Best Stories of 2019: The Crazy Year In Illinois Politics | WBEZ
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Best Stories of 2019: The Crazy Year In Illinois Politics

There are many reasons you could declare 2019 a blockbuster year for Illinois and Chicago politics.

It’s not only that we saw huge shakeups at Chicago City Hall with Lori Lightfoot’s historic victory, following a historically hectic mayoral race. Or that Democrats in Springfield ran the table with their legislative agenda—legalizing pot, raising the minimum wage, passing a gargantuan infrastructure bill and expanding gambling.

What made 2019 remarkable (even by Illinois standards) was the extraordinary breadth of federal corruption investigations at all levels of government, which have touched some heretofore untouchable pols.

Here are some of the must-read stories and investigations WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team produced in 2019.

The federal probe into ComEd clout

There have been FBI raids, resignations and a “Magic Lobbyist List.”

In October, WBEZ was the first to report the feds were probing whether utility giant Commonwealth Edison had hired several politically-connected consultants and employees – some with ties powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan – in exchange for government actions, including rate increases. The feds believe many of the clout hires at the state’s largest electric utility got paid but did little or no work.

Nobody has been charged.

But several figures connected to the criminal investigation have since abruptly left their jobs, including the CEO of ComEd’s parent company, Exelon; the long-time president of the City Club of Chicago, a prominent public affairs forum; a powerful Illinois state senator; and several ComEd lobbyists. The feds also have taken a keen interest in several people with close ties to Madigan, Illinois’ most powerful politician.

Take the holiday break to catch up on all of our reporting into the sprawling ComEd investigation. Because this story doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

Ald. Ed Burke, a Burger King and landing the “tuna”

The year kicked off with Chicago’s longest-serving and most influential alderman, Ed Burke, getting charged in an alleged shake-down scheme involving a Burger King in his Southwest Side 14th Ward.

Burke is an unabashedly old school pol who allegedly abused his considerable power as City Council Finance Committee chair to drive clients to his private law practice. The plot thickened in February when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that fellow Ald. Danny Solis had been wearing a wire on Burke—a revelation outlined in a sordid legal document rife with sex, Viagra and massage parlors.

Burke was charged in May with 14 new corruption-related counts in an indictment that contained plenty of quotable lines from wiretaps.

“So, did we land the, uh, the tuna?” Burke allegedly asked Solis, referring to an effort to secure legal work for his private firm from a developer who sought City Hall action.

Burke has said he didn’t do anything wrong, and will be vindicated. He was re-elected in February.

The rising cost of free health care: “Something’s got to give”

For my money, the story of the looming fiscal cliff at Cook County Health is the one every taxpayer should know about headed into 2020.

In August WBEZ reported that Cook County’s public health system expects to provide a staggering $590 million in medical care next year that it won’t get paid for.

“Something’s got to give, or somebody’s got to give to us,” the health system's CEO Dr. Jay Shannon said at the time.

Democratic County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said so-called uncompensated care—medical care doctors and hospitals provide for no reimbursement—is what scares her most about the county’s financial future.

That’s because financial pressure on Cook County Health means pressure on county government, which could ultimately put pressure on taxpayers.

By 2024, the county’s deficit is projected to climb back up to $308 million—mostly due to the health system.

Chicago aldermen get passing grade for attendance—barely

How often did your alderman show up to meetings at City Hall?

An investigation by WBEZ and The Daily Line found the average Chicago City Council member would get a "D" for attendance at committee meetings. That’s a problem, since every honorary street sign, zoning amendment, multi-billion dollar bond sale, airport lease agreement and tax hike must be approved by one of the City Council’s 16 committees before advancing to become law.

WBEZ had to sue one alderman’s committee before we got (most of) the data we needed to compile this story in February—just before the city elections. Some aldermen have since been voted out, but most have not.

So will the newly-elected class of alderman earn their six-figure, taxpayer-funded salaries with a better attendance rate? Stay tuned.

Chicago’s disappearing middle class

There’s a story we published in February that helps explain so much about how Chicago is changing, in two simple maps. Go take a look.

An analysis from the University of Illinois at Chicago shows that in 1970 half the city was middle-income. Now, just 16% are.

That leaves us with a city polarized into areas where rich people are richer than they used to be, and poor people are poorer. The implications of this for everything in Chicago—racial equity, education, transportation, politics, economic growth, infrastructure—are huge.

This is less a hard news story than an examination of a startling dynamic that underpins so many of the other stories we cover at WBEZ. If you want to better understand Chicago in 2019, please read it.

Alex Keefe is the senior editor for Government & Politics at WBEZ. Follow him @akeefe.

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