Wednesday, June 2, 2010

GOVERNOR GOOFY?

6/2/10

As regular readers of the Insightful Pontificator know, the still unnamed sequel to my first novel, The Chairman, A Novel of Big City Politics, is in the final stages of preparation for publication. In order to build some early momentum for the sequel, and continuing momentum for the The Chairman, I’ve decided to post at least one, and maybe a few more, chapters of the sequel on the Pontificator.

In this excerpt, the reader is introduced to Governor Ron Milovanovic. Milovanovic was installed first in Congress and then in the governor’s office by Chairman Eamon DeValera Collins after Chairman Collins had been assured by Milovanovic’s uncle, Pete Lopez, long time boss of the 25th Ward, that his nephew was a team player who would do a good job as governor and, more importantly, do what he was told. But the Governor has turned out to be a man with no sense of restraint, subtlety, or shame. He is an embarrassment, and is only one of the challenges the Chairman faces in his leadership of the city and the party.

Incidentally, the opening scene of this chapter is based loosely on an experience yours truly had when I was a regular panelist on Tom Roeser’s political talk show on WLS in the ‘90s. Then Congressman Rod Blagojevich and I got a bit carried away not only with searing insight but also with high pitched invective, making for one of the best shows in my comparatively long run at WLS. In fact, the closing few lines of the first scene of the chapter are taken almost verbatim from the post-show banter of that evening’s confrontation.

Bear in mind that Ron Milovanovic is not Rod Blagojevich; like most characters in both The Chairman and its sequel, Milovanovic is an amalgam of several “real” characters. In the case of Governor Milovanovic, the astute reader will pick this up rather quickly.

The sequel should be out, barring a major snafu or some very good news on the publication front, later this summer. The Chairman, of course, is currently available at independent bookstores, can be ordered at any bookstore, and can be purchased immediately at Amazon.com.

Enjoy chapter 12 of the sequel.


CHAPTER 12

Mark Brophy, one of the town’s most popular, or at least one of its loudest, talk show hosts, kept hammering away at his guest. “Governor Milovanovic, you are spending our state into bankruptcy! The budget was in balance when you took office. After years of running small surpluses, the state had a substantial “rainy day” fund. Mr. Governor, you ran through that “rainy day” fund your first year in office, when the economy was booming! It wasn’t a rainy day…it was a bright sunny day on Waikiki Beach!”
The governor, who never backed off from a fight, and rarely missed an opportunity to speak into a microphone, especially one as big as that provided by Mark Brophy’s show, parried “What you don’t understand, Mark, as you throw around all these talking points about ‘big spending’ and ‘growing deficits,’ is that I was elected to serve the people, the working people of this state, the people who live paycheck to paycheck. And these working people have plenty of unmet needs. The reason my predecessor was able to balance the budget, the reason he was able to build up a “rainy day” fund was because he stiffed the working people of this state in order to serve the special interests that elected him. What he didn’t, and you don’t, understand is that every day is a rainy day for the hardworking, every day people of this state because of the fat cats that my predecessor was elected to serve. They prey upon the working people of this state and use the profits from exploiting the people to elect guys, like my predecessor, who will do their bidding in the state capital. Well, there’s a new sheriff in town who aims to throw open the windows and let the sun shine in.”
Brophy rolled his eyes. “But where are you going to get the money to meet these ‘unmet needs’? This isn’t like when you were in Congress, dealing with the federal budget. The federal government can run deficits and then just borrow, or print, the money to cover them. But our state, according to its constitution, has to run a balanced budget. It seems like the very working people you purport to represent will get presented with the bill to meet these unmet needs that they apparently didn’t know existed.”
“Very simple, Mr. Brophy. We’ll cut out waste, fraud, and abuse. We’ll cut, or eliminate the programs, that serve only the moneyed interests.”
“But you’ll have to raise taxes, Governor Milovanovic. There’s no way around it.”
“We hope, Mark, that we’ll be creative enough, innovative enough, smart enough to avoid raising taxes. But the people of this state can be assured that, if we have to raise taxes, we’re only going to raise taxes on the very rich, the fat cats, the friends of people like my predecessor, who left so many needs unmet.”
“Just how long, Mr. Governor, do you think the people of this state are going to continue to buy your baloney? Everywhere you look you find something else to spend money on. Everywhere you look there’s an ‘unmet need.’ You’ve exercised plenty of creativity, but usually only in the area of juggling the books. How long do you think you can hide your deficits?”
“Listen, Mr. Brophy…you were one of the people who said a guy with the name ‘Milovanovic’ could never get elected because he could never get enough votes downstate. But the people are smarter than you think…”
“You only got elected governor because your uncle is Pete Lopez, undisputed boss of the 25th ward and a Machine hack for twenty years. He got the Mayor and the other Machine guys behind you. They muscled the Democrats downstate, pulled every string they could down in those rural and small town counties. You sent your wife down there, whose maiden name is Smith, for God’s sake, to campaign, and you made yourself scarce. On top of that, your opponent in the primary was a Greek guy, another ethnicity considered pretty exotic in the rural areas, who didn’t like to fly so he couldn’t get downstate. And when it looked like he was going to garner a lot of African-American support in the state, Collins and his hacks ran some Machine stooge who just happened to be black to pull votes away from him so you could win in a three way primary. And in the general? Jesus Christ couldn’t have won with an “R” after his name in this state in the year you were elected. You’re a combination accident and a creation of your uncle and his Machine hack friends.”
“That shows how little you know about politics, Mr. Brophy. Yeah, my uncle is Pete Lopez. Pete LOPEZ, Mr. Brophy. How well do you think that plays downstate? So my name is Milovanovic and I’m proud of it. My parents are hardworking immigrants from Eastern Europe; am I supposed to hide that? I’m Ron MILOVANOVIC, the nephew of Pete LOPEZ. And even though racists like you said I couldn’t win downstate, I won handily down there. Why? Because the people relate to me; I’m one of them.”
“You won because your major opponent wouldn’t fly and, speaking of racism, because your Uncle Pete and his pals ran a stooge to siphon away your major opponent’s black support up here.”
“You’re calling Claude Borman a stooge?”
“Yes, I’m calling Claude Borman a stooge because that’s what he is. A stooge, a lackey, a hack, a toady…”
“And you’re calling me, with an Hispanic uncle, a racist after attacking one of our town’s preeminent African-American public servants as a stooge and a hack?”
“I didn’t call you a hack, Governor, but I will call you a popinjay. You might want to look that one up…”
“Why? Because people from Eastern Europe don’t have strong vocabularies?”
“Get off it, Governor. I’m not saying anything about Slavic people’s vocabularies. My grandmother on my mom’s side, by the way, was born outside Belgrade. But I am saying that maybe you aren’t very bright, at least about fiscal matters.”
The governor tried to answer, but Brophy interrupted him. “We’re up against a hard break. But I want to thank the Governor for coming in today. Thanks, Governor Milovanovic, for spending some of your limited time with us.”
The governor’s mood changed very rapidly. “Thanks for having me, Mark.” As they went to break, the Governor took off his headphones, looked right at Mark Brophy, and said “You’re a provocative, guy, Brophy.”
“Thank you, Governor,” was Brophy’s simple, yet strangely cordial, reply.

Governor Milovanovic went directly from his radio appearance to a meeting of a community group on the city’s west side. The meeting was held in a former movie theater in a neighborhood that had seen better days. The community group, Healing Opportunities for People Everywhere, or HOPE, had bought the building for little more than a promise to keep it from becoming more of an eyesore than it had become in the five years since it had last shown a picture. The governor was in his element, by no means demographically, but certainly in his own mind. Arriving his customary twenty minutes late, he leaped onto the stage to the cheers of the carefully selected crowd; his political fund regularly made substantial, highly publicized contributions to HOPE, and its leaders showed their appreciation by funneling some of that money back into his campaign coffers and staging these meetings that served as little more than rallies for the governor.
“My fellow working people…” the governor began to the cheers of the crowd. “I know what it is to be poor. When my father came here, he was dirt poor, but he took advantage of the opportunities this country afforded him…”
Murmurs of “That’s right” and “Amen” rose from the crowd.
“He worked so hard that he literally bled from the bottom of his feet, and the system continually beat down on him. It couldn’t however, break his spirit.”
Cheers erupted.
The governor’s rambling speech continued, outlining the steps this “new kind of governor,” this “ally of the working people, of the oppressed people” was taking to alleviate the plight of the people in this room, most of whom were poor, uneducated, and running out of hope. As the cheers grew in frequency and volume, the Governor’s energy and intensity increased commensurately. The crowd was rocking, and Governor Ron Milovanovic was rolling. Caught up in the moment, he reached the unplanned climax of his speech:
“I am here today to tell you that I am awarding HOPE a grant, a $20 million grant, from the state with which you can tear down this old barn, the leftovers that have been tossed your way, and build a brand new community center, with meeting rooms, an auditorium, a day care center, a medical center, a gym, a counseling center…”
The crowd went nuts and HOPE’s leaders, on the stage with the governor, reflected their astonishment and delight, but the governor’s advisors looked at each other in bewilderment. As the crowd roared, surreptitious communication among those advisors became both harder and easier, and proceeded along the lines of “Did he ever mention this to you?”, “Did you approve this?”, and “Has he spoken to anyone in the legislature about this?” It was a not at all unfamiliar line of discussion for the governor’s increasingly exasperated advisors.
The governor wrapped up his speech with “HOPE for the west side! HOPE for the west side!”
Leaving the crowded and energized hall was difficult, especially given the propensity of the governor to mix with the crowd, shake hands, and never miss an opportunity for a photo, especially with a small child. The governor’s ten man security detail, now used to the governor’s usual drill, was up to the challenge. The governor was ushered into his waiting limousine with a driver, two security men, and two of his closest aides.
The governor’s chief budget aide, Kay Schwartz, gave him the usual stern look to which the Governor had become accustomed.
“Ron, where did you come up with this idea? This is the first I’ve heard of it. If you’re going to spend $20 million, wouldn’t it be a good idea to clear it with your budget director?”
The Governor just shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, Kay, yeah, I know. Money’s important, but these people need help…”
“Yeah, Ron, these people need help. Lots of people need help. Don’t you think I want to help them? We all want to help the poor, Ron, but we have to come up with money somewhere. The state’s already a fiscal basket case. Did you discuss this with anyone in the legislature?”
“Uh…no. Look, Kay, I got caught up in the moment, I’ll admit it. But it’s only $20 million. Can’t we just borrow it?”
“Can’t we just borrow it? Can’t we just borrow it? You’ve been saying that since you got elected. That’s why we’re in this mess!”
“Look, Kay, I wasn’t elected to balance budgets and do accounting. I was elected to help the people.”
The driver and the security guy with him in the front seat quietly chuckled to each other.
“And that’s why I went into government, Ron,” Schwartz continued. “I want to help people, too, but resources are not limitless…”
“Oh, c’mon, Kay. With my leadership and a strong economy, we can raise the money. It’s not all that much.”
Kay stopped herself before commenting on the governor’s leadership. “This state doesn’t have all that strong an economy, Governor. Haven’t you noticed?”
“That’s why we have to help these people…”
“But you just can’t keep handing out $20 million here and $10 million there and $30 million someplace else. Have you noticed that you’re the governor, not the legislature? Only they can spend money.”
“Oh, c’mon, Kay; don’t get technical with me. Yeah, I am the governor; I’m the big dog. I can get the money from the legislature.”
Schwartz rolled her eyes. “Well, you haven’t been very successful at that of late, and with good reason. Governor, there’s no money to hand out! And speaking of big dogs, have you noticed that Collins turned down your invitation to appear with him at this event? It’s the third time in a row he’s turned you down.”
“That’s because he’s not part of the new politics, Kay. He’s old school; he’s not as concerned with the people as I am. You understand numbers, Kay, I understand politics.”
Once again, Schwartz held her emotions in check, but this time not so effectively. “I may not understand politics, Governor, but let me ask you…how is this going to look when you can’t come up with the money for this community center? How do you think people like broken promises?”
“Hey, we might get the money. And, at any rate, we won’t know until after the next election if we can’t. And people have short memories.”
“Maybe the people do, but those guys who run HOPE have very long memories, Ron. You may have just stepped in it.”
“Kay, Kay, Kay. You are so na├»ve. We can take care of those guys, and it’s not gonna cost $20 million and it’s not going to come from the state budget.”
Kay Schwartz wondered why she had taken this job in the first place.

The governor arrived at his office in the city. Not only did working out of that office fit with his schedule that day, but he had a decided preference for this city, the city in which he lived. The state capital, located in the rural reaches of the state, held little appeal for him. He was, as usual, late for this appointment, this time almost two hours late for a meeting with one of his old associates and former campaign manager, Chuck Piekos, who was now a lobbyist and consultant, and bank chairman Robert Harrington IV. The governor had agreed to meet with Harrington, who had been looking to replace the city pension business he had lost to James Parker’s Emerald Asset Management with pension business from the state. The governor’s being late, however, did not stop him from working the crowds in the state office building that housed his city office. His guests would just have to wait. Chuck Piekos, having been a friend of the governor since childhood, was used to waiting. Robert Harrington, however, was not. As the Governor finally entered his office, Harrington, after the usual pleasantries, started “Governor, I don’t mean any disrespect, but couldn’t you have told me you were going to be two hours late? I’m a busy man; I always have time to see you, but I don’t have time to cool my heels waiting for you. If you could have had someone contact my office, I could have come over when you were getting close; we’re only two blocks away.”
The Governor shot a look at Harrington that reflected his visceral contempt for bankers and people who had come from privileged backgrounds, groups that were both represented in Robert Harrington IV. But, as always, he was careful to temper that look of contempt out of his desire to avoid burning bridges with people who could help him politically…and financially. “I’m sorry, Mr. Harrington, but you have to understand that I, too, am a busy man…busy with the people’s business. I can empathize with your frustration, but you can empathize with my getting so absorbed in my work that sometimes the usual courtesies have to suffer. Now, what is the purpose of this meeting?” The Governor knew well the purpose of this meeting; he had been briefed well by Piekos.
“First, Governor, please call me Bob.”
“Okay, Bob,” was Milovanovic’s reply.
Harrington had expected more, but didn’t get it. After an uneasy silence that seemed much longer than it was, he continued. “Governor, we know that the state’s pension business is under consideration for new management. I want to make sure that my bank, which, as you know, has a hundred plus year record of outstanding money management, and pension management specifically, gets every consideration in this process. I have discussed this extensively with our mutual friend Chuck Piekos, your point man on this issue. He has met with some of our people and conducted some rather extensive analysis. If I can say so, he is deeply impressed with our operation. Isn’t that right, Mr. Piekos?”
Chuck Piekos looked straight into the Governor’s eyes and agreed. “Yes, Ron, Bob’s bank looks like a good candidate for this business. They could do a good job.”
But what,” the Governor asked, “have you done to earn the state’s business, Bob?”
“Well, Governor, as Mr. Piekos can tell you, we have the longest money management track record in the state. We have upper tier performance in both equity and fixed income management. We have a very strong and stable management team. We know how to work with public entities…”
That last sentence seemed, to Milovanovic, a natural jumping in point. “I know all that, and I know you know how to work with public entities. But what else have you done to earn the business?” His meaning was clear.
“Well, as you know, we’ve hired Mr. Piekos as a consultant, and we are so far happy that he is earning his rather substantial fee, but…”
The Governor cut him off. “That’s not enough, Bob.”
Harrington knew where this conversation was going, but was nonetheless perplexed. “Well, Governor, Mr. Piekos is by far the most expensive consultant out there, and we understood that, by hiring him, we would get due consideration for this business…”
The Governor interrupted him. “$100,000 in the Milovanovic for Governor Fund ought to do it, Bob.”
Harrington looked exasperated. “On top of the money I’m already paying Piekos?”
Piekos looked at Harrington and smiled. “Hey, Bob, looks like I did my job. I got you this meeting and it looks like, if you play ball, you’ve got the business. I’d say I was cheap.”
The Governor chimed in. “Why are you so surprised, Bob? You’ve worked with public entities before. You know how the game is played.”
“Yes, Governor, I know how the game is played…at least in this town. And I’ve always been willing to play, within reason. But I’ve never been confronted with anyone so blatant. You have no subtlety at all. You just come right out and hold me up.” Harrington regretted those words even before they came out, but the Governor was unfazed.
“Do you want the business or not, Bob? I’d like to give it to you, even though the Mayor would really like me to give it to Jimmy Parker and I could make a lot of friends in the legislature and on the south side by doing so. So do you want the business?”
Harrington knew he had no choice. “Yeah, I want the business. When do you…” He caught himself. “…when does the campaign fund need the money?”
“As soon as possible, Bob. And the same amount at the same time next year.”
Harrington was more beaten up than angry by this time. “I have to kick in a hundred grand every year?”
“Hey, Bob,” the Governor answered, “I’m going to make a lot of people unhappy by giving you this business. It’s gotta be worth my while.”
“Okay, okay,” Harrington replied.
“And you’re going to keep me on retainer, right?” Piekos added.
Harrington just nodded his head.

After Harrington left, Milovanovic and Piekos, rather than exchanging high fives, or even knowing smiles and pats on the back, just moved matter-of-factly along their agenda. They called one of the Governor’s young aides, Carrie Shortall, into the office. Shortall, with an extensive background in working with charities of various sorts, was the Governor’s newly appointed liaison with non-profit groups throughout the state. Chuck Piekos stayed in the room.
“Carrie,” the Governor started, “I understand we are meeting with one of your non-profits tomorrow. Tell me about this group.”
“Well, Governor, we’re meeting with a Dominican friar and a nun who are starting a middle school for underprivileged kids on the west side, not far from where you met with HOPE this afternoon. The kids at the school will be really poor kids who show a lot of promise but can’t possibly afford tuition and who probably wouldn’t make it if they stayed in public schools. The gangs would get to them and they’d be caught in that downward spiral we’re trying to break. The friar, Father Ben Quinn and the nun, Sister Gertrude Schultz, have a lot of experience in educating poor kids. They opened a similar school in D.C. ten years ago with a great deal of success and want to do the same thing here…”
The Governor looked interested. “Go on.”
“Well, Governor,” Shortall continued, “I’ve been around non-profits my whole life, but this is one of the best ideas I’ve ever seen. Education, as someone once said, is the newest and largest civil rights issue. This sort of school can get these kids out of the ghetto, out of hopelessness. Who knows what these kids can accomplish with a chance like this? Who knows what kind of impact they could have on the community, on the city, on the society as a whole? We should give these people a hearing and do whatever we can do.”
“What do they need?”
“I don’t think they need much. Maybe a little state aid, but they don’t need much.”
“As you know, Carrie, I’m a lawyer by training and education. I think there’s a First Amendment issue with any state aid.”
“Yeah, but they’ve found creative, constitutional ways for government to help in Washington. That’s probably one of the things they want to discuss with you. But I don’t think it’s so much money they’re looking for; there are a lot of wealthy alums from St. Dominic High School who are willing to help on that end. I think they might need some other kinds of help, and the support of the Governor, maybe an appearance at the opening, a good word now and then, a phone call here and there. I think they just want you onboard.”
“Sounds, good, Carrie. Chuck, have you met with them? Have they expressed any interest in making a contribution to Milovanovic for Governor?”
Shortall, new to the Governor’s staff, was shocked. Before Piekos could answer, she shot back “A campaign contribution? Governor, this is a start-up non-profit. They don’t have any money; they’re looking for help raising money. And they’re really not asking for much…”
“C’mon, Carrie. You just told me about the St. Dominic alums who are so gung-ho for this project. Father and Sister are going to have the money. And if they want our help, we expect a little help in return.”
Carrie Shortall was dumbfounded. “Even a non-profit? And a non-profit with nothing? A non-profit that has the potential to do a lot of good for the people you purport to want to help so much?”
The Governor was unmoved. “Carrie, everyone who wants to talk to me pays. It takes money to run a campaign, it will take money to re-elect someone who wants to do so much good for so many people.”
Shortall looked for any signs, vocal or visible, of irony in that last statement. There were none.

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