Political Funds Backed by Business Leaders Challenge Push by Progressives to Expand Power at City Hall

Political funds fueled by some of Chicago’s wealthiest business leaders are pushing back against efforts by progressive political organizations to remake the Chicago City Council after a wave of retirements and departures.

The Get Stuff Done PAC — an independent expenditure committee chaired by Michael Ruemmler, an adviser to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel — has raised $1.74 million since early December, including $1 million from Michael Sacks, of Grosvenor Capital Management, one of Chicago’s richest men and a frequent donor and adviser to Emanuel.

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The fund was formed “to elect pragmatic candidates to the Chicago City Council,” according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. A spokesperson for Sacks declined to comment to WTTW News.

“We’re trying to help elect pragmatic, collaborative people to the city council and prevent people who are outside the mainstream," said Ron Holmes, a spokesperson for the fund.

Separately, Sacks has contributed approximately $86,000 to 12 City Council candidates directly, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. His wife, Cari Sacks, gave another $67,000 directly to nine candidates, all but one were also supported by her husband, state records show.

While Sacks’ contributions to the Get Stuff Done PAC make up more than half of what the fund has raised, three members of the Crown family — Henry, James and Keating — gave the fund a total of $225,000, while LIUNA, the Chicago Laborers’ District Council PAC, gave the fund $200,000, according to records filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. LIUNA has endorsed Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s reelection bid.

The Get Stuff Done PAC has targeted members of the Chicago Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, known as the DSA, which shifted the balance of political power in Chicago in 2019 by electing six members to the City Council. The group is hoping to nearly double that number this year and seize more power for progressives than at any time since the era of former Mayor Harold Washington.

The Democratic Socialist members of the City Council have consistently championed efforts to decrease the Chicago Police Department’s budget in order to strengthen the city’s social safety net, increase oversight of the beleaguered police department and fight gentrification. That has put them on a collision course most of the time with Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has frequently criticized and clashed with them — sometimes in very personal terms.

Nearly 20% of the more than $618,000 the group has spent through Saturday has gone to oppose Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez’ bid for a second term representing the West Side’s 25th Ward, which includes Pilsen, one of the city’s hottest real estate markets. 

Sigcho Lopez belongs to the City Council’s five-member Democratic Socialist Caucus, and was endorsed by the Chicago DSA.

One of the most voluble critics of Lightfoot, Sigcho Lopez opposed efforts to build a casino along the Chicago River in his ward — and got into a screaming match with Lightfoot during the debate after he called the process a “sham” designed to generate contributions for her reelection campaign.

In addition, the group has spent approximately $22,000 to boost the campaign of Aida Flores, a Chicago Public Schools principal vying to unseat Sigcho Lopez on Feb. 28.

Another 15% of the group’s spending through Saturday has paid for ads and mailers designed to defeat Nick Ward, a community organizer, who said he waited tables while performing in artistic productions around Chicago, in the 48th Ward race. Ward, one of the first challengers to be endorsed by the Chicago DSA in this year’s election is one of 10 candidates vying to replace retiring Ald. Harry Osterman. 

While the race to represent Edgewater will likely not be resolved until a runoff on April 4 between the top two vote getters, Sigcho Lopez is the only candidate endorsed by Chicago DSA to face a single opponent, ensuring the race will be resolved in the first round of voting. A loss by Sigcho Lopez could put all of the candidates endorsed by Chicago DSA on the defensive during the runoff.

The sixth City Council member who also belongs to the Chicago DSA is Lincoln Square Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th Ward) — but Vasquez did not seek the group’s endorsement, and is not a member of the City Council’s Socialist Caucus.

In addition, the Get Stuff Done PAC has also spent more than $200,000 on digital ads and mailers for 14 candidates, including three of the people appointed to the City Council by Lightfoot: Ald. Nicole Lee (11th Ward), Ald. Monique Scott (24th Ward) and Ald. Anabel Abarca (12th Ward).

While Lightfoot has endorsed Scott, Lee and Abarca, they have not endorsed anyone in the mayor’s race.

In all, the Chicago DSA has endorsed 10 City Council candidates in the Feb. 28 contest. The group withdrew its endorsement of Mueze Bawany, who is running to unseat Ald. Debra Silverstein in the 50th Ward, after Bawany “walked back his support” for efforts to reduce the $1.94 billion budget for the Chicago Police Department and “distanced himself from the label socialist,” according to an email sent to members of the Chicago DSA on Feb. 14.

Bawany has also been in the spotlight since the Chicago Tribune reported that he sent a series of tweets in 2019 that included profane criticism of Israel, leaders of the national Democratic Party and white people.

In addition to the more than $618,000 spent by the Get Stuff Done PAC, a political fund run by the Illinois Realtors, which advocates for “private property rights,” according to its website, has spent more than $325,000 to support 19 City Council candidates through Tuesday, according to state records.

That fund is backing many of the same candidates supported by the Get Stuff Done PAC, including Abarca, Lee and Scott. However, the Realtors PAC is also backing Ald. Timmy Knudsen (43rd Ward); Andre Peloquin, who is running in the 48th Ward; Kim Walz, who is running in the 46th Ward race and Ebony Lucas, who is running in the 4th Ward race.

The Realtors have spent approximately $30,000 in six City Council contests to boost Knudsen, Lee, Scott, Lucas, Abarca and Walz. Knudsen was appointed to the City Council by Lightfoot but has not endorsed her, and Peloquin is a real estate agent and a member of the Illinois Realtors.

Progressive Groups Split Focus Between Races for Mayor, City Council

Even as groups work to increase the size of the City Council’s Socialist and Progressive caucuses, they are being outspent in those races, thanks to the decision by some of Chicago’s most prominent business leaders — including Sacks — to stay out of the mayor’s contest and focus on City Council elections.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas has raised more than $2 million to fuel his run for mayor, much of it from law firm partners, investment executives and other business interests, according to records filed with Illinois State Board of Elections.

At the same time, the Chicago Teachers Union — the most powerful progressive labor organization in Chicago — has used the bulk of its political cash to boost the mayoral campaign of Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, an organizer for the union.

CTU has given Johnson approximately $1 million, amplified by an additional $1 million from the American Federation of Teachers and $440,000 from the Illinois Federation of Teachers, according to state records.

By comparison, CTU has given a combined $65,000 to 13 City Council candidates, including $10,000 each to Sigcho Lopez and Bawany. 

United Working Families, a political organization closely aligned with the Chicago Teachers Union, endorsed 17 City Council candidates, contributing $41,000 to their campaigns, with more than half going to Oscar Sanchez, who is running to replace retiring 10th Ward Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza. Sanchez, who has also been endorsed by the Chicago DSA, faces three other challengers in that race.

Johnson has also been endorsed by Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois and Service Employees International Union Local 73, which have given his campaign a total of approximately $670,000, according to state records.

The two affiliated unions have given more than $650,000 to 33 City Council candidates, according to state records. Desmon Yancy, a police accountability activist who helped craft the new police oversight board running to replace retiring 5th Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston, got $80,000 from the two unions, while Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st Ward) and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) each got $50,000 from the SEIU-affiliated unions, according to state records.

The SEIU unions also gave $50,000 to Ronnie Mosley, who is running to replace 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins, and Lamont Robinson, who is running to replace 4th Ward Ald. Sophia King, who is running for mayor.

Through the end of December, Chicago DSA contributed approximately $5,600 to the campaigns of nine of the 11 candidates it initially backed, including Bawany, according to state records. The group has not endorsed a candidate for mayor.

Fight Over Direction of the Progressive Community

Even as candidates backed by the Chicago DSA, United Working Families and progressive labor unions push back against efforts by the business community to stymie their efforts to expand their power at City Hall, the progressive political community in Chicago is divided.

Progressive groups in Chicago began working in early 2022 to lay the groundwork to defeat Lightfoot by uniting behind a single candidate. That effort failed when U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García jumped into the race for mayor — even after the CTU and United Working Families backed Johnson.

García’s candidacy touched off a bruising contest among progressives in Chicago that could thwart efforts to increase the number of Democratic Socialists on the City Council.

All five members of the City Council’s Democratic Socialist Caucus support Johnson for mayor. Johnson was also endorsed by United Working Families.

García, who has represented Pilsen and Little Village in Congress since 2019, has declined to endorse any of the 10 candidates backed by the Chicago DSA. In addition, García has endorsed Flores over Sigcho Lopez in the 25th Ward race and Samie Martinez, who is vying to unseat 33rd Ward Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez.

In September 2020, Rodriguez Sanchez introduced a proposal that has become known as “Treatment Not Trauma” that would reduce the Chicago Police Department’s $1.94 billion budget to reopen the mental health clinics closed by Emanuel and establish a citywide program that would send emergency medical technicians and mental health professionals to calls for help from those in crisis.

Vasquez is the only Democratic Socialist on the City Council to endorse García. Vasquez blasted García's decision to back Martinez over Rodriguez Sanchez in a Twitter thread on Saturday, noting that Martinez has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union that represents the rank-and-file members of the Chicago Police Department and is led by a president who supports former President Donald Trump.

The police union is backing Vallas in the mayoral race.

In the 10th Ward race, García and Sadlowski Garza are backing Ana Guajardo over Sanchez in the race to represent Chicago’s Southeast Side. Guajardo is the co-founder of an organization that advocates for immigrant workers.

In the 30th Ward race, García is backing Jessica W. Gutierrez, the daughter of former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez. García replaced Luis Gutierrez in Congress in 2019, and the two have been allies for decades. The Chicago DSA backed Warren Williams, the founder of 30th United, an independent political organization, to represent Belmont Cragin.

In the 46th Ward race, García is backing Marianne Lalonde, a scientist who nearly ousted Ald. James Cappleman in 2019. With Cappleman retiring, the Chicago DSA in turn backed Angela Clay, an activist, in the race to represent Uptown.

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday with additional spending by both the Get Stuff Done PAC and the Illinois Realtors Fund.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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