Oak Park’s Chris Meister helped to defuse bad press for alderman

Oak Park’s Chris Meister was in the thick of it in February 2011 when highly placed governor’s men and women worked in emergency mode to protect Ald. Deborah Graham in her re-election campaign. He emailed three of them with her complaint of opponents’ tactics — a “last-minute attack” that “stoops to a new low,” she said — and they got to work.

The opponents had called a news conference to accuse her of steering thousands in neighborhood anti-violence money to supporters, including her pastor. It was “questionable appropriation of anti-violence funding directly benefiting the incumbent alderman,” they said.

Meister was having none of it. “The potential exposure for the governor’s office from the factually incorrect press release alludes to a scenario where the governor and Alderman Graham made these funding decisions [on] their own,” he emailed his fellow strategists. He further noted that four of the opponents had “received . . . either directly or through affiliated organizations state and federal funds.”

They were all beneficiaries, in other words, pots calling the kettle black.

“Hopefully the story will die,” he emailed later, commending Jack Lavin, Gov. Quinn’s former chief of staff and one of the strategists, for his “very valuable” contribution.

Sen. Don Harmon’s office had also helped, in that an aide put together the rebuttal message which had apparently been jointly devised by Meister, Lavin, Quinn’s former chief operating officer Andrew Ross, and Quinn’s director of communications Mica Matsoff.

All in all, the emails give a fascinating snapshot of politicking at the highest levels, in this case to protect an alderman but also the governor himself. At issue was the $54-million state expenditure authorized by Quinn in 2010, weeks before his own election. Graham’s pastor had got $780,000 for his organization. Another Graham supporter had also been blessed with a grant. WBEZ had reported this in the middle of Graham’s campaign, and her opponents seized the opportunity to use them against her.

Meister’s emails came to light two weeks ago, when former COO Ross supplied them for an Oct. 8 and 9 Legislative Audit Commission hearing for which he and six other Quinn aides had been subpoenaed. Sun-Times’ equal-opportunity annoyer (of Dems and Republicans), the excellent Dave McKinney, wrote about them in his Oct. 7 story, Emails show Quinn aides had political concerns over NRI in 2011.

As director of the Illinois Finance Authority, itself a dispenser of government money — to a wide variety of institutions and organizations — Meister was apparently qualified to help tamp down the fallout.

A state audit eight months ago, in McKinney’s words “tore apart” Quinn’s NRI. The whole NRI operation is under federal investigation for its alarming resemblance to a very expensive vote-buying scheme.

If the emails depict high-level damage control, they also demonstrate Chris Meister’s ascension to high levels of gubernatorial consultation. In Oak Park he’s been prominent in DPOP (Dem Party of OP) activities, moderating a candidate’s panel, reporting to DPOP meetings, giving a sort of Joe Biden-like performance. He’s personable, articulate, energetic, on his way, one might guess, to bigger and better things.

He brings energy and smarts to the inevitable politicking that goes with government jobs. Head of the finance authority, thanks to Quinn, since 2009, its lawyer for two years before that, holding an assortment of state-employed lawyer’s jobs before that, including as lobbyist for the state’s Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, he’s been amassing credentials for quite a while.

He’s smart and competent and knows the ropes. Quinn’s been lucky to have him (Ald. Graham too, for that matter), among other things for his ability to head trouble off at the pass. Something of no small importance for a rising star.

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