As Mayor Rahm Emanuel piles up campaign cash ahead of his run for re-election next year, he continues to collect contributions from real estate developers who need his administration’s approval to build their multimillion-dollar projects.
Since June, at least 26 donors with ties to four such developers have contributed a total of more than $142,000 to the mayor’s campaign fund, money that flows around the mayor’s self-imposed bans, which he says aim to curb pay-to-play politics at City Hall.
Emanuel won’t take political donations from lobbyists, city employees or owners of companies with city contracts as part of his pledge aimed at “building trust in the public and public office.” But the bans don’t prohibit the mayor from accepting money from real estate development firms seeking City Hall approval for zoning changes, tax breaks, building permits and liquor licenses to turn their renderings of soaring office towers and high-end hotels into reality.
The developer contributions are one of the ways that Emanuel, long known nationally as a prolific fundraiser, has amassed a $6.2 million campaign fund more than a year before a February 2015 election in which there is no announced opponent. John Kupper, the mayor’s political adviser, explained why Emanuel takes campaign checks from developers.
“First, these are legal contributions,” Kupper wrote in an email. “Second, the mayor does not take anything for granted relative to his election campaigns.”
The John Buck Co. is one of those firms, with plans pending before the city to build two Loop skyscrapers.
In December, 10 employees contributed a total of $53,000 to the mayor’s campaign as the firm awaits approval from city officials for a 37-story glass office tower where a Walgreens now sits at 151 N. Franklin St. and a 42-story residential high-rise at 200 N. Michigan Ave.
The first to contribute was company President John A. Buck, who gave the mayor $5,300, the maximum amount allowed for an individual to contribute per election under state law. Records show Buck’s contribution was recorded Dec. 6, four days after Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, had held a community meeting to get public feedback on the proposed office tower.
On Dec. 11, the company’s zoning application for the office tower was introduced before the City Council. Within a week, eight other Buck employees gave $5,300 each to Emanuel. A ninth made the maximum contribution later that month, records show. In addition, Buck’s wife, Kathleen Buck, contributed $5,300, records show.
The company’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment about the political contributions.
The latest contributions are not the first time Emanuel has accepted money from developers seeking City Hall’s approval of a project.
In April, the Tribune reported that the mayor had accepted $50,000 in campaign contributions from developers connected to three hotel developments. At the time, Emanuel said the political backing of developers didn’t influence his decision-making at City Hall, even as his administration is responsible for reviewing their project plans.
Sarah Hamilton, Emanuel’s City Hall spokeswoman, said the latest contributions from Buck employees and other developers do not violate the bans the mayor put in place.
“We follow the law and the executive order,” Hamilton wrote in an email. “This holds true to both and does not violate the spirit of the executive order either.”
Another developer who has contributed to the mayor’s campaign fund is Donald R. Wilson.
In April, the Tribune reported that Wilson had personally donated $30,000 since 2011 to a separate political action committee associated with the mayor called the Chicago Committee, including $10,000 in January 2013. A couple of months later, Emanuel joined Wilson at the construction site of his company’s Streeterville high-rise, where the mayor praised the project as a generator of jobs and tourism traffic.
Since then, Wilson and his employees have sent more campaign cash the mayor’s way. Wilson and 12 employees of his large securities trading firm, DRW Holdings LLC, contributed $57,500 in all to the Emanuel’s main campaign fund, Chicago For Rahm Emanuel, between June and August, records show.
In October, Wilson filed for zoning approval to convert an old 12-story office building at 1608 N. Milwaukee Ave. into a boutique hotel. Also last fall, Wilson unveiled a proposal to build an 18-story hotel at the site of the former Cedar Hotel at 1112-18 N. State St.
Wilson spokesman David Walsh noted that the developer has long contributed to Illinois political campaigns. In 2010, before current contribution limits were in place, Emanuel’s main campaign fund received $147,000 from employees of DRW Holdings, including $50,000 from Wilson personally, records show.