Friday, October 27, 2006


Many journalists held their breaths today as they waited to hear how close a federal investigation of state contracting schemes would come to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In a Chicago federal court building this afternoon, one of the governor’s appointees, Stuart Levine, pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering.

Levine, a significant GOP fund-raiser, was appointed by former Gov. George Ryan to sit on two regulatory boards, the Teachers Retirement System, which pays the pensions of teachers outside of Chicago, and the Health Facilities Planning Board, which oversees construction projects of hospitals and other medical buildings. He was originally appointed to the planning board during Gov. Jim Edgar’s Administration and was reappointed by Ryan, then Blagojevich.

Levine’s plea agreement lays out details of an intricate scheme described in the indictment of Levine and Antoin “Tony” Rezko, Blagojevich's political advisor (see more on our news page). Levine worked with at least five others in schemes between 2001 and 2004.

The details are many, but, alas, reporters see only a slew of unnamed individuals — A through L and investment firms 1 through 9. By using code names, prosecutors haven’t yet tipped their hands on how close the schemes come to the governor’s inner circle.

Levine has been cooperating with the feds for months, which could reduce his sentence, and he won’t be sentenced until the ongoing investigation concludes.

There are a lot of people involved, and a lot more details will rain down before it’s all over. In short, reporters aren’t the only ones holding their breaths this fall.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

For better or for worse

Technology has changed elections. Anyone with a high-speed Internet connection has access to a lot of information about political candidates. While broadband hasn’t been equally available in rural and urban areas, campaign organizers realize they can reach a new and younger crowd by using Web sites viewed by the Internet savvy.

For instance, Congressman John Shimkus posted his profile on Facebook, a “social directory” where friends share information with each other. But you would have to create a Facebook account to view his full profile that includes his contact information, educational and work information, interests and favorite music, upcoming events and a list of other people he accepts as “friends” in his network.

Barack Obama has a blog that links to his Facebook profile and to his video appearances, such as his CNN interview on “The Situation Room” posted on YouTube, another Web site that enables people to post and watch their own videos.

And there are many more political ads on YouTube, whether they were posted by the official campaign or by someone else. A search for Judy Baar Topinka or Rod Blagojevich each produce about three dozen links to TV ads and other related videos, some of which could be Joe Schmo’s personal commentary. And, like any Internet search, you may also get some other stuff not directly related to your inquiry and not exactly in good taste.

And buyer beware, politicians’ ads tend to spin the facts in their favor. Case in point, Blagojevich’s recent ad accuses Topinka, three-term state treasurer, of being connected to the last administration’s corruption because she was “George Ryan’s treasurer.” As recently said by Charlie Wheeler, director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, the treasurer has no more to do with the legislative process than a Statehouse janitor does. And isn’t Topinka also Blagojevich’s treasurer?

But if a voter still wants to see what is being produced across the state, a person in northern Illinois can look up political ads being aired in the relatively hot state senate race in east central Illinois to replace Republican Sen. Rick Winkle. A commercial for Republican Judy Myers is posted targeting Democrat Michael Frerichs. He also posted his own TV ad on his Web site.

For those who are interested in how Illinois races compare to races in other states, there’s a new national resource online in the form of a daily blog. Most of Illinois’ political insiders know of Rich Miller’s Capitol Fax Blog, but it now has been added to The Hotline Political Network. While the site has room to grow, it’s designed to feature bloggers who are the unofficial sources for insider news and analysis from their respective states.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Obama mania

You couldn’t miss seeing Barack Obama’s face if you tried this week. He’s promoting his new book, The Audacity of Hope, landing him on the covers of Time, Men’s Vogue and Sojourners Christian magazine. And he was interviewed on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” NBC’s “Today” show, and will appear tonight on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

His media blitz crosses state lines. Two newspaper reporters for Lee Enterprises — Kurt Erickson in Springfield and our former Statehouse bureau chief, Patrick Guinane, who now works in Indianapolis — co-wrote an article about Obama Monday. While Obama campaigned in Indianapolis, his colleague, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, another Illinois Democrat, encouraged the junior senator to run for president in 2008. Durbin had stopped in Springfield to campaign for state treasurer candidate Alexi Giannoulias, but his thoughts on Obama dominated a few minutes of questioning.

This is all on the heels of numerous reporters following Obama’s every move in Africa and his campaign stops in Iowa last month. (A politician’s trip to Iowa typically breeds a presidential nomination). It’s all quite unbelievable. But out of all the media coverage, one quote sticks out.

Joe Kline’s Time article draws particular attention because it hints that Obama no longer rules out a run for president in 2008. Here’s an excerpt from when Kline asks whether Obama would consider a presidential bid after November 7: “‘When the election is over and my book tour is done, I will think about how I can be most useful to the country and how I can reconcile that with being a good dad and a good husband,’ he says carefully, and then adds, ‘I haven’t completely decided or unraveled that puzzle yet.’”

Kline picked up on Obama’s journey in piecing together that puzzle. He counts about 50 times Obama uses “on the other hand” in his new book. Voters may appreciate how on-the-other-hands show thought and consideration of opposing viewpoints, but Kline suggests voters might want to consider whether they would feel comfortable voting for a presidential candidate who teetered with on-the-other-hands before and after the election.

Obama is 45 years old. He has spent less than two years representing Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Yet, vocal supporters say his inexperience matters less than his ability to engage and unite a diverse electorate that’s yearning for a genuine leader.

In the Capitol press room Monday, Durbin said the time is now. “Those people who are arguing, ‘Well, wait four more years,’ do you think 2,000 more votes cast in the United States Senate are going to make you a better candidate for president? I’m not sure they will.”

Asked why he thinks Obama is the right person for the job, Durbin said, “I have found him to be approachable and very intelligent and trying to find ways to solve problems in practical terms. And I think people like that. They want to move beyond the mendacity of our current political scene and try to find someone who is going to reach out to the other side of the aisle and unite our country and unite the political scene to solve some problems. He has a way about him, and you know it if you’ve covered him and seen him. You just know that his style is a very engaging and comfortable style.”

He added that other senators were “dazzled” by Obama, who had already been launched into stardom by his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention before he was even elected. Yet, Obama didn’t fall into the “small boat full of titanic egos” that makes up the U.S. Senate, Durbin said, and the momentum behind Obama 2008 has continued to grow before it’s even started.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Rezko repercussions

In the aftermath of a long-rumored federal indictment of Antoin “Tony” Rezko this week (see our Illinois Issues news item), Gov. Rod Blagojevich is being asked to answer questions about his chief fundraiser, advisor and friend.

Federal prosecutors announced Rezko’s two indictments (see 1 and 2) Wednesday afternoon, detailing pay-to-pay schemes with at least five others who allegedly used their positions on public boards to pressure investment firms into paying illegal fees and making political contributions.

The governor responded in a press conference Wednesday night, streamed live on the Internet. Blagojevich said, “On a personal level, what is so disappointing to me and so surprising to me is that he would engage in a criminal conspiracy to personally enrich himself, and do that behind our backs and then repeatedly deceive us, deceive me, lie to us and reassure us that the rumors about him weren’t true.” He also said he would donate about $60,000 to $70,000 of Rezko’s direct campaign contributions to charity.

Meanwhile, candidates for Illinois' legislative seats and statewide offices are jumping at the chance to claim their righteousness this election season.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate, three-term state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, stopped by the Capitol Thursday with her running mate, DuPage County state’s attorney Joe Birkett, to say the governor should answer questions about the gifts he received from Rezko. She also touted her ethics plan.

“Things do not have to be this way,” Topinka said. “We can have good, honest government in Illinois. There’s no reason why Illinois has to be different from other states on that front. I just want to be a governor who will do a good job and do the right thing.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Power play

Storyline The same day Gov. Rod Blagojevich walked in Chicago’s Columbus Day parade, a state House committee met for nearly six hours in Springfield and approved a measure to freeze electricity rates in Illinois for three years despite warnings that the state’s two largest utilities could face bankruptcy.

Background Rates have been frozen for a decade due to the 1997 state law that was intended to make the electric industry more competitive in buying electricity and distributing the energy to consumers at a fair price. Competition didn’t quite develop as expected, so the Illinois Commerce Commission and the utilities came up with a type of auction in which more than 20 companies bid to supply energy. The September auction resulted in a projected 22 percent rate increase, or about $13 more per month, for Commonwealth Edison’s residential customers in northern Illinois. Ameren’s residential customers south of Interstate-80 could expect a 45 percent to 55 percent rate increase, costing them about $25 to $35 more per month. Commercial and industrial customers could pay even more. House Speaker Michael Madigan urged the governor to call a special legislative session to approve a rate freeze.

SCENE 1 A last-minute rally of Commonwealth Edison employees formed Monday morning in the Capitol rotunda, kicking off a long day of seemingly staged events. The employees wore white T-shirts that said, “be emPOWERed” and held signs that read, “Keep the lights on with reliable power.”

SCENE 2 Two consecutive press conferences polarized the issue. First, a group called CORE, for Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity, represented the utility industry and business interests. The group warned that ComEd customers, particularly those in low-income communities, would be negatively affected by a three-year rate freeze because utility companies would have to buy electricity at a lower price than they could pass on to customers, which utilities say would result in bankruptcy and an unstable electricity supply.
Then a group called CUB, the Citizens Utility Board, joined AARP and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn to argue on behalf of residential customers. “The consumers of Illinois are not going to be fooled by powerful utility companies with scores of lobbyists and corporate executives who are paid more than King Midas and will get even more money if this so-called rate increase is allowed to proceed,” Quinn said. “This is really an epic battle in democracy in the Land of Lincoln.”

SCENE 3 The ComEd employees chanted “reliable power” as soon as the House Electric Utility Oversight Committee convened in the Capitol. Here’s a summary of nearly six hours of debate.
- The Illinois Attorney General’s Office said the utility companies would still make a profit if rates remained frozen, and the energy auction did not achieve the intent of the 1997 law to spur competition.
- Republican Rep. Ron Stephens of Greenville alleged the committee hearing was only called for the political benefit of two vulnerable Democrats up for reelection, Rep. Bob Flider of Mount Zion and Rep. Mike Smith of Canton, both substitutes on the committee Monday. Stephens voted present when the rate freeze proposal was called to a vote.
- ComEd Chief Executive Officer Frank Clark said the company’s $7.8 million in costs would not be recovered by $6.4 million in revenue if the rate freeze took effect. He said a rate freeze also would shatter the stability of the supply of electricity in Illinois.
- Ameren Illinois utilities president Scott Cisel said a rate freeze could cost his company $1 billion more per year than it would receive in revenue. The trickling down effect would start with an immediate layoff of 700 employees and all contractors, as well as delayed connections and customer service.
- Martin Cohen, Blagojevich’s director of consumer affairs, said the governor opposed the auction from the beginning because the 1997 law is ambiguous about how the Illinois Commerce Commission can restructure the way utilities buy and distribute electricity. Cohen said the word “auction” never appears in hundreds of pages of the 1997 law. (Cohen also is the former executive director of the Citizens Utility Board and Blagojevich’s first pick for chair of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which was denied by the Senate.)

SCENE 4 By a vote of 9 yes, 4 no and 1 present, the committee approved the measure to freeze electricity rates for at least three more years. It would need approval by both the House and Senate before January 1 to stop projected rate hikes from taking effect.

Finale After the long day, Speaker Madigan granted a rare five minutes to answer about a dozen questions from the press. “There’s solid evidence coming out of the committee that there’s bipartisan support for this, where both Democrats and Republicans in the committee voting for the extension of the rate freeze,” Madigan said. “And so I think the governor ought to take note of what happened in the committee today. He ought to call the special session.”

One potential hang up could be Senate President Emil Jones Jr.
Madigan: “I’ve talked to Sen. Jones, but I don’t have any commitments from Sen. Jones.”