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Blagojevich universal preschool program sparks criticism from Brady, Eisendrath, Gidwitz, and Topinka - Anna Johnsonhttp://www.belleville.com/mld/belleville/news/politics/13856841.htm
CHICAGO - Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled his proposal Sunday to allow all 3- and 4-year-olds in Illinois to enroll in state-funded preschools, sparking criticism from political rivals who said the state lacks the money to fund such a venture.
"We all love kids, and we'd all love this to occur, but only if we could afford it," said state Treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka.
The Democratic governor proposed his "Preschool for All" program Sunday as part of his 2007 fiscal year budget, recommending that the state spend $135 million to fund it.
"Nothing is more important to parents than their children," Blagojevich said in a written statement. "And nothing is more important to a child's future than getting a good education. And that's where preschool comes in."
If the General Assembly approves the universal preschool program, Illinois would be the first state to offer free preschool to 3-year-olds, Blagojevich's office said. Three other states already have similar programs for 4-year-olds: Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida.
Blagojevich is proposing that the state spend $45 million annually for three years to fund the program.
But Topinka, several other Republican gubernatorial candidates and Blagojevich's Democratic opponent in the March primary, Edwin Eisendrath, criticized the preschool plan, calling it just one of many programs the governor has unveiled recently without having the money to pay for them.
"I've been in favor of universal pre-kindergarten programs for years, but programs and promises are not the same thing," Eisendrath said in a written statement.
Republican Chicago businessman Ron Gidwitz called the proposal a gimmick.
"He has neglected that problems facing our schools for three years and now on the cusp of a re-election, this is a last-ditch, desperate effort to correct his mistakes," said Gidwitz, a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.
State Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican gubernatorial candidate from Bloomington, said school districts should not be mandated on how to spend their money on certain programs.
"If we had the resources, however they are obtained, we should give the resources to schools with no strings attached so they can decide how to spend it," Brady said.
A Blagojevich spokeswoman defended the preschool proposal, saying the governor has worked on improving early childhood education for years.
The state has reduced spending by eliminating jobs and consolidating agencies, increasing revenues and continuing to look at closing corporate loopholes as ways to generate more money, spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said.
"This is something we cannot afford not to do," she said.
The universal preschool plan is one of several initiatives geared toward children that the governor has unveiled in recent months.
Earlier this month, Blagojevich announced a $10 million program that would help bring class sizes down. During his State of State speech in January, the governor proposed a tax credit of up to $1,000 for college students that would cost the state $90 million a year.
Blagojevich's All Kids program, which is designed to cover any child who has been uninsured for at least a year, was approved by lawmakers in October and will take effect July 1. The governor has estimated the program will cost $45 million the first year.
And now the Democratic governor's administration has put them on the payroll as state interns - positions that get them in the door for permanent jobs without following typical hiring procedures, including veterans preference laws.
Agencies under Blagojevich have hired 263 "public administration interns" since taking office. At least one-third have helped Democratic candidates, donated to their campaigns or are related to someone who has, an Associated Press analysis of public records found.
The AP review, which included thousands of campaign documents, addresses and state employment records since 2000, suggests future interns or their relatives contributed at least $1.3 million to Democrats, including more than $400,000 to Blagojevich.
Many of the internships are far from entry-level jobs.
One intern was the $54,000-a-year head of an agency's human resources office. Another was an agency's legislative liaison - the same work he had done as a permanent employee for another department. Two dozen interns had been on the state payroll before.
Interns with political connections also were more likely to win permanent jobs and to get raises. Sixty-five percent of interns with identifiable connections were promoted to permanent state jobs, compared with 41 percent of the others.
The interns include:
_Barisa Meckler, who volunteered for Blagojevich when he was in Congress and whose father's law firm has given Blagojevich $98,000.
_Steve Hayden, husband of a high-level Blagojevich aide.
_Brock and Aaron Phelps, relatives of a Democratic state lawmaker and a former congressman who now works for Blagojevich.
Although it wouldn't be unusual in Illinois for a new administration to reward political activists with jobs, Blagojevich took office in 2003 promising to clean up what he described as previous governors' corrupt, patronage-heavy hiring.
But he too is battling accusations of "pay-to-play" politics from critics in both parties, and state and federal investigators are reviewing his administration's employment practices.
Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said politics is "not a factor" in hiring interns, pointing out that the AP found no connections to two-thirds of the interns hired. She also noted that Blagojevich has hired fewer interns than Republican governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan did.
"Agencies are supposed to look at education and relevant work history and look at that in light of what the particular need of the agency is," Ottenhoff said.
Public administration internships, which can last six months to two years, were designed to bring bright people who lack experience into technical and managerial state jobs. Interns make less money than other state employees, but after the internship they often are promoted to full administrative positions - with raises.
And the administration may hire them without having to follow laws giving military veterans preference for state jobs or for ensuring an agency has enough minorities.
Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Steeleville, acknowledges helping his 23-year-old son, Nicholas, get an internship.
Reitz said the administration called him for recommendations when they were hiring legislative liaisons, and he suggested his son, who had volunteered for Blagojevich in college. Nicholas Reitz is a $40,000 intern for the Agriculture Department.
Some interns didn't need family connections - they had their own.
The Chicago law firm of Bruce Meckler, who is representing Blagojevich in the state attorney general's investigation into allegations that he has traded jobs for contributions, has given the governor's campaign more than $98,000.
But Meckler said that had nothing to do with his 22-year-old daughter getting a $24,000 internship with the Department of Healthcare and Family Services in April. That's because Barisa Meckler, who didn't return calls seeking comment, volunteered in Blagojevich's Washington office while he was in Congress.
"She actually worked for him before I ever gave anything to the man," Bruce Meckler said.
State Rep. Brandon Phelps said his brother, Brock, and cousin, Aaron Phelps, didn't need his help. He said they had worked for many Democratic candidates over the years, including their uncle, former congressman David Phelps, now assistant state secretary of transportation.
"They were always doing campaign work, political work, community work, and they're pretty well known," said Brandon Phelps, D-Norris City.
Aaron Phelps, 32, a $50,800 administrator for the Human Services Department, declined to comment. Thirty-one-year-old Brock Phelps, the Transportation Department's director of governmental affairs at $64,280, did not return a message left on his cell phone.
Some of the interns were already familiar faces at state agencies.
Reitz was a permanent legislative liaison - essentially an agency's lobbyist - for the State Fire Marshal when he moved to the same position as an intern at the Agriculture Department. Officials at the bigger agency wanted to make sure Reitz was the "right fit," spokeswoman Chris Herbert said.
Kevin Tirey of Springfield, 32, has been a state employee since 1998. He was special assistant to the director of the Capital Development Board when the Environmental Protection Agency tapped him to be the agency's $54,000 human resources manager - as an intern, spokeswoman Maggie Carson said.
While Blagojevich's office maintains that connections don't matter, some of the governor's closest advisers helped relatives get internships.
The governor's legislative director, Joe Handley, passed along the resume of cousin Dennis Ralph, Ottenhoff said. Ralph, 33, was hired as a Natural Resources Department intern in June 2003 and since has been promoted and given a 28 percent raise to $55,000.
Jill Hayden, a Blagojevich aide who oversees environmental issues and the office of boards and commissions, brought 31-year-old husband Steve's resume to the administration before he was hired at Central Management Services, Ottenhoff said.
She dismissed the significance of the personal connections, saying both Ralph and Hayden are qualified.
"Does the fact that Jill knew her husband had a certain background and forwarded his resume give him any favoritism? No," Ottenhoff said. "The agency has to look at what their needs are and what this particular individual has to offer."
Topinka is the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Libri said other candidates for governor have been invited and can work the crowd, but they won't have speaking parts.
"We're not necessarily against them," Libri said. "We're just for her."
All Christine Radogno wanted was to prevent a fire station from opening on her quiet residential street. The next thing she knew, 25 years had passed and she's a state senator wading through the details of health care and budget deficits.
The Lemont Republican sounds like an innocent bystander caught up by circumstances when she describes her political career. "I still am surprised I'm here," she says. "It's not something I ever thought I would be doing."
But she has blended brains, legislative skill and PR abilities to become, in essence, the Senate Republicans' voice on budget issues and a potential candidate for higher office.
"She is a great person. I think Chris is exactly the kind of leadership that not just the Republican Party but the entire General Assembly should be excited about," says Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin, who has been the Senate GOP's chief budget negotiator for a decade. "I find myself learning from Chris because she has such a fresh perspective."
Radogno got into politics when she ran for the La Grange Village Board to fight the fire station. She says, "It was a total [not in my back yard] thing."
A few years later, she was asked to run for the Illinois House. She declined because of her young children, but she says the offer got her thinking. Those thoughts turned to action later when she grew dissatisfied with the performance of state Sen. Robert Raica, a Chicago Republican. She beat him in the 1996 primary and then won the general election.
Since then, she has tackled a wide range of issues, from local (road projects and troublesome landfills) to statewide (requiring hospitals to offer emergency contraception to rape victims).
Trained as a social worker, Radogno took an interest in health and human services. She has pushed to move the state toward community care of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, rather than institutionalization. She has advocated managed care to control costs in state health programs.
Radogno says she soon realized that getting things done in Springfield would require getting to know the state budget.
"It quickly became apparent to me that most policy is driven by the budget, rather than the other way around," she says. "The fact of the matter is, there is just a certain amount of money to go around. The budgeting process is a lot of needs competing against each other."
When the Senate's Republican leader, Frank Watson of Greenville, wanted someone to join Rauschenberger in handling the budget, he turned to Radogno.
"They made a good selection when they chose Chris Radogno," says Sen. Donne Trotter, who oversees budget matters in the Senate Democratic caucus. "She knows how to discuss things; she does not have tunnel vision."
"She's not a push-over," he adds, noting that Radogno defeated fellow Republican Sen. William Mahar in 2002 after the two were placed in the same district by legislative redistricting.
Radogno threw herself into learning the budget. Radogno and Rauschenberger jointly represented the caucus in negotiations. When Rauschenberger ran for the U.S. Senate two years ago, he ceded to Radogno most of the public duties of arguing the caucus' positions. She stepped forward to speak to editorial boards and present proposals at news conferences.
She has often found herself arguing against new programs — the governor's All Kids health insurance plan, for instance, or a requirement that schools and gyms buy life-saving portable defibrillators.
Rauschenberger says she has been able to do that without perpetuating stereotypes of hard-hearted Republicans, and Trotter agrees. He praises Radogno for understanding the state's obligations to the needy and helping push other Republicans to meet those obligations.
"She's been a very strong voice," Trotter says. "Chris believes in building partnerships."
Radogno says she also has been able to speak out against Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich without alienating Senate Democrats. In part, that's because she avoids making issues personal. And in part, she says, that's because many Senate Democrats share her concerns about the Blagojevich Administration.
Radogno supports abortion rights but backs some restrictions, such as parental notification. She tends to oppose gun control measures. Her mix of personality and political views has made her a potential candidate for higher office.
She opted against a run for lieutenant governor, but after Judy Baar Topinka announced plans to seek the governor's office, Radogno decided to run for treasurer, the office Topinka has held for the last decade.
By the way, the fire station that Radogno wanted to keep off her street? It was never built.
Gidwitz says he’ll clean up corruption - John Patterson
SPRINGFIELD — One day in the early 1970s, Ron Gidwitz saw Christina Kemper’s picture gracing the cover of a magazine and set out to meet the young, attractive model.
It took him nearly a year to get a first date.
“She was a real struggle to get to take out. She was a very reticent date. I had to court her and she was mean to me for the better part of those two years before we got married,” said Gidwitz, who last fall celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary with Kemper.
His romantic tale of youthful longing has parallels to his current political quest for governor, one in which the wealthy, but untested Gidwitz is trying to woo moderate Republicans and capture the party nomination.
But this time around he’s running short on time, trailing in the polls with only weeks left before the March 21 vote.
Gidwitz believes voters will come around soon and choose him over Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, the current front-runner and his chief rival for moderate votes.
Gidwitz supports abortion rights and civil unions for gays and lesbians. The crux of his economic plan is offering tax credits to companies that create new jobs. The former head of the state’s education board opposes raising taxes to boost school funding, instead saying he’d make education the top budget priority.
The other major Republican candidates are Bloomington state Sen. Bill Brady and Sugar Grove dairy mogul Jim Oberweis, both of whom have focused on conservatives.
“I think there will be a confluence of events when people understand just exactly what Judy (Baar Topinka) represents, which unfortunately is the politics of the past and the present, this culture of corruption which seems to pervade our landscape today,” Gidwitz said.
“Juxtaposed to me who comes with clean hands, having never accepted campaign contributions and having had to make compromises as a result, and frankly not needing the money in the first place.”
Gidwitz is a member of the family that founded beauty supply giant Helene Curtis. He was chief executive when the company sold for more than $700 million cash. It’s enabled him to commit vast personal resources to his interests, and in this case, his campaign.
Recent finance reports show he raised more money in the last half of 2005 than any of the other four major Republican candidates. Of the $2.5 million raised, however, $1.5 million was his own money and another $236,000 came from his family. He spent $3.2 million, mostly on TV ads, during the same time period and had nearly $2 million left over to start the year.
Gidwitz said his personal wealth allows him to avoid ethical dilemmas and campaign contribution scandals that have haunted the Republican Party and Illinois politics in general.
“My candidacy ought to give a whole lot of people comfort that the kinds of things you read about every day are not going to be problems,” Gidwitz said. “Because we don’t have to do that kind of stuff.”
But his wealth and family assets also carry potential political problems.
He’s part of a management firm that oversees a Joliet housing project that officials there describe as a cesspool of gangs and drug dealing that needs to be demolished.
Joliet officials are seeking to condemn the complex, but Gidwitz claims their actions are socially intolerant and criticisms are politically motivated.
“The situation in Joliet, quite frankly, is one where the city does not want to have these residents within their boundaries, and they’re playing politics with the fact that I have decided to run for governor,” he said.
Gidwitz said Joliet officials want to knock down Evergreen Terrace, disperse the residents and build a park on the site and he has no plans to abandon the complex.
“Quite frankly, these residents need a place to live,” Gidwitz said.
Joliet officials bristled when told of his comments.
“This is such nonsense. … Evergreen Terrace is the center for drug dealing and other illegal activity in our community. It’s a very foul place,” said deputy city manager Jim Shapard.
Shapard said the city has set aside money to purchase the complex and to ensure everyone living there is moved to suitable housing in and around Joliet.
And Gidwitz’s money raises other political issues.
He’s a prolific fundraiser, primarily for Republicans, including former Gov. George Ryan, who’s now on trial facing myriad federal corruption charges. Gidwitz became chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education during Ryan’s tenure, but now says Ryan was a disappointment.
Gidwitz’s long history of campaign activity — in 1972 he was the Chicago executive director of President Nixon’s Campaign to Re-elect the President — may explain recent alterations at his River North campaign headquarters. A cardboard sign taped to a wall carried three campaign catchphrases: “Outsider. Independent leadership. Clean up the status quo.”
“Outsider” has been scratched out.
Gidwitz maintains that recent gains in the polls show it isn’t “unreasonable I can win,” even if there’s some lingering reluctance at home.
He said his wife is helping with the campaign, “but in her heart of hearts, my guess is there’s something that she’d rather be doing.
“I happen to think this is terribly important. This is not a job for me. I don’t need it,” he said. “This is something that needs to be fixed in this state and quite frankly I don’t see anybody (else) who has the capacity to do it.”
To a chorus of "We love you, Ann", she launched into her trademark outrageous one-liners, denouncing moderate Republicans as "rats" and "Washington weenies". Libertarian Republicans fared little better. "If you are going to be a conservative in America, you can't be a pussy." Asked to describe her most difficult ethical dilemma, she gave a loud sigh. "There was one time I had a shot at [President Bill] Clinton."
Warning of the danger of Iran having nuclear weapons, she suggested: "Post-9/11 our philosophy should be: Raghead talks tough? Raghead faces consequences."
Her talk was the most enthusiastically received of the Conservative Political Action Conference. It was better attended than talks from Vice-President Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who sees himself as the intellectual leader of the movement, or Lt Colonel Oliver North, a regular on the conservative speaking circuit.
Even so, there was some criticism. Challenged on her anti-Muslim remarks by Akir Khan, a young activist, she added: "OK, I make a few jokes. They killed 3,000 Americans." Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, called her remarks "completely inappropriate and destructive. Ann should have known better."
Ms Coulter's positive reception was a reflection of the audience. Unlike the snowy-haired veterans at many European conservative party conferences, the CPAC crowd gets younger every year. About two-thirds were students. "It's not just that we are winning. We have all the pretty girls on our side," said Ms Coulter, as she surveyed the room.
"I cannot remember there being as many young kids as today," said Saul Anuzis, the chairman of the Michigan Republican party. "What draws them is the hardest conservative. For Coulter it was standing-room only. She threw out a lot of red meat and gets the kids fired up."
CPAC offers a chance to learn from other student activists and attend workshops. Aspiring young politicians come to network and practise their two-handed handshakes. Potential presidential candidates come to cultivate their bases. Ahead of Mr Gingrich's speech volunteers sported badges that changed every few hours, charting the countdown to the speech.
Enthusiasts could also stock up on mementoes, from "Condi for 2008" badges, anti-Hillary Clinton bumper stickers and polyester ties for $6. Raffle prizes included Oliver North memorabilia, five coupons for "star-spangled banner ice cream", a midweek stay at Foxwoods Resort Casino, and Adam Smith cufflinks.
The event is the visible manifestation of big-tent conservatism. Libertarian conservatives clashed with social conservatives, business conservatives with anti-immigration speakers. Debates ranged from regime change in Iran, gun rights, United Nations-bashing, tax reform to drugs legalisation. A crowd-pleaser was anti-French jokes, with Mr Gingrich dismissing the word détente as a "fancy French word".
The age of those attending the three-day event was a testament to the vibrancy of conservatism: it is seen as cool. But older conservatives struck a gloomier note about the movement being at a crossroads. Recalling the change since his first CPAC in 1979, Mr Anuzis said: "Today we are contemplating what is our future. Before we were the hungry underdog. Today we are part of the establishment. There is some frustration about what should we have done."
Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Eagle Forum, said: "There is considerable concern about the trends in the Bush administration. The hottest issue is illegal aliens and at least 90 per cent [at the conference] are against his amnesty programme. And there are concerns at the large amount of money he is spending. It is not conservative."
A conference straw poll gave Mr Bush 92 per cent approval ratings for his nominees to the Supreme Court, and 91 per cent for the war on terror, but he failed to muster a majority on immigration and government spending. "These are numbers the White House should take notice of when they are looking at the conservative base," said Tony Fabrizio, who conducted the poll.
For Ms Schlafly, her biggest concern is the lack of a candidate to replace Mr Bush. "Everyone is looking for Ronald Reagan to reappear." Asked who would be the Republican nominee, the straw poll gave no one a strong lead. Senator George Allen secured 22 per cent of the vote and Senator John McCain 20 per cent.
Mr Norquist, however, said the movement's problem was not lack of energy but votes in Congress. "It's the frustration of little kids that know what they want to do but don't have the motor control to make it happen. We want to privatise social security, have flat income tax, but we don't have the votes in Congress. We have still got two Supreme Court justices. How much whining can you do? We are advancing more slowly than we would like. But I remember when we were losing."
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