Hey Frank, What's So Funny?; George Schmidt Smackdown | Essay | Chicago Reader

Hey Frank, What's So Funny?; George Schmidt Smackdown 

If the CTA wants riders to support its play for more state money, it might help to show them a little respect.

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On October 14 activists on the southwest side held a celebratory press conference: after seven years of fighting they'd finally persuaded the CTA to restore weekend service on the Douglas branch of the Blue Line. That same day, over at Roberto Clemente High School, scores of transit users were at a hearing protesting new service cuts the CTA said were looming. The CTA seemed to be giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

It was--as part of a complicated public relations campaign. CTA president Frank Kruesi says the system is on the verge of bankruptcy and can close an $82 million deficit in only two ways: cut service to the bone, as he proposed in a recently released doomsday budget, or change the state's funding formula so the CTA gets a greater share of the portion of the sales tax that funds public transportation.

CTA officials say they prefer the second option and have pleaded with riders to join them in protesting the state's funding system, which they say is unfair to Chicago. They posted a doom-and-gloom message on the CTA Web site. They put signs on billboards and are playing recorded messages on buses asking for support. The biggest problem with this campaign is that its chief messenger is Kruesi, who's disliked by many of the people whose support the CTA wants. By many accounts, even those of his supporters, he's a smart but arrogant bureaucrat who seems to delight in making other people look foolish. "To know Frank is to hate him," says one activist, laughing.

Kruesi probably thinks he's got license to be imperious because of his close relationship with Mayor Daley, whom he's served in one capacity or another since Daley was a state senator back in the 70s. Over the past few weeks Kruesi's been playing his favorite hard-guy role, meeting with civic groups and community organizations and giving them an ultimatum. According to people at the meetings, he's told them to either join the CTA's protest or face cuts. So far the tactic isn't working, because a lot of people don't believe he'll keep services as they are even if the CTA gets all the state money it wants. And they're not sure he's not at least partly responsible for the mess the system is in--after all, he's been running it for the past seven years.

One activist group, the Blue Line Transit Taskforce, has said it's willing to join Kruesi. But then it's the only group so far that's managed to wrest a concession from him in return for its support. There's no love lost between Kruesi and the task force, a coalition of community organizations from Pilsen, Little Village, and North Lawndale. The two sides have been warring since 1997, when Kruesi cut weekend and late-night service on the Blue Line branch that runs along Cermak between Paulina and the suburb of Cicero. Kruesi said ridership had fallen; the activists countered that more people would ride the train if the CTA did a better job of maintaining it.

In 2000 Congressman Luis Gutierrez persuaded Congress to finance a $400 million Blue Line restoration project. The project was finished earlier this year, but Kruesi still refused to restore the service. According to task force members, while they protested and held rallies, he negotiated behind the scenes with the aldermen whose wards the line cuts through--Danny Solis of the 25th Ward, George Cardenas of the 12th, and Rick Munoz of the 22nd.

Task force members say Kruesi made an offer through the aldermen. If the activists joined his campaign to come up with more state aid, and if the General Assembly voted to give the CTA more money, he would restore the Blue Line's weekend service--though not its late-night service.

No way, the task force replied. They figured they'd already suffered enough. They told Kruesi they wanted the cuts restored immediately, whether or not the CTA got more state aid.

That left Kruesi in a bind. He couldn't go to Governor Blagojevich and the General Assembly without the support of the city's loudest and best-organized transit-user coalition. Yet he'd look inconsistent if he restored service to the Blue Line while calling for massive cuts elsewhere.

He opted to look inconsistent. Working through Munoz, he told the task force he'd restore weekend service as of January 2, 2005, regardless of whether he got more state aid.

Fair enough, the task force responded. Now put it in writing.

So Kruesi inserted a line in the CTA's 2005 doomsday budget that reads: "Bus and rail service will be reduced. The newly refurbished Cermak (Douglas) branch of the Blue Line, however, will gain additional service hours commensurate with the hours that will be offered elsewhere on the Blue Line."

Kruesi told Munoz to tell the task force members not to make a big deal about his concession, since the last thing he wanted to do was embolden activists in other parts of the city. "They buried the announcement in their budget because they were trying to highlight the other cuts," says Maurice Redd, a task force member. "It was like, 'We'll give you service, but keep it quiet.'"

But task force members figured that if they didn't call attention to his promise he might try to back out of it someday. So on October 14 they held their press conference at the California station on the Blue Line. Kruesi didn't attend, but Munoz, Cardenas, and Solis were there.

"Although it has taken too long, I'm so happy that the community's demands have finally been heard," said Gladys Woodson of the Lawndale Neighborhood Organization. She and other task force members also pledged to join Kruesi in Springfield to press Blagojevich and the General Assembly for more money for the CTA.

Meanwhile across town, about 150 people were at Roberto Clemente attending the first of several budget-cut hearings, whose apparent purpose was to produce outraged testimony that could be used to pressure the state to give the CTA more money. But from the start of this hearing most of the speakers blamed the CTA, not the state, for the city's transit woes. Some spoke angrily about the last round of cuts, back in 1997. Others accused Kruesi--who was sitting at a table on the auditorium's stage next to CTA board chairperson Carole Brown and four other board members--of wasting money by padding the payroll with bureaucrats. As the evening wore on, hostility toward the CTA only grew.

Kruesi didn't exactly help his cause. Instead of showing sympathy for how the cuts would hurt riders or expressing appreciation that they were willing to speak up, he said nothing. He rarely even looked at the speakers, keeping his head down as he furiously scribbled notes. Several times he looked up and smiled at something a speaker said, then leaned over to whisper something into Brown's ear, causing her to giggle. It looked as though the CTA's two top leaders were laughing at its riders.

None of the other CTA officials said anything either. So it wasn't surprising that no one offered to rally behind the CTA. No one volunteered to join the campaign in Springfield.

By the end of the evening only about 40 or 50 people were still in the audience, including some who openly heckled Kruesi. When he leaned over to chat with Brown while a woman was trying to explain her concerns, a man in the audience cried out, "Frank, stop talking. Give her eye contact."

"I'm not going to Springfield to do your dirty work," another man yelled. "I don't trust you. I don't trust you for one minute."

One of the last speakers was a young woman who asked the audience, "How many of you live in the city?"

Most of the people in the auditorium raised their hands. Kruesi, Brown, and the other CTA board members, all of whom live in Chicago, kept their hands down, as if determined not to interact in any way with the public.

The woman said, "Now a show of hands from everyone who rides the CTA four times a week." Again most of the people in the audience raised their hands and the CTA officials didn't.

From the back of the room a voice shot out, "Wait, one last question--who has an IQ of over ten? Raise your hands."

People laughed. The CTA officials stood up to leave.

"Fuck you, Frank," called out one man.

George Schmidt Smackdown

George Schmidt's five-and-a-half-year legal battle with the Board of Education ended last month when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. "That's it," he says. "It's over."

The case began in January 1999, when Schmidt, an English teacher at Bowen High School, published large portions of the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations in Substance, the alternative newspaper he publishes. He was hoping to spark debate about the CASE, a test many teachers regarded as a poorly written waste of time and money. Mayor Daley, schools CEO Paul Vallas, and school board president Gery Chico were furious at Schmidt. The board fired him, then sued him for $1 million, the amount they said it would cost to produce a new CASE.

Schmidt filed a counterclaim, arguing that he had a First Amendment right to publish the test. But last December a three-judge panel from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided against him. By then Vallas and Chico were both gone. The year before, the board had agreed not to seek any damages from Schmidt. Last year it even stopped giving the CASE, essentially conceding that Schmidt and the teachers had been right--it was a waste of time.

So what was gained by the litigation? Well, the board won the authority to use copyright law to keep public documents private, and it sent a powerful message to other potential dissidents. But it paid a hefty price for these victories--at least several hundred thousand dollars in legal fees that could, of course, have been better spent in the classroom.

Schmidt is looking to get on with his life, once he figures out how to pay off the $50,000 he has in legal bills--he's already paid about $200,000. He says he'd like to go back to the classroom and plans to send his resume to public high schools all over the city. "I love teaching," he says. "The only question is which principal will have the guts to hire me."

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

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