Government official, shrink thyself

A recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business asked nine Chicago businesswomen want they want to see change for 2018. I found myself nodding in agreement with most of it, save for the opening paragraph. At the risk of making a mountain out of a molehill, the comments are worth addressing because they rest on a single data point, presented out of context.

In answering the question of how she would “improve the city and its business environment,” interim vice chancellor for public and government affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago Theresa Mintle says she would “put government on a diet.”

It is well-known Illinois has more units of government than any other state in the union—nearly 7,000 at last count. They do not make us healthier, give us better schools or build safer roads. In fact, the man-hours and tax dollars dedicated to supporting the bureaucracy are holding Illinois and local areas back from investing in systems and efficiencies that would keep us competitive in the modern, tech-driven world.

This 7000 units of government talking point is a favorite of the smaller government crowd. In fact, that phrase mimics a December 2016 article from the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian organization that’s long on think-tanking, but short on effective governing.

Mintle says Illinois should “use the resources freed up by reducing units of government to reinvest in higher education.” Through omission, she obscures just what that government does and the context in which it occurs.

The data Mintle cites comes from a 2012 Census report. Governing magazine lists it in an easy-to-read chart here, which shows that Illinois does lead the nation in units of government: 6,963 to be exact.

Of those units, 3,227 are special districts. The Census describes special districts as fulfilling everything from “such basic social needs as hospitals and fire protection, to the less conspicuous tasks of mosquito abatement and upkeep of cemeteries.” Mintle doesn’t say, but one assumes she thinks mosquitos and corpses are areas best suited to government cutbacks and not hospitals and fire departments. Indeed, John Oliver’s reporting on special districts shows there’s likely some fat to be cut:

Mintle’s New Year’s wish doesn’t mention that Illinois ranks 7th for the most counties in the U.S and has eight cities with populations over 100,000 (only seven states have more), both of which necessitate more units of government than other states.

Yet when you look at Illinois’s units of government per 100k residents (see the second chart at Governing), Illinois falls to 12th, below North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Alaska, none of which seem to end up as the right’s whipping boys for governmental waste.

What Mintle also doesn’t say is within those 7,000 are 905 independent school districts, placing Illinois third in the U.S. for the most governmental districts devoted to education. While there may be bureaucracy to reduce there, those districts include plenty of teachers. How this does not “give us better schools,” as she assets, is not explained. Mintle believes in the need for more resources for higher education, but doesn’t say whether her suggested cuts should come at the expense of our childen’s schooling, which would make them less prepared for “the modern tech-driven world” she wants them to compete in.

It’s interesting to find Mintle suddenly in a position of advocating the cutting of alleged government waste. First, she’s a public employee at an institution of higher learning, one of the best kinds of government spending. She undoubtedly sees the good work done by government every day.

As Mintle well knows, a background in government can be helpful in securing employment. Prior to her role at UIC, she was CEO of the non-governmental Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Her political background is part of why she was hired at the Chamber:

Mintle was a controversial pick in 2013. Although the chamber conducted a nationwide search and vetted 100-plus contenders, it turned to a political insider who lacked CEO experience.

Before joining the Chamber, Mintle was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s chief of staff and chief of staff to the head of the Chicago Transit Authority. She also served in the CTA’s governmental relations unit, in effect working as a lobbyist for the organization. (Lobbyists are apparently the kind of essential government employees that should survive any reduction in governmental units.)

Before leaving the CTA, Mintle also helped create the kind of financial malfeasance she now decries – with herself as the beneficiary:

Mayoral Chief of Staff Theresa Mintle helped enact a special early-retirement plan at her former employer—the Chicago Transit Authority—that entitled her to a $65,000 annual pension she wouldn’t have qualified for otherwise.

Mintle ended up not taking the pension perk after this reporting from Crain’s and the BGA brought it to light.

Perhaps Mintle’s experience in the benefits of government waste has caused her to rethink her previous work and become a crusader for smaller government. Or perhaps it’s another case of do as I say, not as I do.

More importantly, we should always be wary of those who lean too heavily on the “we have to cut government waste” hobby horse without looking at the impact of who and what government supports. It’s an important topic and deserving of more than generalities and sound bites.

Why are Beverly’s home sales up? Because of the people who live here


Last week in Crain’s Chicago Business there was an article about how home sales in Beverly are on the rise and some of the reasons why. I’ll get into that in a second, but a couple of declarations are in order here.

Neighborhood development – specifically my neighborhood of Beverly/Morgan Park, but also the general concept – is something that’s been on my mind for the last couple years due to volunteer work I’ve been doing. I serve on the board of the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA), I’m a board member with the Southwest Chicago Diversity Collaborative (where we’re working on the launch of a spring festival that highlights the need for more bike/pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods) and I work with The Beverly Area Arts Alliance where I produce a live storytelling series called The Frunchroom which tells stories about the South Side that don’t always make the headlines.

Like most volunteer work, there are intrinsic and extrinsic benefits. I love where I live and I want to see great things happen here. I own a house so a good neighborhood means good property values. More art and less racism means my blood pressure stays low. That sort of thing.

But I also see it as part of a larger belief about where neighborhood development should and must come from: a participatory community that has a voice in our neighborhood – and city. It’s the opposite of the typical top-down, politically-driven model Chicago has often embraced.



A couple years ago, I wrote and performed this piece at The Frunchroom. (Say, have you checked out our podcast yet?) In it, I suggested that bars can be a place of true community and an economic driver, particularly those places that elevate artists and writers. It may have been a bit self-serving or even meta considering I was saying it in a bar during the storytelling series I was producing with a group that showcases art in bars but that didn’t make it any less true. I’d witnessed it as over the last few years more young families had moved into Beverly/Morgan Park, attracted by the home values and classic Chicago neighborhood feel.

This week, no less than Crain’s Chicago Business backed up this assertion with data and reporting.

Beverly ended September with a steep increase in home sales for the year to date, according to Crain’s analysis of Midwest Real Estate Data’s sales information. In the first nine months of the year, 185 houses sold in Beverly, an increase of more than 27 percent over the same period in 2016.


Meanwhile, new arts and social groups and new businesses have “brought a new energy into Beverly” in the past few years, said Francine Benson Garaffo, an @properties agent who has lived in next door Morgan Park for 29 years.

The neighborhood now has two breweries and a meadery (a meadery makes honey drinks, or mead), the three-year-old Beverly Area Arts Alliance, which hosts an early October Art Walk through the neighborhood, and the Frunchroom series of spoken-word performances.

(The Wild Blossom Meadery is near the 91st St. Metra on the border of Beverly and Washington Heights but grew out of a brewing supply store on Western Avenue.)

We have to recognize what a hard turn this was, especially when the Art Walk and Horse Thief Hollow (one of the two breweries mentioned) debuted:

  • There was nothing like them in the neighborhood. While both were warmly embraced, Western Avenue was (and still kinda is) a haven of shot-and-a-beer joints.
  • While there were some art galleries in the neighborhood, most are like the Vanderpoel Art Museum – gems galore, but hidden away, and not something the neighborhood was known for to outsiders.

These changes are due to individuals who envisioned change and put entrepreneurial thinking behind it. It wasn’t thanks to a city or ward office development plan (though such a thing would certainly be welcome and come to think of it why doesn’t that exist?). It was people – many of them volunteers – banding together in common cause who then attracted like-minded folks to follow behind them. Horse Thief begat Open Outcry and The Meadery. The Art Walk begat The Frunchroom. Etc.

You see this spirit of volunteerism-meets-entrepreneurialism in BAPA as well. Though it has only three full-time staff members, it has an army of volunteers, homeowners and local businesses who make it possible to create a year-long slate of events like the Ridge Run, the Beverly Home Tour, Bikes and Brews and more. They’re also not afraid to take on the city and advocate for the neighborhood like in the current campaign to save the Ridge Park fieldhouse after years of neglect.



Parents, students and community members march through the 19th ward to protest Alderman Matt O’Shea and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close/merge three public schools in 2016.

The Crain’s article also had something interesting to say about public schools in our neighborhood.

Schools were the top draw, Clinton added. “It was important to me that if we’re paying Chicago property taxes, we don’t also have to spend the money to pay for private school. I want a good school paid for with our taxes.” The elementary school that serves their new home, Kellogg, scores a seven out of 10 points on Great Schools.

In a time of upheaval for CPS, it’s worth noting that people are moving to the 19th Ward because of our public schools. The article specifically mentions Kellogg as a reason why this family moved here. And that’s in spite of – not because of – efforts by our alderman and the mayor’s control of CPS.

Because if they had had their way, Kellogg would be closed.

In September of last year, 19th Ward Alderman Matt O’Shea revealed to the public a plan that would close or merge three 19th ward public schools: Keller, Kellogg and Sutherland. This also would have had deleterious effects on black and low-income students and affected two schools (Keller and Kellogg) with the highest CPS ratings.

Due to significant public objection, the alderman dropped this plan, which was supposed to be necessary to provide $40 million dollars to solve overcrowding issues at two other public schools in the Ward: Esmond and Mount Greenwood.

Somehow, even without closing or merging those three schools, the $40 million dollars was found anyway and the plans to build annexes at Esmond and Mt. Greenwood proceeded. Since then, there’s been little public information provided on the status of these plans.

As for Keller, Sutherland and Kellogg:

  • Keller has maintained a 1+ rating for two years running with a slight (0.41%) enrollment increase
  • Kellogg has maintained a 1+ rating for two years running and increased enrollment by 3% this year, bucking both ward and city trends for CPS.
  • Though Sutherland’s enrollment dropped its rating increased to 1 and it recruited a new principal with such a stellar record that the Local School Council voted unanimously to hire her without having to narrow its choice down to a set of finalists.

Like our burgeoning art and microbrewery scenes, this all happened because of people who stood up for the kind of community they wanted to see thrive here. But in the case of our public schools, it required them to stand up against Chicago’s ward/machine politics and literally fight City Hall.

rahmosheaschoolemailSee, back in July of last year, it turned out that Alderman Matt O’Shea was talking to Mayor Emanuel about his schools plan – a month and a half before he talked to any school administrators, LSC members, public school parents or the general public. All this was revealed in the email dump spurred by a FOIA request from the Chicago Tribune and the Better Government Association.



19th Ward Parents United in a press conference before a CPS board meeting to speak out against the OShea/Emanuel school closing plan.

19th Ward Parents United in a press conference before a CPS board meeting to speak out against the O’Shea/Emanuel school closing plan.

It’s great to see Beverly’s arts scene, new restaurants and public schools creating an atmosphere where home sales and prices are on the rise. There are two lessons here:

1. If you have a vision for change in your community, you and your friends have the power to make it happen
2. Decisions about our communities – especially our schools – should be participatory, not hatched in secret.

When the 2019 mayoral and aldermanic campaigns roll around, I expect that Alderman O’Shea and Mayor Emanuel will talk about Beverly’s home prices on the rise and take some credit for that. But I wonder if they’ll mention the people who actually made it happen, sometimes in spite of their own wishes.

They’ll talk about how much money they’ve brought to two schools in our community. (I’ll never forget how Mayor Emanuel said the money was coming to Mt. Greenwood “because your alderman was nice to me.”) They’ll hope we’ll forget they tried to damage three schools experiencing growth and success.

I hope we won’t.

Hugh Hefner: Janus in voluptatem


I worked at Playboy for a year or so. I’ve written about it before, but it was filled with some of the best professional experiences of my life even though parts of it were the worst. (Shout-out to everyone in Playboy’s legal department for the time they sent me a cease-and-desist letter for talking to a reporter after they fired me.)

Turning this around in my head and reading some of the early comments on Hugh Hefner’s death, it occurred to me that what’s most striking about his life was its pronounced dichotomy.

The same man who championed sexual freedom as well as equal rights for POC, women and LGBT folk also reinforced misogyny, unrealistic standards of beauty centered on whiteness and a consumerist approach to living. When he advocated liberation for women, he did so to position them as “entertainment for men.” In all these ways, he was the best and worst of American idealism.

He simultaneously derided Midwestern values as he built a media empire in Chicago before abandoning it for a L.A.-based cocooned fantasy world. His was a family business, which his son and daughter both led, at different times, that occasionally preached contempt for the embrace of 2.5 kids and a picket fence. He imagined himself the picture of urbanity then built professional and personal worlds that never required him to leave the house.

He gave generously to support freedom of the press, public education and other worldly concerns, but lived a life of self-centeredness.

Hugh Hefner was a man of contradictions. Anyone who claims he was any one thing without acknowledging the other is not telling the whole story.

A conversation about leaving Chicago


You saw this thing, right?


This thing where the kid from San Francisco talks about leaving Chicago?

If he’s from San Francisco how iz he in Chicago?

He moved here three years ago and it didn’t work out so he’s moving again.

Wait, he only moved ‘ere three years ago and he’s leaving already?

Well it didn’t work out for him.

So he’s black, huh? Lived on da West Side?

What? Why would you say that?

I mean, if he moved here tree years ago and he’s already leaving it musta been pretty rough. And if ya pay attention to all duh eggheads like I do then ya’d know da people havin’ da hardest time right now are blacks, especially on the Sout’ and West Sides. Dat’s who’s leaving town what with all the schools and clinics closed and da jobs lost and da violence and what not.

Oh. No, he’s not black. He’s white. And it sounds like he lives on the North Side.

Get outta here. White guys from da Nort’ Side don’t have problems.

He said he didn’t like the food and the beer is too expensive and he had a hard time dating.

Like I said. You know what’s expensive here? Housing.


Yeah. It’s like 12 hundred a month for da average person. And then da minute somebody tries to bring in some actual affordable housing and make things livable like dat guy up in da 45th ward who’s trying to help vets then everybody starts screaming “Section 8! Section 8!” and other racist crap like we don’t know what dere talkin’ about, you know? Dese people wouldn’t know a Section 8 anything if a damn CHA building fell on ’em. What else does he say?

He says we’re not “sex-positive.”

We’re not what?


Buddy, I’m telling ya this guy never lived here. Ask any-a dese guys in dis bar and they’ll tell ya they are pos-i-tive-ly going to have sex tonight. They’re wrong, but dere pretty positive about it.

No, he means Chicago just has traditional views of gender and relationships and…

Oh and how did dis genius dat lived here for five minutes decide dat?

Apparently a table full of women thought he came off like a real jerk. He interrupted their evening and then he got mad when they didn’t want to talk to him.

Where was dis?

From what I hear, it happened at Estelle’s.

OK, well dat’s his first problem right dere. Nobody goes to Estelle’s to date. It sounds like dis guy thinks Chicago isn’t sex-positive because everyone here is positive dey don’t want to have sex with him and I don’t blame them.

He has some good points though.

Oh yeah? Like what?

Well he says it’s cold, we’re prideful and the CTA is kinda bad.


And we’re kind of insular and a little on the conservative side.

He said that was a good thing, right?

No, he said that’s bad.

See, dis guy never lived in Chicago. Maybe he spent time here but he didn’t live here. Yeah it’s hard to break in here sometimes and people are kinda standoffish at first but that keeps out the dicks. Like guys who move here from San Francisco and expect Chicago ta worship dem because dere talkin’ about how sex-positive dey are.

I think he’s raising some things worth talking about though. We’re way too boosterish. We never talk about the problems of this city.

Excuse me, but dat is horseshit. Fire on da Prairie, Da Third Coast, Da South Side, Division Street, Boss. Alla dose books will gladly tell you what’s wrong with Chicago and dere right. But nonna dem are gonna say Chicago’s problems are because you can’t get laid or da beer’s too expensive.

Fair enough.

So where’s he moving to?

New York.

Wait, his complaints are that everything is too expensive and dating is hard and the transit sucks so he’s moving to New York?


Well good luck to him. Ask the bartender to put da Bears game on, wouldya?

With apologies to Mike Royko and Slats Grobnik

Photo by Flickr user Kylio licensed via Creative Commons

When does Govenor Rauner start punching up instead of punching down?

There’hadow a precept in good satire that you punch up, you don’t punch down.

There isn’t a similar theory about those who hold political office though you generally want to be seen as representing the average person rather than someone swelled with power and money.

Last night, I was listening to Sam Sanders’ podcast “It’s Been A Minute.” He was interviewing members of The Onion’s editorial staff about their work and someone echoed that line about punching up, not punching down. Sanders didn’t ask about it, but the line reminded me of a time when the Onion violated this rule and paid for it with a rare apology.

During the 2013 Oscars awards ceremony, the Onion attempted a joke, via Twitter, that covered the backbiting nature of Hollywood gossip, the misogynistic way female celebrities are discussed and even the way in which we sexualize young actresses. It’s a lot to squeeze into 140 characters and the Onion didn’t even come close to hitting the mark, using a nuclear-option swear word as a shortcut which got them lost in the wilderness. The underlying truth or attempted meaning was obscured by a joke that centered a young, black child within it, making her seem like the joke’s target.

We’re seeing a similar situation unfold in Illinois political circles due to the fallout over a political cartoon from the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank with a CEO who’s often called “the de factor governor” and whose ex-staffers – up until a mass firing last night – served Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner in various roles, from chief of staff to communications and messaging.

The cartoon depicts Chicago Public Schools a young black child sitting on the sidewalk with a sign that says “NEED MONEY 4 SCHOOL” while a cigar-chomping white guy in a suit says “Sorry, kid, I’m broke” as dollar bills marked “TIF money” spill from his pockets.

IPI’s explanations about the cartoon have been similar to the justifications people made about the Onion’s cartoon: the point of the commentary was not to portray CPS students as panhandlers but to hold the white, fat-cat politicians up for ridicule and point out their hypocrisy in refusing to give money to Chicago Public Schools despite vast resources of TIF money – property tax dollars that go into a special discretionary fund controlled by politicians instead of to schools – at their disposal.

These are all worthy arguments for political commentary and ones a responsible group of adults ought to be having right now. Equally true is the idea that anyone using a young black child in caricatured form to make a point – a practice so legendarily problematic that there’s a go-to term for it – will find his or her arguments buried underneath an entirely different meaning. It makes you look like you’re punching down instead of punching up.

Incidentally, this is why having diverse staffs of writers, policy makers and communications professionals isn’t about political correctness, it’s about good business. If you don’t, this is what happens.

All of this would probably not get the kind of play it has if it didn’t align with the coded way Rauner himself has talked about Chicago Public Schools and the students it serves.

He’s described Chicago’s public schools as “prisons.” He’s said half of CPS teachers are “virtually illiterate.” He calls attempts to provide equitable funding for Chicago “a bailout.”

With IPI’s (ex-?)staff acting as an arm of Rauner’s government – officially and unofficially – the cartoon seems less like subtext and more like text.

This controversy has been going for more than a week – and jumped from being a local story to a national one – due to the governor’s bungled attempts at response after response keeping it alive (hence last night’s firings).

Refusing to call out the cartoon’s racist overtones – whatever the meaning behind it – makes Rauner look like he either agrees with the portrayal, is covering for his friends at IPI or doesn’t understand how the cartoon plays into the overall tone of his previous comments.

There’s a way to talk about the problems of our state’s education funding and even our state’s public schools without making students, teachers and the work of the people in those schools your targets.

The less focused your punch, the more likely it is you’ll hit the wrong person.

Maybe the governor should hire his next communication staffers from The Onion. They seem to have learned a lesson he hasn’t yet.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Jodi Martinez/Released

Will Rahm Emanuel’s future depend on Lori Lightfoot’s future as police board president?


Good morning. It’s Tuesday and Chicago doesn’t have a police board president.

This is important because we had a police board president yesterday.

As president of the police board, Lori Lightfoot has been the leading voice for police reform in Chicago since she was appointed by Mayor Emanuel in June 2015.

That is until this morning when her appointment expired with no indication from the mayor as to whether or not he would re-appoint her.

It’s a bit like the story Wesley tells in The Princess Bride of working for the Dread Pirate Roberts. Wesley served under the legendarily cutthroat Roberts but was told each night that the pirate would likely kill him in the morning.

The sun rose this morning and whether Lightfoot lives to see another day as police board president remains to be seen.

If you or I get fired or laid off, it’s for two reasons:

1. The company we work for doesn’t have enough business to support the job they hired us for
2. The people above or below us think we’re doing a bad job

Now, you’re not Lori Lightfoot with a background in criminal justice, but you read the news so you know Chicago’s police force has plenty of work to do when it comes to systemic reform, which has benefits for cops and citizens alike.

Absent a consent decree from the Justice Department, which we don’t have now and likely won’t under the Trump administration, Mayor Emanuel controls the pace of police reform. And he’s apparently put together a plan. You and I haven’t seen it. None of the groups in Chicago who work on police reform have seen it. I’m sure some of the mayor’s allies and staff have seen it.

Lori Lightfoot’s seen it though. She’s said it’s insufficient or, to use her words, “set up for failure.”

In any other job, openly and publicly criticizing your boss is a bad move. But, similar to Inspector General Joe Ferguson – another Emanuel appointee whose work involves pointing fingers at the mayor on behalf of the city’s residents – that’s Lightfoot’s job: Set a course for the city to pursue police reform and speak up when the city – and the mayor – doesn’t meet the standard.

Criticism from Lightfoot is a clear sign she’s doing a good job whether you’re the target of that criticism – the mayor – or the beneficiary of it – that’s us.

Similar to what happened before Ferguson’s re-appointment in 2013, Emanuel appears to be wavering on whether to keep Lightfoot in the role of police board president. Ferguson’s re-appointment came after a major scandal involving another mayoral appointee seemingly forced the mayor’s hand. One would think he wouldn’t want to make the the mistake twice.

We know there are plenty of good reasons why you and me and the rest of the city benefit from Wesley…er, Lori Lightfoot remaining as police board president under Rober…er, Rahm.

There’s also a political reason why the mayor should want her to remain as well. And sometimes that matters more than the good reasons.

Smarter minds than mine know that unless Rahm can demonstrate he’s serious about police reform then he’ll have a real problem getting re-elected in 2019. It won’t be impossible, but it will mean challengers with money and organization will see an opportunity.

But there’s an even more important political reason why Rahm needs Lightfoot: Trump.

Trump takes every opportunity to keep Chicago’s name in the news as a haven for violence. Last week, he even paired it with a call for state-sponsored police violence against the people police interact with in the city.

Police organizations repudiated these remarks. And Rahm will want to distance himself from them, too, though he hasn’t yet.

Let’s also not forget about that mythical motorcycle-riding cop Trump met during a visit here who supposedly has the magical formula for solving our violence problem – even though it’s likely he’s not actually a cop.

Reading Trump’s comments, you get the sense that the solution from this motorcycle-riding unicorn involves rounding up the 39,000 people on the department’s violence watch list and illegally detaining them until who knows when.

At the very least, Trump wants to put Chicago on the wrong side of the law. Not to mention on the wrong side of justice. All of which makes cops jobs harder, not easier, and puts reform further out of reach.

If Rahm wants someone good at the job of police reform, Lightfoot’s already there. If he wants to look like he’s pushing back on Trump (and his previous efforts make it seem like he does) then Lightfoot’s already there. And if he wants to win re-election in 2019, re-hiring one of his most powerful critics is a step in that direction. If for no other reason but preventing her from becoming a martyr who’s positioned to run against him.

Every morning that passes makes Rahm seem a little more like Dread Pirate Roberts. Re-appointing Lightfoot would mean they both may live to serve a little longer in their respective roles.