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A ‘pay to play’ transition

The Nonprofiteer looks at foundation funding for Rahm Emanuel’s transition – costs traditionally covered by a candidate’s campaign fund.

She calls it “inappropriate pick-pocketing,” and “doesn’t blame the foundations for ponying up, though she wishes they hadn’t….But the Emanuel administration-in-waiting should never have asked for that sort of tribute.”

There’s nothing new about “pay to play” around here, of course, but this is a notable innovation in charging for access, and it’s a less than auspicious start for a guy who likes to talk about “reform” so much.

Wisconsin meets Egypt, in Woodlawn

At a community forum here Sunday, a Wisconsin state senator asked a human rights activist in Egypt to thank the Cairo demonstrators who’ve carried signs of support for Wisconsin workers.

“If you find out who that was, we want to know, because we want to give them some love,” said State Senator Lena Taylor of Milwaukee, speaking to Atef Said (who appeared via internet connection) at at panel discussion at the Experimental Station, 61st and Blackstone.

Taylor traced her commitment to her background as the daughter of two union members.  She criticized the uncompromising stance of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as autocratic:  “Walker thinks he’s a government of one, with the legislature acting as a rubber stamp for whatever he wants to do.”

She said Walker’s new budget eliminates reading specialists for schools in her district, which she said has the lowest reading levels in the state.

Said described media depictions of the Egyptian revolution as an 18-day revolt of youth and technology as a “misconception,” saying its roots went back 30 years.  He cited labor strikes going back to the 1990s, as well as protests supporting Palestinians and opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the past decade which challenged the Mubarek regime’s status as U.S. client.

The relevance to Chicago and its recent election was taken up by Salim Muwakkil of In These Times and WVON and Amisha Patel of the Grassroots Collaborative and New Chicago 2011.

Muwakkil said “African American leadership went to an old paradigm of racial solidarity” but “it’s not operational any more” in part because “class divisions [in the African American community] have been exacerbated,” particularly by “a rapidly growing underclass created by the criminal justice complex.”

Patel argued that “economic justice issues transcend race.”  She said the multiracial coalition of New Chicago 2011 realized mayoral candidates were going to make racial appeals but “the color that concerns everybody is green, the green of money.”

Media coverage of the election was “all about personalities, not about substance at all,” she said.  When the citywide coalition of community and labor organizations drew thousands to a candidates forum focused on community issues in December, mainstream print media made no mention of the event.  “The fact of 2,500 Chicagoans getting together is apparently not a big deal,” she said.

The forum was sponsored by ARC (which stands for A movement Re-imaging Chicago), which issued a document of “principles for a humane city.”  The principles included a commitment to public schools, environmental rights, a comprehensive fair housing standard, public clinics and hospitals, and community efforts to prevent violence.

Presenting the document for ARC, University of Chicago historian Adam Green stressed the importance of framing policies that address the central problem of massive, growing inequality in American society.

New mayor — new Chicago?

Community organizers are hoping Rahm Emanuel will open up to their ideas now that his mayoral quest has ended in what he called “a humbling victory.”

Facing the first open mayoral election in decades, community groups across the city hoped for a broad debate on the future of the city and held candidates forums across town.

But the candidate who won yesterday – fueled by an enormous fundraising advantage, favorable media treatment, and tacit support from  City Hall and the White House – was the one who skipped out on almost all the community events.

“Emanuel didn’t come to the forums with the communities, so there hasn’t been an opportunity for a dialogue,” said Jane Ramsey of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, part of the New Chicago 2011 coalition.

“Our challenge as advocates who care about communities and the issues that have been neglected – housing, jobs, schools, health and safety– is to get the attention of the new mayor and get a process on track to address those issues,” she said.

Judging from the turnout, Rahm Emanuel won with less than overwhelming enthusiasm from Chicago residents.  That may have reflected the inevitability with which his election was treated from the very beginning.

In a remarkable analysis, Chicago Muckrakers touted up the number of times candidates were mentioned in the city’s two daily newspapers and it lined up almost perfectly with their poll rankings.  In the first three months of the campaign, Emanuel was mentioned 447 times, while Gery Chico got 227 mentions, Carol Moseley Braun got 210, and Miguel del Valle (a citywide elected official who was the first to announce his candidacy), 146.

Chicago Indymedia has a concise summary of Emanuel’s political career, from a highly critical perspective.

“Hopefully he’ll run Chicago with a little more grace, wisdom and competence than he displayed in the Obama White House,” commented a blogger at Firedoglake.

As the city and the new mayor struggle with a looming budget deficit – not to mention reorganization of a new City Council, with fourteen races headed into runoffs – New Chicago 2011 represents one major change in the landscape.

The coalition brought together dozens of community and advocacy groups to press a progressive neighborhood agenda. At a massive mayoral forum held by the group in December, one could imagine that the vibrant political culture and popular engagement of pre-Daley Chicago could be reborn.

With New Chicago, “there’s been a major shift in how organized communities work together,” said Amisha Patel of Grassroots Collaborative, which helped organize the coalition.  “Communities are coming together in a way that was not the case four years ago.

“They’re coming together across racial and ethnic divides for an economic and racial justice agenda,” showing that “we don’t have to be set up against each other,” she said.  “The possibility of organized communities coming together with organized labor to move the city forward is exciting,” she said.

With the budget crisis, “the question to us is what is the best use of available resources, and how can you use those resources to create some prosperity for the residents of the city,” Patel said.

“We understand resources are limited.  The question is whether community folks will have a seat at the table when the decisions are made so we can be sure the benefits aren’t concentrated downtown” while the pain is spread far and wide, she said.

Patel points to the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, which would dedicate 20 percent of TIF funds to affordable housing, as an opportunity “to move available dollars into neighborhoods to create housing and create jobs.”

At one point the measure had the backing of a majority of aldermen, but Mayor Daley opposed it strenuously, and this month the council tabled it.

“There are a lot of construction workers who don’t have jobs because of the housing market – and there’s an even more serious need for affordable housing,” Patel pointed out. “And the money is there.”

One budgetary silver bullet will generate opposition: a city-owned casino, which was endorsed by Emanuel and the other candidates.

“We’re going to fight it,” said Ramsey.  “We know that casinos exploit the most vulnerable people, they prey upon low-income and elderly people, they’re counter to economic development, they drain away from local businesses and they drive down property values.”

Doug Dobmeyer, spokesperson for the Task Force to Oppose Gambling in Chicago, doesn’t think it’s politically feasible.  “It’s been introduced in Springfield every year for 22 years, and it’s been defeated every year for 22 years,” he said.

Dobmeyer thinks a city income tax has a better chance of passing than a casino.

He also likes the idea of a financial transaction tax, which could be small enough and targeted to products that wouldn’t disrupt the Chicago trading industry.  But for Emanuel to back that – he’s a former Chicago Mercantile Exchange board member and a top recipient of financial industry largesse – would be like Nixon going to China.

Still open is the question of whether a reform bloc will emerge in the City Council.  In 2007, labor donated heavily to help elect a dozen independent aldermen. “Expectations were high, but it was a mixed bag,” in part due to attention immediately diverted to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, said Patel.

In fact there were dramatically fewer contested votes in the current council than in previous councils under Daley, said Dick Simpson, a UIC professor and former alderman. “That may well change,” he said.

“It seemed possible that a reform bloc would emerge” but “it never came together on any kind of general reform agenda,” said political analyst Don Rose.   “Daley was quite willing to coopt and buy people up.”

Emanuel “will not have the clout that Daley had, and he’s facing a huge deficit,” said Simpson.  “He’s not going to have the resources to offer that Daley had.”

“We don’t know what he’s going to do,” Rose said.  “For all we know, he could come up with ideas that get the support of everybody.”

A hearing on coal plants, and an interesting endorsement

A broad-based coalition expects to turn out  hundreds of members Monday for hearings on an ordinance to clean up Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, a leading environmental group has endorsed the one mayoral candidate who has declined to support the ordinance.

The Chicago Clean Power Coalition will hold a press conference at City Hall on Monday, February 14, at 9:30 a.m., and Alderman Joe Moore and 16 co-sponsors of the ordinance will hold an ad hoc committee hearing starting at 10 a.m.

Public health experts will join elected officials and representatives of environmental and community groups in testifying on the ordinance.  Parents and youth will also testify about their personal experiences with the health impacts of pollution from the Fisk and Crawford plants operated by Midwest Generation on the Southwest Side.

The plants predate the Clean Air Act of 1977 and are exempted from its strongest provisions.  The ordinance would require them to meet modern standards.

“We’re trying to get as much motion as we can” on the ordinance, said Peter Gray of the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Hearings by the council’s health and energy committees have been postponed for over 9 months under pressure from the Daley administration, he said.

Meanwhile, some eyebrows were raised by the Sierra Club’s endorsement of mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, the only candidate who failed to support the ordinance.  One community organizer working with the coalition called it “an interesting contradiction.”

In a candidates’ questionnaire on environmental issues, Emanuel withheld support for the ordinance and called for the plants to be cleaned up, but offered no timeframe.  Under an agreement with the state, stricter pollution controls will be applied starting in 2015 at Fisk and 2018 at Crawford.

In the group’s interview process, “it was clear to us he is committed to cleaning up or shutting down these plants,” said Becki Clayborn of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.  “If all other avenues have been exhausted, he would definitely support the ordinance.”

She added that “we believe the Clean Power Ordinance is the way to go, because we haven’t seen any action on the federal level.”

In January, candidate Miguel del Valle joined coalition members outside Fisk to support their efforts.

Environmental and community groups have been demanding the plants meet modern emissions standards for a decade.  A previous ordinance to clean up the plants was introduced in 2002.  In an advisory referendum the next year, voters in precincts around the plants supported that ordinance by margins of nearly 90 percent.

In 2002, a Harvard study found the two plants, which emit thousands of tons of pollutions each year, are responsible for 40 premature deaths each year, hundreds of emergency room visits and thousands of asthma attacks.

Particulate matter pollution is associated with heart attacks, with chronic respiratory disease in children, and with premature death due to lung and heart disease, according to the US EPA.

A recent study by ELPC estimated that emissions from Fisk and Crawford cost the public $127 million a year in added health expenses.

Students: Emanuel errs on charter performance

Rahm Emanuel “didn’t do his homework” when he touted the supposed superiority of charter schools in a televised debate, three Chicago high school students assert in a Youtube video that’s attracted widespread attention.

Chicago news media didn’t do its homework, either, when it allowed Emanuel’s baseless assertion to pass unchallenged.

In the debate on WGN on January 27, Emanuel said: “If you take out Northside [College Prep], if you take out Walter Payton, the seven best performing high schools are all charters.”

In fact, none of the best-performing high schools are charters, the students point out.

“Four hundred thousand students go to their neighborhood public schools [in Chicago],” they say on the video.  “You want a real school turnaround? Invest in us!”  The video supports Miguel del Valle’s candidacy.

Sullivan junior Gerardo Aguilar, who’s involved in a Mikva Challenge civic participation project at the school, attended a January 17 candidates forum sponsored by Mikva and WTTW.  He says he liked Del Valle’s repeated emphasis on neighborhood schools, and he came back to school and organized fellow members of the Latino Club to canvas for him.

On the last Saturday of January, they watched the WGN debate online, so they’d have a better grasp of the issues when they went door-to-door later that day.

‘Did you hear what he said?’

They immediately realized Emanuel’s error; they knew that nearby Lane Tech was a top-ranked school, Aguilar said.

“We were talking about it: ‘Did you hear what he said?'” relates Alexandra Alvarez, also a junior at Sullivan. “If he doesn’t care about neighborhood schools, what’s he going to do to help them?”

All in the same day, they researched the issue, scripted, shot, and edited the video, and posted it on Youtube, with the help of a neighbor who’d been Aguilar’s coach for the Young Leaders Conference of the National Hispanic Institute.

(Latino Club advisor Jacquelyn Rosa gives an account of the video’s creation at Achy Obejas’s Citylife blog.)

As far as Emanuel’s inaccuracy, the students’ charge is on the money, said Don Moore of Designs for Change, who analyzed rankings at Newstips’ request.

In fact, the top nine high schools – based on the percentage of students at or above state standards in combined reading, math, and science scores on the Prairie State Achievement Examination – are all public, non-charter schools, he said.

“Emanuel’s claim has no factual basis,” Moore said.

The Emanuel campaign did not respond to a request for clarification.

Not only are no charters among Chicago’s top-ranked high schools; not one charter is among the twelve Chicago high schools with 50 percent or more of students meeting standards.

Unlike charters, eleven of the top performing schools are governed by Local School Councils, which select their principals for four-year performance contracts. (The twelfth, Rickover Military Academy, has an advisory LSC.)  Also unlike charters, all twelve are staffed by unionized teachers.

In addition to favoring privately-operated, nonunion charters, Emanuel has called for removing the power of public school LSCs to appoint principals – a central accountability feature of Chicago school reform – and returning it to the central bureaucracy.  (Several efforts by Mayor Daley to accomplish this over recent years failed to gain traction in Springfield.)  And Emanuel has backed legislative efforts to severely constrain teachers’ seniority and collective bargaining rights.

‘Fix existing schools’

For the students, the concern seems to be continued disinvestment in neighborhood schools to benefit new schools that soak up resources but serve much smaller numbers of students, without better results.

“There are schools that already exist that need fixing, that need resources,” said Alvarez.

“Going to a neighborhood school, we don’t have a lot of resources,” she said.  But although “the attention the school gets is for violence, gangs and drugs,” there are “programs that help students do better.”

Aguilar mentions the school’s medical careers academy, as well as the Paideia program, which was withdrawn last year when funding ran out.

Beyond that is a concern that school policy will be based on prejudices rather than facts.  Emanuel’s misstatement “shows that the people that people think know everything aren’t really looking into the problems they say they want to fix,” said Christina Henriquez.

Moore backs this up too. “The public needs to know the truth about the charter school myths,” said Moore.  “A lot of their supporters speak of them as the solution, but the evidence doesn’t bear this out.”

He cites a study (pdf) commissioned by the Renaissance Schools Fund, a business-backed group that raises money for charter schools in Chicago, that found no difference in achievement when matched pairs of charter and public school students were compared over two years.

Indeed, Moore’s analysis indicates that more than two-thirds of the charters currently serving grades 9 through 12 have less than 27 percent of students meeting standards.

Finding Emanuel’s error “got us to ask, how much does he really know about schools?” said Henriquez.  And it led them to fear that “he doesn’t care about us.”

Beyond all that, perhaps, the students’ achievement – catching a significant gaffe by a major candidate which completely slipped past the city’s news media (this reporter included) – is a testament to the unsung accomplishments of students and teachers at Sullivan and in neighborhood schools across the city.

‘No’ to community forums: Emanuel angers Asian Americans

A stern denunciation of Rahm Emanuel – for scheduling a fundraising event with the Korean community in direct conflict with a candidates forum organized by eleven Asian American groups – highlights an ongoing tension between Emanuel’s campaign and community organizations.

For many, the refusal of the possible next mayor to engage organized citizens groups suggests his administration would continue the closed and autocratic style of the current mayor.

Civic organizations ranging from the NAACP to environmental groups, churches, parents, immigrants, housing advocates and neighborhood associations have held mayoral forums featuring all candidates – except Emanuel, who entered the race with seemingly overwhelming financial clout and now leads all polls.

His campaign says he prefers to meet voters one-on-one, but community organizers say this choice – schmoozing over substantive discussion with informed and organized residents – shortchanges badly-needed debate at a critical juncture for the city and evades an important avenue of accountability.

All invited candidates except Emanuel confirmed attendance at Tuesday night’s Pan-Asian Voter Empowerment candidates forum (Tuesday, February 8, 6:30 p.m., St. Augustine College, 1345 W. Argyle).

Instead, Emanuel scheduled a fundraiser with Korean-American supporters at the exact time of the forum, organizers say.

The Asian American Institute expressed “outrage that Rahm Emanuel is using machine political tactics to try to divide the Asian American community.”

“It is unacceptable that the Emanuel campaign would use these tired and divisive tactics to pit us against one another,” said Sik Sohn of the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center.  “Our grassroots effort at educating our community is being thwarted by a small group of donors.

The PAVE campaign is an unprecedented voter education and turnout effort joining groups representing the Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Korean, Pakistani, and Vietnamese American communities.

“There are 60,000 Asian Americans registered in Chicago, and we can make the difference if Emanuel is trying to avoid a runoff,” said Tuyet Le of AAI.

A convention for Chicago’s grassroots

It had the look and the excitement of a political convention, and indeed it was:  a convention of Chicago’s grassroots.

Markers identified sections for delegations from dozens of community groups, and most sections were filled with people wearing brightly colored, matching t-shirts—blue for Action Now in the back corner, Maroon for KOCO in the front, yellow for Lakeview Action Council, orange for Logan Square Neighborhood Association.  Green for Albany Park, orange for Brighton Park.  On one side was a group of young people from Woodlawn, near a section of people, many in wheelchairs, from Access Living.

At the beginning of the New Chicago 2011 mayoral forum, held Tuesday evening at the UIC Forum, members took turns calling out their organizations from the podium, and in turn each section erupted in cheers.

It’s likely to be the largest crowd for a mayoral forum all season – well over 2,000 people — but for some reason, you won’t hear much about it in the city’s mainstream media. (So far Mike Flannery at Fox News Chicago seems to be the only exception, though his report manages to focus on a candidate who wasn’t there; Progress Illinois has some video clips.)

***

Miguel del Valle drew the sharpest distinctions with the pundit’s putative frontrunner Rahm Emanuel — who had declined an invitation and was tied up at a hearing on his residency anyway — and Patricia Watkins emerged as a serious candidate with several specific proposals.

Carol Moseley Braun and Danny Davis stressed their experience with the groups’ issues; for Davis it stretched from his role as the original sponsor of living wage legislation in the City Council long ago to current sponsor of the DREAM Act in Congress.  James Meeks stressed TIF reform and his work for equitable school funding — but didn’t mention the call for vouchers at the heart of the educational program he released Wednesday morning.

Gery Chico drew boos when was asked about food deserts and started talking about Walmart.  He and Meeks left early.

In his opening statement, Del Valle drew the clearest line between his campaign and Emanuel’s, telling the audience, “You understand the need for a neighborhood agenda, not a downtown agenda, not a big business agenda, but a neighborhood agenda.”

When the candidates were asked about immigration reform, Del Valle drew the most sustained applause of the evening, attacking Emanuel as “the one individual most responsible for blocking immigration reform, as a congressman, as chief of staff,” continuing to a passionate crescendo over the rising cheers of the crowd: “How can we expect him to protect the residents of this city’s neighborhoods?”

He also made a clearest distinction with Emanuel’s program for schools: “We can’t continue to set up parallel systems of education, on one track selective enrollment, magnets and charters, on the other track neighborhood schools. It’s time to strengthen neighborhood schools.”

Watkins opened by referencing her background of community organizing, shared with the audience:  “I have marched with you for immigration reform, for criminal justice reform… We have done more as organizers than any politician that you know.”

She called for a program of social investment bonds to encourage “venture philanthropists” to tackle social problems and for a city effort to develop railroad industry jobs.  On immigration she demanded that “ICE stop trolling in Cook County Jail, because we have to keep our families together.”

The candidates were asked about youth issues, immigration, schools, the living wage, and an ordinance devoting TIF funds to affordable housing.

Asked about schools (and school closings specifically), Braun mentioned her sponsorship of school reform legislation that created local school councils, said no closings should happen without community input, and attacked Chico for his record as Board of Education president in the early days of mayoral control.

Chico gave a spirited defense, saying schools were on an upswing when he left his post, and “we built 65 new schools – we didn’t close schools, we built schools.”

Like Davis, Watkins backed an elected school board and an educator to head CPS. “Decisions are being made for us and we are not at the table,” she said.

Her position on school closings and “turnarounds” – “no school needs to close; we can turn around our schools from within” – seemed to contrast with her previous work with groups that turn around schools from outside.  (More here.)

***

It was the neighborhood activists who introduced the various issues who gave the most moving talks:  Jessie Belton of Southwest Youth Collaborative talked about a neighborhood youth who was attacked on the street after being turned away from a youth center that was closed.  Cindy Agustin, a University of Chicago senior whose family moved to Back of the Yards when she was three, talked about the impact of her undocumented status on her dream of teaching elementary school.

West Sider Takaya Nelson, representing Action Now, said that growing up, “I never though college was an option,” and now — as a CPS teacher recruited and trained through the Grow Your Own program — she encourages children to expand their ambitions.

Cira Isidiro, from Illinois Hunger Coalition, described her heartbreak explaining to her daughter why there isn’t enough to eat in the refrigerator, and Debra Geirin, a resident and activist with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, talked about the joy of getting their own place after she and her husband had to live with her mother and her sister’s family for five years.  “A lot of families are doubling and tripling up because there is not enough affordable housing,” she said.

Massive mayoral forum (and who’s skipping it)

Nearly 3,000 activists from communities across the city are expected at a massive mayoral candidates forum on social justice issues, and every major candidate will be there – except one.

Gery Chico, Danny Davis, Miguel Del Valle, James Meeks, Carol Moseley Braun, and Patricia Watkins have accepted invitations to appear at the mayoral town hall at UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt, 6:30 p.m. (Tuesday, December 14).

But a representative of the putative frontrunner, Rahm Emanuel, told organizers he prefers to meet voters one-on-one.

The forum is being held by New Chicago 2011, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of over 25 community and civic groups.  They’ve issued a platform stressing housing, jobs, schools, violence prevention, budget reform and human rights, and collected quetionnaires from candidates.

Tomorrow night several community residents will take turns presenting statements outlining concerns in each issue area and questioning the panel of candidates.

Emanuel’s refusal to participate is “a missed opportunity for him to get to know the people who live in the city and the issues we are living with every day,” said Eric Tellez of the Grassroots Collaborative.  The audience will feature a cross-section of Chicago residents who are among the most active and involved in their communities.

After two decades of mayoral elections with minimal debate, “this election provides a critical opportunity that we haven’t had in a very long time to engage on these issues,” said Jhatayn Travis of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

“Not participating in a candidates forum and denying people the opportunity to hear your positions” — and how they stack up against those of other candidates — “doesn’t necessarily support the democratic process,” she said.

Unlike the other candidates, Emanuel also declined to fill out the group’s questionnaire, Tellez said.

“We’re urging people in our communities to participate more fully, and when you have people running for positions of power and they don’t engage communities in a meaningful way, it’s unfortunate,” said Travis.

The name of New Chicago 2011 was chosen “because we’re looking for a new way of dealing with communities and policies that would be more democratic and open,” said Ed Shurna of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.  “His not attending isn’t a good sign that there would be anything new about his approach.”



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