News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Education group allied with Rahm is really good at campaign propaganda

Closing mental health clinics was the mayor's idea—but that doesn't stop his supporters from blaming an independent alderman.



As the campaigns make their final appeals, I've been trying to decide which of Mayor Emanuel's commercials and mailings is the most misleading piece of propaganda of the city election season.

But after weighing the evidence, I have to concede that the mayor is not even in the running for this august honor.

Instead, let's give a shout-out to Democrats for Education Reform, aka DFER, a pro-charter schools, anti-teachers' union outfit that might as well be considered part of the mayor's campaign. It's been waving the flag on his behalf since the 2012 teachers' strike.

The group's first misleading mailer this year was a flyer attacking Alderman Toni Foulkes, who's running in the 16th Ward. Foulkes currently represents the 15th Ward, but she's on the ballot in the 16th after Emanuel and his allies mapped her out of her old ward largely because she's a member of the progressive caucus.

The caucus is that band of eight aldermen—including Scott Waguespack (32nd) and John Arena (45th)—who occasionally vote against some of the mayor's more repellent legislation. But eight aldermen are not enough to block mayoral initiatives, no matter how unsavory they may be.

You might think that our mayor would be a little more tolerant of aldermanic dissent, since he controls a commanding majority in the council. But that's not our mayor.

Earlier this month DFER mailed a flyer that praised JoAnn Thompson—the incumbent 16th Ward alderman who recently died—while bashing Foulkes: "When JoAnn Thompson voted to bring more early childhood education to Englewood that doesn't cost taxpayers anything, Toni Foulkes voted no. . . .  Foulkes stood with the special interests that would have left thousands of Chicago children without the education they deserve."

OK, one more time: nothing is free, especially good preschool programs. In this case, the mayor chose to pay for the expansion of an existing pre-K program for poor children by borrowing money instead of taking it right from the school budget.

As a result taxpayers will be on the hook for as much as $4 million a year in interest to some of the country's wealthiest bankers. So it's obviously inaccurate to say that the program "doesn't cost taxpayers anything."

As bad as that is, it's probably not even the worst part of the mayor's preschool deal. In order to get their money, the bankers have to prove that the students in their pre-K program outscore kids who are not included. In other words, for 2,600 or so poor kids to get preschool, the city must guarantee that around the same number of kids don't get it.

Otherwise the bankers don't get their money.

This is the ordinance that Foulkes and four other members of the progressive caucus voted against in the futile hopes of pressuring the mayor into spending school money on kids, not bankers.

That'll teach Foulkes—and any other alderman who's paying attention—to stand up to the mayor.

But that mailer isn't even DFER's finest piece of propaganda this election cycle. Even more impressive was its hit piece attacking Alderman Arena.

"Arena voted to close half of Chicago's mental health clinics, leaving our most vulnerable residents without care," the 45th Ward flyer says. "Thanks to John Arena, patients now have longer waits, unfamiliar doctors and are at risk of slipping through the cracks, ending up on the streets—or worse."

Just so you know—and I think you already do—it was the mayor, not Alderman Arena, who moved to shutter those clinics.

Emanuel included the closures in his first budget, which the aldermen passed unanimously—meaning that everyone voted for it. That included progressives like Foulkes and Arena as well as Emanuel allies such as John Pope (Tenth), Howard Brookins Jr. (21st), Emma Mitts (37th), and of course Patrick O'Connor (40th), the mayor's floor leader. DFER has endorsed all of these loyalists.

Some progressives also voted for that budget because the mayor was then working with his allies to redraw the city's ward maps. They knew he could draw them out of their old wards with a swipe of the pen. As he ended up doing with Foulkes anyway.

The clinic closings ignited months of protests, which the mayor's police department infiltrated with undercover cops. So there was money to spy on the mental health activists but no money for the mental health patients.

It's one more reason to vote for anyone but Mayor Rahm in this round.

The bottom line is that Arena is way low on the list of people to blame for the travesty with the mental health clinics. If DFER really wanted to champion the cause of poor mental health patients, it would send out a flyer ripping the mayor. After all, it was his idea to close those clinics.

In fact, I put this idea to Owen Kilmer, DFER's spokesman. I believe his response was along the lines of "Kiss my  . . . "

Let's just say my interview with Kilmer, an old pal, quickly descended into a shouting match. Don't you just hate when that happens?

He said DFER has dropped its campaign against Foulkes since Thompson's death. But Arena remains in its sights.

"Our focus is to unseat Arena, who has to be one of the most anti-education reform alderman in the City Council," Kilmer said. "We'll use every issue at our disposal."

I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on this point. I don't think DFER is going after Arena because he's any "worse" than any other progressive alderman on charter schools or teacher accountability or whatever rocks your boat. Most progressive aldermen see eye to eye on these things.

I say DFER is targeting Arena because it thinks he can be ousted—just as it thought Foulkes was vulnerable when Thompson was still alive.

By beating Arena the organization would send a message to other aldermen who might dare to oppose the mayor on issues such as charter schools.

Punish your enemies, reward your friends, and don't pick fights you can't win. So it goes in Chicago.

Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the spelling of JoAnn Thompson's name.

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