Corruption, jockeying and Axelrod’s return in 2013

By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Staff Writer

Hyde Park and Kenwood were a hotbed of political activity in 2013, marked by the opening of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, state Sen. Kwame Raoul’s (D-16) appointment to Illinois’ Pension Reform Conference Committee and the election of a replacement to the seat of disgraced Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.

Jackson drama
Several political hopefuls rang in the new year by filing to run for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s 2nd District congressional seat after he resigned. In 2012, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition founder’s son was charged with misusing campaign funds and checked in to Rochester, Minn.’s Mayo Clinic to be treated for bipolar disorder.

The roster of more than five candidates included former NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) and former U.S. representative Mel Reynolds (D-2), Jackson’s predecessor who stepped down in 1995 after he was convicted of statutory rape.

Former Illinois state Rep. Robin Kelly (D-38) emerged as the victor in the 2nd District’s special election, held April 9, with more than 70 percent of the vote. She assumed office the same day. But it would not be until Nov. 4 — the week after Jesse Jackson, Jr. checked into a federal prison, was sent away and then taken into custody the next day — that Kelly would make her first public appearance in Hyde Park, at Sip and Savor, 5301 S. Hyde Park Blvd., and the University of Chicago Medical campus, as part of a weeklong economic development tour.

Jackson is now serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence as inmate no. 32451-016 at a federal minimum security facility in Butner, N.C., where former Chicago Police Department detective Jon Burge, who was convicted of torture, and investment ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff are housed.

Institute of Politics opens
David Axelrod, a Hyde Park Herald alum and chief strategist for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, has been a frequent presence in the Hyde Park since the arrival of the the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP) last year. Following a soft opening in January 2013, the on-campus institute opened its doors at 5707 S. Woodlawn Ave. last April, to a grand opening celebration complete with appearances by U. of C. President Robert Zimmerman and IOP board members San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Democratic Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick.

Since the IOP’s establishment early last year, Axelrod has participated in conversations with high profile political players, including New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger, Arizona Sen. John McCain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, author of the bestselling personal account, “Night.”

The Institute has also hosted almost 20 fellows, including Obama speechwriter John Favreau. This fall, the IOP revealed that it would host six fellows during the university’s winter quarter — including Tommy Vietor, a former national security spokesman for President Obama and former director of strategy for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as an as-of-yet unrevealed current mayor of a U.S. city.

Participatory budgeting
The 5th Ward became the first on the South Side to make use of participatory budgeting. The process, which allows voters to decide how their district’s discretionary funding is spent originated in Brazil in 1989 and was first practiced in the city’s 49th Ward in Rogers Park.

In April, all residents in Ald. Hairston’s (5th) ward over age 16 were given an opportunity to hear about and vote on proposals for how to spend the its annual $1.3 million in discretionary funds. In early May, more than 60 of around 100 Fifth Ward residents voted for three projects to spend the money on: a garden, new streetlights and improved lighting under Metra viaducts, including at 57th and 59th streets.

Pension reform
Following years of anxiety and debate over how to address the bloated state’s pension debt — which amounted by early 2013 to more than $100 billion, or around one-seventh of the state’s gross domestic product — state Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-16) was appointed to head a conference committee to tackle the problem.

Raoul worked with the group over the summer to draft a solution. Finally, in the Illinois General Assembly’s veto session this fall — during which marriage equality legislation was also passed — the conference committee’s proposed amendments to the state’s pension payment system were approved.

Senate Bill 1, estimated to save $160 billion through 2044, cut costs by tying state pensioners’ yearly payment increases to annual cost of living increases. While Illinois House Speaker Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) said the changes did not constitute a cut to pension payments, controversy erupted over whether they were constitutional. According to the Illinois Constitution, state benefits may neither be “diminished or impaired.”

Both Currie and Raoul said they expected a legal challenge to the pension reform bill they helped pass. Raoul went so far as to say that he wasn’t sure whether the legislation was constitutional and that there was “an element of immorality” to the state’s negligence toward making its payments into the pension system.

Raoul’s leadership of the Pension Reform Conference Committee thrust him in the spotlight, just months after he received attention for considering a bid for Illinois Attorney General and later reports that he was a finalist in Gov. Pat Quinn’s search for a 2014 running mate.

Election 2014
With the arrival of a new year, Illinois state races are already heating up. By early December  candidates had filed to run as candidates in the March 18 state primary, to represent districts that contain parts of the Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods.

Illinois’ youngest General Assemblyman, Christian Mitchell (D-26), began serving a term to replace predecessor Kimberly DuBuclet this year. Mitchell will face off in next year’s primary with Jay Travis, former executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, while Republican Jacob Hakalir will run unopposed.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25) and Republican Juan Antonio Diaz will run unopposed for the seat of 25th District state Representative; Congressman Bobby Rush and Republican Jimmy Lee Tillman will both run unopposed for the seat of 1st District U.S. House Representative; and Congresswoman Robin Kelly will run in the Democratic primary for 2nd District U.S. House Representative against Marcus Lewis and Charles Rayburn, while Republican Eric M. Wallace runs unopposed.

j.bishku@hpherald.com