Wealthy Donors Backing Hopefuls In Chicago’s Hot 43rd Ward Election

Chicago's 43rd Ward

In 2005, Jennifer Tremblay got into hot water with the City of Chicago when officials determined she was a minority business front for some members of the O’Brien family, of the well-known O’Brien’s Restaurant in Chicago’s Old Town.

In short, city officials accused Tremblay of being a partner in name only for the O’Brien-controlled Camino Latino restaurant concession at O’Hare International Airport, and denied her disadvantaged business certification.

These days, Tremblay has a different role: along with businesses affiliated with O’Brien’s, she’s a generous financial backer of one of the two aldermanic candidates running in the 43rd Ward, which includes Lincoln Park and Old Town.

Tremblay donated $5,000 in March to aldermanic hopeful Tim Egan’s campaign, according to records from the Illinois State Board of Elections. Another $7,500 was donated in two chunks to the campaign from JLT Hospitality, Inc., a company that, according to the Illinois secretary of state records, lists Tremblay as its president.

O’Brien businesses and family members also have been quite active in the 43rd Ward race, in which Egan will face Michele Smith in the April 5 run-off election.

Aside from $3,000 in “in-kind” contributions—apparently in the form of food for fundraisers, provided by O’Brien’s Restaurant—another $22,500 was donated to the Egan campaign by four other companies that share the same Wells Street address (found here and here), and that city records show are affiliated with the O’Brien family.

(Peter O’Brien, a proprietor of O’Brien’s Restaurant, serves as finance chairman of Egan’s campaign, an O’Brien spokesman said. Tremblay is a long-time employee of O’Brien’s Restaurant. Neither Tremblay nor O’Brien, whose family has deep roots in local Democratic Party politics, returned BGA calls.)

Candidate Egan said he’s “proud to have the support of many independent businesses and individuals in the ward.”

However, Smith criticized him for taking money “from all vested economic interests” in the area.

But Smith has a major contributor of her own. That would be the retired Helen Meier, of Wilmette.  This election cycle, Meier has given Smith’s campaign $95,000. Going back to Smith’s previous run for alderman in 2007 and her 2008 win for Democratic ward committeeman, Meier has donated roughly $360,000 to Smith.

Meier is a friend and described by Smith as “a second mom.” Smith served as an unpaid director of the arts foundation run by Meier and her husband, according to the charity’s tax records.

While Egan said Meier’s generous contributions have been talked about during the campaign, he added that it is not something he has brought up.

“I’m an issue-focused candidate. I’m not concerned about what her [campaign disclosure forms] say, how she raises her money or what she does,” said Egan.

Meier denied any taint of a political angle or self-interest.

“I don’t buy diamonds and yachts,” Meier said, “I believe in good causes. Sometimes it needs volunteering, sometimes it needs money.”

Meier was allowed to donate so much because the money came before new campaign contribution limits were imposed by the state at the start of this year.

Under the old rules, Illinois was just one of a handful of states allowing unlimited political donations to candidates. With the new rules in place, individuals can give no more than $5,000, while companies, unions or associations can donate up to $10,000. PACs and candidate political committees can give as much as $50,000.

But as with many attempts at reform, there are loopholes.

Some donors are using their corporate entities to spread the contribution wealth beyond normal limits, as highlighted by the Chicago News Cooperative in a recent story about mayoral contributors.

That’s how Tremblay and the O’Briens were able to contribute so much.

However the race shakes out, it has involved big bucks by aldermanic standards. In total, Egan and Smith have collected more than $700,000 in campaign contributions since the start of last year, records show.

Full disclosure: The BGA is a non-partisan, apolitical watchdog organization that does not endorse political candidates. BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw is a resident of the 43rd ward. In 2009, before she became a candidate, Michele Smith did some temporary and voluntary advisory work for the BGA. The BGA’s examination of the 43rd aldermanic race is based on a tip that raised important good government and campaign finance issues in this high-profile aldermanic campaign.

This blog entry was reported and written by BGA Investigator James Edwards, who can be reached at (312) 821-9036, or at jedwards@bettergov.org.

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