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With new campaign fund, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s allies are raising cash outside city ethics rules limits

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/21/2022 Gregory Pratt, Chicago Tribune
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a petition launch party for her reelection at Plumbers Local 130 in Chicago’s West Loop on Aug. 30, 2022. © Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a petition launch party for her reelection at Plumbers Local 130 in Chicago’s West Loop on Aug. 30, 2022.

As Mayor Lori Lightfoot ramps up her bid for reelection, her close allies have created a new campaign fund unbound by how much money contributors can give or who they are — restrictions Lightfoot must abide by.

The 77 Committee, being run by a longtime top Lightfoot adviser, is allowed to accept unlimited funds, including from city contractors who are severely bound under city ethics rules from contributing to Lightfoot’s campaign fund or a Lightfoot-aligned political action committee.

The move follows in the footsteps of Lightfoot’s predecessor, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose allies established a massive campaign fund that raised more than $5 million in one year to help Emanuel win a second term.

The establishment of the new independent expenditure committee in October underscores the political battle Lightfoot’s supporters are anticipating in the coming months and also the significant loopholes that exist in campaign finance laws and city ethics rules that are designed to limit the influence political backers have on elected officials’ government actions.

During his two terms as mayor, Emanuel repeatedly circumvented the narrowly written executive orders he’d signed that banned lobbyists, city contractors and individuals seeking to do business with the city or its sister agencies from giving more than $1,500 to Chicago’s mayor, aldermen or other citywide elected officials.

Lightfoot has kept the ethics rules in place, which are on top of statewide caps that prevent her campaign fund and affiliated PAC from receiving more than $6,000 from individuals, $12,000 from corporations or labor groups and $59,900 from other PACs — unless a candidate gives more than $100,000 to his or her own campaign, at which point all the caps are lifted.

While the 77 Committee is not restricted in how much money it can receive or from whom, as an independent expenditure committee it can’t coordinate with Lightfoot or any political campaigns. It has already received $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.

In addition, the committee’s chair is Sean Harden, who also chairs the nonprofit Friend Health, which recently opened a health center in Woodlawn that’s expected to receive $8 million in tax increment financing incentives from the city.

Dave Mellet, executive director of the 77 Committee and a longtime top adviser to Lightfoot, said Friend Health is a nonprofit and that Harden doesn’t have an ownership interest in the health center. Harden referred questions to Mellet, who instead released a statement that the committee will “work independently to make sure Mayor Lightfoot is elected to a second term.”

Still, Harden’s presence as chair of the independent expenditure committee highlights the intersection of money, government and politics at City Hall.

Mellet did not answer questions seeking comment about how the committee was established.

But a recent flyer by the committee obtained by the Chicago Tribune stated that the 77 fund was “created by allies of Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot with a primary mission of supporting her re-election on February 28, 2023. The majority of our committee’s funds raised will be dedicated to that mission.” The flyer also said the committee “has the support of the Lightfoot for Chicago campaign” but noted, “we are not permitted to coordinate with the campaign.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a petition launch party for her reelection at Plumbers Local 130 in Chicago’s West Loop on Aug. 30, 2022. © Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks during a petition launch party for her reelection at Plumbers Local 130 in Chicago’s West Loop on Aug. 30, 2022.

Lightfoot campaign spokeswoman Christina Freundlich did not answer questions about the committee and said the mayor “has no control or say over any outside groups or organizations.”

The committee’s name is likely derived from Chicago’s 77 official community areas.

While Lightfoot might not directly benefit from the 77 Committee, it comes at a critical time in her political career.

Monday is the first day when candidates can officially file to run for mayor, and Lightfoot faces strong headwinds to win a second term. As many as nine other major candidates have announced their intent to run against her in February.

Most recent campaign fundraising reports, released one month ago, showed Lightfoot had more money on hand in her campaign fund than all of her opponents except wealthy business owner Willie Wilson, who is mostly self-funding his campaign. But while her challengers haven’t been able to bring in big cash from political supporters, Lightfoot still hasn’t secured such an overwhelming financial advantage to scare any rivals off.

Lightfoot’s main political campaign committee, Lightfoot for Chicago, raised about $1 million between July and September but spent more than $607,000 during the same period, campaign disclosure filings show. It had about $2.9 million on hand, according to filings. Her other campaign committee, Light PAC, which was created to help support her allies on City Council, raised less than $11,000 and had $3,000 in the bank, as of the last quarter, campaign filings show.

When it launched in 2019, Light PAC was modeled after Chicago Forward, the campaign fund created by Emanuel allies that was aimed at helping the mayor and his political supporters. But as a political action committee created by Lightfoot supporters, Light PAC faces the same rules on donations as Lightfoot for Chicago. Light PAC meets the Chicago Board of Ethics’ criteria for being an authorized political fundraising committee of the mayor because it has interacted or coordinated sufficiently with her official campaign apparatus.

So far, the 77 Committee has disclosed it has raised $20,000 from UJAMAA, a South Side construction company that is on a list of city contractors posted by the city.

A day after the contribution, Lightfoot’s office announced in a news release that the company will serve as the general contractor on a mixed-income, mixed-use, affordable living community in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood built on what is now vacant city-owned land. It is also part of the joint venture building the Obama Presidential Center.

UJAMAA has not given Lightfoot for Chicago any money. UJAMAA’s president, Jimmy Akintonde, did not return messages seeking comment.

Besides the $20,000 from UJAMAA, the 77 Committee also disclosed a contribution from Killerspin, a table tennis company whose chairman, Robert Blackwell Jr., does business with the city through Electronic Knowledge Interchange, an IT company he also chairs.

Killerspin has not contributed to Lightfoot’s campaign committees, nor has Blackwell individually, according to state records. EKI has been paid nearly $50 million from the city both before and during the Lightfoot administration for IT services.

A top city finance official, Joel Flores, provided a website review stating that EKI is the city’s “go-to vendor when it’s crunch time” and has built three payment processing platforms. EKI developed a utility payment website, a fee management site and a site that reduces water bills, according to the review.

It’s not clear what relationship, if any, Lightfoot has with Blackwell. But records released by the mayor’s office show that South Side Ald. David Moore, 17th, tried to introduce Blackwell and Lightfoot to each other in March 2020.

“As a favor to me, I would like for you to meet with Robert Blackwell of EKI-Digital, the official name of the company is Electronic Knowledge Interchange. Just want you to listen to him, make no commitments (just) listen and take it from there,” Moore wrote in the text, which also asked Lightfoot to attend a Simeon girls basketball pep rally and speak with him about “2023,” presumably a reference to the election cycle.

Lightfoot did not directly reference Blackwell in her response, saying she would see about attending the pep rally and “as for the other items on your list. Let’s talk today or tomorrow.”

Blackwell did not return messages to the Tribune seeking comment.

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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