CHICAGO — Chicagoans have long expected their alderpeople to fix neighborhood and even block-level issues, from potholes to crime.
But almost every City Council race this year has been fueled — if not dominated — by money from outside its ward boundaries.
During a time of political transition, unions, interest groups and some of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen are waging an expensive ward-by-ward battle over the direction of the city, a Block Club analysis found.
The way candidates get their campaign cash — and who gives it to them — often reveals a lot about their alliances, debts, promises and priorities.
Block Club analyzed campaign donation records for City Council candidates in all 50 wards. That includes the 14 wards where no candidate won a majority in the election last month, sending the top two finishers in each ward to the April 4 runoff. The analysis covered donations from the beginning of 2022 through March 14.
See how much each campaign raised:
The analysis found more than $21 million has poured into City Council races, including $18 million in direct donations to candidates’ campaign funds and $3 million more spent independently by outside groups. The money has paid for a series of proxy wars, pitting longtime City Hall insiders or pro-business candidates against independents and progressives.
Not so long ago, powerful mayors and political machines dominated Chicago elections by controlling campaign workers and funds. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley often used his influence to cut off donations to alderpeople or hopefuls he didn’t like.
“If you were on a shit list and he called certain people, they wouldn’t give money,” said Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st). On the other hand, under Daley or his successor, Rahm Emanuel, “if the word got out that they were with you, it would start raining.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t have the same reach, said Brookins, who is retiring from the council after 20 years. Unlike the days of the political machine, alderpeople don’t have many patronage jobs to hand out in return for campaign work. And voters have shown more independence.
Amid the shifting dynamics, the Chicago Teachers Union and its allies have gained power resisting the mayor and pushing a progressive agenda. At the same time, business groups and some trade unions are trying to retain their clout and fight off what they see as a troubling shift to the left.
Unions, business organizations and rich donors now provide much of the money candidates use for campaign workers and campaign ads in wards across the city.
Alderpeople and council candidates say it’s very difficult to compete without resources.
“If you’re John Smith off the street and you don’t have money and you can’t raise money, you can’t win,” said Ald. Nick Sposato (38th). “It’s not fair, but I don’t know the answer.”
Sposato was reelected in February after putting $119,000 of his own money into his campaign fund.
Here are examples of how campaign donations have flowed into ward races. Search all the donations at the bottom of this page.
The 43rd Ward, centered on affluent Lincoln Park and the Near North Side, has a history of high-priced City Council races. Four years ago, then-Ald. Michele Smith and five opponents raised nearly $2 million total. Smith held onto her seat after a runoff, but she resigned this summer, six months before the election. Lightfoot appointed attorney Timmy Knudsen to finish the term.
As the incumbent, if only for a few months, Knudsen was put in a better position to bring in campaign money. He collected about $348,000 through mid-March, records show, with his largest donations coming from wealthy business owners.
Among them: investor Matthew Pritzker, a cousin of Gov. JB Pritzker; trading firm founder Donald Wilson, a frequent contributor to candidates from both parties; and the Illinois Realtors Political Action Committee. Knudsen also received thousands of dollars from political insiders and lawyers.
Between Knudsen and his five foes, the 43rd Ward race generated about $1.4 million in contributions this time around.
Knudsen managed to get about 27 percent of the vote in the first round in February — good enough to top his five rivals, but well short of the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. Close behind him was Brian Comer, president of a neighborhood group, with 24 percent — though Comer has only raised about $53,000. The two will square off in the runoff.
“Like any first-time candidate, and a community-focused candidate, my donors, they’re people from the community, they’re friends, they’re family,” Comer said.
They include Comer himself: At $7,400, he is the biggest donor to his campaign.
Comer said it was tough to raise funds because many businesses and other potential donors were concerned about going against an incumbent ally of the mayor’s.
“He had people falling over to give him money,” Comer said. He described Knudsen’s leading backers as “people behind the scenes, people in power, wanting to hold onto power.”
Knudsen said Comer is well known in the 43rd Ward — yet five of its former aldermen endorsed Knudsen instead.
“I’ve been building a super broad coalition of supporters,” including donors who gave as little as a few dollars, Knudsen said.
Knudsen acknowledged that his fundraising was aided by political and professional connections made through his work as a corporate lawyer, activist and, now, officeholder.
“I think I’m viewed as an alderman who’s pro-business and pro-Chicago,” Knudsen said.
Knudsen’s fundraising wasn’t the only reason so much cash flowed into the 43rd Ward race. Two of his other previous opponents put considerable sums of their own money into their campaigns.
Attorney Rebecca Janowitz poured $750,000 into her campaign fund as she made her second run for the seat. That made her the city’s top individual donor to a council race. Janowitz used some of the money to run campaign ads on TV, which is not common in council elections.
One of the other 43rd Ward contestants, Steve Botsford, was mostly self-funded, as well. Botsford, a real estate developer, gave almost $85,000 to his campaign.
Janowitz finished third in the first round of 43rd Ward voting. Botsford came in fifth.
Other candidates around the city had more success after using their own money. On the Northwest Side, Sposato said he put $119,000 into his political fund in the hopes it would intimidate potential challengers.
“All that was a scare tactic. I thought if I put a bunch of money into my campaign, maybe nobody will run,” he said. “It didn’t work.”
Sposato ended up with four challengers; the closest, Ed Bannon, put $53,000 into his own bid. But Sposato won with 55 percent of the vote in the first round.
“I always felt that unless you have some of your own skin in the game, if you don’t believe in yourself, how can you ask your friend for money?” Sposato said. He added, “I’ve always sucked at raising money.”
The Lowest Funded Race
On the West Side, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) has enjoyed well-connected assistance in his own campaign for a third term. But that’s not all. He’s also worked to cut off funding for his rivals, said CB Johnson, his runoff opponent.
“The alderman had shut down any avenues to pursue for me to raise money,” said Johnson, leader of a nonprofit drug treatment organization.
Johnson said Taliaferro has pressured business and community leaders not to send campaign donations Johnson’s way.
“That’s the kind of games he has played since he’s been in office,” Johnson said.
The 29th Ward race has been the lowest-funded runoff campaign in the city, records show. Like other incumbents, though, Taliaferro has received most of his large contributions from powerful supporters outside the ward.
Taliaferro’s top two donors were Michael Sacks, millionaire CEO of the GCM Grosvenor investment firm, and Sacks’ wife, Cari, a board member at pro-choice group Personal PAC. Each gave Taliaferro $6,900. A regular supporter of local Democrats, Michael Sacks was an adviser to Emanuel and remains active in politics and policymaking.
Taliaferro also received $5,000 from JB Pritzker, as well as smaller sums from council colleagues and other political insiders. In all, the 29th Ward alderman brought in $111,000. On top of that, pro-business groups, including the Illinois Realtors Association, independently spent thousands more promoting Taliaferro.
But Taliaferro said Johnson is the one who needs to answer questions about his fundraising.
“I have been completely upfront and honest where donations are coming from, and I don’t think my opponent can say the same,” he said.
Johnson certainly can’t say he has revealed all his donors: His filings with the state election board have reported just $1,000 in contributions, though he said he has raised more, including $25,000 in personal funds that he donated to the campaign.
Under election laws, Johnson’s campaign should have disclosed all contributions of $150 or more. Johnson has also failed to file his most recent quarterly report and faces possible fines, according to a spokesperson for the state board of elections.
Johnson promised his campaign would submit the required paperwork soon.
“I’m going to pay the fine if there’s a fine,” he said. “I’m not going to neglect my responsibilities.”
Johnson’s campaign has been backed by longtime U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, and Johnson said he has assembled a team of volunteers.
“Help, people — that’s easy. Money is what’s hard for me,” he said. “People I know can’t afford to do donations.”
Rich Friends With Benefits
Well beyond the 29th Ward, Michael and Cari Sacks are leading funders of efforts to keep incumbent and centrist alderpeople in the City Council.
Altogether, the couple gave $292,000 to 17 council incumbents and five hopefuls. In fact, the Sacks gave more to council candidates than the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce or any business group.
Michael Sacks has also donated $1 million since December to the Get Stuff Done super PAC. Also known as independent expenditure committees, super PACs can spend as much money as they want bashing or praising candidates, but they’re not allowed to coordinate with the candidates or contribute directly to their campaigns.
While Sacks is its leading donor, Get Stuff Done has also been funded with large checks from other wealthy business owners, as well as LiUNA Chicago Laborers’ District Council, a collection of union locals.
The super PAC has reported spending more than $1.2 million supporting candidates it considers “collaborative” or opposing self-described lefties and progressives. For example, Get Stuff Done used about $38,000 of its money on ads against 46th Ward hopeful Angela Clay, a community organizer who’s been endorsed by the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America.
The Influence Of Super PACs
Get Stuff Done is one of at least four super PACs to spend significant money on City Council races this election cycle, records show.
A super PAC run by the Illinois Network of Charter Schools has spent $379,000 total, including $21,000 to boost Clay’s 46th Ward opponent, former congressional aide Kim Walz.
And the Illinois Realtors’ super PAC has put more than $128,000 behind Walz, part of its $833,000 in council spending citywide. That’s in addition to $160,000 another Realtors committee gave directly to pro-business incumbents and hopefuls.
From the other direction, Working Families for Chicago has spent about $535,000 backing progressives and opposing more conservative challengers. That super PAC was created by United Working Families, a political organization whose members include the Chicago Teachers Union and other progressive groups. On top of the super PAC spending, a separate United Working Families fund gave more than $80,000 in direct contributions to candidates, including money and staff support to Clay.
Clay previously told Block Club she was part of long-running community-driven efforts to improve housing and public safety, “just making sure that neighborhoods understand that they have a community that wants to see them thrive and wants to be a part of their success.” She criticized Walz for taking campaign money from special interest groups.
Walz shrugged it off.
“Who gives me campaign contributions is going to have no bearing on how I vote on the council and how I lead and govern,” Walz said.
Walz said her experience in government means she is better prepared to lead the ward.
“We’ve got a lot of problems the city is facing, and we can’t just have the council be filled with people who are about making headlines,” Walz said.
Teachers and Cops
It was one of the city’s most crowded races: After Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th) decided to run for mayor, 11 candidates made the ballot to succeed him as leader of the South Side’s 6th Ward.
Few were able to raise much money. Unions stepped in.
Pastor William Hall led the way in 6th Ward campaign funds after receiving about $36,000 from the Chicago Teachers Union and $53,000 from various affiliates of the Service Employees International Union. Hall finished first in the February voting.
After the checks to Hall’s campaign, the largest donation in the race went to another candidate, police officer Barbara Bunville: $22,000 from the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7, the union for rank-and-file police officers in Chicago.
The campaign collection plate wasn’t as full for Richard Wooten, a pastor and retired police officer. Without union support, Wooten gave himself $6,600, more than half the $11,000 he raised.
Still, Wooten finished second in February to make the runoff against Hall. Finishing fourth, Bunville did not advance.
The 6th Ward race was part of a citywide pattern.
The teachers’ union has donated $606,000 to 16 City Council candidates since the beginning of 2022. All seven incumbents it backed — in wards 1, 20, 22, 25, 33, 35 and 40 — won reelection in February, and four hopefuls — in wards 5, 6, 36 and 46 — made it to runoffs.
That works out to a success rate for the teachers union of 69 percent so far.
The police union has a lower batting average. The police union gave $446,000 altogether to 17 council candidates. Seven of the incumbents it backed won outright — in wards 9, 13, 15, 23, 38, 39 and 41 — while another, 45th Ward Ald. Jim Gardiner, ended up in a runoff. But only two of the nine hopefuls it supported made runoffs, in wards 10 and 11.
That’s a success rate for the police union of 53 percent.
Sixteen years ago, before the Chicago Teachers Union or Fraternal Order of Police began putting significant money into election campaigns, the Service Employees International Union declared war on the City Hall political apparatus dominated by then-Mayor Daley. The union’s goal, an official said, was to build a “machinelike” operation of its own to fight for workers’ rights and progressive policies.
The service employees’ union was never able to end Daley’s control of the City Council. But as Daley retired and two other mayors passed through City Hall, the union helped start a slow-growing independence movement. The union’s influence — and its campaign spending — remain significant.
Affiliates of the Service Employees International Union have given more than $1 million altogether to council candidates this year — more than any other labor or business group.
The union has also learned how to place its bets. Of the 39 candidates who received money from the Service Employees International Union, just three lost outright in February. And two of those defeated candidates were beaten by foes who also got funds from an affiliate of the union.
The union will have friends in the City Council.
Reporters Mack Liederman and Joe Ward contributed to this report.