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The [Endorsement] Papers

On September 21st, the Sun-Times editorial board was beside itself. "It was with some surprise - oh, let's be honest and say our jaws dropped - to read that Mike Quigley, the reformer on the Cook County Board, the man who always questioned the way former president John Stroger did business, was throwing support to Stroger's son, Todd, in his bid to become the next County Board president," the board said that morning.

"One wonders about Quigley's motives," the board's editorial continued, "particularly when he [says] he would look 'ridiculous' directly endorsing Stroger so he has sent him 'the best and brightest' of his staff . . . He adds that he hopes Stroger is being honest about wanting reform. Amen. It can only be said that politics makes strange bedfellows."

The headline to the piece: "Is County Ready For This Kind of Reform?"

A month later, the Sun-Times editorial board endorsed . . . Todd Stroger.

Just as Quigley feared but avoided, the page looked ridiculous. And not just because of the ground it staked out in its Quigley editorial. Here's what else the Sun-Times editorial page has had to say about Stroger this year:

May 15: In "Davis' County Board Interest Raises Political Hopes," the page called the nomination of Stroger as an unwelcome "nepotistic outcome."

May 16: In "Theory of Relative-ity Is Wrong For Public Office," the page said: "It looks like our political aristocracy is about to anoint another relative to high office after the usually decisive Democratic primary . . . If the voters are unhappy enough about these hand-me-down politics, the GOP just might 'steal' that election from under the noses of the ruling Cook County Democrats."

June 29: In "Voters Should Be Very Angry At Cook County Machinations," the page called the maneuvering to put Todd Stroger on the ballot an "outrageously self-serving scheme."

This editorial also marked a turning point in the page's assessment of Todd Stroger's aldermanic record. On May 15, the page said "Todd Stroger has served as a good representative for his South Side ward." On May 11, the page said, "Ald. Stroger (8th) . . . has contributed a great deal to his South Side ward and the city." On June 29, however, the page said Stroger "has accomplished next to nothing as alderman."

July 6: In "Maybe It's Time To Probe County Board Shenanigans," the page suggested that the way Todd Stroger was installed as the Democratic candidate for county board president be investigated by state attorney general Lisa Madigan or U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. The page added, "The voters certainly have the recourse of the voting booth to address this bizarre circus. Stroger's handlers are betting the voters won't use it. Will we prove them wrong?"

July 16: In "This Kind of Politics Is What Gives Outrage A Bad Name," the page said: "Here's the most brazen and outrageous thing about the powerbrokers who are orchestrating the coronation of Ald. Todd Stroger to his father's seat as Cook County president: They're not even pretending they have the public's interest at heart. Instead, it's about quid pro quos, tit-for-tats and raw me-first politics, without even an insincere wink at good government. They are arrogant and unafraid, because they think voters can't or won't do anything to stop them. When will voters decide enough is enough?"

The page went on to complain that too often in county government "you don't hire the best person for the job. You hire the person who can continue the status quo. You hire the person who can keep the insiders happy. You hire the person you can control. You hire the person who can give you the biggest political bang for your political buck. As for the public? They're sheep. They'll stay in line."

The page also snidely referred to Ald. Bill Beavers' assertion that Stroger was "not a puppet," and "has a backbone."

July 18: In "A Sad Case Of Quid Pro Stroger," the page said: "[T]he younger Stroger will get the nod . . . not because he is a better candidate, but because [party leaders] are in debt to his dad. There is, of course, something wrong with a system that places a higher value on political payback than on an honest evaluation of a candidate's qualifications. Todd Stroger has done little to distinguish himself as a state lawmaker and alderman and has said little to convince anyone that he's prepared to govern."

The page also said Stroger represented "a status quo that has made a mockery of democracy and government in Cook County."

Readers responded to the Sun-Times's pleas with letters to the editor published under headlines such as "Send the Hacks a Message," "Where's the Outrage?," "New Low of Nepotism," and "Perfect Time To Clean House."

So imagine the discombobulation that readers - and the political community - felt when they turned to the Sun-Times editorial page on Sunday, October 22 to find "Todd Stroger for Cook County Board President."

Why did the paper endorse Stroger? For reasons it has never made clear.

For example, in its endorsement the paper tried to argue that Stroger would be more likely to achieve reform than opponent Tony Peraica because of the board's Democratic majority. The paper ignored the fact that the number of reformers and Republicans on the board comes to 10 of 17 members - 11 if John Daley reads which way the winds are blowing. Not that there is any validity to the argument to begin with, but even the paper's strange internal logic doesn't hold.

"[W]e recognize the reality that if change is going to happen in this Democrat-dominated body, it's going to come from within the Democratic party," the page argued.

Huh? So if, say, former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar were running for county board president, you would still pick Todd Stroger because as a Democrat he'd be more effective?

The editorial also ignores the many Democrats who will cross lines to support the Republican Tony Peraica in this race. Are they unwise to vote for what the paper feels is sure to be paralyzed government?

Perhaps most extraordinary is the endorsement's promise to "assign extra reporters" to watch over Stroger. Aside from the question of whether an editorial page can really assign extra reporters to cover anyone, how do you endorse a candidate who requires such a move?

It gets better. The page then endorses Peraica over his Democratic opponent for his 16th district seat, saying "We trust Peraica will continue to prod Democrats to change the government."

Additionally, the page could have solved its dilemma by endorsing as many Republicans as it thought it would take to make a difference - just to follow its line of logic an additional step - but instead ended up endorsing all 7 of 8 incumbents running in contestable races and let the rest off the hook. I guess county government isn't so bad after all.

Two days after its endorsement, a reader wrote a letter titled "Dumbfounding Endorsement."

That's putting it lightly. Disingenuous is another word that might work. On Oct. 27, editorial page editor Steve Huntley revealed as an aside that the paper had endorsed Gov. Rod Blagojevich not on the merits but "because of his stand on issues important to the paper's readers."

Is that the calculation the paper made in Stroger's case as well?

The paper doesn't say, but it's not likely that the editorial board itself settled on Stroger after reasoned debate. Did the order come from the office of publisher John Cruickshank?


Four years ago, the Sun-Times editorial board decided that Paul Vallas was the best candidate in the Democratic primary for governor. Then-publisher and now-felon David Radler overrode that selection in favor of Blagojevich for reasons that were never made public and explained to readers, who you would think are owed honest service from their newspapers.

Cruickshank and editor-in-chief Michael Cooke never came clean about what happened behind-the-scenes with the endorsement either; Cooke was particularly, shall we say, dodgy, about it in a phone interview with me before Election Day that year. And that's putting it politely. (Famously, among the political set, the paper also endorsed prototype political hack Ted Lechowicz over Forrest Claypool for Cook County board.)

The paper obviously has done nothing to restore its credibility since in the endorsement department.


Peraica's campaign called the editorial "Stuck on stupid redux." Campaign consultant Dan Proft said: "The Sun-Times' extraordinary and confounding endorsement of Todd Stroger for County Board President is, quite simply, a violation of the public trust. Besides flying in the face of common sense and the manifest weight of the evidence in this race, it is completely at odds with virtually every Sun-Times commentator who has weighed in on this campaign."

Sun-Times reporter Scott Fornek said on Chicago Tonight: "To me, when I read it, it was not an overwhelming endorsement."


Neither the Tribune, nor Crain's Chicago Business, the Daily Herald, the Daily Southtown, the Pioneer Press newspapers, nor the Star newspaers have found the Sun-Times's logic compelling. In fact, I doubt that argument never occurred to them. They all endorsed Peraica. The Sun-Times editorial page: coming to you from an alternate universe.


The Tribune is more transparent in its process. Who is the Tribune's editorial board? You can meet them here. Who is the Sun-Times's editorial board? None of your business. (You'd be depressed learning the truth anyway.)

In fact, the Sun-Times ended up endorsing the entire Democratic slate for state offices, which is pretty odd considering how right-wing the page is. Odder still was the pretzel logic employed at times to get to the result the paper wanted for reasons not spelled out to readers.

For example, in its endorsement of Blagojevich, the paper said, "The governor said the charges against [indicted advisor Tony] Rezko, if true, represent a personal betrayal by Rezko, and that he himself has never been involved in any unethical or illegal fundraising. Our experience with Blagojevich prompts us to take him at his word."

People in his own party don't even take him at his word. Legislators got so frustrated with this guy they started making him write Memorandums of Understanding to hold him to his word. C'mon, Sun-Times, what's really going on here?

The editorial goes on to cite accomplishments of the governor that are in fact highly controversial, and in at least one case, apparently illegal.

The page applauds the governor putting $10 million into stem cell research, but declines to acknowledge that the governor himself has admitted "hiding" the money in the budget so opponents couldn't find it. The page also cites the governor's I-Save-Rx program while noting that the state auditor general found that the program "broke federal laws and didn't serve that many Illinoisans." How is that a point in his favor? "But Blagojevich's leadership style has been to forge ahead and deal with the consequences later," the page says approvingly. Apparently the paper approves of forging ahead with no regard for consequences or legalities.

That's not to say there isn't a case to be made for Blagojevich - particularly considering the competition. But the paper failed to make it, because it obviously didn't believe in it.


Likewise, the page says Republican treasurer candidate Christine Radogno "has an impressive background in politics and legislative work on fiscal issues" but then endorses controversial Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias, who has been disowned by large chunks of his own party. The paper is not bothered by the glib, ambitious, and rich 30-year-old Giannoulias's not-ready-for-prime-time performance.

Instead, the page relays the delusion that "if elected, he could be a catalyst for reaching out to young citizens about the value of public service."


The Tribune's endorsement of Radogno is more convincing, and plenty of Democrats will cross over in this race given the questions about Giannoulias's banking practices.


With congressional approval ratings at an astonishing lows, you'd think the watchdog newspapers would be in a mood to throw the bums out. Instead, they are in a mood to keep the bums in. In U.S. House races, for example, the Sun-Times endorses every incumbent. Is our delegation that good? That much better than the rest of the nation's? And how does such a conservative page endorse Rahm Emanuel and Jan Schakowsky?

The page also endorsed Dan Lipinski "only because his constituents seem unbothered by the appalling manner in which he was installed by his father." What gives the page the idea that his constituents are unbothered? Plus, is that reason enough? I mean, if an editorial page is just going to follow the voters, why not just print a poll?


Tony Peraica was the Tribune's first endorsement out of the box, and you get the feeling this is the race the paper feels most urgent about, including the governor's race. Still, the paper's unsurprising endorsement of Judy Baar Topinka is far stronger than the Sun-Times's backing of Blagojevich.

The Trib stumbles, though, when it says that voting for Green Party candidate Rich Whitney "might feel good, but the practical impact will be to preserve the status quo in the governor's office."

I've heard that Whitney may be taking votes from Topinka, but isn't it more logical to think that disaffected Democrats would go Whitney's way?


A "Local Draw" cartoon in the Trib's perspective section recently printed its sample ballot for governor:

Rod Blagojevich
Judy Baar Topinka
Anybody Else?

Rich Whitney spoke up, but I guess the teacher didn't hear.


Crain's, on the other hand, says the governor "has presided over an administration of unparalleled venality, and for that reason alone we cannot endorse him."


The Tribune endorsed Michael Madigan in his 22nd district race over a candidate it suggests is a Madigan-backed stooge. "Voters lose, however, because once again they don't get a real choice." Then why endorse Madigan? If I'm the Tribune, I take the position that he doesn't deserve the backing of my good name.

Similarly, the Sun-Times called Madigan is a "modern-day Machiavelli" who is "arrogant and openly disdainful of the press" and "the least approachable politician in the House." And then they endorsed him, because he is "extraordinarily effective at his job." That's true - if you think his job is run a tyranny.


Finally, read the Tribune's "If The Bosses Get Away With This" as well as the paper's Topinka endorsement, which calls the corruption surrounding Blagojevich a "five-alarm fire" and ask yourself how the paper will justify endorsing Richard M. Daley again.


Comments welcome.


Posted on October 30, 2006

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