Despite public outrage, several Black aldermen took more campaign donations from the mayor and two were given much more money than what was first reported in a Crusader investigation.
By Erick Johnson
Everyone was looking for The List. When City Hall said there wasn’t one, the Chicago Crusader pulled information from the Illinois State Board of Elections and found out that last week Mayor Rahm Emanuel officially gave five Black aldermen $20,000 each to help them get re-elected next February.
They are Aldermen Carrie Austin (34th), Emma Mitts (37th), Howard Brookins, Jr. (21st), Roderick Sawyer (6th), and Walter Burnett. Jr. (27th). Most are silent on what they plan to do with the money.
The Black aldermen took the money even as public outrage boiled after a Crusader investigation revealed that a group of Black aldermen took thousands of dollars before approving a $5 million settlement for the estate of Laquan McDonald. And upon a closer review of their campaign records, the Crusader has learned that two of the Black aldermen received much more in campaign donations from the mayor than what was originally reported.
On October 6, the Crusader reported that since March 2015, the group of Black aldermen took a total of $271,025 from a mayor who angered and hurt the Black community after many learned he kept the video showing McDonald’s murder under wraps while he successfully courted the Black vote to get re-elected.
But with the mayor’s latest largesse to five Black aldermen totaling $100,000 and a re-examination of state campaign records that showed Austin and Burnett took a combined amount of $102,552 days before the $5 million settlement in 2015, the grand total has now swelled to $433,777.
On Wednesday, October 11, the mayor hosted a breakfast for his most loyal aldermen at the swank 312 restaurant across from City Hall. After they digested the eggs, potatoes and bacon, Emanuel served up $20,000 checks for allies. The Crusader was unaware of the breakfast, but a story in the Chicago Tribune said the mayor gave the aldermen the campaign donation to help them get re-elected next year. It was a gesture of gratitude from the mayor, who pledged to “go to bat for the aldermen” who have supported him during his seven years in office. In all, the mayor dished out some $500,000 in campaign donations. That’s enough to give 25 aldermen $20,000 each.
So, who were the aldermen who attended the event? The Crusader filed a FOIA request to the mayor’s office asking for the list of attendees and invitations that were sent out. In response, FOIA officer Shannon Leonard emailed the Crusader on Friday, October 19, saying, “the Mayor’s Office has no responsive records.”
Other media outlets got the same response. A week after the breakfast, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform—a non-profit organization that tracks political campaign donations in the state–reported that Mitts was the first to report her donation on October 10—one day before the actual breakfast where the mayor made the announcement. Burnett reported his donation on October 12. The next to report his donation was Sawyer on October 15. Both Austin and Brookins reported their donations on October 17.
The donations can be tricky to read on the Illinois Campaign Finance Reform website. Under the top 25 donors tab, users do not see the mayor’s original contribution that he made to the Black aldermen weeks before he was elected and the $5 million settlement vote. The $20,000 donation is added to the previous donations and the date of this latest campaign contribution is shown instead of the old one. But the old initial contribution can be seen under the tab that lists all donations.
The donations come as public outrage continues to boil in the Black community from the Crusader investigative story. Two weeks after the original story was published, readers continue to call or visit the office requesting additional copies of the edition that included the story.
On October 22, one man visited the Crusader office in Woodlawn and bought 200 copies with plans to distribute them on the West Side. Many have taken out new subscriptions. Walgreens sales locations have sold out and have requested additional copies. The story on the website has generated an unprecedented 110,000 views when the average views of a major story are 1,500. Many listeners continue to call WVON during “The Perri Small Show” to voice their anger towards the Black aldermen who were named in the story.
Two days after receiving the $20,000 campaign donation, Sawyer held a press conference at Captain Hard Times in Chatham to announce that he would give his campaign donation away to 10 community organizations, which would get $2,000 each. As chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, questions remain why Sawyer won’t urge the other Black aldermen who got checks to follow his lead, to restore trust with Black voters who sent a strong message when they ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the March 2016 primary. Alvarez waited 13 months to charge McDonald’s killer, Officer Jason Van Dyke, with first-degree murder.
At the press conference at Captain Hard Times, Sawyer said he will leave that decision to disperse campaign donation funds to community organizations as he did, to the Black aldermen, but didn’t say whether he will speak to them.
In an email to the Crusader, Austin—through her aides—said half of the mayor’s $20,000 donation “will go towards her 2019 re-election campaign.”
Austin said the “other half will be used for our annual ‘Christmas in the Wards’ event, a spectacular charitable occasion in which I have an opportunity to give a traditional holiday dinner with all the trimmings, warm winter clothing, televisions, laptops, electronics, toys, books, and a variety of other gifts to our economically-challenged, yet, deserving youth. This donation will afford me the opportunity to serve even more striving children and families who otherwise would not have the occasion to celebrate Christmas.”
Aldermen Brookins, Burnett and Mitts did not return an email asking about their plans for the mayor’s donations.
As it turned out, Burnett and Mitts took more money from the mayor in 2015 than the Crusader originally reported in its October 6 investigative story, “Bought?” On top of his $19,330 from the mayor on April 3, 2015, three days later, Burnett received from Emanuel $61,252 in campaign donations as chairman of the 27th Ward Democratic Organization. That brings Burnett’s total to $101,782, the second-highest amount after Alderman Michelle Harris (8th).
A week later, both Burnett and Austin were among 47 aldermen, who during a City Council meeting approved the $5 million settlement to McDonald’s estate in just four seconds. Austin also approved the settlement during the Chicago Finance Committee without saying a word or demanding to see the video before the proposal advanced to the City Council for final approval.
For the aldermen who attended the breakfast, the campaign donation created a thorny situation from a mayor who decided not to run for re-election after his popularity plummeted following the release of the McDonald video. For Black aldermen, the risk of accepting donations from the mayor was perhaps even greater as they seek re-election in predominantly Black wards where the racially-charged case hit even closer to home. All 50 aldermen are up for re-election on February 26, 2019.
Later that morning after the mayor’s breakfast, Sawyer and Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) and political strategist Tarrah Cooper visited the Crusader to express their concerns about the Crusader investigative story “Bought?” Because they requested the meeting to be off-the-record, the Crusader cannot publish the details of the meeting with the publisher and the editorial staff.
However, in a glaring omission, Sawyer did not disclose the $20,000 campaign donation he took from the mayor just hours before he visited the Crusader office.