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Money talks, twice 

Mayor Emanuel's political action committee gives the rich a second chance to please him

click to enlarge TONIKA JOHNSON

A year ago, Miguel del Valle was running for mayor. His resume was outstanding. He'd risen from blue-collar roots on Chicago's near-northwest side to the state senate, where he was a leading liberal voice for 20 years. Five years as city clerk after that had schooled him on the workings of Chicago government. He was widely regarded as smart, industrious, and honest. His chances of winning were zero.

Although del Valle had built an impressive reputation, he'd neglected to cultivate a prerequisite for higher office: connections to money.

Rahm Emanuel made no such error. While raising money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1980s, and for Richard M. Daley when he ran for mayor in 1989, and for Bill Clinton when he first ran for president in 1992, Emanuel developed copious links to people who were not only rich, but inclined to invest in politicians. He had family ties to money as well: one brother was a top Hollywood agent, another a prominent bioethicist. Two and a half years as an investment banker brought Emanuel personal wealth—$18 million—and still more connections with people who were ideal friends for a person with political ambitions. In the mayor's race, Emanuel had to overcome a court challenge about his residency, and charges that when he first ran for office—for Congress, in 2002—patronage workers supplied by corrupt city officials had helped him win. But whatever challenges Emanuel faced on the campaign trail, access to money hasn't been one of them.

Del Valle raised $314,000 in his quest for mayor. Candidates talk of "war chests," but 314 grand wasn't enough to mount a fistfight with Emanuel. Emanuel got more than that just from Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Haim Saban, CEO of Fox Family Network, initially gave "Chicago for Rahm Emanuel" $300,000. The committee returned the contribution, telling Saban that Emanuel's campaign was voluntarily limiting contributions to $100,000. Saban promptly wrote a check for that amount, and his wife sent in $100,000 as well. Several other Hollywood producers and agents also gave the max. Steven Spielberg cheaped out at $75,000.

The who's who of big donors to Emanuel also included Steve Jobs and his wife ($50,000 each), and Donald Trump ($50,000). Emanuel got 65 contributions of $50,000 or more. (Del Valle got none that large.) In Chicago, the big gifts to Emanuel came from the usual suspects: money managers, lawyers, and real estate and construction companies, some who had business with the city. His campaign raised more than $14 million in all—44 times what del Valle took in.

On February 22, Emanuel got 326,331 votes, or 55 percent of those cast. Gery Chico, who finished second in fund-raising with $4.15 million, also finished second in votes, with 24 percent. Del Valle was a distant third, with 9 percent.

Now that Emanuel's in office he's still fund-raising—though not for re-election in 2015. A political action committee has been pulling in money to help him extend his power in the mayor's office. This should build solidarity for his agenda, but it also could make him even more beholden to donors whose interests in supporting him are unclear. The mayor didn't respond to my request for comment for this story.

In March, Emanuel's "New Chicago Committee" was created with the stated purpose of supporting "candidates for public office who share the goals of the political committee." (PACs can aid multiple candidates.) Though Emanuel wasn't named in the organization papers, the committee's executive director, Tom Bowen, made it clear to reporters that it's Emanuel's PAC: it's the mayor who decides which candidates "share the goals of the political committee."

The runoffs for the last 14 seats on the City Council were less than a month away when NCC was formed. NCC quickly raised $390,000 from contributors, which it spent mainly to help nine of the runoff candidates Emanuel favored. Seven of them won.

NCC has its sights set now on the Democratic primary next March. The PAC staged a fund-raiser in Lincoln Park last month, featuring cocktails and the mayor, and raised another $126,000. NCC currently has more than $168,000 on hand for the March elections, and could raise more before them. ("Our plans are fluid right now," Bowen says about the possibility of additional fund-raising.)

State legislators, county board members, ward bosses, and judges are up for nomination and election in March, and NCC might contribute to candidates in any of those races. "Nothing's off the table," Bowen says. "We monitor everything that's going on, and we'll keep all of our options open."

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