Monday, June 8, 2009

Campaign contributions and lobbying efforts influence policy


Since the late 1980's, Illinois officials have tried every available means to push a huge public works project to fruition, with a keen eye toward ensuring their own political futures and continuing cycle of self-enrichment. A successful airport can be a huge generator of economic development, bringing its sponsor untold benefits in the way of controlling jobs, concessions, and other revenue.

The project, a 23,000-acre airport three times the size of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, one of the busiest in the world, would, if approved, be located in a small farming community north of the Village of Peotone, about forty miles south of downtown Chicago. The people most affected, including the local governments of three of the surrounding towns, several adjacent townships, and many varied organizations, have resisted the development for more than two decades. Unfortunately, their small populations and limited cash flow result in an unsophisticated political base, which has little influence on Illinois' well-funded, long-entrenched political pay-to-play power structure.

Tax dollars have funded a multitude of government lobbyists over the years that make regular trips to Washington, D.C. and Illinois' capital of Springfield to guarantee that despite its inability to gain traction on its own; this is the project that will not die. It is no coincidence that the names of supporters regularly show up on campaign contribution lists and at political fundraisers. Beyond lobbyists and campaign contributors, numerous longtime supporters have landed well-paying government jobs.

Business as usual in Illinois, which includes spending money on the Peotone effort, has landed ex-Governor George Ryan in a federal penitentiary, resulted in the recent indictment of ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich by a federal grand jury, and spurred federal and congressional investigations of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Chicago. Despite these statistics, replacement-governor Patrick Quinn promises to clean up government, as did his predecessor. Yet, in his first budget speech, the former Lt. Governor under Blagojevich, Quinn proposed $100 million to buy land for the airport. Land acquisition has been ongoing, thanks to Ryan who paved the way for the state to buy numerous unsold lots in an upscale subdivision belonging to a Ryan contributor. The housing development was located just outside the airport's proposed boundaries, but was close enough to cause a selling frenzy.

Together with years of badgering by threats of eminent domain, a doomed real estate market long-manipulated by the threat of an airport nearby, and the fear of what might happen, has been more than some folks, especially the elderly, could take. So they sold their land to the state. They simply gave up and moved on with their lives. After all, the first talk of an airport in the Peotone area was a headline in the local newspaper more than forty years ago, in 1968.

Many of the remaining families today are what the state calls, "unwilling sellers." They have dug in their heels, refusing to be intimidated. Undaunted, the state continues its efforts to coerce real estate sales. Some of the landowners have farmed the land for generations. Several farms have been in the same family for more than 100 years, honored as centennial farms by the same state that now wants to take them. In some cases huge state-created signs marking "Illinois centennial farm" are down the road from signs that read, "State Property No Trespassing." Many believe the only reason the state hasn't used eminent domain to take the remaining land is because a need has never been proven and the project has never been authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration. They could lose in court without a proven project.

The state owns about one-third of the land needed to build a scaled-down "starter airport," with only one runway and a terminal building. The full-scaled project would include six parallel runways. The "starter airport" would have a similar effect as buying land outside the site. It would be the first foot in the door to the ultimate field of dreams. And despite approval to expand O'Hare, the economic decline, and letters by the airlines stating they would not support a Peotone airport, the state persists.

With unending funds, tied directly to the pockets of Illinois taxpayers, the public relations work remains ongoing. Upwards of $100 million has been spent on what the state has called 'studies.' In actuality, the 'studies' are a set of organized reports, containing cherry-picked shreds of data and inaccurate assumptions, tied together in a report designed to defend the sponsor's outcome. With few exceptions, officials, consultants, lobbyists, and campaign contributors form a closed circle of airport backers.

Will County government wants jurisdiction over the airport if it is ever built. They have long been on the state's bandwagon, despite a majority of residents opposed to the project as shown through political survey questions and other means. County officials recently hired a consultant. They also employ a lobbyist.
Will County officials in more populated regions, which make up the majority of the 27-member board, support an effort to write a new law to establish governance for an airport that does not exist and would take effect before one could exist. Their aim is to thwart the efforts of Congressman Jackson who started an airport authority of his own. It consists of south suburban communities but the impetus and the funding comes from northwest suburbs of Bensenville and Elk Grove Village, neighboring communities of O'Hare. The two have long been opposed to O'Hare's expansion. The opposition was tied to building Peotone. Recent elections have brought new leadership to Bensenville. And Elk Grove Village's Mayor vowed to stop the fight against O'Hare. But that has not stopped Quinn, who still wants to spend $100 million to take land for a new airport.

Through his extensive public relations work, Jackson has convinced leaders in the beleaguered south suburbs, desperate for jobs and economic development, that that they would benefit by a one-runway airfield far from their towns. Yet, he dismisses the same benefits from the existing Gary/Chicago International Airport that already exists just minutes from the south suburbs. More than a year ago, Jackson raised money from some of the poorest towns to lobby ex-Gov. Blagojevich. He wrote op-ed pieces. He erected billboards. He demanded, albeit unsucessfully that Blagojevich turn over state-owned land to his airport authority.

Jackson came under fire from U.S. Rep. John Campbell, R-CA in 2007 when Jackson sought an earmark of $231,000 attached to a spending bill, to study the benefits of the airport. Campbell's criticism centered on the recipient - Jackson's airport authority - headed by Jackson's own congressional staffer, Rick Bryant. But what Campbell didn't know was that when Jackson argued for the funds, he lied about the location of the airport. He said it "abuts Ford Heights," one of the poorest suburbs in the country. Though that might have made a compelling argument for such a project, it just isn't true. Ford Heights is more than twenty miles from the site and is in a different county and a different congressional district. Ford Heights is a poor black urban suburb. The airport location is a white rural farming community.

Jackson has a history of misrepresenting the location of the Peotone airport. He initially listed Peotone with the other towns in his district on his campaign website. When called on it, he added a disclaimer, but to someone unfamiliar with the Illinois' landscape, it remains misleading. Jackson's claim that the airport would benefit his constituents is unproven, but that hasn't stopped him from making the claim. It may be his only justification to them for backing a public works project outside his congressional district.
For more than twenty years, an organized grass-roots group opposed to the airport, has found it difficult to gain traction against the systemic political machine in Illinois with its pay-to-play structure, built-in lobbyists, and campaign contributors. It is a never-ending cycle that must be broken.