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Little magazine, big game: Illinois Politics makes its mark



Just three months ago, Bob Kustra seemed a shoo-in for the U.S. Senate. Paul Simon was stepping down, and Democrats, divided as always, couldn't settle on one candidate to replace him. Meanwhile, Kustra had positioned himself as a no-to-taxes conservative and was running unopposed in the Republican primary.

But in June an obscure monthly magazine called Illinois Politics, having dug through the lieutenant governor's political past, revealed the secret he wanted concealed: as state senators from 1983 through 1990, Kustra and Dawn Clark Netsch had almost identical voting records on taxes and spending.

"This record on fiscal policy represents a significant contrast and contradiction from the 1994 [guber- natorial] campaign, when Mr. Kustra attacked Ms. Netsch for "excessive liberalism,"' began the article, headlined "The Senate's Tax and Spend Coalition."

Within days, true believers were in open revolt. They had never entirely trusted Kustra, viewing him as the sort of mushy moderate who only sings the conservative song come election time. By July, state representative Al Salvi, conservative in tooth and claw, had announced, and suddenly it wasn't certain Kustra could win the Republican nomination, much less Simon's Senate seat. "That article was a major factor in getting me into the race," says Salvi, whose district is in Lake County. "Until I read that article I didn't know what a big spender Kustra really was. Now the whole state will know."

Chalk up another victory for Illinois Politics, a publication solely dedicated to exposing the fraud, hypocrisy, and deceit of our elected officials, some of whom despise it. Kustra's chief spokesman Chris Allen calls it a "rag," adding that "if Salvi loves it, all I can say is, "Wait till they get him."'

All of which is sweet music to Victor Crown and Karen Nagel, the magazine's 30-something founders--a sign that their tiny operation, produced on a computer in the cluttered kitchen of Crown's northwest-side house, has emerged as a significant force in state politics. "They can't dispute our facts," says Crown. "They can only try to put on a spin."

The two-person operation has become nearly all-consuming for Nagel and Crown, who have 24 blank pages to fill each month on top of promotion and subscription duties (a subscription is $35 a year; to order call 312-283-7880). Circulation's around 1,000; the impact's wider. "Insiders know who they are," says Pete Giangreco, a political strategist who ran Netsch's 1994 gubernatorial campaign. "They're tough. They ask the toughest questions you'll get at a press conference."

Most of the writing and editing is done by Nagel; Crown does the muckracking--digging through financial statements, voting records, legislative reports, and other dusty receptacles of political minutiae. Around deadline time they resemble the battling Bickersons, yelling and screaming over leads and headlines. "One of our strengths is that we're different," says Nagel.

Nagel, a lawyer, was raised in Park Ridge as a liberal Democrat among Republicans. These days she calls herself an independent, though she has several strong causes, animal rights among them. "I like to think there's more to me than politics," says Nagel. "I love poetry; I love basketball. People want a label to figure you out, but they still haven't labeled me."

Crown, on the other hand, openly admits that politics consumes his life. He greedily devours five newspapers a day as well as dozens of magazines, journals, and obscure state, federal, and local legislative reports. For his story on Kustra's voting record he spent three months in the Cook County law library sifting through the state's Senate Journal of Proceedings. It was in the federal Report of the Secretary of the Senate and Report of the Clerk of the House that Crown found the data enabling him to write in October 1993 that Senator Carol Moseley-Braun was "paying female legislative aides 64 cents to every dollar the males earn." After that article, Braun's female staffers got a raise, Crown says.

"The funny thing is I got into politics kind of late in life, around the time Harold Washington was running for mayor," says Crown. "As a kid at Luther North [High School] I wouldn't know who my alderman was. But once I got into politics I got into it big."

After graduating from Loyola University, Crown freelanced for various publications while developing a reputation as a redistricting mapmaker. "We're all a bunch of geeks who are doing this--there's only about four or five in the state who know how it's done," he says. "Basically, you take census tracts and place them on top of precincts and then move things around. It can get nasty. Politicians always want to draw the line so their opponents are in another district."

Most of his mapmaking business came from state Republicans seeking to maximize GOP gains by concentrating blacks and Hispanics in a handful of ghettolike districts. "Sometimes politicians came to me on their own, wanting their own little map that they can take around to the big guys who were drawing the real thing," says Crown. "Mel Reynolds, long before he was elected, came to my apartment and asked me to draw a map."

By 1991 he and Nagel had saved enough money to launch the magazine. Their first issue came out in February 1992; within months they had savaged Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps their most incisive report was the devilishly on-target expose of what they called a "political one-night stand" between opportunistic black Democrats and hypocritical white Republicans. "The "unholy alliance' helped change the makeup of nine states, tilting several to GOP control for the first time this century," read the article, which, ironically, revealed some of the same tricks of the remapping trade Crown had practiced for the Republicans. "Rural minority districts often stretched across several counties, reaching into minority portions of small towns. Urban minority districts used community areas, often connecting disparate pockets of African American and Hispanic voters. The final result produced unsightly districts that often segregated most of the minority voters into a handful of districts. . . . By splitting off reliably Democratic voters into gerrymandered districts, Republicans were able to finally take advantage of the geographic change to win control of Congress [and] are now in the strange position of defending "affirmative action' as it applies to political mapmaking. Indeed, some of the Republicans who have launched the strongest attack on affirmative action as it relates to hiring, promotions, and dispensing federal aid are the same individuals who owe their political career to a minority set-aside."

If the magazine has a fault it's that it sometimes gets too clever with statistics. For instance, Crown and Nagel have concocted a bill-to-passage ratio, ranking legislators by their ability to propose bills that get signed into law. But what's so bad about a low average if it means going against the flow? A low average would be a badge of courage for a civil rights proponent in the Jim Crow south. There's no virtue in being a tyrant's legislative floor leader.

"They have an attitude about making public officials accountable," says Giangreco. "They do their own research, and when they come up with something they don't allow themselves to be influenced by the subject of the story. For better or worse, they pride themselves on not being spun."

Unlike most politicians, they substantiate their claims. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Kustra article, which offers a detailed account of practically every state tax increase from 1983 to 1991. Along the way they expose the folly of the notion, propagated by the '94 Edgar-Kustra campaign, that state government runs on nothing. "I guess the bottom line is that I think there would be more to criticize if revenues escalated during the 1980s to pay for a lot of these things," Kustra told the magazine in defense of his voting record. "The fact is the state income tax remains one of the lowest in the country."

Rank-and-file Republicans may not be satisfied with such answers. "The article blew Kustra's cover and now he's in trouble," says Salvi. "If you're liberal on social issues, like he is, you have to claim to be conservative on economic issues. But if you're liberal on social and economic issues, you're doomed in a Republican primary."

Allen says it's unfair and inaccurate to judge Kustra by his voting records on spending bills. "These are bills that had come through committees and through conference," says Allen. "You have no record of what was said during debate or conference reports."

But as Crown notes, these are the very votes Kustra and Edgar used to disparage Netsch in a series of vituperative campaign commercials. "I didn't see them "explaining' about conference reports and committees when they were ripping Netsch," says Crown. "In fact, when we wrote an article revealing how Netsch's income tax policies had no backing among Democrats, Kustra praised us. The thing about politicians is they only like the truth when it's applied to the opposition."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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