All posts by alexisshanes2019

Life at a research lab in Israel’s Negev desert

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

SDE BOKER, ISRAEL — Two hours south of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where political drama unraveled amid Tuesday’s Israeli elections, I finished my morning coffee and stepped out into the blinding desert sunshine.

I’m spending this month at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, which are part of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The main BGU campus is located in Be’er Sheva, the Negev desert’s largest city. But I’m at the BIDR outpost 45 minutes south, in Sde Boker, where I’m embedded with researchers tackling water stewardship in the Middle East. I’m reporting by observation and taking notes I’ll later use for Medill News Service stories.
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Pittsburgh aftermath: Evanston religious leaders consider active shooter responses

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

The thousands-year-old nightmare of anti-Semitism erupted again on Oct. 29, when 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue died in a shooting, likely the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. history.

Illinois religious communities, like so many faith groups around the world, recoiled in response, condemning the attack and gathering at solidarity events to mourn the victims. “It was a wake-up call that this could happen in our communities,” said Andrea London, the senior rabbi at Beth Emet, a reform synagogue in Evanston.

Evanston’s interfaith group of religious leaders who routinely work together discussed active shooter responses at a recent meeting, London said. She said  religious leaders are considering  programs such as active shooter training.
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Illinois farmers torn about health insurance options

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Illinois farmers, faced with exploding health care costs, are turning away from the individual health insurance market as they seek solutions to one of several ballooning financial woes.

Association healthcare plans could provide an answer, said Christina Nourie, an Illinois Farm Bureau legislative coordinator.

Association plans allow small businesses or organizations to join together to purchase health insurance on behalf of their members just as a large employer would, she said during a talk Saturday at the IFB Annual Meeting in Chicago. But legislation would be needed to authorize such plans in Illinois and other states.
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Schneider wins third term in Illinois’ 10th District

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider clinched reelection in the north suburban 10th District Tuesday, bringing a tame campaign to an unsurprising close amid a contentious national midterm season.

The Associated Press called the race for Schneider just before 8:30 p.m. The Deerfield Democrat defeated Republican candidate Douglas Bennett handily, using his incumbency to earn 63 percent of the vote in the district, which includes parts of suburban middle- and upper-class Cook and Lake counties.
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Affordable housing tensions boil over in Logan Square

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Ashley Galvan Ramos brought the most impassioned voice to a march by Logan Square residents against housing inequity, the latest in a string of riffs between activists and the city as rents skyrocket in their gentrifying neighborhood.

Galvan Ramos, the 20-year-old youth representative for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, said she and her family found themselves displaced early this year after their landlord sold their apartment building without warning.
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Obama rips Trump during Wisconsin rally

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

MILWAUKEE — Former President Barack Obama attacked his successor as a liar during a rally Friday, warning voters about Republican dishonesty and hammering the GOP leadership for undermining health care guarantees as he stumped for Wisconsin Democrats.

Obama avoided referring to President Trump by name, but in an impassioned address to 3,500 people at North Division High School, he denounced the nationwide partisanship that Trump’s administration has heightened, going so far as to criticize the media, a move rare for a Democrat.

In a sprawling tirade, he likened the GOP’s narrative to the 2014 Ebola scare and the 2016 coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email habits, calling it “fearmongering.” He said it is the latest in a series of Republican attempts to “scare the heck out of people” ahead of every election.

“Until we start getting a little bit better about calling a lie a lie,” he said, “the only check we have on this behavior is you and your vote.”

Obama urged voters to support Tony Evers, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate expected to unseat two-term Gov. Scott Walker (R), and incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), who spoke at length about her support for the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

Walker’s embattled administration is a point of controversy even outside Wisconsin, his race against Evers one of the nation’s most contentious. His supporters herald the state’s slow-but-steady economic improvement — projected 2018 GDP growth is 1.6 percent — and 3 percent unemployment rate. Even some Democrats hesitate to question Walker’s economic victories, although many jobs pay little more than minimum wage.

Walker’s critics cite cuts to school budgets and the conditions of the state’s roads and bridges, while union members remain angered over his successful effort to weaken public employees’ unions.

The crowd, weary from polarized rhetoric gripping the country ahead of the Nov. 6 elections, gave Obama a fervent welcome. His magnetic personality was newly emphatic as he skewered the Trump administration, noting what he characterized as corruption within the Republican Party.

“In Washington, they have racked up enough indictments to field a football team,” he said before pausing for effect. “Nobody in my administration got indicted.

“Their promise to drain the swamp — that was not on the up and up,” he added, his voice cracking.

He honed in on health care, slamming Walker, a fierce ACA opponent who says he favors guaranteed insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions yet supports a lawsuit that would eliminate such protections. Walker is among a number of Republicans around the country who are running TV ads declaring their support for pre-existing conditions coverage while simultaneously attempting to torpedo the law.

“That is some kind of gall,” Obama said. “That is some kind of chutzpah. But let’s also call it what it is: it is a lie.”

Obama, at times sounding incredulous, drew a roar from his sea of supporters as he ripped Trump’s recent promise to enact a middle-class tax cut through the House, a policy statement that surprised lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“The president said he’d pass a tax cut bill before the next election,” he said, in a tone of disbelief. “Congress isn’t even in session.”

Obama criticized Trump’s promise to “help the little guy,” noting that Trump’s tax cuts have hardly reflected his vows. Contrary to Republican assertions, the 2017 tax bill barely reached the middle class, while 65 percent of the benefits went to the upper income quintile, according to a Tax Policy Center analysis.

Obama also denounced his successor’s tendency to take credit for Obama administration successes.

“We got the economy going again,” he said. “It’s still going, by the way. Where do you think that started?”

Audience members showed concern for a spectrum of issues extending beyond health care and Washington partisanship. For Teanna Evans, a 25-year-old sixth-grade teacher from Milwaukee, the rally was an opportunity to “hear what’s going on and what needs to change” ahead of the election.

“I think there’s a lot that needs to go on with our public schools and making sure that our schools are funded correctly,” she said amid a Wisconsin gubernatorial election where education has taken center stage. “Things like that, I’m very passionate about.”

Clarice Collins, 41, a member of the Communication Workers of America, said she is most worried about Wisconsin’s Act 10. The 2011 legislation, Walker’s signature accomplishment, wiped out collective bargaining for public employees, drawing protests and a failed attempt to recall him from office.

“Cost of living is really expensive, and we’re still making $7 as a minimum wage,” Collins said. “That’s a huge issue.”

Ahead of the rally, Collins stood in the rain among fellow union members, holding a CWA sign. The key, she said, is to be sure to vote. Turnout counts in a state where Clinton received 238,000 fewer votes than Obama received four years earlier. Trump’s victory margin was barely 22,000.

“I’m from the north side of Milwaukee, which is a very powerful vote in Wisconsin right now,” she said. “In the sixth grade, I was taught the Constitution and my power, the power of my vote. It’s an honor to be able to vote. No one should take that lightly.”

Milwaukee resident Dorion Higgins, 33, is a correctional officer. He said he hopes the upcoming elections will change the country’s narrative about key issues, such as health care access and tax cuts, which he said failed the middle class.

“I think it will be a check on the Republican Congress,” he said. “If we win, we can turn things around and push forward to 2020, the presidential elections.”

Higgins, who described himself as a “staunch Democrat,” said he attended the rally in search of enlightenment from the former president amid widespread, Republican-driven partisanship and national political discontent.

“Our whole way of life right now is at stake,” he said.

Obama echoed that sentiment in his final plea, even as he acknowledged that a single election will not repair the damage he perceives.

“The character of our country is on the ballot,” Obama said. “If you vote, things will get better. It will be a start.”

Photo at top: Former President Barack Obama received an enthusiastic welcome in Milwaukee — 3,500 fans packed the gymnasium at North Division High School, and an additional 600 crowded into an overflow room. (Alexis Shanes/MEDILL)

Winter is coming and Chicago’s urban gardeners are getting ready

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Local gardening enthusiasts on Saturday braved freezing winds to learn winter plant management techniques at an urban garden in Uptown, the latest in a series of grassroots workshops aimed at educating city growers.

Breanne Heath, the education program manager at Peterson Garden Project, offered participants tips for caring for perennial herbs, planting garlic and preparing unplanted raised garden beds to weather an oppressive Chicago winter until the spring growing season.

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Analysis: Health care policy in Illinois’ 10th District

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Rep. Brad Schneider is likely to win reelection in Illinois’ 10th District, a left-leaning mix of wealthy and working-class communities in Lake and Cook counties, adding to Democrats’ chances of controlling the House and redefining health care policy.

The Deerfield representative, who ran unopposed in the March primary, is among the most moderate of Illinois Democrats. He is a vocal supporter of the controversial Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, although he acknowledges the law’s shortcomings. Individual insurance separate from employer-based coverage, for instance, has increased in cost since most ACA reforms took effect.

“I think we should be building on its successes,” Schneider said after a town hall meeting in Highview,his 28th grassroots interaction with constituents this year. He said he would continue fighting for coverage for pre-existing conditions, a Democratic triumph that is a point of contention between parties.

“It’s not perfect,” he added. “Where there are problems, let’s fix those. We have the richest nation in the world — everyone in this country should have the quality, affordable health care they need.”

Health care is one of the top issues in this year’s midterm elections. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Thursday, it was voters’ No. 1 concern, edging out worries about President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, amid consistent Republican-led condemnation, the ACA has commanded a high level of support among voters — 49 percent of adults approve of the law, according to KFF data updated Thursday, compared with 42 percent who disapprove.

Schneider, emphasizing a need to promote civil discourse in Washington, frequently touts his membership in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. Members of the working group have proposed solutions to health care, gun safety, infrastructure and immigration. His opponent, Republican Douglas Bennett, a computer consultant who has taken a business-focused approach to the suburban district, has criticized Obama-era reforms, including health care, saying they hurt marketplace competition.

Caucus members in 2017 designed a five-section plan to stabilize the health care market. Schneider cosponsored the proposal, which was introduced late in December 2017 and referred to the Subcommittee on Health in January.

The proposal would have subjected cost-sharing reduction payments — discounts for deductibles, co-payments, and coinsurance — to Congressional oversight, created funds to increase insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, raised employer mandate requirements, repealed the medical device tax and offered new guidelines for state-level coverage.

Essentially, Schneider said, the plan was an “agreement between the insurance companies and the government to help low-income individuals afford their co-pays and their deductibles to make insurance more affordable.”

The New York Times editorial board called the plan, released just days after a failed Republican attempt to cut parts of the ACA, a “surprising if modest burst of bipartisanship.”

Still, few, if any caucus proposals have gained widespread traction. Conservatives have vowed to resume efforts to repeal the ACA, although they’re not likely to succeed due to a slim Republican Senate majority and increased ACA constituency, according to a Washington Post analysis. On the other side, both Democratic politicians and voters are disproportionately worried Republicans will take away coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Schneider has engaged in the health care debate since he first won office in 2012. He lost the swing district to Republican Robert Dold in 2014, one of the most dramatic House losses in recent history. Dold won by a 2.6 percent margin in the closest race for a House seat in Illinois that year. Schneider reclaimed the seat in 2016.

Roll Call rated the district as “solid Democratic,” and a FiveThirtyEight analysis gave Schneider a 99.9 percent chance of winning, estimating he will capture 66.5 percent of the vote. Schneider’s incumbency holds high name recognition and is advantageous for fundraising. However, Congress’ approval rating is 19 percent, according to a Sept. 12 Gallup report, which could make a non-incumbent candidate an inviting alternative for voters. The district voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Schneider has endorsements from 15 mayors and village presidents from the district, according to a statement released Wednesday, and won the endorsement of the Chicago Sun-Times and the suburban Daily Herald.

His opponent, first-time political candidate and independent computer consultant Douglas Bennett, barely eked out a victory in the three-way Republican primary, edging his closest competitor by fewer than 500 votes among 30,423 votes cast.

Schneider has raised $4,197,443.38 this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data. He has significant financial backing from political action committees representing health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and medical organizations.

Although disparities in campaign funding are not always indicative of outcome, Bennett has raised only $251,298.58. He is largely a self-funded candidate, with his own contributions to his campaign totaling $130,551, according to FEC data.

Democrats are expected to gain control of the House in November, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. They stand an 84.1 percent chance as of Friday morning, near the highest probability since election forecasting began in August.

Early voting in Illinois began Sept. 27 and will continue through Nov. 5. Election Day is Nov. 6.

Photo at top: U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider defended his health care policy stance during a debate earlier this month. (Alexis Shanes/MEDILL)

10th District candidates debate gun control and climate change among contentious topics

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-10th) called for crossing the partisan divide on everything from health care to immigration reform during a debate Sunday with GOP opponent and computer consultant Douglas Bennett.

Schneider added that he is part of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus to “fight for the values and priorities of our community” and identify common ground between parties for policy solutions moving forward.
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Brush strokes of support for the Chicago River

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

Chicago artist Barbara Kay Herring spiked her canvas with vaulting spires and their shimmering reflections emerge from a flurry of sweeping, feathery paint strokes.

The Chicago River has long been a source of creative inspiration and community debate, and a partnership this weekend between local painters and long-standing non-profit Friends of the Chicago River benefitted both artists and advocates.

For the nearly 30 artists who set up their easels at 8 a.m. Saturday along the Chicago River, the art form of plein air painting is a unique opportunity to give back. Plein air painting means working at the scene, in the open air.

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