Billionaire Intrigue, Political Deception and the Fight for the Soul of the Chicago Public Schools

Nearly one month ago, Joe Ricketts, patriarch of the Ricketts billionaire clan, pledged $10 million to an anti-Obama attack campaign focused on the president’s relationship with radical Chicago preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The revelation exposed a dark undercurrent anchoring the wealth of the Chicago Cubs’ new ownership. Tom Ricketts, son of Joe the patriarch and the day to day face of the Cubs organization, has fostered an image as a prominent democratic operative. The image is designed to help the family lobby city Democrats like the Mayor and Alderman Tom Tunney, to increase their profit margins and freeze out competitors on nearby roof-tops and product peddlers in the famous Wrigleyville neighborhood.

The activities of right wing extremists with lots of money, in Obama’s home-town, were not lost on the Democratic Mayor of Chicago. Emanuel blasted the move as antithetical to the interests of an overwhelmingly blue electorate. The Mayor continues to use the incident to increase his bargaining leverage over the Ricketts family regarding the amount of tax-payer subsidies the Cubs will ultimately receive. The incident was no anomaly, but a symptom of a larger development in national and local politics where very wealthy and predominantly Republican interests create a façade of liberalism and progressive values to manipulate constituencies that otherwise would reject their efforts outright as diametrically opposed to their political desires.

In the March elections for the Illinois state House of Representatives a precursor to the Ricketts’ controversy was playing out on the West-side of Chicago. Crest-fallen representative Derrick Smith was campaigning against his, supposedly Democratic, challenger Tom Swiss. Despite Smith’s natural advantages as an incumbent and hand-picked choice of Chicago king-maker, Secretary of State Jesse White, Smith was worried about an advertising blitz by his upstart opponent. Swiss was in reality a Republican candidate who had switched parties in order to show that it was possible to upend a seemingly invulnerable democratic politician in a democratic district through campaign deception and manipulation. The central idea of the Swiss campaign was that a predominantly low income and African American voter base (which some pundits labeled as an “extremely low information” voting block) could be convinced to vote against their own interests. For example, Swiss blanketed the West side with advertisements and huge billboards promoting his candidacy, not with a picture of himself, an older white male, but a photo of a black construction worker with a hard hat saying “Jobs Now.” Despite a scandal that showed Smith accepting illegal campaign contributions from undercover agents, he ran away with the election largely because his constituents recognized Swiss’ deceptive and cynical tactics.

The intrigue doesn’t end there, as the battle for the soul of public education unfolds in Chicago between the Mayor and the Chicago Teachers Union, a litany of outside, well-heeled education “reform” organizations have parachuted into town in an effort to tip the balance of the debate. One of the most prominent of the “reform” groups is Stand for Children, based out of Oregon, that sponsored legislation known as SB7. The legislation requires 75% of the union’s membership to authorize a strike, the highest threshold for any union in the country and way beyond the number of votes any politician needs in order to get elected. While Stand claims to support policies that help students learn, they have consistently refused to lobby for smaller class sizes, a Better School Day with art, music, etc., or dramatic increases in school funding in Illinois. However, they have supported the school district in its confrontation with the union. They have also dedicated their time to opining about labor management relations, constantly pushing for the CTU to be “reasonable” and “get back to the table” even though the CTU has never left the table. Prior to the CTU strike authorization vote on June 6th, 2012, Stand ‘s Chicago Director, Juan Jose Gonzalez, claimed that the CTU was distorting CPS contract proposals with our members even though Stand had never been part of any of the CTU/CPS negotiations and does not have access to either side’s official bargaining positions (unless CPS is leaking to them confidential bargaining information, which currently does not seem to be the case based on their one sided version of reality). Stand automatically, took the school Board’s side in the dispute. While Stand claims to represent parents and school communities throughout Chicago, despite only their very recent entry into the local scene, the predominantly Republican billionaires and millionaires who fund their operation is another version of the Ricketts Effect.

Stand for Children’s top donor, Ken Griffin, a Chicago based billionaire hedge fund operator, was recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune saying, “I think (the ultra-wealthy) actually have an insufficient influence [in our society and political system]” so much for representing the democratic will of the people. Stand also has accepted many donations from the primarily Republican Crown family, partial owners of the Maytag and the Hilton Hotel chain. Last, Penny Pritzker of the Hyatt Pritzker family, and a number of her siblings have donated heavily to Stand. Penny also has the distinction of being the first billionaire appointed to the Chicago Board of Education, making her support of Stand that much more troubling. We should hope that Mayor Emanuel appointed Penny to represent the interests of the 400,000 plus students in the Chicago Public Schools, not fly-by-night advocacy groups, funded by the wealthy, who are clamoring to weaken the voice of parents, teachers and their unions. Additionally, businessmen from Bain Capital, the vulture capital investment firm where Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made his millions, have made considerable contributions to Stand for Children.

Stand is not the only group in this category. There is also the Democrats For Education Reform, headed up by millionaire hedge fund operators and Steve Barr, the founder of the Green Dot Charter school franchise. DFER arrived on the scene in recent months, just in time to weigh in on the stand-off between the CTU and the school board, quite a coincidence. DFER also hides behind an advocacy agenda to put kids first, though their real objective is to further the spread of largely underperforming, budget-busting, unregulated and non-unionized charter schools at the expense of our current public system. Their arrival coincides with Mayor Emanuel’s vow to double the number of CPS charter schools, making them 20 percent of the system (they are currently at just above 10 percent). It appears that not only Republican financiers, Billionaire Democratic heiresses and charter school boosters are responsible for the proliferation of these fake proponents for Chicago families. The Democratic machine locally and nationally is lending their support to similar astro-turf efforts.

In the days preceding the CTU’s strike authorization vote, DFER sponsored a series of radio spots denouncing the vote as rushed and insensitive to parents, with two obviously African American moms blasting the union for its haste. It turns out that the radio spots were developed by none other than AKPD, a firm owned and operated by David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief political strategist.

Now that Chicagoans are gaining awareness about the wolves in sheep clothing in our midst and how Initiatives funded by the 1 percent are vying for our hearts and minds, the fight for our schools takes on a new light. The Chicago Teachers Union represents 30,000 educators who have lived and taught in Chicago for their professional lives and this year is the union’s 75th anniversary. It’s no wonder that Chicagoans by a two to one margin in a recent Tribune poll trust their teachers more than the Mayor’s Ed Reform pretenders, to improve our schools. Teachers have deeper roots in their communities and honestly represent their outrage at the district’s refusal to lower class size, respect experience in the classroom, provide art, music, P.E. and world language to our students and properly staff schools with social workers, nurses, counselors and school psychologists. It is a travesty that as our city continues to suffer from record levels of violence and homicide while the powers- that- be cut vital services for our children and their schools. The best reforms help to secure our future and stabilize the present. Will the real reformers please stand up!