With the April 7 election now less than three weeks out, candidates in the 29th and 37th Ward runoff races are picking up the fundraising pace. In the 29th Ward, incumbent Deborah Graham has a more than 1000 percent fundraising advantage over Chris Taliaferro as of March 7. The 37th Ward, however, has a lot more parity, with incumbent alderman Emma Mitts leading challenger Tara Stamps, a Chicago schoolteacher, by slightly less than $20,000 as of March 17, according to WBEZ’s interactive Chicago Campaign Cash tracker.

While most of the $24,750 that Taliaferro has raised as of March 7 has come from the candidate himself and Danny K. Davis’s political action committee Citizens for Davis, Deborah Graham’s nearly $244,000 war chest is heavy with donations from state Sen. Don Harmon (39th).

The senator’s PAC has contributed nearly $50,000 to Graham’s campaign this election cycle. Overall, Graham’s PAC, Citizens to Elect Deborah L. Graham, has raised more than $980,000 in total funds.

Graham, a former state representative, served in the General Assembly with Sen. Harmon and is described in media reports as his protégé. But perhaps more telling than Harmon’s contributions are the many lesser contributions from small businesses, such as Prestige Food & Liquors, which donated $4,000 to Graham’s PAC last month.

During her time in City Council, Graham has come under widespread scrutiny for some of her zoning decisions. In 2012, the liquor store Convenience For You donated $1,950 to Graham’s political committee. Six months later, according to a report in Wednesday Journal, Graham reversed a decade-long moratorium on the issuance of new liquor licenses in the 5300 block of West Madison Street — paving the way for the store to setup shop.

It turned out the store was owned and financed by a reputed drug dealer. At the time, Graham said that if she’d have known of the store’s shady origins, she wouldn’t have supported the business.

Also in 2012, Graham provided “critical support to a special use zoning permit that enabled a fifth pawn shop [EZ Pawn] to open in a half-mile stretch of North Avenue,” according to Wednesday Journal. The lobbying firm that was advocating on the pawn shop’s behalf had donated $2,100 to ostensibly pay for putting on community meetings to discuss the pawn shop locating in the neighborhood over the protests of many residents.

Mayor Emanuel’s largesse

In the 37th Ward, Stamps trails Mitts by a little less than $20,000 raised this election cycle. Stamps has significantly diminished the fundraising gap that separated her from the incumbent in the run up to the Feb. 24 election. While Mitts’s more than $141,000 has come largely from herself (she donated more than $38,000 to her campaign this cycle) and For a Better Chicago PAC, a pro-business entity, Stamps’s nearly $123,000 has come largely from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Mitts’s PAC, Citizens to Elect Emma Mitts, has raised more than $645,000 in total.

Political observers have questioned the extent to which candidates such as Stamps and mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia — both of whom are heavily funded by the CTU and other major labor unions — will be controlled by those organizations if they get elected.

But that speculation hardens into possibility when it comes to the influence of deep-pocketed corporations such as Wal-Mart and political powers such as Mayor Emanuel on incumbent aldermen Emma Mitts and Deborah Graham.

In 2011, Progress Illinois published several reports on For a Better Chicago, whose “overarching goal” the PAC’s chairman Greg Goldner described as “continuing [former Chicago mayor Richard] Daley’s legacy among Chicago’s next crop of aldermen.”

Goldner is an influential political consultant who was vital to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s election victory in 2011. He’s also a consultant to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., a firm that “supplies Chicago its red-light cameras,” according to a 2012 report by the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune described Goldner as “the architect of a nationwide campaign to promote his client’s expansion prospects.” The paper added that Redflex “is well-positioned to make tens of millions of dollars from Emanuel’s controversial plan to convert many of the red-light cameras into automated speed cameras.”

Once a fund dedicated to advancing the interests of former mayor Daley, For a Better Chicago now operates to advance the interests of Mayor Emanuel by funding his key allies in City Council, such as Mitts and Graham. The PAC is a top donor to both of the incumbents’ campaigns. This election cycle, it’s contributed more than $47,000 to Graham and more than $21,000 to Mitts. And that doesn’t include the thousands both received from Emanuel’s other war chest Chicago Forward, which has given Graham more than $60,000, and Mitts more than $36,000.

According to a frequently cited UIC study, Graham and Mitts have both supported the mayor virtually every time a divided vote came up. Graham’s pro-Emanuel vote rate is 100 percent and Mitts’s is 97 percent. Graham, however, has said that her votes were based more on what community benefit than simply loyalty to the mayor.

“I have not voted with the mayor and against the community,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in a March 23 article. “I think every issue that has come up has been beneficial to the community.”

‘Secretive’ PAC and Wal-Mart

The problem with the For a Better Chicago, according to Progress Illinois, is that the individuals and businesses who donate their money to it are anonymous — so their identities, as well as their possible motivations, are rarely, if ever, revealed. For a Better Chicago, which is registered as a 501(c)(4) tax exempt nonprofit, is an example of nonprofits that “played a major role in taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision to collect and spend unlimited amounts of what the Sunlight Federation has called ‘dark money’: political contributions from undisclosed sources,” according to Progress Illinois.

“The (c)(4) groups have become the tool used to hide corporate election-related spending,” the Federation noted, adding that the campaign of Illinois Republican senator Mark Kirk “benefited ‘overwhelmingly’ from [a] torrent of corporate donations,” according to the Progress Illinois report.

In a separate report in 2011, Progress Illinois revealed that David Herro, a mutual fund manager, “donated $10,000 to the group, the first such donation that is traceable.”

“It turns out that not only does Herro have a history of donating serious money to aldermanic candidates who will support business interests, such as an expansion of Wal-Mart stores throughout the city, he has also spent big bucks supporting Republican candidates at the federal level through similar shadow groups that use the financial loopholes FBC [For a Better Chicago] is exploiting,” according to the Progress Illinois report.

Mitts has also received contributions and other benefits from Wal-Mart directly. Last month, she received a $1,500 contribution from the company. In the last decade or so, Wal-Mart has ramped up its political funding significantly in order to clear the way for it to expand into new markets, such as Mexico and the Austin community.

In 2012, the New York Times reported that a 2005 internal investigation revealed more than $24 million “in payments to [Mexican] planning officials, local politicians, and others that could help, or hinder, Wal-Mart’s expansion plans,” according to an article in Dissent Magazine.

Dissent notes, “Nobody knows how much the Arkansas behemoth and its founding family have given to local politicians, but it is obviously another Wal-Mart standard practice. In one of the more blatant examples, Wal-Mart—eager to open a new store in one of Chicago’s African-American neighborhoods—lavished campaign contributions on Alderwoman Emma Mitts and feted here at the gala held during its annual stockholders meeting. Mitts has become a prominent spokesperson for the company, flacking for Wal-Mart in a Washington Post op-ed and even referring to the company as ‘we’ on a local Chicago television show.”

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