Looking to Nebraska—and the Ricketts family—for leadership

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The Ricketts family, from left to right: Pete, Tom, Laura, and Todd - CHICAGO CUBS BASEBALL CLUB LLC/STEPHEN GREEN
  • Chicago Cubs Baseball Club LLC/Stephen Green
  • The Ricketts family, from left to right: Pete, Tom, Laura, and Todd

Last fall Governing magazine published a survey of America's first-year governors. Most were doing well, but two were "struggling." One struggler was Nebraska's Pete Ricketts, the other was our own Bruce Rauner.

Ricketts, a Republican governor of a Republican state, had picked some dubious battles and lost: Nebraska's unicameral legislature had overridden his vetoes of measures to raise the gasoline tax, to allow children of undocumented workers to get drivers' licenses, and—most prominently—to repeal the death penalty. Rauner, also a Republican, was in a stalemate with the Democratic legislature over his so-called turnaround agenda and the state budget. He still is.

Here's an interesting difference between Ricketts and Rauner: according to the political research website Morning Consult—which announced its polling in November, a few weeks after the Governing survey—42 percent of Illinois voters approved of the job Rauner was doing then; in Nebraska, 60 percent of Nebraska voters approved of Ricketts's performance.

As a Republican who heads a red state with a legislature that's formally nonpartisan, Ricketts operates in a vastly less partisan environment than Rauner does. If he's a jerk, he's their jerk. But maybe there's more to his popularity than that—maybe he's not a jerk. "Ricketts does have a way of being in political trouble but being likable," says a journalism professor I know at the University of Nebraska. "For a fabulously rich guy, he comes across as kind of a corny/folksy guy." Our fabulously rich governor comes across as a North Shore autocrat trying too hard to sound rustic. When he drops his gs—which is inconsistently—the press ridicules him for it.
Marlene and Joe Ricketts - JOHN J. KIM/SUN-TIMES
  • John J. Kim/Sun-Times
  • Marlene and Joe Ricketts

Illinois suffers from a deficiency in leadership. Baseball teams with deficiencies make trades, and I wonder if Illinois should think along these lines. Let's offer Nebraska a deal: our struggling Republican governor for theirs—with maybe a few passes to the Willis Tower skydeck spread around Nebraska to sweeten the deal.
You might suppose Illinois would chew up Pete Ricketts and spit him out, but his family history suggests something different.

Pete's father, Joe Ricketts, made his fortune in Nebraska by founding and running TD Ameritrade. He came to Chicago's attention in 2012, in what might have been the worst possible way: the New York Times reported that Joe Ricketts had commissioned, and was now reviewing, a $10 million, 54-page proposal called "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good."

"Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: Show the world how Barack Obama's opinions of America and the world were formed," said the proposal. "And why the influence of that misguided mentor [the Reverend Jeremiah Wright] and our president's formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees."

This "Ricketts Plan" was harebrained and clueless (Wright as a campaign issue was four years past its sell-by date), and its timing couldn't have been worse. Here in Chicago, Joe's son Tom, chairman of the Chicago Cubs, was talking up the $300 million in improvements he wanted to make at Wrigley Field and trying to wheedle Chicago into paying for a big chunk of it. That meant winning over our mayor, who happened to be Obama's former chief of staff—and who promptly let it be known he was no longer returning Tom Ricketts's phone calls. Tom Ricketts was obliged to issue a statement repudiating "any return to racially divisive issues" in the 2012 presidential race, and then twiddle his thumbs while the heat was on. The Ricketts Plan never saw the light of day, and in time Tom Ricketts worked it out with the city and went on to do what he wanted to do at Wrigley Field.

And was Joe Ricketts never heard from again? No, not exactly. Just a few months later he entered our city as a champion of the First Amendment. "News stories should be told by journalists who rely on facts, not spin," says the website of DNAinfo, which Papa Ricketts launched in New York in 2009, sustained with his fortune, and extended to Chicago late in 2012. "Facts, not spin" is a familiar sentiment among powerful people who believe they get to decide what a fact is. But Joe Ricketts seems to have meant it. Left mostly alone by the big boss in Omaha, DNAinfo Chicago has hired experienced journalists and become a primary news source here.

I asked managing editor Shamus Toomey about DNAinfo's biggest accomplishments, and he sent me an interesting list. It ranged from Mark Konkol's trailblazing coverage of the Jackie Robinson West Little League scandal to Tanveer Ali's imaginative data-visualization projects—such as this one that lets readers draw their own Chicago neighborhood maps. I had to wait a couple of days for this list—when I asked for it last Thursday, Toomey and his staff were tied up trying to cover the sextuple murder in Gage Park. So I watched DNAinfo, the Sun-Times, and the Tribune battle it out online. Toomey's reporters held their own.

My wife and I came out of our CVS a few weeks ago to a spectacle of flashing red lights and converging squadrols as bystanders gathered and gaped. We saw police stand up a young man in cuffs outside the apartment building across the street, and march a young women in cuffs to a police vehicle. Someone said shots had been fired inside the building—in fact, someone inside the building was now dead.

The dailies carried sketchy information. The most complete account I saw showed up a few days later in North Center News, DNAinfo's monthly print edition for our part of town. Apparently a party had "morphed into a drug deal gone wrong," said the paper, though who opened fire and why went unexplained. A later DNAinfo story said 25-year-old Pablo Ulloa of the 4700 block of North Whipple had been shot in self-defense and no charges had been filed.

This was pedestrian police-blotter journalism, but it was something—when a corner goes up for grabs a few blocks from home, it's nice to have some idea what happened. If Joe Ricketts's idea was to find a market by hiring professionals to break a few big stories and cover the smaller ones down the street, it looks like he has.

Like his father and brother, Tom Ricketts has a knack for pissing off people: to get his way at Wrigley Field, he's fought with neighbors, raised intrusive signs, closed off streets, and demanded public money. He's also preached the heretical notion that waiting for next year is magical thinking: the Cubs needed to hit rock bottom and then rebuild, and it could take years. But now the 2016 Cubs are favored to win the NL Central championship. The Tribune Company owned the Cubs from 1981 to 2009. When the company declared bankruptcy, its new owner, Sam Zell, sold the team to the Ricketts family. At this point I doubt that anyone disagrees that the Rickettses have run the Cubs a hell of a lot better than the Tribune Company did.

Now it's our state that's hitting rock bottom, and maybe the Ricketts could run that better too. If Tom Ricketts wins a couple of pennants this year and next, and then runs for governor as a well-intentioned alien, he could be hard to beat. One problem with our state that's become obvious to everyone is that it's in the hands of people who learned their politics in Illinois.


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