tell how he got that video scoop in the Dearborn subway as a man jumped on the tracks to stop an oncoming el train and save a woman’s life. It’s a great “new media” story.

WBEZ, like many radio companies, has been working hard to find a new digital path, and their Director of Digital Content, Tim Akimoff, tells us that a major thrust for them is specialty podcasts.

“I came to WBEZ because they’re renowned storytellers.” he says. “And right away I discovered that there was no place for making everything text-based. If we were going to play in a digital space we were going to have to play to our strength, which is audio.” So they’ve developed a suite of podcasts about food, beermusic and one that meets popular and nerd culture.  And unlike podcasts of a few years ago, the faster phones and 4-G broadband make them very convenient to listen to on-demand, so they’re gathering sizable audiences.

But Hansen asks an important question. “Where does radio journalism go from here in terms of who’s a journalist?”

Meyerson answers right away:  “This is the promise of the first amendment delivered. The First Amendment doesn’t say journalists have freedom of the press. It says everybody has freedom of the press. And there are some people, some journalists, some professionals, who believe this is a bad thing. I think it’s a great thing that everybody who chooses to be, can be a journalist. “

But, as we often ask, in this utopian digital future, where is the news shop that hires and nurtures a team of investigators to dog one or two stories for weeks at a time? Who unearths the next Hired Truck scandal, pet coke travesty or Koschman case? Well, says Meyerson, despite the doom and gloom, it’s still happening because the audience wants it.

“A friend emailed me and said – I have someone who’s looking for an investigative freelance reporter, do you know anybody? And I thought long and hard, and it occurs to me that all the investigative reporters I know are still employed.” (If you’re one who’s not still employed, maybe you should give Charlie a jingle).

Despite the the discussion about a potentially rocky future for classic radio stations, all three panelists strenuously agreed that the future for audio as a communication medium is strong, and maybe getting stronger.

“Everybody’s got headphones in,” asserts Akimoff. “I can’t talk to my kids any more. I have to actually text them when they’re doing the dishes, because they’ve got the headphones in, listening to music, listening to podcasts…”

There’s much more, and if you’re in the journalism field, you’ll probably be fascinated by this discussion. And you may learn something about Tim Akimoff. He confesses that he likes to listen to traffic reports just to know that other people are suffering, too.

 

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CN March 27, 2014

 

After all this week’s punditry about the primary election, activist/musician/attorney Matt Farmer may have summed it up most succinctly:

“Ultimately we will find it to be a peaceful and seamless transition from Mike Madigan’s old supermajority to Mike Madigan’s new supermajority.”

As we know, Governor Quinn called for making permanent the so-called temporary income tax increase. So it’s technically not an increase, it’s a continuation.  But the Reader’s Ben Joravsky says it will be played by Quinn’s opponents as an increase, and proposing it right before an election took some courage.

“If you view it as an act that is potentially self destructive, it is courageous, if you think of that as courage – doing something that is not in your best interest but is in the best interest of the State.”

But, asks Farmer, if Quinn felt it was critical to make the tax permanent, what were his alternatives?

“It’s to let it die and do what Mayor Daley did – (bring it back) after he’s successfully re-elected.”

“So what does he say in  his budget address?” Farmer asks.

“You get the same speech writers Mayor Daley got. This is how we do it in Chicago. Just steal Mayor Rahm’s stuff, OK? I’ve balanced the budget. I’ve saved the schools. The trains are running beautifully. I the star in a TV show…that’s why I said, I’m so used to people lying, distorting, manipulating, that’s our budget process. So I’m surprised that somebody would be vaguely honest.”

The Reader’s Mick Dumke has a quasi-prediction.

“I still think the Governor is gonna be tough to beat,” he says. “He is the incumbent, there’s enough questions about Bruce Rauner, and I think it’s a bad time to be running as a billionaire for office, especially when your whole campaign is funded essentially by yourself and your other very, very wealthy friends.”

Farmer points out that, whether the voters opt for Quinn or Rauner’s message of cutting taxes and growing the economy, the electorate wants it both ways. “60% or so are against the continuation of this tax increase. But the flip side, though, when the question is asked about having their services cut it’s the same relative majority.”

The Tribune ran an editorial essentially congratulating CPS for the smoothness of the Safe Passage program and for what CPS claims is a modest increase in attendance and reading/math scores for students who were moved from their closed schools. But Matt Farmer isn’t buying it.

“In fact,” he says, ” Sarah Karp over at Catalyst had a piece this morning talking about the lack of meat on that bone in terms of performance data. And when Ms. Byrd-Bennett made that presentation yesterday on those claims to the Board, the Board didn’t ask any questions to drill down and find out what these numbers were, they just congratulated her. Sarah looked at some of these numbers and said, at best, these are incremental changes that, given the short time-frame, you really wonder what they tell us.”

And we began our conversation with the potential unionization of the Northwestern football team. Farmer asks, now that they (almost) have a union, how much money they’ll be giving to the Governor’s race.

But Dumke has his doubts. “I personally am skeptical that we’ll ever see unionization at Northwestern or any other school, but I think the fact that we’re talking about players’ rights and the governance of the NCAA, which is kind of a messed-up operation, That’s significant, and as a fan, I’m encouraged by it. It’s a conversation that’s overdue.”

Will this mean that, henceforth, the players will be defined as Northwestern employees? “Yea,” scoffs Joravsky. “They’re just bad employees. C’mon, one in seven? Couldn’t get that first down against Ohio State?”

And for the record, Ben sidesteps a response to the rumor we’ve started that he might be moving to the press office at Chicago Public Schools. “The only thing that matters is the Children. CPS works tirelessly to make this the best educational opportunity in the Nation,” he responded. No, actually, he didn’t say that.

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CN March 20, 2014

Taxes in Illinois aren’t high enough. At least for the wealthiest Illinoisans. That’s the message from Ralph Martire, Executive Director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

The problem, he says, is that our tax structure isn’t “fair”, and hasn’t been for decades. We keep hearing that Illinois is “broke”, but our real problem is that we aren’t raising revenues the way most other states are. He offers so many provocative and thought-provoking ideas about how to get Illinois moving that we really want to encourage you to watch this show. Martire’s thoughts are worth considering before the simplified, bumper-sticker slogans glut every minute of our TV watching. To make it easier, we’ve also included time posts for key points, so you can jump in anywhere.

“The bottom line is: every year, our tax revenue growth, after you adjust for inflation and changes in population, isn’t enough to maintain the same level of services we provided the prior year,” he begins.

And he recruits to his side the “father of capitalism,” Adam Smith: “‘For taxes to be fair in a capitalist economy, you need your taxes to remedy inequality of riches as much as possible by relieving the poor and burdening the rich.’ That’s an exact quote. So I guess he was the first Class Warrior.”

Martire divides modern history into two distinct periods: WW2 to 1979 and 1979 to present. In 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, America’s tax structure was radically revised in an effort to stimulate a sluggish economy.  (4:55)

“From 1979 through 2011 the wealthiest ten percent in America got 139.8% of all income growth. For the math challenged, all of it is a hundred percent. That would be all. So for more than all of it to go to the top ten percent, that means the bottom 90 percent have to, on average, be earning less today than they did in 1979 after you adjust for inflation. And that’s the truth. Almost 40% less.”

Illinois, as you’ve probably heard, is the most-heavily taxed state in the union. “Yeah, that’s absolutely wrong, and it flies in the face of all the data,” he tells us.

“Illinois has ranked in the bottom six or seven states in the nation in total tax burden as a percentage of income for decades,” he points out.

There was, as we all know, a tax increase in recent years, but it doesn’t seem to have had much effect.

“Even with that tax increase we went up from 46th in total state and local tax burden to I think 37th. We’re still in the bottom 13.” And that’s had a long-term dragging effect on our economy, he asserts. “Illinois’ economic growth has lagged the much-higher-taxed remainder of the midwest, and the much higher-taxed rest of the nation. For decades.”

So do higher taxes mean fewer jobs? “If you look at all the peer-reviewed analyses out there, that look at the correlations between a state’s tax policies and its economic growth, you know what they find? There’s none.” (12:30)

Ralph Martire on taxes and education funding: “Getting back to what states can do to make a difference in growing their economy over time, there’s really only two things that show a strong correlation…investments in education, K-12, and investments in infrastructure. And states that do a really good job with that, irrespective of their tax policy, tend to grow at rates faster than other states.”  (14:30)

“Because the State does such a poor job of funding education from state-based resources, Illinois is the most reliant state in the country on property taxes to fund schools…so what that does, is it ties the quality of public education  a child receives in Illinois to the property wealth of the community in which the child lives.”    (25:00)

And finally, what about the pension crisis? Did it have to happen?

“By law, in 1995 they passed a pension ramp bill if you remember. They grew the State’s unfunded liability from 17 billion dollars in 1995 to $46 billion in 2008. That was the law. That was the design of the law…And then we all know what happened in 2008, we were in the middle of the great recession, a bunch of assets the state did purchase lost their value just like everybody else’s assets lost their value, and overnight we pretty much went from $46 billion underfunded to 92 billion. It has nothing to do with the benefit levels payable to public sector workers like teachers…in fact the weighted average benefit across all five public employee systems in Illinois is about $32,000.” (18:00)

And a final note. Shortly after we taped this program, Mike Madigan announced his support for a Constitutional amendment that would raise taxes on those earning more than a million dollars annually. That’s different from Martire’s argument, which is that the tax structure should be graduated rather than flat. 

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CN March 13, 2014

 

Marty Oberman didn’t know much about railroads before Mayor Emanuel asked him to serve on the Metra Board. But he was undaunted. “I’m a professional question asker,” he says, referring to his training as an attorney. “I’ve asked a lot of questions, I’ve learned a lot.”

One of the first things he learned? Metra is a huge, ridiculously complicated operation. Because it runs some of its own trains, but also purchases service from other railroads, and owns very little of the track over which it operates, some of its problems are beyond its control.

“There are 753 Metra trains that run every day. On a typical day there are about 500 freight trains and about 100 Amtrak trains,” he explains. They’re all trying to use the same over-burdened tracks. And despite the fact that his passenger trains are supposed to have priority right of way during rush hour, it just doesn’t always work out that way.  There isn’t one central tower, as in aviation, that coordinates the landings and takeoffs of hundreds of planes.

“The UP is dispatched out of Omaha, the CN is dispatched out of Minneapolis, the BNSF dispatcher is in Dallas, and then we have our own dispatchers for Metra.,” he tells us. “and all these people have to function together so the trains don’t run into each other. No other metropolitan region in the country, including the New York area, has anywhere near this complex of a relationship.”

Further complicating matters are the approximately ten billion dollars Metra needs just to catch up with its deferred maintenance and infrastructure needs. Old rolling stock, sub-standard stations and inadequate track all conspire to delay the trains.

But there’s another problem that Oberman, the political animal and lifelong patronage critic, understands well. It’s the agency’s political legacy.

“Going back many years, Metra, and certainly the CTA (I know that first hand from when I was in the City Council) were very heavily dominated by patronage hiring and political interference,” he says matter-of-factly. “My perception is that when the whole system was created thirty years ago, the Legislature said, OK, the City Democrats, you get the CTA and all their contracts, and the suburban Republicans, you get Metra, and that’s how we’re gonna cut up the pie.”

But in the short few months since Metra’s most recent CEO was fired and half its board resigned, he insists, “That culture has clearly changed at Metra.”

In fact, it’s changed significantly enough that he finds himself largely in agreement with the findings of recent studies that are recommending the dissolution of the RTA.

The RTA, he says, had roles in planning and oversight of the CTA, Metra and Pace, and the planning function is always important.

“There should be some centralized prioritizing of how we’re gonna spend money on mass transit. First of all you don’t want the agencies duplicating themselves.” But there are other existing planning agencies that can take over that function, he tells us.

 Governance, he says, is a different matter.  “The RTA has some oversight function for the operating agencies. But if you put the right people in charge of the operating agencies – I mean the Metra Board should be charged with the oversight of Metra. If the Metra Board needs oversight, I think we have the wrong people on the Board. And I think I would say the same thing of the CTA.”

In addition, Oberman questions recent proposals to have one central board operate all three agencies.  Because the CTA and Metra are so radically different in the way they operate, it would be almost impossible to constitute a board with the expertise in all the unrelated areas, he says.

But in conclusion, Marty Oberman has an optimistic view about the whole idea of regional mass transit.  “There’s an ancient political schism between the City and suburbs. I think as we’re moving into this modern era there are more and more voters and political leadership who are trying to put those issues behind us,” he explains.

“The transportation issues for our region are regional. What’s good for DuPage County is actually good for the city and vice versa. And we actually have a very good cooperative relationship with the CTA now.”

 

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CN March 6, 2014

 

Bruce Rauner is just nine months away from his inauguration as Governor of Illinois. Want to know how that happens? WLS-AM’s John Dempsey pulls out his scratch pad and runs the numbers.

(For discussion purposes here, the panel essentially assumed that Rauner becomes the nominee on March 18.)

“In 2010, Governor Quinn beat Bill Brady by 31,000 votes,” he explains. “Also on that ballot was Mark Kirk versus Alexi Giannoulias. Mark Kirk, who is a moderate Republican, got 65,000 more votes than Bill Brady. The majority of that difference between Bill Brady and Mark Kirk was in the collar counties in the Chicago suburbs. So if Bill Brady had been able to get half that vote he would be the governor now. But he didn’t, both because he ran a horrible campaign and because of his very right-leaning positions. And we’re not gonna see these kind of numbers when Rauner’s on the ballot because all of those moderates who voted for Mark Kirk, I believe, are gonna put Rauner in office. The suburbs of Chicago are where this election is gonna be decided.”

But if you’re a political animal, this will be the most brutal political street-brawl we’ve seen in a long time, according to Chicago Magazine’s Carol Felsenthal.

“If it’s a Rauner/Quinn election, this is going to be the election,” she says giddily. “It’s going to be so exciting. Joe Biden has promised to come in as much as Quinn wants him to. He’s said he’ll come in several times. Hillary Clinton will be here. Bill Clinton will be here. And Barack Obama will be here, because Quinn says I’m not gonna run away from him as others are doing, I want him to come and campaign for me.”

And Felsenthal says Quinn is ready for the fight.

“He will sling mud with the best of them. And he does it because he believes that he’s right. And he believes that he’s pure. So he’ll get down there and he’ll fight dirty,” she says.

Unions, and unionism, are playing major roles in this election. Unions are putting big money into the Dillard campaign, but they aren’t necessarily enthusiastic supporters.

“It’s not so much a pro-union thing as it is an anti-Rauner thing,” Dempsey explains. “These union people do not want Rauner to win, because I believe that if Rauner wins, he has a very good chance of beating Quinn. They’re hopeful that by getting people out to vote for Dillard a week from next Tuesday, that Rauner will get fewer votes and that Rauner may lose. That’s their strategy. But the question is, how many committed, left-leaning union members are gonna take a Republican ballot. I think some will, but not enough to affect this election.”

But Felsenthal says it’s more than that. “They’re investing in the eventual defeat of Bruce Rauner (in the general election). They’re dirtying him up now so that Quinn can beat him. What they’re trying to do is they’re trying do define Rauner the way the Democrats successfully defined Mitt Romney. There are a lot of parallels.”

We also reserved some time to talk about Mayor Emanuel’s Soldier Field trail balloon and his latest back-handed attack on Rich Daley – that they should have built the stadium right the first time – and the Mayor’s apparent reversal on giving $55 million in TIF money to the DePaul arena.

 

 

 

 

 

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CN Feb. 27, 2014

Were you a little confused by the mega-announcements this week that Chicago was about to became a major tech innovation-hub, whatever that means?

Well, Tribune business columnist Melissa Harris explains some of it. The biggest chunk of cash-on-the-barrelhead is $70 million that President Obama has sent to Chicago. A number of corporations and big universities have also agreed to put money on the table for people and research facilities. The possible total investment could top $300 million over time.

“The key customer here is the Department of Defense,” Harris tells us. “DOD has not been a strength of the Chicago economy … so this has the potential to jump-start this region as an actual recipient of DOD dollars (with) the $70 million that’s going to be invested here.”

And that money will, if things go according to plan, buy a lot of military product.

“Lighter-weight armor,” she predicts.  “Quicker, faster robots that are used to de-fuse IEDs….improved communications. They’re working on jamming enemy communications signals.”

And while this design and research work will employ many people, Harris says it has a deeper value.

“It has a convening function. It brings people and scientists, businesses and universities together who have never worked together before, and in fact in some cases don’t have a presence in Chicago,” she explains.

The military’s bid itself falls under the DOD’s sourcing authority and is not subject to FOIA, she tells us, so nobody really knows the details of what they’ll be researching, designing and perhaps ultimately building out there on Goose Island. “But it will help the DOD get materials faster and cheaper. That’s the ultimate goal. And a lot of that is going to be achieved in the virtual world on a computer screen versus in a factory.”

There is a major business that’s been thriving in Chicago for decades, but might have been dealt a significant blow last week. It’s the importation and distribution of heroin and cocaine from Mexico. Chip Mitchell, WBEZ’s West Side Bureau reporter, has been covering the illegal drugs pipeline for a long time. As you may have heard, Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman, who’s said to run most of Chicago’s operations, was arrested in Mexico on Saturday.

“This fellow Guzman controls 70 to 80% of the heroin and cocaine that reaches our market,” Mitchell says. “And from here it then fans out to other parts of the midwest. So Chicago has been a key retail center for the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzman’s organization, and it’s all been a key distribution hub. So the arrest is a big deal.” 

“This supply chain goes back decades and decades,” he adds. “Almost a century.  For most of the 20th century the main product was heroin. Eventually in the 70s and 80s they inserted a lot of cocaine into this supply chain.”

So the big question is: Does Guzman’s arrest mean that there might be a reduction in drugs flowing through our city?

“The cartels have come and gone,” he tells us. “The people who’ve dominated the supply chain have come and gone. But the drugs have kept going. Purity is up. Seizures are up. Prices have remained at near historic lows for years now, and there aren’t many people around with a straight face who would tell you that this is gonna cause any interruption at all in the supply of either heroin or cocaine into the Chicago area.”

Ironically, the cartels have thrived here for all the reasons our City leaders keep trying to sell to potential investors. “It’s attractive to Guzman for the same reason Chicago worked for Mongomery Ward, for Sears and the Pullman Company,” Mitchell says. “We have all this transportation infrastructure and it’s a hub of the midwest.”

Mitchell has also been covering the UIC faculty strike, and he says something about it is remarkable. Older, more established faculty are expressing solidarity with the”adjunct faculty”.

“They already have tenure or are in line to get tenure. And they’re standing up for a minority in the union that’s making a lot less money,” he says.  “We’re talking about 30 thousand dollars a year for people with PHDs who are teaching full-time…they organized and they’re standing up for these very low-paid faculty members, many of whom get paid half the amount of a CTU teacher, for example, or a cop.”

Of course, as we all know, in the end it’s about pensions. Harris has been writing about the legal team that’s organizing to convince the Supreme Court that taking away pensions is unconstitutional. It’s going before the Court very soon.

“If they decide that these changes are unconstitutional,” she says, “Then I don’t see any alternative other than that the Legislature will have to go back to work and try to get a Constitutional Amendment.”

As a business reporter, she says, she hears very little enthusiasm for raising taxes or finding other revenue streams for pensions. If the police, firefighters, municipal workers, teachers and university faculties all stand together, though, and depending on the outcome of the Governor’s race, it could be a political battle unlike anything Illinois has seen for a very long time.

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CN Feb 20, 2014

More than a thousand full-time tenured and non-tenured faculty members staged a 2-day strike at UIC this week to demand salary increases and other workplace improvements.

Although the issues seemed to play well in the media, DNAInfo Chicago’s Ted Cox says it’s not going to be an easy sell at the U of I.

“The State doesn’t support these institutions any more like they did,” he asserts. “So if you pay professors more then who’s going to pay for it? Where’s the money gonna come from? How many people are already in line in Springfield with their hand out?”

Catalyst-Chicago’s Sarah Karp sees the issue as more than money, and compares it with the 2012 CTU strike.

“Where I see a big connection with the CTU strike is the question of tenure. That’s a big issue with education, because tenure has been basically obliterated in the last couple of years. So I think that’s a big issue. Is it really a good thing to have faculty and teachers  having job protection? And how much job protection should they have?”

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen joint press events between the CTU and unions representing firefighters, police, librarians and other public-service workers. What they all have in common is their deep concern about the potential loss of chunks of their legally-binding pension agreements.

“Karen Lewis of the CTU, her point is that we can afford pensions,” explains Karp.  “That we just have to prioritize. And we need to look at bringing in more revenue. She put out a report on Friday saying that if you cut pensions of police, fire and teachers, it destabilizes neighborhoods. Especially in Chicago, where you have to live in the City in order to get these jobs, their money is going right back into their community.”

“But at the same time,” she says, “there’s something like $600 million due from CPS to pay for the pensions this year, and no one knows how that’s gonna play out.”

Cox says this coalition, if it lasts, could have some power. “I think when you’re talking about teachers getting together with police and fire, that’s a really powerful alliance. I think that’s their best and only hope is to ally.”

Did you see those stories in the past couple of weeks about how suspensions at CPS are down, and a new kind of discipline is taking root? Well, sometimes things aren’t quite what they seem.

“It all started with an exclusive that they gave to the Tribune, saying that suspensions are down,” Karp explains. “The next day, the press release came out, and their number was different from what they had in the Tribune. So when you start seeing the percentages get shifted a little bit you start to ask, well, what are the actual numbers?”

Then Karp lays out for us how things can go wrong when a government agency gives a newspaper an “exclusive.”

“What they did was they slightly changed the definition of what they were giving them. And it’s right but it’s a very small little slice of rightness.”

She explains the origin of this supposedly positive story. “Advocates have been pressing CPS for many years to publish school-by-school suspension data, which is very difficult to get.  And they won an agreement to get it.  So that’s supposed to happen very soon, maybe even today. But before you get the school-by-school numbers, they’re going to put out an overall percentage. The way I saw it was to sort of smooth the waters.”

“They know,” Karp says, “that the individual school numbers will be highly varied, but they want a focus on the overall number. “Now they’ve got all the media putting out a story saying suspensions are down so it sort of negates this school-by-school data which isn’t gonna show that.”

Then the plot thickened. Karp says she received an anonymous email containing details of the report. “Basically what it shows is that elementary suspensions are actually up and have been rising, and the biggest increase is in pre-K and kindergarten suspensions. Actually, in the Student Code of Conduct it says you cannot suspend Pre-K and kindergarten students.”

“I think there’s always been pre-school and kindergarten suspensions,” she adds. “I think we’re maybe seeing that there’s more on the books than before, because people would send your kid home and say, hey,  your kid’s acting out. But now this is an official suspension. It’s on the kid’s record over time.”

“My hypothesis is they knew that when the school-by-school data came out, it was gonna be clear that elementary school suspensions were perhaps going up,” Karp says. “So they wanted to put out the story that there is a slight decrease in high school suspensions. However, the other odd thing about this is that the number of high school students has decreased by about 6,000, the ones in district-run schools, not charters. And this data does not include any charter schools. So if you say there’s a 10,000 drop in suspensions among high school students but yet there’s 6,000 fewer students, you could make the argument that maybe there’s just fewer students to suspend.”

Another factor is the disproportionate racial breakdown.

“Between 77 and 85 percent black students are being suspended, and they only make up 40% of the kids in our  school district, and they’re primarily males – over 70%. So it’s probably mostly black male students, who as they get older they drop out more, they go to prison more. And maybe when you start suspending them in kindergarten, a lot of studies have shown that even one suspension any time in your elementary school career greatly increases your chance of eventually dropping out.”

And the whole thing’s further complicated, adds Cox, by the Charter rules. “Charters actually have their own deals going on with suspensions and fines. They keep their own data.”

Karp says she’s FOI’d that data from the State, which requires charters to keep such records, and the numbers for suspensions are high. “So the fact is that really when you look at it overall including charter schools, which are public schools, we actually might be seeing a huge increase in suspensions.”

You can read Sarah Karp’s article here.

In the past few weeks, the City Council has started trying to deal with the epidemic of smart-phone theft. And they’re focusing on ways to keep stolen phones from being returned to the marketplace.

“It started out as an advisory resolution, to insist that phone manufacturers and carriers, their phones have a “kill switch”, Cox tells us. “So that when your phone gets stolen, you can remotely disable it so that it can’t be used again and resold. There’s a big market for these things and that’s why people steal them, is to resell them.”

“But a lot of critics have said that the manufacturers and carriers have no interest in this kill switch because they make the nice money and lucrative business from reselling phones and selling insurance to cover them. And now in addition to that original resolution, which passed, Aldermen Bob Fioretti and Ed Burke, unlikely allies, have joined in sponsoring a City Council resolution that would make it illegal to sell a phone without a kill switch in the City.”

But we’ll give the last word to Chicago’s technology community, who’ve advanced the theory that it would be better if the carriers simply agreed not to reactivate any phone of which they couldn’t trace the history.

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CN Feb. 13, 2014

 

Dan Rutherford has some explainin’ to do. He’s obviously correct in stating that he hasn’t been found guilty of any wrongdoing, and the charges of sexual and business misconduct brought forth by a subordinate remain only charges.  But the State Treasurer’s in a tough spot just a couple of weeks out from the primary election.

Steve Edwards, Executive Director of the U of C’s Institute of Politics, has some thoughts on this political situation.

“I think these questions that have surfaced around Dan Rutherford, he’s come out and he’s done what he could do,” he tells us. “The only thing he had to do on this issue was to try to refute them with whatever evidence he has, but there’s no question that this is now the focus of the conversation – at a time when the issues in  Illinois are very, very pressing.”

But as the Chicago Reader’s Mick Dumke points out, it’s complicated. “This is a workplace issue,” he asserts. “The allegations are about his role as a supervisor of employees, so  that is an important distinction.  The Sun-Times a couple of weeks ago did a story about his travel schedule. Why is the Treasurer of Illinois, which is, in a lot of ways a clerical job, why is he traveling all over the world? So all this stuff has come up about his performance in the job.”

Edwards agrees. “I think these allegations are damaging. It’s about the workplace, it’s about leadership. And it’s also about competence in the job, which was the one thing he was advocating. That was his calling card. I’ve run statewide, I’ve run a State agency, I’m an executive. I’ve been in the State Legislature. I know how to do this.”

So that brings us to the new clear frontrunner, Bruce Rauner. Rutherford has tried to hang the harassment flap on Rauner, claiming that Rauner engineered it. But he hasn’t, so far, been able to prove anything. At this point, the Republican nomination for Governor could be Rauner’s to lose. “He’s certainly brought in a very sophisticated campaign organization, so for a guy who’s never run for office before, he is running a top-flight campaign.” says Edwards.

So if Rauner gets the nod, does that mean Pat Quinn is in trouble? Neither of our guests thinks so. “It’s easy to underestimate this guy. He’s a pretty wily politician in his own right, and I think there are going to be a lot of people rallying around Pat Quinn just because he’s not Bruce Rauner,” Dumke says.

And what about Paul Vallas? Other commitments have kept him out of Illinois until next month, but then he hits the campaign trail full force, stumping as Quinn’s Lt. Governor.

“Paul Vallas is somebody who is very smart, very loquacious, and doesn’t wait to be asked for permission to speak on things,”according to Edwards. But he brings good and bad to the ticket. There’s always the chance that he’ll go off-message, and that he’ll suck all the oxygen out of the room, upstaging the boss. And he was the earliest energetic advocate for charters, seen by many today as having lost their luster.

However, according to Edwards, his positives are important. “Vallas had strong appeal when he ran for Governor himself among suburban voters. He won the collar counties. He’s someone who has an issues set that appeals to many voters in that part of this region – that’s an important area for the Democrats to be competitive in. And he’s also someone who brings gravitas around budget issues and education issues.”

“As time has gone on,” Dumke injects, “I think he’s remembered fondly by a lot of people, even in education circles,  because, especially up against Bruce Rauner? Are you kidding me? He started some of this (charter) stuff, but he hasn’t called essentially for the demise of the Teachers’ Union. He’s still thought of fondly by what I think of as the “Rainbow-PUSH set”, these kind of old African-American activists in the City. He’s still considered a person they can work with, I think.”

In the most recent Reader, Mick Dumke wrote a profile of Gerald Vernon, an NRA-supporting former college administrator who came of age in the Malcolm X and civil rights era, and who says that, despite disagreeing with the NRA on most issues, he believes passionately about private ownership of firearms and the right of his community to defend itself against the epidemic of  gun violence in which he and his neighbors live.

Dumke said interviewing Vernon broadened his own understanding of the issue.

“Traditionally this debate has come down as, you’re against gun violence, therefore you’re for gun control, or damn it, I want to carry my gun. You’re not gonna pry it out of my cold, dead hand. You know, Its a lot more complicated than that.”

Dumke explains that Gerald Vernon puts it pretty succinctly: “I live in a high crime area. Are you gonna look me in the eye and tell me that as someone who’s never broken the law besides maybe a speeding ticket, that I can’t carry out my constitutional right to bear arms?”

But, as Dumke says, it’s more complicated than that. “Let’s just break it down,” he says. “If there aren’t guns, there’s not gun violence. That is true. There is something to be said for the argument that as you open access to guns, you do increase the possibility – the probability – that they’re going to be misused and fall into the wrong hands. That people are going to slip through the cracks in the registration process. Human nature being what it is, when there’re weapons around, things can get more dangerous.”

But Steve Edwards cautions that we in Illinois might be getting a little too agitated. “We’re talking about a state of affairs that’s dramatically new in Illinois, but not in most other states in the nation,” he reminds us, pointing out that we were the last state to allow legal concealed-carry.

Both panelists have reason for guarded optimism. “Maybe that sign that says ‘no guns allowed’ is not a concession to the law, but actually an affirmation about the role guns should play in our lives,” Edwards asserts. “And I think if we could actually figure out how to have a new kind of conversation, it might help all of us get to the underlying question of violence.”

“I assume people have been carrying and concealing forever,” says Dumke. “In certain neighborhoods violence is very visible and the numbers are higher, but I think a lot of people do have guns at home and a lot of people carry them with them even when they are not supposed to.”

And Steve Edwards gets the final word. “Whether you are adamantly against it, or adamantly in favor of gun ownership rights, there needs to be a coming together around the issue of how do we adequately insure that those with access to guns are doing so in a way that’s responsible to each other.”

And, by the way – take some time and check out Mick’s spectacular reporting on the west side heroin trade that he did in a partnership between the Reader and WBEZ.

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CN Feb 6, 2014

According to Chris Fusco of the Sun-Times, the current Republican race for Governor  is “one of the goofier political races we’ve ever observed. “

And WBEZ’s Tony Arnold had a front-row seat for one of the more bizarre chapters this week at a Republican forum in Naperville. Candidate Bill Brady said the following:

“The number one issue I run into when I travel around to manufacturing plants particularly, when I ask them, ‘How’s it going?’ They say, ‘I can’t hire my people back.’ They say, ‘They’re enjoying – I’ll use – their unemployment insurance. And I can’t get them back to work.’ So we’ve gotta motivate people to get back into the workforce.”

“I really wanted to know form Bill Brady, who’s telling you these things?” says Arnold. “This is something that hasn’t come up in the whole campaign. And now all of a sudden you’re saying it’s the top issue you’re hearing from Illinois’ manufacturers?”

Brady told Arnold he wouldn’t name the manufacturers because  he didn’t have their permission to identify them.

Of course, Bruce Rauner  continues his aggressive TV ad buys, which gives him far more visibility. And Rauner can keep the TV commercials coming. Money isn’t a problem. “He has plenty more to keep going as long s he wants to,” Arnold tells us.

As we know, there was quite a dust-up recently between Rauner and candidate Dan Rutherford, who claimed that a staffer in his office  had made allegations of wrongdoing against him. Arnold describes the bizarre press event. The allegations “are wrong, they’re false,” Rutherford says,  ”and he’s being put up to it by my opponent Bruce Rauner. Any questions? Well, yea, we have a million questions. What are the allegations?”

Arnold’s predicting a pretty quiet upcoming session for the General Assembly. There will possibly be an attempt to “fix” the Chicago pension crisis by cutting benefits for current and retired City employees, but as Governor Quinn campaigns for re-election, Arnold says, Governor Quinn will need the support of all those City workers.  ”When they’ve tried to bring up Chicago pensions in the past, it’s not gone over well at all,” he concludes.

However, there could possibly be a hike in the Illinois minimum wage. “The last two times the General Assembly has passed a minimum wage increase it’s been right around campaign season. And so here we are right on schedule for 2014,” he says.

Possibly the biggest story of the week was the unsealing of Special Prosecutor Dan Webb’s report on the Koschmann case. Chris Fusco, along with a team of dedicated S-T reporters, have been dogging the story for years. The report added some new facts to the public knowledge of the case.

“We know that early on,” Fusco explains, “independent of whatever the Mayor knew, there was an Area 3 Lieutenant where this crime was being investigated that said within hours, surely within a day or so, both he was aware of this incident and he had discussed it with his commander.”

It was about this time that a police investigator attired yet another “quote of the week”.

“Holy crap, maybe the Mayor’s nephew is involved”

“We know that when the two detective went out to interview Vanecko’s friend Kevin McCarthy, McCarthy is lying to them telling them he doesn’t know who’s at the scene. But yet at that same time frame it appears that the Area 3 brass, going up to the Commander level, is discussing that the nephew is involved. Fast forward. The police in their official report they gave us when this case was closed said – we didn’t know Vanecko was involved for 18 days. Well, we all know now that’s impossible.”

“Webb leaves you with the impression that the point of the 2011 investigation was to justify the 2004 investigation, which wasn’t really an investigation to begin with,” Fusco concludes.

Arnold and Fusco were the reporters for a recent collaborative series by the Sun-Times and WBEZ in which they examined the deaths of infants and children who were “in contact with” DCFS.

“We’ve gone over ten years of child deaths in Illinois that have resulted from abuse or neglect,” Arnold explains. “We went through those case by case and we looked at the circumstances of each one of them,” he says, and what they found was a higher number of neglect deaths than had been reported before. That’s due in part to DCFS itself beginning to report different types of neglect deaths, such as unsafe sleeping arrangements.  Although the number of outright abuse deaths – what might later be judged as murder – has not risen significantly, when the new data about neglect is added in, the totals essentially double.

“The bottom line,” says Fusco, “is that the individual stories where you have failures in the system, they are so horrific. One of those is eye-popping and it makes you wonder about other cases in the system where kids aren’t dying.”

There’s a related issue, according to Arnold. “Ten years ago, DCFS made a drastic policy shift to remove fewer kids from their homes. And since then, there hasn’t been a big evaluation of whether that policy is working well. And we looked, not just at child deaths, but different elements, and that’s the one that really popped out to us.”

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