2013: From the Jacksons to CPS to Ebert’s death, Ventra, gay marriage, pot, tornadoes and more
STAFF REPORTS December 31, 2013 9:48PM
Former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson and her husband, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., leave the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., after their sentencing hearings. Jesse Jackson was sentenced to 30 months behind bars and Sandi Jackson was sentenced to a year in prison. | SAUL LOEB~AFP/Getty Images
Updated: February 3, 2014 3:31PM
1. One school after the other
It was a year for the record books for Chicago Public Schools .
Fifty schools — a record number — were closed because they didn’t have enough students, upending the lives of about 27,000 children.
Many parents — and the teachers union — were outraged, creating a political headache for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Children had to walk new routes to their new schools along “Safe Passage” routes, prompting safety concerns.
After the closings, CPS quietly issued a call for new charter schools, enraging some parents yet again, while cheering others.
2. The Jacksons’ downfall
In a stunning scene, one of Chicago’s political power couples, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, ex-Ald. Sandi Jackson, walked into a Washington, D.C., courthouse in February to plead guilty to looting his congressional campaign fund of more than $750,000.
The couple spent thousands of dollars on the high life — the purchase of elk heads perhaps garnering the most attention — as well as on everyday needs.
Sandi Jackson was sentenced to 12 months behind bars. Her husband is serving his two-and-a-half-year sentence.
3. Pensions, pot, guns and gay marriage
State lawmakers actually got something done this year.
Decades in the making, Illinois’ $100 billion pension crisis came to a head in December when the legislative leaders struck a deal to cut benefits for retired state workers, university employees, legislators and Downstate and suburban teachers.
Public-employee unions that bitterly contested the package — which is estimated to save the state $160 billion over 30 years — have vowed to push the issue to the Illinois Supreme Court.
In other lawmaker action, gay Illinois residents saw their lives improved in November, when Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that made Illinois the 16th state to legalize same-sex marriage.
And in the coming week, residents will see the start of two other major changes.
On Sunday, Illinois gun owners can go online to apply for concealed-carry permits. Hundreds of thousands are expected to do so.
And on Wednesday, legislation goes into effect that legalizes medical marijuana in Illinois for a four-year trial. But it will still be several months before patients with certain chronic illnesses will be able to obtain a prescription for pot and legally smoke it. Regulators still have to work out specifics.
4. The force of nature
Thousands of people took cover in their basements as sirens blared throughout Illinois when 25 twisters touched down one Sunday morning in November.
The storms killed seven people, including two in the hardest-hit community: Washington, Ill., about 160 miles southwest of Chicago. A funnel cloud packing winds approaching 200 mph tore a scar through the city.
Survival stories, like that of Minnie Burgard, quickly spread. Burgard, 82, who could not descend the steps to her basement because of a recent knee surgery, grabbed her cat, Jezabel, and sat on a bench as her house disintegrated around her. Both survived unharmed.
Many people were at church that morning in Washington. Not one church was badly damaged.
“Being a faith-based community really saved us,” Washington Mayor Gary Manier said. “Those churches were spared for a reason.”
5. UNO chief plummets from power perch
At the start of 2013, Juan Rangel ranked among Chicago’s most influential power brokers.
From modest beginnings, he developed close relationships with powerful politicians and used his clout to expand the United Neighborhood Organization’s chain of publicly financed charter schools.
In December, though, Rangel resigned as UNO’s $250,000-a-year chief executive, following a series of Chicago Sun-Times articles about the state’s largest charter operator.
The Sun-Times reported in February that UNO had paid $8.5 million from a state school-construction grant to companies owned by the brothers of Rangel’s top deputy. Gov. Pat Quinn suspended grant payments, halting work on a half-built high school on the Southwest Side.
The state funding was restored after Rangel issued an apology and introduced a new UNO board led by an investment banker, Martin Cabrera Jr. But less than three months later, Cabrera resigned.
Rangel suffered another blow when the Sun-Times reported in October that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating UNO “to determine if violations of the federal securities laws have occurred.”
Quinn froze UNO’s state funding again, leaving $15 million from the $98 million grant in limbo.
After Rangel resigned, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said his 2011 campaign co-chairman had become “a distraction from the mission” of UNO’s charters, which serves about 7,500 students at 16 schools.
6. Ventra and Metra messes
It was not the best of years for two Chicago area transportation agencies.
In June, Metra got rid of Alex Clifford, its CEO, at a cost of more than $800,000 — some called it a severance package; others dubbed it hush money.
The move caused untold damage to the agency’s reputation, as one revelation after another came out, including an allegation of clout moves by House Speaker Mike Madigan and other politicians within the agency.
The CTA, meanwhile, started a new fare card, called Ventra. It gave out more than $1 million in free rides — the CTA says it will get the money back from the vendor — and became a running joke on Twitter. But the card system is improving, the CTA says.
7. Chicago street violence shocks the nation
The number of murders dropped in Chicago this year, but violence still devastated Chicago families and neighborhoods and put the city in the national spotlight.
In January, 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was fatally shot in a South Side park, an innocent bystander, just days after performing at festivities for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
In September, in another crime that unnerved the nation, 13 people were shot in Cornell Square Park in the Back of the Yards in an eruption of gang violence. Somehow, no one was killed in that melee, in which multiple people were arrested.
8. The balcony is closed
A movie ticket cost about a buck when Roger Ebert wrote his first review for the Chicago Sun-Times — closer to $12 when he penned his last.
For 40-plus years, moviegoers trusted Ebert to tell them plainly whether that money would be well-spent.
When Ebert died on April 4 — after a graceful struggle with cancer — he had weighed in on everything from Police Academy [“the absolute pits”] to Casablanca [“immensely appealing”] and every genre in between.
At Ebert’s funeral, Mayor Rahm Emanuel perhaps put it best: “Roger spent a lot of time sitting through bad movies so we didn’t have to.”
But Ebert was much more than a movie critic. He was an author, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a visionary who, early on, understood the coming online revolution. He also was the lead actor in his own real-life romance with his beloved wife, Chaz Ebert.
“He would have loved this,” she said at her husband’s funeral, beneath the Holy Name Cathedral’s soaring ceiling. “He would have loved the majesty of it.”
9. Luck of the Irish
At the start of 2013, the Democratic gubernatorial primary was heating up to be one of the most high-profile in recent memory.
Two heavy hitters, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, showed interest in booting out Quinn, who was having little luck getting things done in Springfield.
The governor, though, eventually turned the tables, freezing lawmakers’ paychecks for “failing to do their jobs.” In a matter of months, the political world turned so upside down that even Hillary Clinton noted Quinn’s luck.
Lisa Madigan dropped out of contention, followed by Daley.
On the GOP side, Bruce Rauner’s emergence took off the fundraising caps in a four-way race.
What it all means: Quinn coasts through a primary with no major opposition — and no caps on contributions.
10. No cops charged — but no clean bill of health
A grand jury investigation into the way law-enforcement officials handled a homicide case involving former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nephew ended with no new indictments, but Special Prosecutor Dan K. Webb stopped short of clearing Chicago Police and Cook County prosecutors of wrongdoing.
Webb, a former U.S. attorney, instead said that the statute of limitations on bringing charges in the original investigation of David Koschman’s killing in 2004 had expired. He also re-examined the police department’s 2011 re-investigation of the case and found “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt any state criminal law violations as to actions taken by CPD personnel.”
Webb’s September announcement set off a flurry of activity in advance of Daley nephew Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko’s manslaughter trial early next year.
At Webb’s request, the release of the 162-page report of the grand jury’s findings was delayed until after Vanecko’s trial, set for Feb. 18.
Contributing: Mitch Dudek, Stefano Esposito, Chris Fusco, Natasha Korecki, Dave McKinney, Frank Main, Dan Mihalopoulos, Rosalind Rossi, Becky Schlikerman, Monifa Thomas