Dec 5, 2013


“Is anybody surprised in Illinois when Michael Madigan can put a deal together in less than six hours?”

That’s the reaction blogger/activist Fred Klonsky had when he learned that a new pension bill – one that would strip him and his fellow retirees of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars each over the coming decades – had been cobbled together quietly and quickly passed in both houses.  “When Madigan wants something he can get it and he wanted it now because it would have been more difficult next year as we get closer to an election,” he explains.

Many of the same Democrats who voted against an almost identical bill in May because they deemed in unconstitutional, voted for it this time. They argued that the courts should sort it out.

“These are Democrats speaking,” says Klonsky. “They’ve cut all they can from social programs, from poor kids, from schools, they can’t cut any more, and now it’s just the retirees that are left. The notion that they can raise money by going after the corporations or the wealthy in this state, that could change the way in which we raise revenue, never seemed to occur to them. It was just a matter of who they could cut, and we were what was left.”

At the heart of this debate is a clause in the Illinois Constitution, written in 1970, which refers in part to “an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

And the labor unions will certainly challenge this new legislation, which Governor Quinn signed privately this  afternoon. “If the courts decide that this is an unconstitutional bill, which I hope and believe that they will,” says Klonsky, “we’ll be back here again, except the hundred-billion dollar liability will now be larger, and people will have to pay more.”

Sun-Times Digital Editor Marcus Gilmer looks at it through a political lens. “This was considered a victory for Pat Quinn,” he says. “How he was able to peel off that label of being a guy who didn’t get things done. But I don’t see how this is a win when he’s flying in the face of the union and labor groups who are his supporters, and who aren’t going to go and vote for Rauner or whoever the Republican Governor candidate is next year. Are they just going to abstain?”

Teacher pension members are not concentrated in Chicago or in University towns, Klonsky asserts. They are equally spread out in every legislative district in the state. He says his blog is getting letters from precinct workers downstate who are saying – I’m not pulling for the top of the ticket. Or for any Reps who voted for this bill.

“I think the Democrats are in trouble,” he explains. “They thought they could get away with positioning themselves just to the left of the Tea Party. They thought they could pass a bill, for example, same sex marriage, and that would be enough. Because we would all vote for them because it’s the lesser of two evils.”

They may be calculating that, in the end, the average voter will not support the unions.

“That was a miscalculation,” claims Pulitzer Prize-winning Mark Konkol (DNAInfo Chicago). “When you look at what happened with the teachers’ union with the strike, with the 90% vote, they thought they had that wrapped up. When you talk about closing all those schools, with the big protests and the march. That was a miscalculation. What I’m saying is, they might be wrong, but what they’re banking on is that they’re right. So we’ll see leading up to the next election. But they’re gonna do it, and now’s the right time to do it.”

Klonsky says he feels a groundswell from disaffected Democrats. “Within the Democratic Party and to the left of the party is the emergence of a working-families party, a labor-based party, ” he says.

Changing topics, we focused on Konkol’s recent three-part series about young kids and guns. Since 2010, about 900 Chicago kids have been arrested each year for gun possession, according to his series. Fewer than 400 a year have faced charges. Of those, only about 70 kids a year are found delinquent by a juvenile court judge. And 80 percent of them don’t get locked up.

“And of the guilty, 87% are given probation or supervision, ” He tells us.

“Superintendent McCarthy said it’s one of those things I’ve been dealing with for ten years and I don’t have a solution for it. States attorney Anita Alvarez said I don’t know if locking kids up is the answer. And it just kind of sits there. We throw our hands up. What do we do? So if we’re gonna have a culture change with shooting in Chicago, the only way to do that is to start with the kids.”

Konkol tells the stories of two kids from the former Cabrini-Green area, Rodnell Davis and Quentin Evans. When he was only thirteen, Davis shot and killed a nine-year old boy. He turned himself in and after 20 years in prison was recently released. Over a scone at the Panera overlooking the sites of the once notorious high rises, Davis told Konkol that the gang leaders force young kids to carry their weapons, because the lenient laws will assure that they’re almost never punished for carrying.

“Juvenile justice law from the eighties says that you’re supposed to give the least restrictive sentence to Juveniles, no mater what,” Konkol explains.  “And carrying a gun isn’t the same thing as shooting a gun or hitting someone. So if you have a gun, it’s not really violent yet. But as Supt. McCarthy explained, having a gun is a precursor to killing someone.”

So should juvenile laws be tightened? Supreme Court justice Anne Burke told Konkol that intervention programs work for kids, but so much money’s been cut in recent years that very few programs still exist. And the programs are cheaper than incarceration, both fiscally and socially. But she summed it up. “There’s no political will”, she told him.

And we bid farewell to our friend Marcus Gilmer, who’s leaving Chicago behind for a great new gig in San Francisco. Good luck, Marcus…


About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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