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Election? What Election?

A few days before this week's elections the front page of the Tribune carried a vintage tale of clout and arrogance in the 25th Ward. It seems the city had quietly sold off the parking lot serving the Pilsen branch of the public library--a bank and a real estate firm needed the lot to nail down a multimillion-dollar contract with the federal government. The bank was a "regular campaign contributor" to Alderman Danny Solis, according to the February 20 story by Ray Gibson and Laurie Cohen, and Solis was Mayor Daley's number one Hispanic ally in the City Council. The real estate firm was owned in part by Solis's brother, while Victor Reyes, Daley's former chief lobbyist, belonged to the law firm representing the bank. The library patrons were nameless masses.

If these shenanigans made a voter's blood boil, what was the voter to do? The guy with name recognition challenging Solis this week was Ambrosio Medrano, who was the alderman until 1996--when he pleaded guilty to taking bribes and went to prison.

Hobson's choices such as the one between Solis and Medrano might help explain the Tribune's recent election coverage. There wasn't a lot of it. In the month preceding Tuesday's elections, I spotted only three articles focusing on the race in a specific ward. February 14 brought a piece on the 44th Ward race, a lively battle with two strong gay candidates in the field and a major local issue--Wrigley Field--close to the Tribune Company's heart. On February 20 there was a campaign story from the 3rd Ward, and last Sunday a report from the 47th.

To be fair, I'll add the February 12 story on the Hispanic Democratic Organization, active in several Latino wards, and the February 17 piece on ex-convicts such as Medrano running for the City Council. I'll also add a nice January 27 feature by Sabrina Miller on former mayor Eugene Sawyer's return to politics to help elect his nephew in the Third Ward. And I'll acknowledge that the Tribune editorial page devoted a full paragraph to every aldermanic race when it published its endorsements. We weren't left directionless in our ignorance.

Still, this doesn't add up to much. "Did we write something about all 50 wards? No," says metro editor Hanke Gratteau. "It's been our tradition to give some coverage to each of the wards, but this year we took a look at the races and decided to concentrate our efforts on bigger thematic stories like the HDO."

She runs her eye down the list. "In the Fourth Ward Preckwinkle has one opponent--nonviable. Hairston has three--nonviable. Beavers is unopposed. Stroger's a shoo-in. Balcer has no opposition. Olivo's unopposed. Burke's unopposed. In hindsight, the story we should have done is why all those folks ran unopposed. That sounds like a pretty good story."

There were others the Tribune didn't get to. The paper's editorial page said that Vilma Colom, the 35th Ward incumbent, "has done nothing to shake the notion that she is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mell organization." Her opponent, Rey Colon, whom the Tribune endorsed, was "brimming with fresh ideas."

What were they?

"I think Vilma Colom and Rey Colon was probably one we should have taken a look at," says Gratteau.

And what about Dick Mell in the 33rd Ward? He's the new governor's father-in-law, a big deal.

"Mell's political tactics, and some of the folks in his ward organization, have been questionable," said the Tribune, which endorsed him anyway.

What tactics?

The Sun-Times reported as a running story Mell's unsuccessful maneuvering to disqualify his opponent (so he could send more of his "folks" into the 35th Ward to help out Colom?). The Tribune ignored it.

Endorsing incumbent Thomas Allen in the 38th Ward, the Tribune commented, "He faces Chicago police officer Chester Hornowski, a perennial candidate who is being investigated by the police department on allegations that he tried to intimidate a challenger to Ald. Dick Mell. Hornowski allegedly parked his police vehicle outside candidate Deb Gordils' home, while he was on duty, and took pictures of her." Gary Washburn wrote a short piece on Hornowski back on January 4, but then the Tribune forgot about him. Abdon Pallasch cited Hornowski in a Sun-Times piece on the Mell-Gordils race a week before the election.

"If I could turn the clock back, would we have done things differently?" says Gratteau. "I think so. I prefer in a perfect world we do all of them [the ward races], and I'd prefer that voters have an actual choice in all of them."

She's pretty emphatic in defending the Tribune coverage as more comprehensive than I think it was, but she doesn't pretend that the fate of the city hung in the balance Tuesday. "As more and more of the council members become handpicked by Daley and are all but assured of election," she says, "what voice of opposition and independence is there anymore in the council?" She points out one emblematic story the Tribune didn't miss--Daley and Alderman Helen Shiller burying the hatchet and endorsing each other.

In 1989 the Tribune was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a long, complex series of articles that detailed "the self-interest and waste that plague Chicago's City Council"--to quote the Pulitzer citation. Two of the three reporters who wrote the series, Dean Baquet and William Gaines, have since left the newspaper. The third, Ann Marie Lipinski, is now its editor.

That was a different era. Chicago had just emerged from Council Wars, when the council was the battleground that determined who ran the city. Today it hardly matters on LaSalle Street which individuals show up there to form Mayor Daley's supine assembly. Even so, they are still powerful and important people out in the neighborhoods.

News Bites

Steve Neal's a political columnist at the Sun-Times. His pal Ed Kelly hates Eugene Schulter, alderman of the 47th Ward, who turned against his "mentor" a couple of years ago and tried to take away Kelly's committeeman position. Kelly survived, and now he wants to humiliate Schulter and drive him into political oblivion.

Neal writes a column lambasting Schulter. Kelly's candidate for alderman, Jack Lydon, gratefully appropriates it for a piece of campaign literature, the one that begins "Why is Alderman Eugene Schulter lying to the voters?"

It quotes from the column, which called Schulter "an ineffective hack who needs to fade away." But does Lydon give Neal credit for this lively invective? No. It credits the "Chicago Sun-Times."

So how does Neal feel? Proud to think of himself as the institutional voice of his newspaper (which endorsed Schulter)? Or pissed that the name of Steve Neal carries so little weight in the 47th Ward that it's deemed not worth mentioning?

At any rate, Kelly soon sets things right. On the final weekend of the campaign the "special" election edition of his "Fighting 47th Ward" floods the mailboxes. There it is on page one, under the banner headline "Neal Calls Incumbent 'Weasel of Ravenswood'" and Neal's own byline, the entire column. He's the man.

Last Friday Roger Ebert came down hard on the new Kevin Spacey flick, The Life of David Gale. He gave it not even a derisory half star but none at all. Ebert abhorred the movie. "The acting in 'The Life of David Gale' is splendidly done but serves a meretricious cause," he wrote. "This movie is about as corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and morally dishonest as it could possibly be without David Gale actually hiring himself out as a joker at the court of Saddam Hussein."

Don't you go to the movies hoping against hope that whatever you see will stir you emotionally? And how often does it happen? When do you ever walk out of a theater as passionately affected as Ebert was by The Life of David Gale? Isn't his violent, zero-star reaction almost as good as praise?

I E-mailed Ebert to ask what he intended.

"No movie can be merely 'bad' enough on my scale to get zero stars," he replied. "0.5 stars is as bad as it can get. Zero stars is a moral judgment."

And the verdict "Morally outrageous" has filled many a theater.

Think of the poor publicist for The Life of David Gale. How does he deal with Roger Ebert's zero-star review?

There are always ways. Here's one. He could alertly note that David Gale received three stars in the three-paragraph critique by someone named Josh Larsen in Red Streak, the tabloid that identifies itself as "an edition of the Chicago Sun-Times." Making the following totally legitimate:

"Splendidly done" --Roger Ebert

*** --Chicago Sun-Times

The Tribune made an interesting choice last Sunday, leading its Perspective section with a piece by David Axelrod that offered "10 arguments for why Daley has earned another term." The Tribune identified Axelrod as a "Democratic political consultant." It didn't identify him as a consultant enriched over the years by all the work he's done for Mayor Daley.

"My assumption was that the description of Axelrod as a political consultant would take care of that," Perspective editor Charles Madigan told me, "but it was probably a sin of omission."

And a dubious idea to begin with. To his credit, Madigan looked for someone to write a companion piece giving all the reasons not to vote for Daley--something on the order of Steve Rhodes's "The Case Against Daley" in the December Chicago. But he couldn't find anyone.

Because we can plot the path of the stars through the firmament for thousands of years, Sydney Omarr was able to work ahead. A prominent astrologer in her own right, his ex-wife Jeraldine Saunders stepped in to help Omarr, who'd been blinded and paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, prepare weeks of columns before he died on January 2.

Recently, Omarr's readers began to wonder. A friend of mine complained the other day that Omarr's astrology didn't seem quite as sound as it used to, and he wondered if Omarr's death had anything to do with it. A colleague E-mailed me, "When are you going to look into how Sydney Omarr can keep issuing horoscopes from beyond the grave?" Last Friday the Sun-Times, which carries Omarr, published a letter from a concerned reader.

This week the byline on the Sun-Times horoscopes page read "Sydney Omarr," and in small type, "with Jeraldine Saunders." And Omarr's syndicate, Tribune Media Services, issued an "advisory" announcing that "original" Omarr columns will continue through March 22, after which the column will be written by Saunders alone as "Astrological Forecast." Walter Mahoney, TMS's vice president for domestic syndication, says the syndicate retains rights to the Sydney Omarr name and newspapers that want to continue using it can.

The Sun-Times is considering its options, says features editor John Barron. These include going ahead with Saunders after March 22 and picking up Red Streak's Georgia Nicols, who's somebody editor in chief Michael Cooke knew back in Vancouver. The Sun-Times will definitely still carry two astrologers. The other is Joyce Jillson.

Last June the Tribune yanked Mort Walker's classic Beetle Bailey comic strip "as part of an ongoing effort to test the popularity of selected strips or to introduce new ones. We will make a decision on whether to resume running the strip at a later date."

On Monday the Tribune finally announced officially what had been obvious for months: Beetle Bailey was history. The paper also dropped three strips it had still been running: The Buckets, The Fusco Brothers, and Hi and Lois.

Walker and Dik Browne launched Hi and Lois in 1954 as a Beetle Bailey spin-off--Lois was Beetle's sister. So it's a family wipeout.

A last word from Roger Ebert on the ineffectiveness of negative reviews: "Back in the days when we had the 'dog of the week' on Sneak Previews, some producers would actually submit their films."

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