political columnist

Three Democratic state representatives from Chicago say they have been told that Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office was behind distribution of fliers last weekend in Chicago that accused them of cutting state services by voting for a recent budget proposal approved by the House.


The fliers were distributed at the 38th Annual Pride Parade, a gay-pride event Sunday that drew an estimated 450,000 people.


The governor’s office, while admitting it sent organizations a flier that accused the House of cutting services, said it did not issue the flier that named Reps. John Fritchey, Sara Feigenholtz and Greg Harris. 


But Fritchey said he was told that groups that get state funding were approached by the governor’s office to distribute the flier with names. He did not identify the groups.


“I’m not throwing anybody under the bus,” he said. But he is critical of the governor’s office.


“Maybe they missed the class when you learn that this is a game of addition, not subtraction,” Fritchey wrote this week on his blog, www.johnfritchey.blogspot.com


Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, identified Blagojevich aide Seth Webb as the person who called asked groups to distribute the flier.


“Groups, which will remain nameless, were called by Seth Webb last week and told that they had to distribute these fliers at the gay-pride parade,” Brown told me. “They can deny whatever they want, but we know what happened. … I was told by credible people.”


Rebecca Rausch, spokeswoman for Blagojevich, said Webb and the governor’s office encouraged distribution of the generic flier, but were not involved with the one that names specific lawmakers.


“Seth talks to advocacy groups all the time, and we’ve always encouraged outreach,” Rausch said. “We’ve talked to groups about getting involved to achieve a result. In this case, our goal is to pass a budget that expands access to health care (and) properly funds education, among other things.”


Fritchey, whose blog addressed the flier with names, called the “anonymous, guerrilla leafleting” disrespectful to himself, his colleagues and the public.


Fritchey said the flier was so clumsy as to be “almost laughable. Almost.”


“Did anybody in the administration really think that it was a good idea to try to assail the state’s only openly gay legislator, Rep. Harris, for cutting housing resources for HIV/AIDS patients?” he asked. “Via a flyer at the pride parade?”


He also said that he did not believe the governor’s office denial of knowledge about that flier.


“Without wanting to put anybody in a bind, let me just say this. They’re lying,” Fritchey wrote.


A copy of the flier was posted earlier this week on thecapitolfaxblog.com. It and the one the governor’s office admits to sending out can both be seen at The State Journal-Register’s Web site, sj-r.com/?fliers.


Feigenholtz, in whose district the gay-pride parade took place, said there is “substantial evidence” of governor’s office involvement in the flier with names. She called requests to state-funded groups to distribute the flier “strong-arm” tactics and “intimidation.”


“I was told that the people who refused (to hand out the flier with names) agreed to hand out what you just read me,” Feigenholtz said of the piece that was claimed by the governor’s office.


“I think a lot of these advocates are in fear of losing their (state) funding,” she said.


Feigenholz said she and the others named on the flier are strong advocates of human services programs, making the attack “ridiculous and cowardly.” She chairs the appropriations committee that oversees human services. She also said the tactic could end up causing more overtime and “hurt the Democratic Party in the long run.”


Harris said people are telling him the governor is behind the fliers, and “I tend to believe them.”


Harris, 52, has had AIDS for about 19 years. He represents the same district as former state Rep. Larry McKeon,  D-Chicago, who also was HIV-positive and openly gay.


Harris noted that he was among a very few lawmakers who publicly endorsed the governor’s Illinois Covered universal health insurance proposal.


“Of all the people to try to attack on these issues,” Harris said, “why would they choose me?”


He added that he “may have a few choice words” for the people in the governor’s office he thinks are responsible.


Harris said the big-picture goal is to “do what’s right for the people of the state” by passing a good budget. He also refused to blame any agencies involved in passing out fliers.


“They are between a rock and a hard place,” he said.


The flier with names is headlined “Action Alert!” and says that Fritchey, Feigenholtz and Harris  “voted to cut funding for healthcare and education” and, “Their budget would: cut 230,000 seniors, children and working parents off healthcare,” “Cut education funding by $200 million” and “Cut supporting housing for 700 people who are homeless, mentally ill and/or suffering from AIDS/HIV.”


“Call them TODAY to fix this!” it says, adding the lawmakers’ telephone numbers.


“That was not our flier,” Rausch said. “We did not ask groups, or suggest to them, that they should distribute that flier.”


The flier the governor’s office sent out states: “The Illinois House of Representatives passed a budget that will … Cut healthcare for 230,000 seniors, children and working parents … Deny healthcare for 1.4 million uninsured adults in Illinois … Keep healthcare costs growing for families and businesses by 10-12 percent per year ... Cut Breast and Cervical Cancer screenings for 4,000 more women ... Cost the state $225 million in federal funding … Cut $20 million in proposed stem cell research.”


It urges people to call their state representative, adding, “Don’t kick families off healthcare.”


“We gave that flier to groups to use, to distribute as they wish,” Rausch said, adding that it was sent out after the House passed a budget plan in late May that was considered inadequate by the governor and Senate Democrats.


“Don’t neglect the point of it,” Rausch said of the governor’s office flier. “That (House budget) was a bad budget. It was bad for the state of Illinois, and we need to move on from it.”


Blagojevich still wants to see his plan for universal access to health insurance enacted, Rausch said, despite a thumbs-down vote by the House on the gross-receipts tax he sought this spring.


“We are … absolutely committed to the goal of expanding access to health care,” Rausch said. “We are exploring other funding options, and we’d like that to be part of the negotiations with the leaders.”


Blagojevich, by the way, has attended Chicago gay-pride parades in the past, but did not attend Sunday.








Congratulations on a new baby and a new job for Chris Herbert.


Herbert, 30, of Decatur, has been with the state since 2003 and was with the Department of Central Management Services as a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture before her recent maternity leave. Jackson Tyler Herbert was born to her and husband Steve, who works for a firm that sells seed and farm chemicals, on Jan. 18. And when Mom came back to work, it was as senior communications manager, overseeing about 23 state agency communications managers in CMS offices in Springfield and Chicago.


Herbert’s job is not as comprehensive as that of the previous leader of the agency PR people. Marbybeth Johnson of Chicago, who left the state workforce in October to become vice president, corporate communications of Exelon, oversaw not just the spokespeople, but graphics, marketing and the Illinois Information Service.


“I really enjoy what I’m doing because I get to see what all the agencies are doing and how their messages can work with each other,” said Herbert, whose office is in the Stratton Building in the Capitol complex.


“It’s a great way to work together as a team within the agencies and coordinate our messages,” Herbert said.


I have long lamented the consolidation of governor-oriented spokespeople into offices that are often far from their agencies — but I’ll try not to let my views ruin the moment for Herbert.


Her pay, by the way, is now $80,000 annually, up from $58,000 before her maternity leave.




Bernard Schoenburg is political columnist for The State Journal-Register. He can be reached at 788-1540 or bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com.