Charles N. Wheeler III

Commentator

The director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III,  a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Wheeler covered state government and politics for the Sun-Times since 1970, when he covered the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention. For the last 19 years of his Sun-Times tenure, Wheeler was assigned to the newspaper’s Statehouse bureau. During that time, he was elected to 16 consecutive one-year terms as president of the Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association and served for many years on the PAR program and admissions committees.

Since 1984, he has written a monthly column for Illinois Issues magazine, which has won five Capitolbeat awards for magazine commentary/analysis. In 2006, the Illinois Associated Press Editors Association inducted him into The Lincoln League of Journalists, which honors men and women who have provided exemplary service to other journalists and to daily newspapers published in Illinois. In 2013, he was chosen as the Journalist of the Year by the Journalism Department at Eastern Illinois University.  He is also a regular on the panel for State Week, WUIS' weekly political analysis program that airs on public radio stations across Illinois.

Before joining the Sun-Times in 1969, Wheeler served more than three years as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Panama. He is a graduate of St. Mary’s University, Winona, MN, majoring in English, and received a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Wheeler draws on the talents of many UIS faculty with expertise in such fields as public budgeting, political science, and communication, as well as professional journalists and state officials, to present students with a well-rounded program to bridge the academic and professional areas.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

When Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled his “Rewrite To Do Right” campaign last month, the temptation was to see the governor’s latest public relations brainchild as just another way of sticking a finger into House Speaker Michael Madigan’s eye.

Blagojevich promised to issue amendatory vetoes to 50 pending bills “to make them better” and force lawmakers to accept ideas that didn’t make it through the normal legislative process.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

best is the enemy of the good. Many years ago, a wily legislative veteran shared that venerable wisdom with a rookie reporter, trying to explain why an admittedly flawed piece of legislation still merited passage.

More than three decades of watching state government convinced the cub — now a grizzled columnist — that the old-timer was right.

His insight comes to mind now, listening to Gov. Rod Blagojevich promising to “improve” the most significant campaign finance reform measure ever to clear the Illinois General Assembly.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Is the glass half full or half empty? In Illinois these days, the optimist might be tempted to say that while the glass is still half full, it's also leaking its noisome contents through that crack down its side. 

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Take a deep breath and count to 10. Illinoisans would do well to keep that axiom in mind as they ponder whether the state Constitution should be changed to allow disgruntled voters to oust elected officials. 

Sparked by widespread dissatisfaction with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a proposal to add recall powers to the Constitution is under consideration in the General Assembly. 

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

 

As Illinois lawmakers return from spring break for what everyone fervently hopes will be the last two months of the legislative session, one grim fact overshadows all others: The state is flat-out broke. No, even worse, it’s plunged deep in debt, the result of years of living beyond its means.

Consider a smattering of news items that appeared before the General Assembly left Springfield in mid-March:

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

 

Was it a fluke? A one-time phenomenon triggered by a charismatic favorite son?

Or do the results of last month’s primary election signal a tectonic shift in regional party strength in Illinois?

Certainly no one was surprised that U.S. Sen. Barack Obama easily outpolled U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential contest. After all, hadn’t party leaders intentionally engineered the primary vote six weeks earlier than usual, just to boost Obama’s national fortunes?

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

 

It's déjà vu all over again. Illinoisans can be forgiven if Yogi Berra's celebrated observation comes to mind as the public corruption trial draws near of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, formerly one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's top fundraisers and key advisers.

Rezko was indicted in October 2006 on 24 counts of using his insider role to extort kickbacks and campaign contributions in return for state contracts and investment business, as part of Operation Board Games, a federal investigation into corruption involving state regulatory and investment panels.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

 

Read the letters to the editor in the daily newspaper or listen to local talk radio, and you can't help but conclude that citizens seem pretty darn unhappy with the job performance of the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Given such apparent public dissatisfaction, one reasonably might expect to see a groundswell of challenges to sitting lawmakers in the 2008 elections, mounted by disgruntled citizens hoping to oust incumbents they see as incompetent at best and downright crooked at worst.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

 

If you were scratching your head when the word JCAR popped into the news a few weeks ago, don't feel too bad.

Chances are, few folks outside the inner workings of state government had heard of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or, as most reporters describe it, the "obscure" arm of the General Assembly.

Most Illinoisans don't pay close attention to the behind-the-scenes, nuts-and-bolts machinery that produces public policy, any more than they consciously think about the inner workings of the cars they drive or the TVs they watch. 

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

 

Dark clouds could be on the horizon for state coffers, as the slumping national economy appears to be eroding the upbeat revenue forecasts used to craft this year's state budget. The bad news came in reports last month from state Comptroller Dan Hynes and from the legislature's Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The findings include the following:

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

 

In the abstract, two suits now pending in Sangamon County Circuit Court pose interesting questions involving the constitutional tenet of separation of powers and the proper roles of the executive and legislative branches in lawmaking.

In the surreal world of here-and-now Illinois politics, the suits are among the latest signs of the toxic environment infusing government under the control of the state's dysfunctional Democratic leaders.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

As the seemingly interminable spring legislative session drags on through the dog days of summer and lawmakers begin circulating petitions for re-election, Democratic lawmakers can't be enthusiastic about the record compiled by their leaders.

Despite controlling all the levers of the lawmaking machinery — the governorship and majorities in both the Senate and the House — the dysfunctional Ds set new standards for governing incompetence.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Things could be worse, of course. National surveys taken at roughly the same time found even fewer people seeing things going in the right direction nationally.

Most Illinoisans think the state is headed in the wrong direction.

Almost two-thirds believe state government has a lot or quite a bit of impact on the day-to-day lives of state residents, but three-quarters say state government can be trusted to do what is right hardly ever or only some of the time.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Most significant for GOP hopes, more than 98 percent of the estimated net growth, or almost 405,000 new residents, occurred in the five collar counties, historically Republican strongholds.

The party of Abraham Lincoln has fallen on hard times in the Land of Lincoln, but a recent U.S. Census report may hold a ray of hope for beleaguered Illinois Republicans.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled." 

 African proverb

In the legislative battle now under way between two heavyweight industries — the telephone companies and the cable television providers — what's at risk of getting trampled is the public interest.

Grim Prognosis: Illinois' fiscal health is in a sorry state
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"Run government like a business." We've all heard the familiar refrain, typically as a pledge from a political candidate or as a demand from a government critic.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood... ."

Daniel H. Burnham

In his State of the State/budget address last month, Gov. Rod Blagojevich quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and cited Hercules' struggle to kill the many-headed Hydra.

But the $60 billion spending plan he presented also seemed to embody the advice of the famed Chicago architect, for it was truly super-sized. Blagojevich called for:

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Everybody knows that holding Illinois' presidential primary in mid-March virtually assures that a front-runner will have all but locked up both major parties' nominations by the time Illinoisans cast ballots.

The 2008 presidential campaign figures to be the most wide-open contest for the White House in decades. Not since 1928 has neither a sitting president nor a sitting vice president sought his party's nomination for the top spot.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

His Inaugural Address featured fairy tales such as the budget he supposedly balanced (he's yet to do so) and his election "mandate" (most voters marked someone else for governor).

Since the late 1980s, "I'm going to Disney World!" has been the happy proclamation of Super Bowl winners, becoming one of the most recognizable advertising slogans in marketing history.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Health care is an essential safeguard of human life and dignity, and there is an obligation for society to ensure that every person be able to realize this right. ... Universal coverage is not a vague promise or a rhetorical preamble to legislation, but requires practical means and sufficient investment to permit everyone to obtain decent health care on a regular basis.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin
October 1995 pastoral letter

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Making a campaign stop in Bloom-ington the Sunday before last month's general election, Republican Judy Baar Topinka suggested her Democratic opponent, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, should switch jobs and run for manager of the Chicago Cubs.

"They're a bunch of losers, too, and need some help," she explained.

 Ouch. The gratuitous slap at Wrigley's Lovable Losers left even hard-core Cardinal fans in central Illinois scratching their heads.

"What was she thinking?" as the governor's spinmeisters would put it.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Reporters are a talkative lot, so when a bunch of them get together, they swap a lot of war stories. For those covering state government, a favored venue is the national conference of Capitolbeat, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. And when Illinois scribes recount the misdeeds of our elected leaders to their colleagues from elsewhere around the nation, the reaction is pretty standard — eyes open wide, jaws drop and expressions of incredulity abound.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

As Campaign 2006 heads into the homestretch, a refresher course in Civics 101 might help Illinois voters separate fact from fiction amid the campaign blather flooding the airwaves and clogging their mailboxes.

Let's begin by turning a critical eye to one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's favorite themes: Just about everything that's currently wrong in Illinois is the fault of 26 years of Republican governors, in particular the last four under George Ryan.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Like dry rot slowly undermining a home's floor joists, an insidious trend is eating away at the nation's historic underpinnings.

The peril comes not from the chance that more governments will recognize formally committed relationships between same-sex couples. Neither is it the possibility that the national anthem will be widely sung in Spanish, nor even growing support for smoke-free environs. Rather, the danger is the spreading shroud of government secrecy that elected and appointed officials are pushing to cloak their actions from public scrutiny.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Like a high-rolling homeowner pawning the family silver to prop up an extravagant lifestyle, Gov. Rod Blagojevich wants to sell or lease the state lottery to bring in a quick $10 billion or so for education.

State Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, meanwhile, is pushing privatization of the state's 274-mile toll road network to garner upwards of $15 billion for transportation projects and pension funding.

Both plans hold out an almost irresistible lure for politicians in an election year — a promise of lots of cash in a hurry, virtually pain-free in the short term.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

"This spending plan reflects our values. This spending plan responds to working families ... [and the] unfortunate in our state." 

Sen. Jeffrey M. Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat.

 "This is a fiscal fiasco that is staring the taxpayers in the face. What we have is a champagne and caviar budget when we can't afford it." 

Rep. Dave Winters, a Shirland Republican.

"We found just the right level of funding to make this budget work." 

Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

If ominous winds are sending chills up and down the spines of the muckety-mucks frequenting the 16th floor of the James R. Thompson Center and the 5th floor of Chicago's City Hall, don't blame vagrant breezes off Lake Michigan.

Instead, look south a few blocks to the Dirksen Federal Building, where a few weeks ago a federal jury found former Gov. George Ryan and Chicago businessman Larry Warner guilty on all counts in a marathon public corruption trial.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The stereotype is familiar — the factory worker who used to earn $19 an hour before his job was shipped to Mexico now earns minimum wage making Big Macs.

All too often, though, it's true. The new millennium has been tough on Illinois workers and their families, as the state's changing economy has seen the loss of thousands of high-paying jobs with good benefits, replaced by new jobs with lower pay and fewer benefits.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

A couple of weeks ago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich formally announced what most folks thought has been pretty apparent since the day he took office — he is seeking another term as the state's chief executive.

The governor's statewide flyaround followed by a few days his budget address to a joint session of the Illinois legislature, in which he unveiled a $55.3 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's State of the State address had a familiar ring for devotees of late-night television, where infomercials reign supreme. Sounding like a video pitchman, the governor extolled the "significant progress" the state has made during his tenure and promised even greater achievements in the future.

In the 39-minute address, Blagojevich touted his record in health care, school funding and job creation, pushed a $3.2 billion public works plan, and offered new initiatives to help pay college tuition costs and to provide veterans health care.

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