Questions remain about eight silent Black aldermen who received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Rahm Emanuel less than a month before they approved a $5 million settlement to the estate of Laquan McDonald. Most of them would vote largely in favor for the mayor at City Council meetings in the years that followed the settlement.
By Erick Johnson
Four seconds. That’s all the time it took for item number Or2015-204 to pass the Chicago City Council on April 15, 2015. It was a proposed settlement to pay Tina Hunter, the mother of Laquan McDonald, a $5 million legal settlement after Officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times on October 20, 2014.
Eight days before on April 7, 2015, Mayor Rahm Emanuel crushed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the city’s first ever mayoral run-off. He needed another big victory, and he got it.
But the real prize was the silence of a group of Black aldermen who along with 39 aldermen, approved the $5 million settlement more than a month after they received nearly $300,000 in campaign donations from Emanuel as he battled Garcia during the runoff. The Crusader has learned that these aldermen kept the money and stayed silent about it even after the video of McDonald’s brutal killing emerged, sowing distrust in the mayor, the police department and the Cook County States’ Attorney office. Now, the spotlight turns on a group of aldermen who have their own code of silence.
For the next several years after the $5 million settlement, they would give the mayor his money’s worth. They would stand by Emanuel as he weathered a storm that he tried to ride out until he announced on September 4, 2018 that he would not seek re-election.
Until the very end of Emanuel’s final term in office, these aldermen would say nothing negative about him or about questionable hefty donations that have made the Black aldermen the “Silent 8” at City Hall.
According to a Crusader investigation, there are actually nine aldermen who took money from the mayor before the $5 million settlement, but eight of them are Black. They are Anthony Beale (9th Ward), Carrie Austin (34th Ward), Michelle Harris (8th Ward), Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th Ward), Emma Mitts (37th Ward), Willie Cochran (20th Ward), Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), and Howard Brookins, Jr. (21st Ward). The only non-Black alderman who took campaign donations from the mayor is Patrick O’Connor (40th Ward), campaign records show.
For the last three years, Chicago’s Black aldermen have struggled along with Emanuel to regain the trust of their constituents. But unlike Emanuel, many are seeking re-election. In order to win another term, they must answer to an angry Black electorate that is having a hard time believing that they knew nothing about a case that happened right under their noses as it went through City Hall.
To activists and residents, many of the Black aldermen are the last ones standing in a police misconduct case that has claimed the careers of a mayor, a police superintendent, a Cook County State’s Attorney, and maybe Van Dyke.
Now, distrust within the aldermen’s wards may grow even deeper with new revelations that several Black aldermen were allies with a mayor who gave them money to save his political career in a deal that may also have included their silence.
Since November 24, 2015, the city’s Black aldermen have been silent about their role in the McDonald case that is still widely viewed as a cover-up. Ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez went out with her mouth shut about the case, and former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy never came clean about whether the suppression of the video was part of the cover-up to protect the mayor or his department.
After Emanuel’s crushing victory, these Black aldermen kept a vow of silence and never disclosed the mayor’s largesse to a Black community that had been burning with anger over a video that had sparked protests throughout Chicago. At town hall meetings in the Black community, some residents and activists vented their anger at Black aldermen while others questioned why their Black political leaders failed to speak out against the mayor.
As it turned out, eight Black aldermen may have been bought.
While many voted in favor of the mayor’s proposals at City Council, the eight Black aldermen not only took money to support the mayor during re-election, but they kept Emanuel’s large donations even after the McDonald video was released. They did not tell anyone about their financial ties to the mayor even as community distrust in their leadership deepened.
Several months ago while searching the database of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform—a non-profit organization that tracks donations to political campaigns throughout the state—the Crusader made the discovery that within a five week span leading up to the runoff and the $5 million settlement, the mayor paid a total of $281,025 to nine aldermen with Ald. Harris getting the largest portion of the mayor’s campaign donations. It was a spending spree that paid off big for the mayor.
For this story, the Crusader emailed all eight Black aldermen several times seeking a response or explanation for taking donations from the mayor and voting to approve the $5 million settlement a month later.
Ald. Dowell responded with two emails. The first one said, “Laquan McDonald’s mother deserved closure to this tragedy. The City Council approved the settlement that she and her lawyers agreed to with the city. We voted to settle the case.”
The second one came hours later. It read, “By the way Erick, I won my aldermanic race in February, months before the settlement agreement. The money received from the Mayor’s fund was to help him win in the April runoff [sic] and was used to finance the April runoff [sic] Election Day operations.”
That’s when the Crusader sent a follow-up question to Dowell. It read, “After you learned about the suppressed video, did you attempt to return the money and speak out against what happened?”
Dowell did not respond by press time Wednesday, October 3.
Brian Berg, spokesperson for Ald. Beale, said Ald.Beale was out of town and unavailable to comment. But he said Ald. Beale took the money to simply get people out the vote rather than support a specific mayoral candidate. But why would Emanuel pay Ald. Beale nearly $14,000 without a goal to win votes as he fought to save his political career?
Of the group, Ald. Harris is by far the largest beneficiary.
Ald. Harris was the first Black alderman who according to state records, Emanuel hit on his spending spree. The mayor donated $161,710 to Harris within one month of his run-off. This includes a $53,900 donation made to her campaign war chest on March 21, 2015. Three days later, Emanuel gave $50,978 to the 8th Ward Democratic Party, where Harris served as chairman. Then on April 6—one day before Emanuel’s run-off election—the mayor dumped $56,840 when Harris served as chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party in the 1st District Central.
(Last April, Ald. Harris drew protests from residents in her ward. They opposed the planned construction of the Montclare Senior Residences of Calumet Heights, a seven-story, $38 million senior residence. As it turned out, the same developer donated $10,800 to Harris on February 14, 2015.)
CLICK TO ENLARGE – MICHELLE HARRIS
Ald. Austin had the second highest donations from Emanuel. On April 2, 2015, she received $32,532. One day later, Ald. Burnett, a big ally of the mayor, received $19,330, then Beale, who received $13,915 on April 7—the day of the run-off. Dowell received $13,530 the day before on April 6. Aldermen Cochran, Mitts and Brookins each received $10,000.
More than three years after Emanuel gave them campaign donations, state records show that none of the aldermen returned the money to the mayor. They remained non-responsive or evasive when the Crusader asked them about it.
It’s common for politicians to back candidates in elections, but Emanuel did not donate money to any Black alderman until his reelection campain in 2015. But after the eight Black aldermen helped Emanuel sweep his opponent, a strong and unshakeable bond was forged.
For the next two years, most of the aldermen would go along with the mayor and vote in favor of most of his proposals, according to a 2017 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago, which examined the voting records of all 50 aldermen from June 17, 2015 to March 29, 2017. In addition to proposals involving police misconduct, aldermen voted on proposals to regulate Uber, Airbnb, massive tax increases in the 2016 city budget and appropriation of tax increment finance (TIF) funds.
Of the eight Black aldermen who accepted those hefty donations from the mayor, six voted in favor of Emanuel’s proposals at least 95 percent of the time. According to the study, the mayor’s approval rating plummet to a low as 25 percent after the McDonald video and as little as 8 percent of Blacks believed that the mayor cared about them during the crisis.
Still, Aldermen Harris, Beale, Burnett, Mitts, and Austin all voted in favor of the mayor 97 percent of the time. All five were tied with the ninth highest percentage of all aldermen. Brookins had 95 percent, Cochran had 88 percent and Dowell had 82 percent.
All nine of the aldermen who took campaign donations from the mayor voted for the $5 settlement to McDonald’s estate on April 15, 2015. The 47-0 vote happened in just four seconds. There was no debate or open discussion about the settlement before the City Council approved it. Ald. Lona Lane (18th Ward), Ald. Natashia Holmes (7th Ward) were absent and did not vote. The 16th Ward seat was vacant after Ald. Joann Thompson died two months earlier that year.
The $5 million settlement was approved before the family could file a lawsuit against the city and the police department, fueling suspicions that the mayor aimed to quickly resolve the controversy so it won’t go public. Many questioned whether Black aldermen knew about the circumstances before approving the settlement, but to this day, none have provided a explanation that satisfies their critics. Nevertheless, the $5 million was viewed as a paltry settlement in an extremely high-profile police misconduct case that could have been in the double digits. Still, none of the eight aldermen who took the mayor’s money said anything that day. Not a word. And regardless of whether they knew about the settlement before they voted, some believe the aldermen should have known, but instead allowed themselves to be duped by the mayor.
Publicly, the aldermen have been defiant, staying quiet about the mayor, the video and the settlement. But in the past year, there have been glimpses of where the loyalties of two Black aldermen lie.
Last May, Harris was one of several Emanuel allies who criticized mayoral candidate Paul Vallas in Hyde Park where the mayor announced that the Obama Presidential Center will include a Chicago Library Branch.
Earlier in the day, Vallas said he was opposed to spending $175 million on infrastructure improvements around the presidential library in Jackson Park. When reporters asked Emanuel about it, Harris, Aldermen Sophia King (4th) and Leslie Hairston (5th) and State Rep. Christian Mitchell (D-26)—a Black lawmaker who received $28,730 on April 2 and April 21—took turns attacking Vallas.
“Paul Vallas is just coming back home, and maybe he doesn’t understand what kind of investment this means to the greater South Side,” Harris was quoted in the Chicago Tribune.
And last December in the same newspaper, Austin, for the first time, defended the mayor in a surprising quote that the Crusader published on its front page.
“Just like Harold Washington, I wish people would stop using Laquan McDonald. The young man, Laquan, who was killed, that was done by one individual, not by the city of Chicago. Why is the mayor being held accountable for him? I think the officer is the individual we should be talking about.”
The Crusader covered several community town hall meetings on the West and South Sides in December 2015—one month after the police video was released showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald over and over again.
At the Christ Tabernacle Church, community activist Cameilla Williams, 26, was one of several residents who voiced her distrust in the city’s Black aldermen, while most of the aldermen stood silent.
“You knew. All of you knew. Thirteen months at City Hall during this whole thing, and you didn’t know about it? You knew,” Williams said.