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What Does the For a Better Chicago PAC Want From Rahm Emanuel, Aldermen, and Us?

One of the big political players in the aldermanic races, and the runoffs to come, is a political action committee with virtually no public donors and only a handful of specific policy preferences. Is it progressive? Centrist? Conservative? Or do we even have the right framework to describe it?

The Tribune has a good piece today on For a Better Chicago, the political action committee that’s received $855,000 from its related 501 ©(4)–which doesn’t have to disclose donors–and has spent $455,000 on aldermanic races. The great mystery of For a Better Chicago isn’t just who’s donating to it, but what exactly it wants. And so far, despite good reporting from the Trib, Progress Illinois (which has done the bulk of the reporting on FBC so far), and the Sun-Times, we don’t really know. But this quote, from the only individual donor to the PAC itself, is telling:

Herro, who was named this week to a committee planning Emanuel’s inaugural festivities, also gave $65,000 directly to Emanuel and more than $90,000 to individual council candidates. Herro said the agendas of Emanuel and For A Better Chicago are intertwined.

“Envision two circles,” Herro said. “It’s not like the circles are completely over one another, but there is an intersection and it isn’t a tiny intersection. I would say two-thirds of the circles are over one another, but I don’t think this group is going to be 100 percent loyal to everything Rahm does.”

It reminds me of what David Moberg wrote back in 1989:

But generally, [Dick] Simpson says, “with Mayor Daley, as far as anyone knows, you didn’t slip money in an envelope. When Daley remade the machine, that way of buying influence changed. By the late 60s, if you had a multimillion-dollar contract, it was more of an alliance between institutions and political leaders. It wasn’t paying $500 and getting a vote. It was a knitting together of institutions, but businesses made sure Daley knew they had contributed to the party and to the mayor.”

For a Better Chicago seems like the next step: a vague institution with a vague agenda supporting a breadth of candidates. In essence, they’re trading the benefit of making the money harder to follow for the sacrifice of direct influence and, possibly, having recipients at odds with each other on some things. As FBC’s chair, Greg Goldner, told Progress Illinois:

“All types of interest groups on the left and right use these vehicles. These donors aren’t trying to influence any particular policy … they will remain anonymous,” he said, and by doing so “they can’t be accused of trying to push any particular policy. It’s an organization that won’t lobby the City Council on issues. It will just engage in communications.”

The genius of this is that we don’t really have a framework to discuss For a Better Chicago. You sort of have to read the tea leaves–aka their “Issues” and their questionnaire (PDF)–to get a sense of their agenda, which is almost too specific a word. Goldner says it’s “pro-business” and that Emanuel’s “campaign commitments and positions are very similar to ours.” Back in January, Dan Mihalopoulos got Goldner on the record with some sort-of details on the organization’s still-opaque vision.

You can take a look at their endorsements. I added up how many times their 34 endorsements intersected with the endorsements of others, and it went like this: Sun-Times (29 out of the Sun-Times’s 43 endorsements), Tribune (26 out of 44), Chicago Federation of Labor (26 out of 38), Chamber of Commerce (23 out of 34), AFSCME (21 out of 29), Citizen Action (16 out of 25), SEIU (15 out of 29), IVI-IPO (11 out of 26), Chicago Teachers’ Union (10 out of 25).

FBC has donated to fewer aldermen than it’s endorsed. It’s given three in-kind contributions to Will Burns, who’s for a moratorium on school closings, the Sweet Home Chicago ordinance, retiring TIFs, and other progressive-friendly stances. It’s also given eight to Tom O’Donnell, the well-connected Gene Schulter protege and Tom Dart aide who got pantsed by Ameya Pawar in the big 47th Ward upset. FBC gave an endorsement and money to labor-backed Debra Silverstein over Bernie Stone (Chamber of Commerce-endorsed) and Greg Brewer (Tribune).

Like I said, it’s hard to tell.

I wonder if “machine” is the right word for what we have now. It feels more like something out of Greek mythology, where powerful gods intervene in the lives of mortals in ways we only dimly understand with motives that are just as varied–sometimes noble, sometimes petty, sometimes ill-conceived–as our own.

I dunno. Maybe I’ll leave the metaphor for John Kass, who likes that sort of thing.

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