Cubs, Trump, and more: Sun-Times’ staff picks top stories of 2016
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It can now be said: The Cubs FINALLY won the World Series.
For Cubs fans, that was the best news in, well, 108 years. Even for kinda-sorta baseball fans, it was a welcome relief from much of the grim, dreary news stories of 2016 — many of which had spilled over from the previous year. Those themes would include controversial police-involved shootings, an ongoing impasse in Springfield and Chicago’s public-employee pension crisis.
There also was plenty of unrest around the world, including a bloody civil war in Syria and terrorist attacks in Europe.
But not everything can make a Top 10 list, of course, and ours has a local focus. With that in mind, in no particular order, here are the top stories of 2016 as selected by the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times.
1. Cubs win the World Series
Just three games into a season of so much promise, the Cubs’ phenomenal young slugger Kyle Schwarber tore up his left knee. Everyone said the right things — others would have to step up now; it would be a stern test of the team’s depth — but quietly, the gloom familiar to generations of Cubs fans began to seep into Wrigleyville. But the doubters were wrong. The Cubs finished the season with the best record in baseball. Then they won the pennant. In spectacular — some might say agonizing — fashion the Cubs came back from 3-1 deficit to win the World Series in seven games in Cleveland, obliterating 108 years of misery. Pandemonium engulfed the North Side. The party went on for days, culminating in a downtown rally the likes of which Chicago has never seen. And at year’s end, Cubs fans — with the core of the team expected to return next season — salivated over the possibility that maybe, just maybe, they’d be doing it all again in 2017.
2. City’s soaring homicide rate and police accountability
For the first time since 1998, the city topped 700 homicides in a single year — 785, as of Thursday afternoon. In all of 2015, Chicago had 487. Among the victims: U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’ 15-year-old grandson, killed in November, and Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade’s cousin, killed in August — one of the deadliest months in decades.
What likely accounted for the huge spike? A police slowdown in reaction to increased scrutiny of officers’ interactions with the public, as well as a chronic lack of trust between cops and the communities worst hit by violence, feuding gangs and too many guns on the street. In response to the furor over the October 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald — a dashcam video of which showed the young man being shot 16 times — Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to scrap the Independent Police Review Authority and replace it with the new Civilian Office of Police Accountability, expected to start up in 2017. The new agency will have about twice the funding of IPRA and investigate more kinds of misconduct allegations, city officials say. Emanuel hired a new top cop, Eddie Johnson — a surprise pick, but an insider who was supposed to boost police morale while, as an African-American, help restore trust in predominantly black communities. As the year came to an end, the mayor had promised 1,000 new police officers.
3. Donald Trump
The president-elect owns a swanky hotel downtown, but his statements during his campaign likely did little to boost the city’s tourism rate. He repeatedly singled out Chicago during the presidential campaign for its bloody streets. And in a live debate with Hillary Clinton in September, he called Chicago a “war-torn country.”
“When you have 4,000 people killed in Chicago by guns from the beginning of the presidency of Barack Obama — his hometown — you have to have stop-and-frisk,” Trump said. “You need more police. You need a better community relation.”
Some Chicagoans took offense. The Democratic City Council voted to remove the honorary “Trump Plaza” designation outside the president-elect’s 96-story Trump International Hotel & Tower. The city showed its displeasure in other ways: Protesters marched to his hotel, outraged at some of the words Trump has used in referring to women. And in March, protesters forced the cancellation of a pro-Trump rally at UIC.
In November, Trump defeated Chicago native Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady who would have been the country’s first female president. His election sparked more outrage and protests in Chicago and elsewhere.
But by year’s end, as part of his unity message, Trump invited Emanuel to New York to pick his brain about moving into the White House.
4. Problems at Chicago Public Schools
Hardly known for stability, Chicago Public Schools seemed extra unpredictable in 2016, even by its own standards as of late.
CPS’ ‘balanced’ budget still awaits $215 million from Springfield, which it will need to pay a giant $700 million plus pension bill in June, and its last effort was vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has suggested the district consider bankruptcy. In February, halfway through the school year, district leaders slashed school budgets and even laid off some staff because . . . they were waiting for millions from Springfield. Extra-high interest rates greeted district efforts to borrow money right after Rauner attempted a financial takeover of CPS. Now families complain that the budget woes are affecting special ed students the worst.
Then there was the teachers strike that wasn’t. Parents had to wait until midnight one night in October to learn that school would continue as usual after the Board of Education gave the Chicago Teachers Union pretty much everything it wanted to avoid a walkout nearly two years after talks started. Historically, the city tapped into surplus TIF money to foot the bill. On the heels of two Friday furlough days, the CTU launched a one-day strike in April, too. One charter school chain almost went on strike too — in what would have been the country’s first — but also eked out a deal at the last minute.
Since September 2015, CPS has lost about 11,000 students, and a record number of principals resigned. And yet, the district and mayor have announced a slew of new school construction — publicized without rhyme or reason — thanks to a special new $45 million property tax levy. But the mayor’s pet $60 million high school to be named for Barack Obama got shelved because the TIF money behind it was needed for the teachers.
5. Former House speaker goes to prison
The man once second in line to the president left the Dirksen Federal Building in April, labeled a “serial child molester” and preparing for a 15-month prison term.
For the first time since his 2015 indictment for violating banking laws, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert admitted in court — though somewhat vaguely — that he sexually abused students while a teacher and coach at Yorkville High School. In all, the feds accused Hastert of sexually abusing five students.
Hastert’s attorneys had asked for probation. Prosecutors wanted six months in prison for Hastert, who had been accused of skirting bank laws and lying to the FBI. Hastert eventually pleaded guilty to violating federal bank laws. The feds said Hastert arranged to pay $3.5 million in hush money to cover his past misconduct.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin had this to say before handing down the longer prison term: “If Denny Hastert could do it, anyone could do it. Nothing is more stunning than to have the words ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.”
6. Rauner vs. Madigan
When it seemed like Illinois lawmakers would never reach a deal for a state budget, Democrats and Republicans finally agreed to one — sort of.
Both sides signed off on a stopgap deal at the end of June to fund state operations until the end of the year and to ensure schools would open on time in the fall. That didn’t put an end to — or even stall — the finger-pointing.
“Many previous efforts to implement a more comprehensive budget failed due to the governor’s insistence on the inclusion of his agenda that would drive down middle-class wages and standards of living,” House Speaker Michael Madigan said the day the deal was reached.
Rauner called the deal a “low point in the evolution of Illinois.”
The fiery rhetoric continued through the year, with Madigan claiming in early December, as budget meeting went nowhere, that Rauner was holding the budget hostage “to help his wealthy friends and large corporations.”
7. Incumbents get the boot
For a host of reasons, it was not a particularly good year to be an incumbent in Illinois.
Kim Foxx — with the backing of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — ousted Anita Alvarez, who was seeking her third term as the county’s top prosecutor. Foxx’s message of reform, coupled with loud street protests over Alvarez’s handling of the Laquan McDonald case, helped ensure the newcomer’s victory.
Tammy Duckworth became only the second female U.S. senator in Illinois history, after defeating U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. Duckworth, a Democratic congresswoman and wounded Iraq War veteran from the northwest suburbs, benefited from a prime speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention and from some well-publicized verbal gaffes by Kirk during the campaign.
And incumbent U.S. Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., also fell, losing to Brad Schneider in the north suburban 10th Congressional District. It was the third straight race between the two — Schneider also beat an incumbent Dold in 2012, then lost when running as an incumbent in 2014.
Incumbent state Rep. Ken Dunkin, a Democrat, paid the price for cozying up to the Republican governor. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, doing a campaign ad for the eventual winner, Juliana Stratton, in the state House 5th District race.
8. A tale of two museums
We learned that the Barack Obama Presidential Center would be built in Jackson Park, and that movie mogul George Lucas’ museum would rise in a city far, far away from Chicago.
“Jackson Park, with its aesthetics, its iconic location, the historical relevance of the world’s fair — we just think it will attract visitors on a national level, a global level and bring significant benefits to both communities,” Marty Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation, said in August in announcing the decision to choose Jackson Park over Washington Park, the other finalist. The opening was planned for 2021.
Much to the irritation of the mayor, Lucas was finally forced to abandon plans to build his $743 million museum on the city’s lakefront. A group calling itself “Friends of the Park” had filed suit, successfully blocking the mayor’s original plan to give Lucas 17 acres of lakefront near Soldier Field. The mayor then suggested tearing down McCormick Place East and putting the thing there. But that depended, in part, on $1.2 billion in new borrowing.
In June, citing “extensive delays,” the Lucas folks pulled out and announced plans to build in California.
9. Airport chaos
The online videos made for entertaining viewing, but the snaking, seemingly endless lines at O’Hare and Midway were mostly maddening. Back in May, thousands of passengers missed flights because of staff shortages at the Transportation Security Administration.
TSA chief Peter Neffenger came to Chicago in May and promised to do better, after a tongue lashing from the mayor.
“You’ll see crowds [in the summer], but my goal is to keep you moving,” he said, standing beside Emanuel and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, among others. “We can’t have a situation like we had here in Chicago again.”
There was talk, briefly, of privatizing security at the airports. That faded after the TSA bumped up staffing levels and the lines shrank to acceptable levels.
10. The Hamilton phenomenon
The arrival of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” in Chicago was, to borrow the lyrics of a much earlier Broadway hit, “one singular sensation.” Not only did it arouse a unique form of hysteria among traditional musical theater audiences, but it captured the imagination of those who generally couldn’t care less about Broadway shows.
The question is: Why? Why did a show about a Founding Father who never became president create such a stir? Well, you can start with the racially flipped casting that brought the 18th century right into the era of Obama, and of course the hip-hop beat that made its Broadway sound so of this moment. Miranda’s creative genius and charismatic, youthful spirit played a huge part, of course. To be sure, the guy also possesses a true marketing genius: He can work Twitter better than a certain president-to-be.
Add to all this the choice of Chicago as the ideal place to mount the first post-Broadway edition of the show, a much-deserved toast to the city that never gives away its shot when it comes to theater.
Contributing: Lauren Fitzpatrick, Frank Main, Jordan Owen, Hedy Weiss, Associated Press.