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Jay Doherty and the City Club of Chicago Under Fire

CLUB JAY: Has the powerful lobbyist Jay Doherty, the president of the City Club of Chicago, transformed that venerable organization into a means to enrich his clients—and himself? The Illinois attorney general is investigating. But the answer may not be so black and white

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Kathy Posner
The whistleblower: Kathy Posner, a former City Club board member

“For Civic Betterment,” read the headline on a November 1903 editorial in The Chicago Daily Tribune announcing the arrival of the City Club of Chicago. Founded by more than 125 local businessmen, the club “has great possibilities,” the Tribune declared. “And there is not a city in the country where such a club is more needed.”

The City Club delivered big on that promise, commissioning independent research—and spurring meaningful change—in areas such as city planning and public health. Its investigations into police mismanagement and municipal finance, led by Charles Merriam, a University of Chicago professor and reformist alderman, prompted improvements to the city’s tax system. The club was also a fierce advocate for Daniel Burnham’s bold 1909 Plan of Chicago, which gave the city its broad boulevards and lakeshore parks.

Over the years, the club grew to 2,400 members, but it suffered a financial setback during the Depression and lost its headquarters on Plymouth Court. By 1977, when the Republican activist and commentator Thomas Roeser became president, the club’s roster had dwindled to about 60 members; six years later, thanks to his energetic leadership, that number had grown to 600. But slowly the organization acquired a reputation as a stodgy GOP hangout. With plans to step down, Roeser went looking for a replacement with strong Democratic credentials—and that’s when the stories of the City Club and Jay Doherty began to intersect.


Jay Doherty, his clients, and the City Club speakers

The son of the mayor of McHenry, Illinois, Doherty was steeped in Democratic politics from an early age. He attended Marquette University, where he displayed an ability for making advantageous connections. Doherty got started in politics working on Sargent Shriver’s 1976 presidential campaign, which led to his appointment as communications director for the Kennedy family’s Merchandise Mart. He went on to forge partnerships with Harold Washington and other liberal stalwarts.

Charming and pushy, Doherty also displayed a selfless streak. He met his wife, Colleen, a nurse, when he was donating a kidney to a friend; the couple married in 2003 and have four children. And Doherty has been a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics and Misericordia, the nonprofit care center for the disabled, where his talent for getting people to part with their cash was put to good use.

In 1987, Doherty teamed up with Thomas Coffey, a top aide to Harold Washington, to form the Haymarket Group, a Democratic public affairs firm whose blue-chip clients have included Senator Carol Moseley Braun and Alderman Ed Burke. Around 2004 he started his own public affairs company, using his networking skills to build up his Rolodex. Another way he made connections was by joining the City Club in 1985.

The club had changed considerably from its early days, moving away from the careful studies and earnest reforms. Under Roeser, the emphasis slowly turned toward political debates—as when Governor James Thompson faced off against Adlai Stevenson III, his Democratic challenger in the 1982 election—and public forums. The latter were genteel affairs, with speakers rarely interacting with or being challenged by the audience.

In 1994, Roeser retired as president and, with the board’s endorsement, handed the reins to Doherty. The new president refused to take a salary and even used some of his own money to keep the club afloat.

Under Doherty, the shift that had already started—more talk and less action—went further. Increasingly, the people who took to the podium at Maggiano’s were city and state officials, such as the head of Chicago’s department of transportation and other procurement officials, who controlled access to lucrative contracts.

Doherty’s rationale: Such speakers drew more attendees, beefing up the club’s coffers (each forum costs $35 for members, $45 for nonmembers) and burnishing the club’s image. They “attract large audiences,” noted the club’s centenary history in 2003. “Those speakers who merely discuss policy draw fewer.”

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Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp


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