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Illinois Has a Crisis of Confidence in Government. Here's What We Can Do to Change That

Mon, 2016-03-14 12:32
A recent Gallup poll shows us just how low Illinois politics have sunk in the eyes of the public: We rank dead last among the 50 states when in comes to confidence in state government.

A shocking 75 percent of those polled--a much higher percentage, by the way, than even the other states in the bottom five--believe Illinois government can't do its job.

Sadly, that number is not surprising. The promise of a government that works for all people is badly broken in Illinois. Every day brings fresh news about the gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Springfield, the sinking approval ratings for our state leaders, and the resulting cynicism, anger, and distrust among the public. Closing in on a year without a state budget? Well, what do you expect, we say with a disgusted shrug--it's Springfield.

Illinois isn't an isolated example of political dysfunction. As President Obama has pointed out, America as a whole desperately needs and deserves a "better politics" at every level of government. In a recent speech to lawmakers in Springfield, Obama noted that a "poisonous political climate" drives citizens away from participating in the political process. And in his last State of the Union address, the president argued that a healthier democracy, in which we all have an equal say, requires two essential ingredients. First, we must change the systems that govern political participation. Second, we have to get more people involved in political and civic activity. 

The good news is we can take direct and immediate action now to help level the political playing field in Illinois. Right here in the president's home state, there's growing support for two common-sense solutions that will disrupt politics as usual and make government more responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Each of these reforms would empower voters, and each reflects the core values of any high-functioning democracy: equality, opportunity, fairness, diversity, and transparency. 

Reforms for immediate impact

The first reform is to enact automatic voter registration. Two states, Oregon and California, have already done so, and legislators in 34 states, plus Washington D.C., have introduced such bills. Illinois is among them. SB 2134 - dubbed the new motor voter bill -- would automatically register eligible citizens to vote when they apply for, update, or renew their driver's license or state ID. The legislation would make our voter registration process more cost-effective, secure, and convenient. Anyone who is eligible would have to opt-out if they don't want to be registered, instead of having to opt-in under our current system. 

The second step we can take toward a healthier democracy is to reform our state's partisan redistricting process. The current process virtually ensures that the game is rigged against giving voters real choice at the ballot box. Our recent CHANGE Illinois report, for instance, found a dramatic increase in recent years in the number of state legislators who were elected without any opposition. (Our full report is here.) And when voters go to the polls March 15, they'll find only five of 52 state Senate races, and only 12 of 154 state House races, with at least two candidates on the ballot. 

Luckily, though, a major reform proposal is picking up steam that would give the power to redraw districts to a nonpartisan commission instead of a handful of powerful politicians. Supporters, from the left and the right of the political spectrum, have already gathered more than half a million petition signatures to help place a constitutional amendment on the November 8 ballot that would create a nonpartisan map-drawing commission. It's time to let the voters decide who should draw the legislative maps in the Land of Lincoln.
We, the people, have the power to fix the governing crisis in Illinois.  All of us who care about achieving true democracy should resolve to get informed and get more involved in our public life. Whether it's attending a town hall forum, taking someone to the polls or just making sure we vote in every election ourselves and encourage our friends and neighbors to do the same--we all need to do our part.

The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "The most important political office is that of the private citizen." CHANGE Illinois is committed to getting more people elected as public citizens who will roll up their sleeves and take the reins of our democracy.

Creating a better politics is up to us.

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The First Rule Of Trump Rally Fight Club

Mon, 2016-03-14 08:27

1st Rule: You do not talk about substantive issues.


2nd Rule: You DO NOT talk about substantive issues.

3rd Rule: Fights end when someone goes limp, taps out, or passes out drunk.


4th Rule: It's not over until the fat lady sings. Or until the old lady heils Hitler.

5th Rule: Get 'em out.
6th Rule: Every fight must contain at least one person wearing camo.

7th Rule: It's not a racial thing. Seriously. We're spitting in each other's faces because we disagree over Chinese tariffs.
8th Rule: If this is your night at a Trump rally, you have to fight.

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Former 'Bachelor:' It's Unlikely You'll Find Lasting Love On Reality TV

Mon, 2016-03-14 07:12

No matter how many break-ups we hear about following "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" finales, plenty of hopeful singles still sign up for a chance to find true love on television. One of those people was Chris Soules, who was last season's star of "The Bachelor," and he says he knows all to well the reality of reality-TV love.  

Speaking with "Oprah: Where Are They Now?", the Iowa farmer draws upon his own experience at the center of a dating show, opening up about his resulting engagement (and break-up) with "Bachelor" contestant Whitney Bischoff.

Six months after proposing to Whitney on the season finale of "The Bachelor" last year, the couple announced they had ended their relationship. Chris says the break-up was mutual, and admits that a lasting union is pretty unlikely from the get-go.

"The odds of marrying somebody on a TV show and having that work aren't that good," he says. "It's hard."

Still, Chris had no ill feelings toward his ex or the process by which they came together.

"We did the best we could. I have no regrets," he says. "I'm thankful that we can remain friends."

"Oprah: Where Are They Now?" airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.

Related: Beloved "Bachelor" star explains why he initially turned down the offer

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Bernie Mac's Widow Opens Up About Emotional Moments Before His Death

Sun, 2016-03-13 13:42

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When comedy king Bernie Mac died unexpectedly in the summer of 2008, Rhonda McCullough's world shattered. She had been with Mac since she was 16 years ol

d, and he was her everything. That I all changed that year on August 8.

A few weeks prior, Mac had been admitted to the hospital for labored breathing and ended up heavily sedated, on a ventilator. It's been nearly eight years since that turn of events, but Rhonda tells "Oprah: Where Are They Now?" that she still feels the pain Mac's passing as if it just happened.

"August the 8th, he had woke up," she says. "They said, 'We're going to put a feeding tube in him,' and just everything went wrong."

Mac's heart stopped beating. He had to be resuscitated. 

"When they finally let me go into the room to see him, I was like, 'Oh, my God,'' Rhonda says. "He was just shaking, and his eyes was just, like, wide open and he wasn't really looking at anybody."

Rhonda made an emotional plea to her husband.

"I said, 'Please don't, don't die,'" she says, breaking into tears. "I said, 'I'm here. I'm waiting for you. I'll take care of you. Just don't, don't die. Don't die.'"

A few hours later, Mac was gone.

"It was around 2 o'clock that morning. I remember seeing the door open, and the doctor was standing in the doorway," Rhonda says. "I looked at her and I said, 'He's gone, isn't he?' She [nodded]." 

Even recalling that moment today, Rhonda becomes overwhelmed with emotion.

"My whole life was him, since I was 16," she says through tears. "I didn't know what I was gonna do. It's like, what is my reasoning for being here now? What is my purpose? How am I going to make it now?"

In the years since Mac's death, Rhonda says she has found renewed purpose through the Bernie Mac Foundation, which the late comedian started a year before his death to promote awareness and research for sarcoidosis, a disease from which he suffered.

"What better way to have his legacy live on?" Rhonda says. "The foundation means to me everything that Bernard was and that he wanted."

To learn more about the Bernie Mac Foundation, visit

"Oprah: Where Are They Now?" airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.

Related: Bernie Mac's philosophy about comedy will make you miss him even more

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Kendrick Lamar's 'Alright' Chanted At Trump Chicago Protest

Sat, 2016-03-12 16:46

Amid the chaos that led to the cancellation of Donald Trump's Chicago rally on Friday night, protesters chanted the song that is becoming an anthem for social activism: Kendrick Lamar's "Alright."

The Republican presidential front-runner postponed the event after thousands of protesters swarmed the University of Illinois at Chicago, resulting in several arrests and police officers being injured.

After the cancellation, protesters erupted into a chorus of the song:

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); = id; js.src = "//"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);}(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));Kendrick Lamar x Donald Trump Rally

Thousands of protestors disrupted Donald Trump's rally in Chicago this evening, breaking into a chant of Kendrick Lamar's "We Gonna Be Alright".

Posted by Consequence of Sound on Friday, March 11, 2016

"We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!"

Most powerful video I have of tonight! ✊ ✊ ✊ ✊ #TrumpRally

— Oh, bitch nah! ❤️ (@HoneyGuwop) March 12, 2016

#TrumpRally protesters chant "We gonna be alright" after announcement of a Trump no-show.

— Chicago Reader (@Chicago_Reader) March 12, 2016

Tension at Trump's events is nearing a boiling point, with supporters frequently clashing with protesters who object to his racist and xenophobic campaign. At least a few protesters have adopted Lamar's songs as an antidote to Trump's messages.

Lamar, a Compton-based rapper whose lyrical mastery achieved worldwide acclaim with his award-winning album "To Pimp A Butterfly," offers vivid perspectives on police violence, racism and life in the inner city in his songs.

"Alright," from "To Pimp A Butterfly," is a message of hope, Lamar said. It was inspired by a trip he took to South Africa, in which he was exposed to the struggle's of people there. As The Huffington Post noted last summer, it has been adopted as an anthem of people protesting police brutality, racism and oppression. The song was also heard in Cleveland last July when activists were protesting police harassment, and has popped up in Baltimore and in Washington, D.C.

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Donald Trump Rally In Chicago Shut Down

Fri, 2016-03-11 18:58

CHICAGO - A Donald Trump rally at the University of Illinois at Chicago has been shut down due to security reasons. 

The rally was called off little more than half an hour after the scheduled 6 p.m. start time. Throngs of anti-Trump protesters packed into the free event, which only required online registration, while thousands more gathered outside surrounded by a police perimeter. 

“I have never seen anything like it. It’s amazing,” CNN’s Jim Acosta said. The network said approximately 8,500 people at the rally.

“Tonight’s rally will be postponed,”  a Trump campaign staffer announced, as a sea of protesters celebrated and tore apart Trump signs inside the UIC Pavilion.

“Mr. Trump just arrived in Chicago and after meeting with law enforcement has determined that for the safety of all the tens of thousands of people that have gathered in and around the arena, tonight’s rally will be postponed for another date," a statement from the campaign said. "Thank you very much for your attendance, and please go in peace.” 

America inspired by @realDonaldTrump looks decidedly less unified at this Chicago rally.

— M. Scott Mahaskey (@smahaskey) March 12, 2016


This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Trump supporters leaving UIC after he canceled are on the left and protestors are on the right

— Jessyca Malina (@jessycamalina) March 12, 2016

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Three Years After, Pope Francis Faces Mounting Challenges

Fri, 2016-03-11 14:13
As Pope Francis celebrates three years in office this week, there are mounting challenges confronting him and the church which he leads. His honey moon is now over and there are emerging cracks in the church and uncertainty about the future direction of the Catholic Church. Many Catholics are now hoping that Pope Francis could deliver concrete and lasting reform in the church through changes in some of the laws of the church which should go beyond making strong statements and counter-institutional gestures. There are three challenges among many facing Pope Francis which will define his legacy.

The first is how successful he will be in his ongoing reform of the curia, and the institutional culture of the church's hierarchical clericalism. The second is how he responds to the call for a more inclusive church for women and LGBTQs. Many Catholics are waiting to know which way he goes with the recommendations made to him from the raucous synod on marriage and family life concluded in October 2015.

The task before him is to find a common ground on a transformative pastoral ministry to LGBTQs without alienating conservatives in the West. At the same time he must take into consideration the strong appeal to traditional definition of marriage by most Catholics in the Global South where the church is witnessing an exponential growth. Whatever decision he takes on this matter carries consequences for the unity and future of the Catholic Church.

The third is that Pope Francis must deal decisively and conclusively with the shameful cases of clerical sexual abuse in the worldwide church. But dealing with the consequences will demand addressing the fundamental roots of the problems, the church's laws and institutional culture. This last point seems to me to be the most decisive because it undermines the moral high ground and teachings of Catholicism. It also detracts from the mission of the church as a light in the world and in healing the world and being a beacon of hope through concrete acts governed by Gospel values.

Pope Francis must pursue vigorously the reforms of the structure of authority and accountability in all aspects of the life of the Church. Unfortunately, he faces strong opposition from some cardinals, bishops and priests. The schemes and stratagem of some of the Vatican high command who are ganging up against the Francis Revolution have been well documented in the tell-it-all revelations published by the Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi in the book, Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis's Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican.

Clerical sexual abuse especially against minors is a cancer to modern Catholicism. The recent marathon testimony on accusations of complicity in covering up clerical sexual abuse by Australian Cardinal Pell, who is Vatican's financial czar, showed once again that this problem is not going away. A week after Cardinal Pell's testimony, Cardinal Phillipe Barbarin of Lyon, France was served papers by prosecutors along with five others in a similar charge. He is being accused of failing to denounce the crimes of others and endangering the lives of people in relation to the sexual crimes committed against young scout members by Father Bernard Preynat between 1986-1991.

One can point to the report on the failings of Cardinal Law in Boston, or the shocking revelation in the Murphy Report set up by the Irish government on how the Irish Catholic Church and the police colluded to cover up hundreds of sexual abuse cases by clerics among the most egregious in recent times. There is already a long line of bishops who were forced to resign in the US because of their failure to defend minors by holding accountable the errant priests who perpetrated these crimes--bishops Nienstedt and Lee Piche in Minnesota, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas etc. Whether it is in Catholic dioceses or religious movements like Legionaries of Christ or the Sodalitum of Christian Life in Latin America, sexual abuse has become a constant in recent Catholic history.

In May 2009 for instance, Archbishop Paulin Pomodimo of Bangui, in Central African Republic was forced to resign at the age of 54. In the same country and within the same time, Bishop François-Xavier Yombandje of Bossangoa, once president of the nation's episcopal conference, resigned at the age of 52. Their resignations followed a Vatican investigation, conducted by Cardinal Robert Sarah, which found that both of them adopted a moral life which was not always in conformity with their vows "to follow Christ in chastity, poverty, and obedience." This investigation also found out that many celibate priests in that country had homes with women with whom they had children.

Every new charge or investigation of clerical sexual abuse opens another sour on the collective conscience of the Catholic Church, delegitimizing her standing and teaching. Practicing pedophiles or institutions which harbor sexual deviants cannot be a credible teacher of sexual morality or wax sanctimonious on the sublimity of her moral insight on birth control, contraception and a culture of life. Pope Francis has rightly called sexual abuse 'an ugly crime' comparable to 'a satanic Mass.' He has done more than his predecessors to remove this cancer from the church, but it is near impossible to cauterize in three years a cancer which took centuries to calcify in the bones of the church.

What the clerical sexual abuse reveals to me as a Catholic priest is the huge gap between what Catholicism teaches and what is actually practiced by many of her clerics; the disconnect between unrealistic moral ideals and concrete life situations. It also highlights the heavy burden imposed on the conscience of many Catholics including clerics and religious within the system.

Many Catholics are rejecting the teachings of the church on her structure of authority, criteria for the sacraments, clerical culture, sexual morality, celibacy, marriage and family life. Opponents even within her leadership cadre argue that some of these teachings founded on a limited notion of natural law, and reductionist interpretation of the ultimate purpose of the moral demand and the church's traditions no longer offer answers to the questions of today.

But most importantly, clerical sexual abuse is a reflection of unequal power dynamics of a macho culture. This unhealthy mindset and ecclesial culture sublets every other consideration in order to preserve and protect the institutional prerogatives and privileges of an all-male clerical ruling class.

The good news is that Pope Francis' commitment to a poor, merciful and humble church which reveals the face of God has given a new credibility and vibrancy to a once tired and sick institution. Indeed, Francis' quiet reform of the curia, the Vatican bank, the bishop accountability legislation, and his rejection of clericalism, and power play in the church and dirty money from donors are some of the efforts taken to heal the church of the root causes of clerical sexual abuse. This reform must continue vigorously.

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Top 25 Illinois Counties With the Most Bridges in Poor Condition

Fri, 2016-03-11 08:38

There are nearly 27,000 bridges across Illinois. And according to the Federal Highway Administration's 2015 data, 8 percent of them are considered "structurally deficient" and seven percent "functionally obsolete," meaning those Illinois bridges either have major parts in poor condition or are out-of-date. Our state ranks seventh for most structurally deficient bridges and 27th based on percentage of deficient bridges to overall inventory according to a recent analysis.

Using FHWA data, we've ranked the top 25 Illinois counties with the most deficient Illinois bridges.

Top 25 Counties With the Most Deficient Illinois Bridges

25) Massac County, IL

24) Knox County, IL

23) Mercer County, IL

22) Cass County, IL

21) Madison County, IL

20) Lawrence County, IL

19) Effingham County, IL

18) Bond County, IL

17) Bureau County, IL

16) Fayette County, IL

15) St. Clair County, IL

14) Tazewell County, IL

13) Macoupin County, IL

12) Hancock County, IL

11) McHenry County, IL

10) Union County, IL

9) Shelby County, IL

8) Jo Daviess County, IL

7) Kane County, IL

6) Christian County, IL

5) Will County, IL

4) DuPage County, IL

3) Peoria County, IL

2) Lake County, IL

1) Cook County, IL

You can see a detailed breakdown of each county's deficient bridges here.

NEXT ARTICLE: Top 30 counties with the largest decline in median household income in Illinois from 2000-2014

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Politics and the Golden Rule

Thu, 2016-03-10 14:23
"What I'm not trying to do is just pass legislation. I'm trying to change the face of American politics."

Pull these words out of the context of "the news" and let them pulse like the heartbeat of the future.

The words are those of Bernie Sanders, of course -- engaged last week in a confrontational interview with Chris Matthews. Free college tuition? Matthews loosed his skepticism on the presidential candidate, who pushed back:

"You and I look at the world differently. You look at it inside the Beltway. I'm not an inside the Beltway person."

"But the people that vote on taxes are inside the Beltway," Matthews retorted.

"Those people are going to vote the right way when millions of people demand that they vote the right way on this issue. I have no doubt that as president of the Untied States I can rally young people and their parents on this issue. . . . As president of the United States, I would have the bully pulpit. What I'm not trying to do is just pass legislation. I'm trying to change the face of American politics."

I listen in disbelief and feel hope percolate as poll results come in. This week Sanders triumphed in my wounded home state of Michigan, confounding the media and political status quo yet again. Is this really a revolution emerging from a presidential race?

That's not supposed to happen. And I find myself skeptically embracing the possibility, spurred by the near total cynicism and intentional cluelessness of the mainstream media. For the past half century, the American media, in collaboration with the military-industrial corporatocracy -- the Beltway -- has delivered up issueless presidential campaigns to the American public. Business as usual, in all its manifestations, is not to be disrupted. Until now.

Something uncontrolled is happening in American politics. Trump supporters raise their hands in pledges of brand allegiance and the ghost of fascism smirks. America's racists, so marginalized all these years, converge at the edges of his campaign, knowing that his "disavowal" of the Klan is a wink-wink, nudge-nudge sort of thing. He's their man. Allegedly respectable Republicans convulse.

Among the Dems, Sanders is bringing democracy to the disaffected, calling not for slivers of social fairness but a full-blown re-emergence of the New Deal, in defiance of the Democrats' post-Reagan allegiance to compromised ideals. He's standing up for the sovereignty not of Beltway politics but of working-class America -- the people! -- reopening the door of participatory politics and declaring that the American government should not be for sale.

I'm so close to believing in the revolution -- in this reclamation of the United States of America.

At a recent debate, a woman in the audience asked Sanders: "Do you think God is relevant?"

He answered yes, to serious applause, explaining: "What we are talking about is what all religions hold dear, and that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. . . . I believe morally and ethically we do not have a right to turn our backs on children in Flint, Mich., who are being poisoned or veterans who are sleeping out on the street. . . . I want you to worry about my grandchildren and I promise you I will worry about your family. We are in this together."

And the Golden Rule enters the presidential race and I stand in awe of the potency of this ethical imperative. It's the opposite of the spectator idiocy of "my guy is better than your guy," the state to which the media has reduced American democracy.

If the Golden Rule is not simply a personal but a political principle, we cannot wage war. And knowing this, I can't think about social fairness without feeling a shattering sense of despair . . .

"The United States launched a series of airstrikes on an al-Shabab training camp in Somalia on Saturday, killing more than 150 militants and averting what a Pentagon official described as an 'imminent threat' posed by the group to both U.S. and African Union troops stationed in the war-torn country."

As Glenn Greenwald put it, reflecting on this latest impersonal news about dead bad guys: "We need U.S. troops in Africa to launch drone strikes at groups that are trying to attack U.S. troops in Africa. It's the ultimate self-perpetuating circle of imperialism: We need to deploy troops to other countries in order to attack those who are trying to kill U.S. troops who are deployed there."

And here's the beginning of an open letter written by four former U.S. Air Force drone operators, which they sent last November to President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and CIA Chief John Brennan: "We are former Air Force service members. We joined the Air Force to protect American lives and to protect our Constitution. We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay. This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.

"When the guilt of our roles in facilitating this systematic loss of innocent life became too much, all of us succumbed to PTSD. . . ."

Changing the face of American politics is a profound, unfathomably difficult undertaking, but it's nothing at all if it doesn't begin with the Golden Rule. And this rule cannot be selectively applied.

- - -
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at or visit his website at


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Empire's Serayah McNeill & Virgin Hotels Chicago Give Back to Our City

Thu, 2016-03-10 14:19
As Chicagoans, if we turn on the news or flip through the paper, instantly all of the awful things occurring in the city are shoved down our throats. The News Anchors are constantly warning us about everything from the corruption of our city officials all the way to the uncontrollable bankruptcy of our schools. For many Chicagoans, especially the underprivileged and underrepresented, it may seem as though there is no escape from the negative things occurring around us. But this past weekend something amazing happened in our city, which was meant to bring a glimpse of hope to the people.

On Saturday, March 5th, Serayah McNeill a.k.a. Tiana Brown from the #1 hit show Empire teamed up with national non-profit, One Warm Coat, to help ensure that all of the Chicago Public School kids will have winter coats for the remainder of our city's most unforgiving season. Virgin Hotels Chicago went above and beyond by connecting these two philanthropic powerhouses to put on one of Chicago's most successful events of 2016 thus far.

The VIP guest list consisted of Empire cast and crew members, the "whose who" of Chicago, fans of our nation's top show, as well as caring charitable citizens. The people in the room were a reminder of why so many of us cherish the city of Chicago; due to the dashing diversity of the people who filled the room, and the Mid-Western charm that had everyone smiling from ear to ear.

When you entered into the beautiful lobby of the Virgin Hotels Chicago, you were immediately greeted by polite staff who directed you to its radiant rooftop. Once at the Cerise Rooftop, you were instructed to drop off your gently used coat into a big red box; which served as your golden ticket to enter this exclusively elegant event.

Upon entering the party, it became clear that flawless faces, dangerous dance moves and charismatic conversation would soon began to dominate the party. The majority of the night consisted of the 20-year-old TV star sippin' on water while groovin' with her Empire crew to tunes played by the LA-based mix master, DJ Myles Hendrik.

The deranged dancing, caused by the superb spinner, wasn't the only thing that kept the VIP attendees warm; Woolwich John Rich & Bros. donated tens of coats for everyone to party in, while 11 lucky guest got to take a spanking new red parka home!

By the the close of the night, you could feel the vivacious spirit of the partiers and you saw them carrying that same contagious energy back into our city which so desperately craves it. As the party cleared out, the only thing that remained were good memories and a big red box overflowing with tons of coats that would soon be in the hands of Chicago's children; and at the end of the day, isn't that what the event was all about?

Photo Credit: Daniel Boczarski

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Shock: Simon Poll Finds Majority of Illinois Voters Support Right-To-Work

Thu, 2016-03-10 12:53

If constitutional amendments for redistricting reform and term limits are placed on the November ballot, they'd likely get a friendly reception from the majority of voters in Illinois.

A new poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found that two-thirds of Illinois voters support legislative redistricting reform and a whopping 78 percent favor term limits. Just 25 percent and 20 percent say they oppose the measures, respectively. The poll also found more than 60 percent of respondents favor so-called "right-to-work" laws that prohibit mandatory union membership in union-represented workplaces.

Supporters of redistricting reform told polltakers the current system allows lawmakers to gerrymander districts in order to benefit their respective political party, and that having an independent group redraw district lines every 10 years would be a fairer alternative. Opponents argue minority communities are protected by the way maps currently are drawn and writing laws shouldn't be done by individuals who don't hold elected office.

The poll shows 71 percent of voters are in favor of the Illinois Supreme Court adding a neutral, tie-breaking vote to the redistricting panel when lawmakers are at odds over redrawing the legislative map, while 19 percent say they're against the proposed change.

Currently, the Independent Maps coalition is leading the charge against gerrymandering and expects to have enough valid signatures to place a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment on the ballot. The amendment proposes an 11-member, non-partisan commission whose decisions and map-drawing process would be open to the public; 64 percent of voters polled say they favor this type proposal and 25 percent oppose.

Support for redistricting reform is consistent across all demographics and political affiliations, according to the Simon Institute.

"Illinoisans are in a mood to change things," said David Yepsen, director of the Institute. "In addition to redistricting changes, they also support restricting campaign contributions in judicial races and term limits for legislators."

Seventy-two percent say they support campaign contribution limits -- particularly in judicial races -- though liberal voters are more inclined to back campaign finance reform than conservative and centrist voters, according to the Institute.

Of all the state government restructuring questions posed to voters, support for term limits on lawmakers was the strongest, with 78 percent in favor and 20 percent against imposing term limits.

Another interesting finding from the poll is voters' views on right-to-work, which is one of the most divisive items in Gov. Bruce Rauner's "Turnaround Agenda."

More than half, 61 percent, say they would vote or leans towards voting for Rauner's proposal that gives workers the option to opt out of joining a union without putting his or her job at risk; one-third of voters say they would oppose or leans towards opposing right-to-work laws.

While Republican voters were more supportive of right-to-work policies, the majority of Democrats polled surprisingly were in favor of the governor's proposal.

You can see a more detailed breakdown of the poll's findings by political party here.

NEXT ARTICLE: AFK Media Group acquires Reboot Illinois

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Election Forecast... Cloudy With a Chance of Change

Thu, 2016-03-10 12:44
There is never a dull moment in Chicago politics, but this particular election cycle is sort of peculiar. On March 15th, people in the Land of Lincoln will be voting for state and county offices. Normally, this election would get lukewarm media attention, but, Chicago polls do not disappoint.

The race taking center stage in this year's theatrical masterpiece is that of the Illinois State's Attorney. Incumbent Anita Alvarez, is seeking re-election but is in the fight for her political life. States Attorney Anita Alvarez is trying to recover from a collage of scrutiny regarding the Laquan McDonald police shooting. On October 20, 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago Police. Over a year later, the police dashboard camera recording was released to the public showing the chain of events that lead up to and including the police shooting. Hours after the video was released, Police Officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. Alvarez was raised in the Pilsen neighborhood and a mother of four children. She spent her legal career in the Cook County state's attorney's office and became State's Attorney in 2008.

Alvarez's closest challenger is Kim Foxx. Foxx is a Chicago native born and raised in the Cabrini Green housing projects on the near north side. She is married, with two daughters and also has extensive experience in the state's attorney office as a child advocate and former supervisor. Prior to running for state's attorney, Foxx was Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's Chief of Staff. Kim Foxx is also endorsed by a broad coalition of elected officials and civic groups.

And coming in at a distant third, is Donna More. More is an Evanston native, mother of one child and brings to the table experience as a prosecutor for both Cook County and the United States. Currently, More works in private practice.

In unusual turn of events, there's a hotly contested state representative race, also on this bill. Constituents of Illinois' 5th district are tasked with either re-electing Ken Dunkin or Attorney Juliana Stratton. Representative Dunkin seems to have fallen out of the good graces of the Democratic Party for being a no-show when it was time to vote or voting against the party on a few key bills. When Dunkin was asked in several media interviews, to justify his vote against the Democratic party's typical alliances, he positioned himself as an "independent" and not beholden to any political party. Dunkin has been heard saying several times in interviews, "People over Politics." Juliana Stratton, an attorney, a mother of three daughters and a resident of the Bronzeville neighborhood, may be considered an "outsider" by some, but she has a history in public service. According to her television ads, she positions herself as a reformer in the criminal justice system.

But really, are the voters motivated to get out to the polls or are they fatigued of the mudslinging coming from every and all directions? There's a long-standing bone of contention between voters and elected officials asking one another; "What have you done for me lately?"

And to be perfectly honest, it's a valid question for both to ask.

Voters are thinking what have you done for me in order for you to earn my vote and the candidates ponder what have you done for me so I'll be motivated to help you with some type of service or assistance? (Although it is still their job; whether the constituent voted for them or not).

There are no scientific surveys or sophisticated polling algorithms behind this theory, so, just have a cup of your favorite beverage and enjoy the irony in the discussion.

Voter turnout in election cycles are typically abysmal and sadly, this has become the norm. Unless some star-studded quality politician is running for office, folks just don't seem to see the value of voting.

It puzzles many how some people do not find value in voting for the person who will potentially represent them and the interest of their tax money, in city legislature and beyond. At the end of the election cycle, someone will be declared the winner, so why not vote and have a say so in who that may be?

Earlier, it was mentioned that regardless of voter turnout or even votes casts for their opponent, it is still the fiduciary duty of the winner, to serve all constituents. How are our politicians evaluated on their effectiveness in office? Well, every election cycle pretty much answers that question--even if there are only a few who bother to show up at the polls.

And so it begins, the workers for the politician receive the crème de la crème, while some of the others are left scrapping at the bottom of the barrels.

How can this vicious cycle can be stopped?

Is there really a solution to this dilemma?

We always hear the people should come out and vote and perform their civic duty. Is that what incumbents really want? Statistics have shown that typically low voter turnout usually favor incumbents.

So is all this get out to vote rhetoric, on behalf of the incumbent, all for show; or, is it only important when the "powers that be" are wishing to run a no name candidate, in an effort to get their new flavor of the month into office?

After all, they do call it politics for a reason.

I reckon the moral to the story is, if you are not part of the process, you are more than likely part of the problem. If the outcomes are not to your liking, you have no right to have beef if you did not at least be heard at the polls. One should be very careful and deliberate in whom they choose to represent them in the legislative process.

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AFK Media Group Acquires Reboot Illinois

Thu, 2016-03-10 12:33

We've got some big news about Reboot Illinois.

We're thrilled to let you know AFK Media Group on Wednesday announced it has completed the acquisition of Reboot Illinois from Reboot Media Group, LLC.

Reboot Illinois

Founded in 2012, Reboot Illinois, a political journalism website based in Chicago and Springfield, covers the ideas, people and politics behind government in Illinois. In just three years, Reboot Illinois has become Illinois' top digital hub for political news, infographics and opinions. Its content is distributed on its website, through email newsletters and a variety of social media, as well as through a network of newspaper and website affiliates. Reboot Illinois also sponsors events, debates and lively conversation around the state's big policy debates.

The platform reaches a broad spectrum of lawmakers, political thought leaders, lobbyists, journalists and activist citizens. Its website has grown rapidly, averaging nearly 600,000 page views per month. Its "Daily Tip-Off" newsletter and other newsletters reach more than 20,000 subscribers across the state. The Reboot Illinois team built a coveted and highly active social media community with more than 115,000 highly engaged Facebook fans and 13,000 Twitter followers.

Madeleine Doubek and Matt Dietrich, award-winning journalists who launched Reboot, will continue to lead the platform. Doubek covered Illinois politics for more than a decade and served as managing editor and executive editor of the Daily Herald for five years. Dietrich was the editorial page editor of The State Journal-Register in Springfield. As part of the transaction and effective March 15, Doubek will become Reboot's Publisher and Dietrich will become Editor.

Reboot was founded by Anne Dias, the Chicago-based founder of Aragon Global Management, a hedge fund investing in global equities and in media/internet businesses. Dias provided seed capital for the start-up, hired the editorial and technology teams, and oversaw the digital and marketing efforts in the early days of the platform. "I am proud that Reboot has grown quickly to become a force in Illinois political media. I have always believed in a strong, independent press shining light on our government affairs so that citizens can play an active role in our democracy. The new ownership team shares this belief," Dias said.

"Madeleine and Matt have led Reboot to decode what is happening in Springfield and how it affects all of us. Their coverage of Illinois politics has been shrewd and fair-minded."

AFK Media Group

AFK Media is a Chicago-based investor group that invests in digital technology platforms in Chicago and nationally. The principals have significant experience using technology to successfully grow audiences and revenue in digital media companies. Anthony Knierim, one of AFK's partners, will join Reboot's board of directors.

Knierim, a Chicago entrepreneur, has held a number of senior leadership positions at internet startups including, a digital fitness tracking and health community, as well as Packback, a digital textbook start-up. From 2012 through 2014, he helped launch Reboot Illinois as its director of digital strategy.

"Anne's stewardship of Reboot has left a big imprint on the company. Reboot has created a great critical mass of engaged citizens and lawmakers who are active participants in the political process and debate. The culture of Reboot is fast-paced, data-driven and continuously innovative and it reflects Anne's experience in the investment world."

"We're excited to take the platform to the next level. Our growth plans involve expanding Reboot's content, its technology capabilities and its team of writers, building on the data-driven and strong editorial foundations of the business." Knierim said.


Media questions can be directed to Madeleine Doubek at or 312.265.2014. For inquiries about advertising and sponsorship opportunities, please email requests to

NEXT ARTICLE: Simon Poll shows majority of Illinois voters support redistricting reform, term limits and even right-to-work

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7 Tips and Reality Checks for Millennials

Wed, 2016-03-09 08:45

For the ninth year, Steve Harvey, Essence magazine and the Disney Dreamers Academy hosted a group of 100 high school students from all across the country to inspire them to be great. Here are a few pearls of wisdom the celebrity speakers shared with the students and their families.

1. Tamera Mowry-Housley: Everything begins with a dream.

"Allow yourself to dream and tap into your unique gift, be keen to your unique gift and be aware of it, it's usually something that you're very passionate about. Allow yourself to have passion [for that gift] and be willing to work hard to get there."

2. Lamman Rucker: Envision what you want and work to get it.

"I don't care how improbable it seems or how high everything seems to be stacked up against you, you must dream. Everything that [I] do is a result of having dreamt of being here. After the dream comes the work, do not be afraid to take the steps toward actualizing the dream."

3. Karli and Wynton Harvey: Be mindful of your image online and in person.

Wynton Harvey:
"You are addressed by the way you are dressed. You have to set the tone; there is power in the way that you present yourself, there's power in the way that you dress. The more you cover up, it sets a tone of sophistication and elegance, and you can still be fly."

Karli Harvey:
"Once you put that image out there, you can't get it back. You think, 'Oh, I've deleted it,' but no, someone has taken a screenshot of it. Once you put it out there, once you snapchat, once you send a direct message, that is forever. Be aware of what you put out there because it's hard to do damage control once you've released it."

Wynton Harvey:
"Your job opportunities can be limited based on your social media; 85% of employers are looking at your social media platforms to decide whether or not they want to hire you."

4. Dr. Steve Perry: Stay humbled and hungry.

"To those who say, 'I'm tired, I'm not a morning person.' Are you serious? What a luxury. You get to decide what kind of person you are, who gets to do that?

You've been babied and you'll be beaten by a person with far less talent than you but far more drive; someone with greater humility than your hubris. When you're working for that person and you go home thinking, 'I'm smarter than that person, I went to a better school, I made better grades,' that's right, you did. But you weren't a morning person. You have to stay humble and hungry."

5. Michelle Ebanks: Fight for what you want.

"One of the hardest decisions that you'll ever make is whether to quit and walk away or to keep on going and try harder. Failure and mistakes are painful but they are meant to guide you, not define you.

Many times along my journey I wanted to quit. My first role in media, a manager told me to find another job, that this really isn't for me. I was failing and I had a choice, do I look for another job, one that it not as demanding and wouldn't lead to my dream, or do I fight? And I said, I may have to find another job, but I told myself that I would do this job great, before I go to another one. And a few years later that manager--the one who gave me that gift, that feedback--I ended up being her manager."

6. Jonathan Sprinkles: Instant success is a fallacy.

"The uniqueness of the millennial generation is that it is marked by technology. Technology has afforded millennials the opportunity to do a lot of things. However, they don't understand the process that makes these things happen. They understand [success] is possible and they want it, but the people in this generation have one major sin: They quit too soon. They give up on themselves too soon. What happens when things take a little bit longer?"

7. Steve Harvey: Ask God for what you want.

"You didn't know me when I stuttered severely and couldn't talk outside of my house. You didn't see me when I flunked out of college. You missed me when I was struggling through two marriages to get the third one right. You didn't know me when I lost everything twice in my life. You didn't know me when I was homeless and living out of my car for three years. You didn't know me then, you see me now. I'm trying to tell you how to get to the now: God sent me through all of that to prepare me for what I asked for. When I was homeless, I asked God to be rich. I was reading the scripture and the scripture said, you have not because you ask not. So I asked Him to be rich."

Photos: (Top) Gregg Newton, used with permission; Zondra Hughes.

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An Open Letter to Donald Trump's Sex Harassment Victims

Tue, 2016-03-08 20:04
"Only [Donald] Trump could describe democracy in a way that sounds like he's sexually harassing it." -- Trevor Noah, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, February 22, 2016

Much has been written recently about Donald Trump's refusal to disavow the KKK and its former Grand Wizard David Duke; about Trump's mocking of presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, for quenching his thirst during a Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union speech three years ago; about Trump directing his followers to raise their right arms in a Hitler-like salute and to vow to vote for him; and about how rich, powerful and smart Trump thinks he is.

One important story, though, has drawn surprisingly little attention during this presidential campaign: Donald Trump's illegal sexual harassment of women.

On January 31, 2016, the Washington Post reported that a 26-year-old Iowa campaign worker filed a complaint with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission claiming that when she and another female coworker met Trump last summer, he looked them over and said "You guys could do a lot of damage," implying that their physical appearances could be very helpful to his campaign.

Of course, Trump denies it. He claims he's never used the phrase complainant Elizabeth Davidson said he did. He further points out that he could have said much worse. "[Y]ou and I have both heard a lot worse phrases than that, but that one is not in my vocabulary," he told the Post reporter. Then he did what he always does when called out by the press: He attacked the media, calling the New York Times "a disgrace" for running the story the day before the Iowa caucuses.

Regardless of his denials, you can be virtually certain he did it, because he has demeaned and sexually harassed women openly for years. These kinds of behaviors don't just end on their own nor has Trump suffered any consequences that might deter future sex offenses. Those two things combined almost guarantee that there are other victims of whom we are simply unaware.

"I worry that the media's emphasis on Trump's racism will obscure his strong record of misogyny." -- Andy Borowitz, New York Times Columnist, February 28, 2016

"Sex harassment" is most readily defined in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's federal guidelines that were substantially updated in 1991. Those guidelines explain that "sex harassment" is

[u]nwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature... when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.

Simply, quid pro quo sex harassment is sexual conduct in the workplace that requires submission as a condition of employment or that is rewarded or punished. "Hostile work environment harassment" is the effect that same sexual conduct has on other employees outside of the quid pro quo exchange. You don't have to look far to see that Donald Trump is guilty of both kinds.

Remember when Trump was nothing more than a self-proclaimed business mogul who became a reality-TV star? Back when The Apprentice first aired in the winter and spring of 2004, as a purported talent search for a person to head one of Trump's companies? The contestants were "hired" with a one-year contract, a starting annual salary of $250,000 and paid living expenses to dwell in a Trump-style commune. Trump's greatest joy came when he was able to crush his contestants' hopes and dreams by uttering his fateful catch phrase "You're fired!" Hired. Fired. Salary. Expenses. Employer control over all aspects of their production. These contestants were by definition Donald Trump's employees.

In his 2004 book How to Get Rich, Trump wrote about the enormous success of The Apprentice. "All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me -- consciously or unconsciously. That's to be expected..." And "[i]t's certainly not groundbreaking news that the early victories by the women on The Apprentice were, to a very large extent, dependent on their sex appeal." In 2013, he even told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice All Stars, after she kneeled in subjugation and begged not to be fired, "[i]t must be a pretty picture. You dropping to your knees."

But was Trump's introduction of sexual elements into the workplace "unwelcome?" Unless the actions are unwelcome or offensive, there is no sex harassment, even if there is sexual conduct. One can imagine that for some women who might want to get ahead using their physical attractiveness, it's possible that Trump's sexual innuendo and expectations were welcome. It played to those women's sexual power. For everyone else, not so much.

It's extremely likely that, in order to be considered for the show, the contestants were required to sign legal waivers ensuring that Trump could treat them however illegally he wanted and they would be prohibited from suing. While those contractual waivers would eliminate the possibility of a monetary consequence for his illegal actions, the actions are illegal nonetheless. Trump created a work environment for his employees that made sexual conduct and expectations part of the job (quid pro quo harassment) and interfered with the contractual expectations of the employees who did not benefit from the sexual attention (hostile work environment harassment).

But for every victim Trump has sexually harassed openly -- like on his TV shows and this lawsuit for sexual assault of a business colleague in 1992-there are probably dozens he has harassed behind the scenes who have not yet come out publicly.

One of many things I learned from personal experience after the forced resignation of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner for sexually harassing his employees was that there were many, many more women who suffered his loathsome sexual pursuits but who never came forward publicly. Filner was elected mayor of America's seventh largest city in November 2012. By the time he resigned his office nine months later, almost 20 women-including three city employees and volunteers under his direct and indirect supervision-had publicly revealed Filner's offensive sexual behaviors. Ten women claimed he had touched them inappropriately, from lingering hands on the knee, pulling them too close and stroking a cheek to unabashedly groping their butts. Three women were isolated -- one in the corner of a restaurant booth -- so he could try to force kisses on them. Seven complained that he had repeatedly requested dates and made other inappropriate comments, telling one woman that he had fallen in love with her during their only meeting at a public event.

Despite those numbers, I found that virtually every woman I talked with had a "Bob Filner story" that continued to affect them and the men in their lives long after. These women included high-profile media personalities, elected officials and public leaders, among others. While Filner never harassed me, as his chief of staff, I endured a different nightmare fighting off his rage-aholism and his sexual pursuit of his executive assistant virtually every day he came in the office. It has taken me years to put that experience into perspective, which then morphed into a book on sexual abuse of power in our highest political offices.

So where are the other Trump women? I'm referring to the women who work behind the scenes in Trump's organizations who are demeaned and sexually harassed every day. The women who don't come out and complain publicly about his regular misogyny in the workplace. And the women and men who feel that sexual tension in Trump's workplace, knowing that his "favorites" got where they are in some part as a result of traits and actions with which the other victims simply can't -- or won't -- compete.

If we learned anything from the Filner scandal in San Diego, it is this: Creeps like Trump and Filner are not worthy of our highest elected offices. They do not represent who we are as a people. Despite this, however, the voters cannot make it a voting issue unless the people who have been affected work up the courage to come forward.

Consider this an open invitation.

To the women who suffer at the hands of Trump the Demagogue, I urge you to come out and tell your truth. No woman or man deserves to be demeaned or objectified in her or his workplace. Even if you otherwise enjoy your job or the benefits it brings, you deserve better. The Constitution says you deserve to work in an environment free of discrimination and exploitative behavior.

Admitted, going public with your story is hard, but it is a decision you will not likely regret. Whereas I can assure you, based on personal experience, that if you continue working for Trump and hiding your truth, it will hurt you and you might never be the same.

I also learned that sometimes a victim is not willing to come out for his or her own benefit, but if a greater good can be served by it, they are more inclined to look beyond their personal risks toward the greater good. In that vein, the American people need to know what you have experienced before they vote in the primaries and caucuses and certainly before they vote in November. Bob Filner's actions cost San Diego taxpayers $4 million to hold a special election to replace him and exposed them to millions of dollars in potential liability for the injuries he inflicted on his victims, let alone the national and international ridicule the city suffered. As damaging as this was at the municipal mayoral level, imagine the impacts magnified if a similar story were to play out at the presidential level.

Even worse, by not coming out before his election, the 16 women whom he offended prior to becoming mayor paved the way for three more victims to suffer his atrocious behaviors after he took the Mayor's Office. This is not an issue of blame. No one should blame a victim of sex abuse, assault or harassment. It is just to say that, if Trump's other victims -- and I am confident there are other victims -- come forward now, they can have a definite and positive impact on women and our country by ensuring this man does not become president of the United States. The other women can act to ensure that Trump is not given such a powerful position from which he can sexually discriminate or harass other woman. As importantly, they can send him an unequivocal message that his misogyny is not acceptable in modern society.

To those women I say: Stand up. Lean in. Be heard.


In addition to being Bob Filner's former female chief of staff, Lee Burdick is a successful lawyer, political strategist, crisis manager and community leader. She is also author of Bob Filner's Monster: Inside the Unraveling of an American Mayor and What We Can Learn from It (published Feb. 8, 2016). Available on and Barnes & Noble as a NOOK eBook.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

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How A Sexy Thriller Could Get People To Care About Their Water

Tue, 2016-03-08 16:47

On the first page of Iowa author Jennifer Wilson’s new novel, Water, reporter Freja Folsom is assigned a story about a man who is illegally pumping his own water from a city aquifer. Freja is incredulous.

"Water is free. Stories about nature are boring. And I fell asleep for a second when you said the word 'aquifer,'" Folsom says.

Many people, even in our post-Flint world, can probably relate. Water quality isn't typically the stuff of go-to conversational fare. So that’s why Wilson, a former investigative journalist, has set her depiction of one state’s struggle for safe water against the backdrop of a “sexy romp.” Consider it Erin Brockovich meets Fifty Shades.

Sex scenes aside, the fictionalized struggle has roots that are very real. Last month, the Des Moines water utility announced that it will cease dumping the nitrates it removes from the area’s drinking water back into a local river. The utility is also in the middle of a controversial lawsuit that has targeted upstream farmland communities as responsible for the buildup of nitrates in the first place.

The problem isn't limited to Des Moines either. Some 60 Iowa cities and towns have dealt with excessive levels of nitrates in their water in recent years, a problem that has been linked to health issues such as "blue-baby syndrome" among infants in particular.

So, can a sexy thriller help turn more readers onto water activism? The Huffington Post recently spoke with Wilson.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This is an unusual approach to a subject that can get pretty wonky. Given the seriousness of this issue, what do you say to folks who might say it’s a bit silly?

I think you have to read the book to see that fictionalizing the issue is not muddying the issue. By any means necessary, I want you to know what this is all about. I used to be a high school English teacher and I thought my goal, as a journalist, was to make sure people understood things. So what is it going to take? A really nice love story sells. I thought if I can put together two things that are unlikely bedmates, if you will, maybe it will seduce people into understanding probably the biggest issue of our time in the Midwest. I feel like we’re fighting for the soul of our state here and I don’t think anybody else takes this that seriously. I want them to take it seriously.

I think when issues have even a little bit of science involved with them, people feel they don’t know enough to have a say in it or to ask questions. So, I thought, what is the easiest method to administer a science lesson? Maybe it’s silly to pair a super serious issue with something that is sort of dramatic and interesting and enjoyable, but I don’t think so. You don’t have more basic of a need than water. You can’t live more than three days without it. This is our day-to-day survival and it is as essential as love itself. We can’t live without these things -- food and water, shelter and someone to love us, you know? 

What inspired you to tackle nitrate contamination in Iowa in particular?

I think, like most places in the country right now, we’re struggling with our water quality. It’s such a universal issue. I’ve been a journalist for about 20 years and I also write books. I’ve never really seen somebody follow a news story and let it set the pace of a novel as it unfolds. I was literally matching headlines from the Des Moines Register with some of the plot lines that were happening.

What fired me up was that Iowa should be leading the pack in how to manage wastewater from farms and agricultural areas. It’s one of our main industries and it’s what makes Iowa a very independent-minded state. I have a lot of respect for farmers -- I come from a farm family on my dad’s side -- but I felt there wasn’t enough of this debate happening in a reasonable way. I didn’t feel like anybody was understanding each other.

There has been a solution squired out here and there, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any commitment to going forward with respect to the land or water. So I deliberately chose a reporter with an old-school embrace of complete fairness, who would sit down at every table and hear what Iowans have to say, for the main character, Freja. Midwesterners are really good at hearing every side of this, or we used to be. So I wanted to sit everybody down at the table in the way I was hoping would happen in real life.

"I thought if I can put together two things that are unlikely bedmates, if you will, maybe it will seduce people into understanding probably the biggest issue of our time in the Midwest."
Jennifer Wilson, author

Freja is very skeptical of whether anyone will care about this story when she is assigned it. Do you think that apathy is still pretty common among the general public on this? Do you relate to it?

I really wanted her to speak for the people. To be as bored with the topic as I first felt when I started seeing it in the newspaper. Environmental stories are really tough as a reporter when you get one. Like, OK, I have to talk about chemicals probably and words that are hard to pronounce. So Freja is a stand-in.

It feels to me that your first instinct when you’re faced with a new thing is to run or shut down. But she kind of works through it. She has to face what is going on and she faces it very fairly and with an open mind. I hope that readers join her on that journey and end where she is. It’s not judgmental, it’s not trying to ruin anyone, but it’s about making progress and staying healthy and keeping our communities healthy.

Do you think, after what happened in Flint, more people are catching on?

The American people tend to like to panic a little bit. We all do, I guess. But I think that when the panic goes away, I hope our concern turns to understanding the “What can I do?” The answer is you can learn about the water quality issue in your city, because I guarantee there is one. And then you watch it and let the people in the position of decision-making know that you’re watching and have opinions on it.

Your voice really does matter and it matters especially if you have a grasp on what’s going on. I think it would be unrealistic in a state like Iowa to say people need to stop farming so we can have clean water. It’s not like putting on a carburetor and solving an air quality problem with a $40 fix. This is millions of dollars of equipment built to put nitrates in the soil. It’s a colossal fix and a taxpayer investment and it’s requiring responsibility from the people who make a living from the land that they have to leave it the way they found it.

And the topic of water safety has come up in the two most recent presidential debates as well. Do you think people are becoming more aware on this? Is there reason for optimism?

I’m not getting any of that yet. I’m getting people getting concerned. But I think too often we think someone else will fix the problem for us and we underestimate the power for our own voice or we turn it into a political issue.

There can’t be anything less political than water. We all need it. It’s easy to say we’re victims of a system that’s screwing us over, but it’s more intelligent to ask, “What can I do to make my community a better place?” I vote for that mindset and I think people ultimately are good and hopefully are going to move more in that direction once they have the facts.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email

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Letter Shows Sanders Led Early Warning to Clinton on Keystone Pipeline XL

Tue, 2016-03-08 14:28
Nearly five years ago, a letter from Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Ron Wyden, to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned the State Department of a conflict of interest in the selection of Cardno Entrix, a private consulting firm, in conducting an environmental review of the safety of the controversial Keystone Pipeline XL project.

Danielle Droitsch, Canada Project Director with the National Resources Defense Council, was first to report on the letter in her policy blog. However, mainstream news coverage of the initial contact between the three senators and Sec. Clinton was limited.

The firm was permitted by the State Department, under Sec. Hillary Clinton, to conduct an environmental impact review (EIS) of the tar sands pipeline, although they had previously listed TransCanada Corp., the owner of the Keystone Pipeline as a "major client."

Obama rejected the Keystone XL expansion project this past November, citing environmental concerns. The White House worried the project would have a significant impact on the supply of clean water in the U.S. across the Great Plains States.

According to a Washington Post story from November 2011:

"White House officials became concerned about the political repercussions of approving the pipeline, and in November 2011 the administration said it would review alternatives to the proposed route, which crossed the Ogallala Aquifer that stretches across Nebraska and other Great Plains states. The aquifer is one of the world's largest underground sources of fresh water and supplies drinking water to millions of people in the Plains. That review effectively delayed the decision until after Obama's reelection."

In a letter to the State Department in August 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency was also concerned "about the risk of oil spills that could affect drinking water and sensitive ecosystems, as well as the effect of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline."

But just recently at Sunday's debate in Flint, MI, Clinton, touted her commitment to clean water availability and the environment.

Joe Romm, reporting for ClimateProgress in 2011, declared that the environmental review process by Cardno Entrix should have been invalidated, once the conflict of interest was plainly made known.

The Los Angeles Times broke the story in the mainstream press in July of 2011 about the flawed environmental review:

"The State Department has completed two environmental impact statements on the pipeline with the help of Cardno Entrix, a private environmental consulting firm that has said its biggest clients include TransCanada Corp., the owner of the Keystone pipeline system, whose current routes extend from Hardisty, Alberta, to Oklahoma and Illinois.

Cardno Entrix gained national attention last year as the environmental consultant for BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Environmental Protection Agency has criticized the resulting assessments as fundamentally flawed.

"What we've seen from the State Department recently are sloppy reports, inadequate investigations and a total disregard for the dozen accidents that occurred" in the existing Keystone I pipeline, said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "If the president doesn't stand up, all signs point to an agency that is simply going through the motions before giving its approval."

Sanders' letter from October 4, 2011 to Sec. Clinton at the State Department reads:
"We write to express our serious concern with recent reports that the Department of State allowed a contractor with a financial relationship with TransCanada, which seeks to build the Keystone XL pipeline, to conduct the Department's environmental review mandated under federal law as pan of its consideration of TransCanada's proposed pipeline. "

"We find it inappropriate that a contractor with financial ties to TransCanada, which publicly promotes itself by identifying TransCanada as a "major client", was selected to conduct what is intended to be an objective government review."

"This is a critically important issue for our environment and the energy future of our county. At a time when all credible scientific evidence and opinion indicate that we are losing the battle against global warming, it is imperative that we have objective environmental assessments of major carbon-dependent energy projects. An entity with a financial stake in the success or failure of a developer's project proposal is not in a position to provide such an assessment. It is our strong opinion that the only satisfactory remedy is for the Department to conduct a new, objective, and comprehensive environmental review, either directly or through a contractor with no financial ties to TransCanada."

A Mother Jones exclusive by Andy Kroll from March 21, 2013, notes that beyond ignoring the conflict of interest inherent in the environmental impact study, the State Department further attempted to minimize the risks of the controversial Keystone Pipeline XL project:

"State released documents in conjunction with the Keystone report in which these experts' work histories were redacted so that anyone reading the documents wouldn't know who'd previously hired them. Yet unredacted versions of these documents obtained by Mother Jones confirm that three experts working for an outside contractor had done consulting work for TransCanada and other oil companies with a stake in the Keystone's approval."

"The State Department has faced heaps of criticism for potential conflicts of interests involving TransCanada and Keystone XL. ...Emails obtained by Friends of the Earth, an environmental group that opposes the Keystone pipeline, revealed a cozy relationship between TransCanada lobbyist Paul Elliott and Marja Verloop, an official at the US Embassy in Canada whose portfolio covers the Keystone project. Before he lobbied for TransCanada, Elliott worked as deputy campaign manager on Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid. Clinton served as secretary of state until recently."

Brendan DeMelle at Desmogblog has detailed the extensive relationship between Clinton and and the State Department and lobbyists for TransCanada.

Sanders continued the pressure on the Keystone Pipeline XL issue later on in 2011 with an editorial in The Guardian.

"Picture this: a large, multibillion dollar Canadian corporation comes to the president of the United States and wants to build a 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. After reviewing the project, it becomes clear that instead of reducing America's reliance on oil from overseas, this pipeline would carry oil across America, risking spills on our land and waters, just to export the oil to other countries. In addition, the pipeline would increase gasoline prices in America, add to our air pollution, and most importantly, be a major setback in the fight to reverse global warming."

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Silicon Valley Dropped The Ball On Diversity. Chicago Just Picked It Back Up

Tue, 2016-03-08 11:05

Many of the companies pushing the world into the future have two big things in common: They're mostly white and overwhelmingly run by men.

Think about that for a second. Tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Apple have done more to transform how people communicate with one another than perhaps any company since Bell Telephone -- but while they develop innovative ways to connect the entire world, their teams don't even accurately represent the diversity you see at the grocery store. 

Meanwhile, a new mandate at Chicago Public Schools (CPS) could help form a pipeline that gets more people from diverse backgrounds into the tech industry. Beginning with this fall's freshmen, high schoolers will have to complete a computer science curriculum to graduate.

CPS is the first public school system with such a requirement, following a unanimous vote by the board of education late last month. It's not a perfect program -- major budgetary concerns will limit the system at first -- but the woman leading it is confident it can succeed. 

"Kids are riveted, they're excited -- they want to do this," Brenda Wilkerson, senior manager of computer science and information technology education at CPS, told The Huffington Post in a recent interview.

Those kids by and large don't look like the people you'd see on the sunny California campuses owned by the world's most elite tech firms. Overall, CPS is 45.6 percent Hispanic, 39.3 percent African-American, 9.4 percent white and 3.6 percent Asian.

That's a pretty heavy contrast to the tech world.

Facebook's U.S. employees are 55 percent white, 36 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic and 2 percent black. The numbers are much the same elsewhere: Google is 60 percent white, Microsoft is 59.2 percent and Apple 54 percent.

While CPS doesn't publicly report the gender breakdown of its students, one can assume it mirrors Chicago overall: roughly half and half, with slightly more women. All of the tech companies mentioned here are about 70 percent male.

The tech industry's racial and gender imbalance is not unique. White men saturate leadership in Fortune 500 companies overall. There's a problem to be solved in corporate America, period. These tech companies, though, literally decide how people across the world talk to one another and access information. No one's knocking Lowe's hardware (number 50 on the Fortune 500), but it's simply not in the same ballpark as Facebook and Apple when it comes to global impact.

In other words, you can see why there's an intriguing opportunity here. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, with 396,683 students currently enrolled in its public school system, 112,007 of which are high schoolers. If you can get those students to care about computer science, you've created a substantial crop of individuals who can help create a more diverse workplace at some of the world's most important technology companies.

No Excuses

To be clear, no one is saying there aren't already diverse candidates for tech companies to hire. 

Leslie Miley, a former engineering manager at Twitter who publicly criticized the company's lack of diversity, told HuffPost that top tech companies essentially ignore people from different backgrounds by pulling candidates from the same high-ranking (and very white) universities and relying on employee referrals. 

Short of tech companies taking a more aggressive approach to hiring people of color, there isn't really a magic bullet to cut down the racial homogeneity in Silicon Valley. But in an interview with HuffPost, Miley said he agreed that better education opportunities for young people would help.

"Building a pipeline is important," Miley said. "The number [of diverse candidates is] bigger than the tech companies would represent, but it's still not very large considering the numbers of ethnic and racial minorities in the United States."

That pipeline isn't enough on its own, though. Part of the reason why is obvious -- just because you learn to write in English class doesn't mean you become a journalist -- but kids also need to see that people like them work at places like Facebook. If they don't see a place for themselves at the end of the pipeline, then the whole exercise is wasted.

"The thing I always hate is, 'This is the first black person to do this.' I'm supposed to look at it as a role model? That's a barrier," Miley said. "There's only one?"

The important thing, he suggests, is to show young people that there really is a pathway to success and that they'll see people like themselves along the way.


The big problem with all of this is that Chicago doesn't have any money.

"Our schools lost over 200 librarians," Wendy Katten, the director of advocacy group Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education and a CPS parent, told HuffPost. "Many, many schools now have empty libraries where no teaching is going on. There's no staff."

It gets worse.

"Our schools only have 146 nurses for the whole district, a district of over 500 district schools -- that doesn't include charter [schools]," she added. "Our schools have been wiped out of basic core resources."

That's not all. Though the board of education voted to require computer science education for kids to graduate from Chicago Public Schools, half of those high schools don't have existing computer science programs.

So, what happens? The plan is essentially to pull together resources to provide different types of computer science education depending on a school's specific situation.

The 42 high schools that are not able to offer computer science in the 2016-2017 school year, when the new requirement goes into effect, will compensate in part by folding related material into other subjects.

"Some of our schools will integrate computation into Algebra by using a program called Bootstrap, which [teaches] algebraic concepts using computation," Wilkerson told HuffPost. "This program is exceptional in that it not only teaches computation, it increases the rigor and relevance for students of this most crucial high school course."

The nonprofit has also provided financial resources and training to CPS teachers since 2013, and it will continue to do so.

"We don't just advocate for [computer science] or teach [computer science], we fund and perform the implementation in many schools," Hadi Partovi, co-founder of, told HuffPost. "The majority of public school teachers in CPS that are new computer science teachers, has spent millions of dollars of our money to help put those in place at no cost to Chicago."

If you want to donate to computer science education in Chicago, you can use this website.

Vision For The Future

Wilkerson acknowledges the challenges faced by CPS. But she's determined to help young people understand that they have a future in technology. Her overall vision is to get kids started on computer science well before they're even in high school -- that is, before they're limited by some meritless stereotype about who's "supposed" to work in tech.

"What I'm hoping is that this gets galvanized in a child, and then you can never take it away from them," Wilkerson told HuffPost.

Like Miley, though, she doesn't place a lot of stock in the notion that good, diverse candidates aren't already out there. But it's important to her that people from a variety of backgrounds feel like they belong at these companies. 

Putting any sort of ideology aside, there's a clear argument for inclusivity based on the sad fact that there's a significant income gap based on race. As HuffPost reported on Monday, discrimination can make it difficult for people of color to land the job to begin with -- and then racial bias might mean you make less money than your white colleagues once you're there.

But why would you put ideology aside? If any cluster of companies should consider as many viewpoints as possible, it's the one that includes the world's largest social network, the maker of the iPhone, the most popular computer operating systems and the search engine we use to find information. But they often don't, which means we see Facebook employees deface "Black Lives Matter" messages and Apple exploit the image of Martin Luther King Jr.

"I was in the industry. I'm an African-American female. It's not so much that they can't find us. We exist. It's the environment that doesn't keep us," Wilkerson told HuffPost. "That is something that companies are going to have to come to grips with."

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27 Percent of Renters in Illinois Can Barely Afford Rent

Tue, 2016-03-08 10:58
More than one in four renters in Illinois are barely able to make rent, according to a new analysis.

In light of the state budget impasse and the freezing of funding for affordable housing, the organization Make Room, an advocacy group that raises awareness for millions of U.S. families struggling to pay rent, analyzed U.S. Census data from 2014 to see where in Illinois renters are most burdened by the cost of rent.

The analysis found 27 percent of renters in Illinois are "severely burdened" by housing expenses, which means more than half of renters' income goes toward rent and utilities.

In terms of raw numbers, that's 441,381 households throughout the state that spend at least 50 percent of their income solely on rent. Illinois ranked No. 13 in the nation for percentage of renters severely burdened by housing costs, according to Make Room.

The report also looked at the 10 most populous cities in Illinois and found 28 percent of the 736,000 renters are severely burdened. Here's the percent of renters in each city who are either severely burdened or moderately burdened (pay 30-50 percent of income to housing), along with the estimated number of renters, as reported by Northern Public Radio. A plain text version follow the pie chart.

Rental Burden in Top 10 Most Populated Cities
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10. Elgin

  • Renters: 13,613

  • Severely burdened: 19.1%

  • Moderately burdened: 26.7%

9. Peoria

  • Renters: 18,750

  • Severely burdened: 19.2%

  • Moderately burdened: 14.9%

8. Naperville

  • Renters: 12,808

  • Severely burdened: 20.3%

  • Moderately burdened: 25.1%

7. Joliet

  • Renters: 14,706

  • Severely burdened: 23.8%

  • Moderately burdened: 17.9%

6. Aurora

  • Renters: 17,600

  • Severely burdened: 25%

  • Moderately burdened: 23.4%

5. Cicero

  • Renters: 11,240

  • Severely burdened: 25.8%

  • Moderately burdened: 24.5%

4. Rockford

  • Renters: 30,389

  • Severely burdened: 28.3%

  • Moderately burdened: 19.9%

3. Chicago

  • Renters: 582,292

  • Severely burdened: 28.8%

  • Moderately burdened: 22.2%

2. Waukegan

  • Renters: 15,335

  • Severely burdened: 31.3%

  • Moderately burdened: 24.7%

1. Springfield

  • Renters: 20,000

  • Severely burdened: 31.5%

  • Moderately burdened: 23.7%

Nationwide, there are roughly 11.4 million families -- one in four renter households -- that spend at least half their income on housing costs, which Make Room says forces families to choose between paying rent or food, medicine, childcare and other necessities.

You can find the original report as well as Make Room's fact sheet for Illinois here.

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HBO's John Oliver is Rauner's Unlikely Ally in Latest Episode

Tue, 2016-03-08 10:44
At first glance, the issue of Illinois special taxing districts doesn't seem like fodder for edgy comedy.

But John Oliver, host of the acclaimed HBO comedy news show Last Week Tonight, devoted a generous, 15-minute segment of Sunday's show to that very topic. And despite Oliver's disclaimer acknowledging his unlikely subject at the top of the piece -- "Hello to the people watching for the first time because of our Trump piece, and also I presume, goodbye" -- the segment was both hilarious and highly informative.

I had especially high hopes for this one after being contacted by a "Last Week Tonight" researcher on Saturday about a video on the Reboot Illinois YouTube channel in which Gov. Bruce Rauner and Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti announced the findings and recommendations of a task force looking for ways to reduce Illinois' nearly 7,000 government bodies, which is the highest number in the nation by far.

Our video didn't make the final cut, but Illinois did.

"When special districts have only one job, it makes it all the more noticeable when things go wrong," Oliver said as a segue into the plight of Evergreen Park and Cook County's many mosquito abatement districts. (It starts at 8:50 in the video above).

While not dealing extensively with Illinois, the piece shows the biggest problem with small taxing districts: Some can be so small that they lack oversight and, despite their obscurity, they often are responsible for large chunks of taxpayer dollars.

Enjoy the video. It's unlikely you'll find this topic in this context again anywhere. Then take a look at the findings of the Illinois task force. The extreme cases highlighted by Oliver in other states could be playing out right now in some tiny government unit somewhere here in the Land of Lincoln.

NEXT ARTICLE: Majority of Illinois voters support legal medical marijuana, but oppose recreational use

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