Political committees supporting mayoral challengers U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the final weeks of the race for mayor yet hiding where that money is coming from.
The latest committee to join the fray is the New Leadership for Chicago committee, which late last week reported doling out nearly $200,000 so far on digital media in support of García’s run for mayor, according to campaign finance records. The similarly named Chicago Leadership Committee has spent more than $165,000 on TV and digital ads for Vallas’ mayoral bid.
Both committees are receiving dark money, which is funding where the individual contributor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown or heavily obscured. The two committees have popped up in recent weeks as the race for mayor has tightened and as Vallas and Garcia, along with six other challengers, are trying to upend Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s attempt for a second term.
Lightfoot herself is the beneficiary of a similar group, the 77 Committee, which has spent $131,405 opposing Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who is endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, and businessman Willie Wilson.
Unlike the other two committees, however, the 77 Committee discloses its campaign contributors. Still, most of the 77 Committee’s contributions come from firms doing business with the city, a circumvention of city rules designed to curb pay-to-play politics.
[ Donors to political committee supporting Paul Vallas are secret, but leadership has ties to current campaign ]
By design, the “independent expenditure” committees, or Super PACs, are barred from coordinating with the candidates they support in any way. But all three appear to be pulling messaging and images straight from those candidates’ websites: a growing practice known as “redboxing,” in which direct coordination becomes unnecessary.
Digital ads on Facebook from New Leadership for Chicago feature images pulled from the García campaign’s media page and focus almost entirely on public safety.
“He will crack down on crime, invest in Chicago’s police department, add more detectives, improve the crime lab, get illegal guns off our streets, and address public safety at its roots to prevent violence,” one Facebook post from the group says.
The message of the 77 Committee’s 15-second ad attacking Johnson as “too extreme” is nearly identical to language from the media page of Lightfoot’s campaign website. “Brandon Johnson wants to defund the police,” Lightfoot’s website says, and his “tax plan would hit the middle class.” Lightfoot’s website suggests that message should be targeted toward “Black frequent municipal primary voters.”
Lightfoot’s media website also previously stressed that frequent Black voters in Chicago “need to read about” Wilson’s Republican background, including his previous support for former President Donald Trump.
Asked to address whether their apparent “redboxing” was ethical, the campaigns instead pointed fingers at each other or blamed the state of campaign finance reform.
“These practices apply equally to all campaigns as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling,” a statement from Vallas’ campaign said. “Paul Vallas would support small donor public funding for campaigns and he will engage in those conversations, but under current political realities, it would be imprudent.”
Lightfoot’s campaign did not address questions about redboxing, but said the campaign “adheres fully to all applicable campaign finance laws and rules.”
It also pivoted to one of its cornerstone criticisms of García, saying he previously benefited from another Super PAC that supported his run for Congress that was funded by now-indicted crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. “Shady Chuy Garcia backers are exploiting loopholes in campaign finance law and concealing their donors’ identities from the public,” Lightfoot’s campaign statement said. “Voters have a right to know who is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get him elected.”
García’s campaign said he “has been clear when it comes to getting dark money out of politics: from sponsoring the Democracy for All amendment that would finally End Citizens United to sponsoring legislation at the county level that would allow for publicly funded elections.”
The infusion of dark money donations and so-called independent expenditures are problematic, but part and parcel of weak campaign finance laws, said Alisa Kaplan, executive director of the political transparency group Reform for Illinois.
“It’s easy to blame candidates for taking advantage of all these ridiculous loopholes, but it’s important to remember that they operate in a ridiculous system. That system, which was built by the U.S. Supreme Court and our own weak campaign finance laws, creates tremendous pressure for candidates to one-up each other in an often-unethical money arms race,” Kaplan said. “We should continue to call these things out and hold candidates accountable for unethical behavior. But if we really want this type of behavior to go away, we need to create rules that incentivize ethical behavior and make sure they apply to everyone. The current system does the opposite.”
Steve Berlin, executive director of the Chicago Board of Ethics, said the city’s governmental ordinance “does not directly address” independent expenditure committees, which are largely governed by federal and state law. Still, he pointed out “they have not played a significant role in Chicago’s elections until this current campaign,” which features competing spending in the mayoral race.
There was no competition from challengers when allies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel set up the Chicago Forward committee in 2015. It went on to raise and spend millions supporting Emanuel’s 2015 mayoral reelection bid, and bolstered aldermanic allies of Emanuel in 2019. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools and the Illinois Realtors both have independent expenditure committees that have helped allied aldermen in recent elections as well.
Hiding donors allows political committees to avoid scrutiny of the political interests backing a candidate, potentially sparing the contributors and the committee from hard questions about their interest in helping elect public officials.
New Leadership for Chicago, the group backing García, lists as its chairman and treasurer Adam Gypalo, vice president at Chicago-based Resolute Public Affairs, which was long tied to Emanuel. The head of Resolute, Greg Goldner, was working with Ald. Tom Tunney as he considered a mayoral campaign of his own. Gypalo on Monday declined to comment.
The 77 Committee created to benefit Lightfoot is allowed to accept unlimited funds, including from city contractors who are severely bound under city ethics rules from contributing directly to Lightfoot’s campaign fund or a Lightfoot-aligned political action committee.
The 77 Committee first reported receiving $100,000 from politically connected firms — $80,000 from a table tennis company whose chairman also chairs an information technology company that does business with the city and $20,000 from a South Side construction company that is on a list of city contractors and also is working on the Obama Presidential Center.
A company founded by clouted businessman Elzie Higginbottom recently received a big contract from the Chicago Transit Authority and another Higginbottom-tied company gave the 77 Committee a $50,000 contribution shortly after, WTTW first reported.
The Chicago Leadership Committee, which is supporting Vallas, has faced questions about its independence from the candidate’s committee. Recently disclosed campaign finance reports show the Chicago Leadership Committee paid $165,000 to Mad River Communications, a Maryland-based firm registered under the name of Vallas campaign adviser Joe Trippi. Trippi has told the Tribune he took a leave from the group when he signed on with Vallas in September.
The committee has received all its money from an entity that calls itself Better Chicago Future Inc., which shares the same Philadelphia-based P.O. box as the political committee it donated to. The Better Chicago Future website is scant on details, only disclosing its goals as advancing “public safety and transparent city government for all Chicagoans.”
What’s more, the Chicago Leadership Committee did not disclose any of those contributions until after its spending had begun, according to state campaign records. While it reported those contributions on Feb. 8, records show three tranches of money came in beginning on Feb. 1. Reports of donors are required to be filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections for any contribution of $1,000 or more within two business days of receipt less than 30 days before an election.
The new committee, which was formed in December, is headed by Washington-based political consultant Christopher Cooper, records show. Cooper is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and current lobbyist for the Potomac Square Group, which has done work for, among others, controversial former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
Trippi said he and Cooper had worked together in the past, but had not been in communication about Vallas’ race.