Saturday, June 27, 2009

Remembering John Callaway

I will remember John Callaway, a quality journalist

I was saddened by the news of the death of John Callaway, one of Chicago's finest journalists.  He leaves behind an enviable legacy. He was a good and decent man who excelled at the profession he loved, which allowed him to touch countless lives of people in all walks of life. I am privileged to have been one of them.

I remember when I met him. It was during his final year of hosting Chicago Tonight, which showcases newsmakers and various and often contrasting views of issues. On March 11, 1999, I was part of an invited panel, among former mayors — Dick Benson of Peotone, and Ed Palmer of University Park as well as former Illinois Transportation Secretary Kirk Brown. The subject was Chicago's "third" airport near Peotone. It was a fair fight — two for and two against. Benson and I opposed the project while Palmer and Brown promoted it.

I recall being a bit star-struck. It was a surreal experience — as Benson and I rode the train from the southernmost stop on the Metra Electric Line at University Park to what is now Millennium Station at Chicago, a lengthy cab ride to the north side, and finally onto the show's set at WTTW. Chicago Tonight was as familiar to me as my own living room, yet being there was like seeing it for the first time through a new pair of eyes. Being interviewed by the likes of John Callaway was pretty impressive in itself. Hearing him introduce me was certainly a personal high point. But it was also the pinnacle of the early anti-airport movement. After twelve years, our voices were finally being heard.

So much about those days is locked in my mind, but remains close to the surface. That was ten years ago, and I no longer live in Illinois. And while there is no reason for me to care about what happens, I still do. Revisiting the subject not only brings back the recollection, but remains powerful enough to revive the emotion.

I remember enjoying the confrontation with Kirk Brown, instigated by Callaway.

When I learned of Callaway's death, I wanted to watch a video tape of the show, something I haven't seen since around the time it was recorded. What a fascinating historical perspective. Nothing has changed except the players!

Chicago Tonight's discussion was inspired by then newly-elected Gov. George Ryan who announced downsizing the proposed airport — from 23,000 acres to a mere 4,100 acres. Brown remarked that a scaled-down mini version was Gov. Ryan's idea because "he is a practical man, a doer, who wants results."

Callaway observed that to him Ryan's gesture was the sign of cooperation between the Republican Governor and Democratic Mayor of Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley opposes another airport.

Callaway made mention that "Peotone seems a long way (from Chicago)." He mentioned that he had recently been to the Gary Airport, remarking that it really looked like a "nice facility at Gary."

"We looked at that," Brown said. "From an environmental standpoint, you can't do it." He added that there wasn't enough acreage available. "Gary has no future. There is nothing useable for a major air carrier airport."

I became angry all over again, as I heard Brown misrepresent the potential for the Gary/Chicago International Airport again. During those days, he said it often. It all came back to me; I recall the feeling of helpless injustice that comes when representatives of the government blatantly lie to get what they want.

This might be a good time to point out that George Ryan is absolutely a doer that gets results. And, his efforts have landed him in a federal penitentiary. Kirk Brown now works for the company — Hanson Professional Services, Inc — that he hired when he was secretary — to manage the state-owned land in the airport site. Coincidence? Brown no longer holds the title of secretary. U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., has replaced him as chief airport booster with his own brand of airport rhetoric. He not only repeats Brown's lies, but has added a few of his own.

During the interview, Brown went on about how the airport could be completed in five years — which by my calculations — would have been 2004. He claimed that all that was needed was for the FAA to complete an environmental impact statement. That wasn't quite accurate either. Brown said the Peotone site had no environmental issues that couldn't be mitigated. When a government bureaucrat talks about mitigation, it isn't about a permanent solution to a problem. It is a more likely a temporary fix, accompanied by glowing press releases that cover up problems, usually creating new ones in the process.

So, during our discussion, Callaway asked me if I thought there were environmental concerns at the airport site. I shot back that yes, flooding was a major issue, with all of the many creeks and streams that flow through the airport site. I suggested that when it rains, the flow pattern is obvious. Today, the soil absorbs and drains the water, but that wouldn't happen if the land was paved with concrete and asphalt.

Callaway then asked if perhaps there was a need for an airport to service the southern portion of the region some time in the future. I answered that I didn't think so. I saw future technology as more likely to move toward shorter runways, not longer ones.

Benson talked about high speed rail and how it had begun making headlines. That has begun again with the election of President Barack Obama, but this time with the leadership necessary to move forward on this exciting new mode of transportation, it could become a reality. Kirk Brown's position, though he didn't discuss it on the show, was dismissive of high speed rail. Today's state decision-makers have continued Brown's notion that high speed rail should be built to connect Peotone to downtown Chicago. He refused to accept that high speed rail would serve as competition to aviation,  further negating a need for a new airport.

Callaway tried to engage Palmer in a conversation about the people who would be dislocated. Instead, he presented a scripted message about economic development for the south suburbs.

"It is coming. It is a fact that it will be here," he said. "For those dislocated, stop thinking in the past," he said.

Palmer's remarks insulted our intelligence. As a representative of the grass-roots organization Residents United to Retain Agricultural Land (RURAL), my role was to represent the views of our members, many of whom would be displaced by a new airport.  To me, thinking in the past was Palmer and Brown trying to push an idea conceived more than 40 years ago.

Watching the tape reminded me that the kind of nonsense which is still being spewed by Jackson and others, still retains the power to annoy me.

Before our introduction on Chicago Tonight, reporter Rich Samuels traveled to the Peotone area to talk to the folks most affected. Providing the balanced view was former Chicago Heights Mayor Angelo Ciambrone.

I felt a pang of homesickness as I watched the tape, remembering the frustration that was displayed on the faces of the people who I felt very close to in those days — people I am no longer in contact with since I retired and left the area.

Warren Gottwald, who years later has since moved away as well, talked about his 40-acre farm that he loved. He said that when he was a young man he thought the American Dream was to own a place with a little creek on it.

"I have that now and they want to take it away from me," he said, admitting, "I'm bitter about this unnecessary airport."

"We need an infusion of an economic giant," Ciambrone said, as he and Samuels toured the urban decay in and around Chicago Heights, a once vibrant, bustling community, rich with jobs, shopping, theaters, and clubs. Someone should have repeated to Ciambrone before he spoke, that the airport he was talking about was scaled down to just one runway and one terminal. Even if it was a smashing success, it wouldn't be an economic giant. The reality is that the airlines who oppose the project would likely continue to oppose it. Instead of a boon, it likely could be an economic drain like Illinois' other boondoggle airport, Mid-America near downstate Mascoutah which has been virtually a ghost town since it was built a decade ago.

A scaled-down airport would duplicate what is now in Gary, accessible by only tar and chip roads instead of highways that serve Gary. How has Gary's airport provided an economic benefit? For that matter, where is the economic benefit in Maywood, that isn't far from one of the busiest airports in the world — O'Hare? Sadly, an airport more than 20 miles away would likely change nothing in the south suburbs. And, it is time to admit that economic development cannot in itself change generational illiteracy, poor schools, gang crime, high murder rate, crooked cops, drug dealing, and a pathetic political structure that does nothing but make excuses.

The video portrayed the rich farm fields and wide open spaces where the airport is actually proposed. The contrast was startling. Samuels went to Peotone — which remains a quaint, little Rockwellian town with a viable downtown where people still gather to talk, shop, and frequent restaurants and saloons. While there, Samuels talked to people who said what they have been saying for the past 20 years when the project was revived by Ryan's predecessor, Gov. Jim Edgar. And they are still saying them. They want to keep their way of life, free of the airport 'dangling here,' as Mary Ann Talamontez, who works in the local doctor's office, put it.

Judi Austell, who owns the local beauty shop, said she wished the state would just make up its mind.

"Let's be fair. The people will be compensated fairly," Ciambrone said. Glenn Ginder, who farms for a living, was concerned about the cavalier attitude that folks in the path of runways can simply relocate.

"How do you put a price on food, family, or our church," he said.
Callaway wisely commented that the debate would likely continue.

I had been interviewed many times over the years. But, I was most impressed with John Callaway — for his knowledge on the subject, the questions he posed, and the understanding he held for the victims who still live with the uncertainty of this 40-year old project. His calm demeanor was capped by his keen sense of the politics involved, which was a hallmark of his stature as a journalist. Chicago has lost one of its brightest and best.

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.