27 Aldermen, 44 campaign donations, two big billion-dollar projects approved

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They were given a total of $750,000 months-some weeks- leading up to the City Council’s approval of the Lincoln Yards and 78 projects. Many of the recipients are Black aldermen.

By Erick Johnson

The vote was 32-13. It was the crowning achievement for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. After months of controversy, the City Council had approved the $6 billion Lincoln Yards project. Moments earlier, the City Council approved Related Midwest’s $7 billion development proposal called, “The 78” proposal. With their soaring skyscrapers, restaurants, shops, parks, and luxury high-rises, the riverfront mega-development projects were destined to dramatically change the 2nd and 25th Wards.

STERLING BAY WILL build its $6 billion Lincoln Yards development on 55 acres of riverfront property between the Lincoln Park and Bucktown neighborhoods on the North Side. The project will include skyscrapers, luxury high rises, retail shops and restaurants.

Was Emanuel’s latest success a blessing from above for aldermanic budgets or was it another master plan that took months of giving campaign donations designed to win the votes of Black aldermen? Who gives much without asking for much?

For Emanuel, the approval was a sweet victory that cemented his legacy as a mayor who fine-tuned Chicago into a city that attracted a record 58 billion visitors last year who spent $16 billion in the city. It was the second year in a row for record tourism in the Windy City.

It’s a winning streak that Emanuel knows all too well.

RELATED MIDWEST WILL build its $7 billion project on 62 acres bordered by Clark Street, Roosevelt Road, 16th Street and the Chicago River in the city’s South Loop neighborhood.

The city’s affluent neighborhoods are humming with new skyscrapers. But it’s a different story on the South and West Sides, where struggling, poor, Black, low-income neighborhoods have not been part of Emanuel’s grand designs to transform Chicago into a world-class city. And with criticism and opposition facing the Lincoln Yards and The 78 proposals, the future of Emanuel’s project, at one point, seemed uncertain until a group of Black aldermen helped push the projects over the top.

As it turned out, months leading up to the City Council’s approval of both projects, Emanuel made 44 campaign contributions to 27 aldermen to the tune of $750,000. Twelve Black aldermen received almost half of that. At the April 10 City Council meeting, 18 of the aldermen voted for both projects while seven voted against it as they faced pressure from their constituents. Facing no pressure, 10 of the 12 Black aldermen who took $305,000 in campaign donations from Emanuel voted in favor of both projects.

The projects, which are not in any predominately Black ward, will give $1.3 billion in TIF funds for Lincoln Yards and $1.4 billion in TIF funds for The 78.

The Illinois State Board of Elections reported that some aldermen were given donations on more than one occasion. Alderman Howard Brookins took a total of $55,000 in three payments from October 17 to April 1—one day before he won a run-off against Marvin McNeil.

After the mayor helped bankroll their successful re-election campaigns, these Black aldermen gave the key votes that led to the approval of two controversial projects that fell out of favor with many white aldermen.

Others include: Aldermen Roderick Sawyer ($25,000); Gregory Mitchell ($25,000); Michelle Harris ($20,000); Anthony Beale ($20,000); Derrick Curtis ($25,000); Michael Scott, Jr. (20,000); Walter Burnett ($20,000); Carrie Austin ($20,000); and Emma Mitts ($30,000).

Aldermen David Moore and Chris Taliaferro voted for the projects, but did not take any campaign donations from the mayor in the months leading up to the vote.

Aldermen Pat Dowell, Sophia King, Leslie Hairston and Toni Foulkes all voted against the projects. Campaign records show none of them took political donations from the mayor. Hairston took $20,000 from Emanuel on November 2, but gave it to community organizations after opponents criticized her for it.

Alderman Jason Ervin took $20,000 from the mayor in December, but still voted against both projects.

Mitts did not vote because she was absent during the City Council’s approval on the Lincoln Yards project.

That still left 10 Black aldermen who voted in favor of both projects during a heated City Council meeting where protesters demonstrated outside the chambers and City Hall.

For this story, the Crusader emailed the 10 Black aldermen asking whether the mayor’s political donation was connected to their support of the Lincoln Yards and The 78 projects.

Alderman Sawyer emailed the Crusader saying, “There is no relation to any contribution I may have received from Mayor Emanuel and my vote for anything before City Council.”

Through his spokesperson Brian Berg, Alderman Beale reiterated his explanation from a Crusader story last November about the $20,000 donation from the mayor.

“We’re glad to have the donation—we’ll use it to keep up the voter momentum and increased participation that was shown in Chicago and across Illinois in November’s election,” Beale said in the story.

The remaining eight Black aldermen did not respond by Crusader press time Wednesday. The mayor’s office also did not respond to the Crusader’s emailed request for comment on this story.

The donations started more than a month before Lincoln Yard’s developer announced the project on November 30. That same month, The 78 was on the agenda of the Chicago Planning Commission, which includes Emanuel and several of his appointees.

Three weeks before the Lincoln Yards announcement, Beale took $20,000 from the mayor. He  joined Austin, Mitts, Brookins, Sawyer, and Burnett—all allies of the mayor, who, last October at a breakfast at the 312 restaurant across from City Hall were rewarded for their loyalty with $20,000 for their re-election campaigns.

Last October, Sawyer gave his first $20,000 campaign donation to community groups after a Crusader investigation about eight Black aldermen who took campaign donations from the mayor weeks before they approved a $5 million settlement to Laquan McDonald’s family. State records show Sawyer took $5,000 from the mayor on April 2—the day of his run-off race against activist Deborah Foster Bonner. No word yet on whether Sawyer will give his latest political donation to more community groups.

Emanuel owes some of his success at City Hall to Black aldermen. Many are allies who supported him after he was accused of suppressing the video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014.

While Sawyer, Burnett, Harris, Beale, Mitts, Brookins, and Austin are allies of the mayor, Mitchell, Curtis and Scott have publicly kept a safe distance from a mayor who fell out of favor with the Black community during the Laquan McDonald scandal.

Campaign records show Mitchell took a total of $25,000 in donations from the mayor on December 12, 2018 and on March 4. Curtis took $25,000 in two payments on October 29, 2018 and February 22. Scott also took $25,000 on December 10, 2018 and February 19.

Two aldermen who received donations last October from the mayor, Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) and Debra Silverstein (50th Ward) initially spoke out against the projects, but eventually voted in favor of them after Sterling Bay and Related Midwest made changes to the proposals while under pressure from residents.

Without the votes from the 10 aldermen, neither the Lincoln Yards nor The 78 project would have been approved. In the final weeks before the vote, their votes grew critical as non-Black aldermen were under pressure by constituents to vote against the projects.

Emanuel reneged on a promise he made April 8 to delay the vote on the project until Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot takes office on May 20. Lightfoot, who was initially against the project, eventually bowed to pressure from Emanuel.

Justifying her reversed stance on the project, Lightfoot said developers Sterling Bay and Related Midwest had agreed to meet higher minority hiring standards than the city currently requires—30 percent minority-owned businesses and 10 percent women-owned businesses as opposed to 26 percent and 6 percent, respectively. However, this promise came with no formal oversight plan from the Chicago Black Caucus.

AN AERIAL VIEW of the rendering of the Lincoln Yards project shows the proposed sprawling mega development will be built along the Chicago River. In January, public outcry forced Sterling Bay to scrap plans for a 20,000 seat stadium (lower left) that have been the home of a soccer team owned by Cubs owner Tom Rickets.

Lincoln Yards is a $6 billion proposed development from Sterling Bay to build skyscrapers, housing units, retail storefronts, green space and more on 55 acres along the Chicago River on the site of the old Finkl and Sons steel mill. Bordered by the Kennedy Expressway, the project will link the Lincoln Park and Bucktown neighborhoods—two of the city’s trendiest communities.

The 78 is a $7 billion separate proposal from developer Related Midwest, which will build skyscrapers, restaurants and shops on 62 acres from the South Loop to Chinatown.

TIF districts were created to eliminate blight in low-income neighborhoods through higher tax bills, but on April 17, Raise Your Hand and the Grassroots Collaborative filed a lawsuit against the city to block the $2.4 billion in TIF funds that will be used to pay for infrastructure for projects in and around Lincoln Yards.

“The lawsuit challenges the city’s racially and ethnically discriminatory administration of the TIF system, which has disproportionally benefitted areas in majority-white tracts to the detriment of areas in majority African-American and majority Hispanic census tracts,” the groups said in a news release.

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