Following the money: Chicago’s five most expensive City Council runoffs
Chicago’s contentious mayoral race has grabbed the biggest headlines this election season, but Chicagoans are also headed to the polls today to elect fourteen city council members. In February’s primary, no candidate secured a majority in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th, 21st, 24th, 29th, 30th, 36th, 43rd, 45th, 46th, or 48th Wards, triggering runoffs. Six incumbent council members face challengers.
We identified the five most expensive aldermanic runoff elections – the 36th, 4th, 46th, 43rd, and 11th – based on candidates’ total reported contributions since the start of 2022. Read on to learn where the candidates have gotten their money and which outside spenders are seeking to influence these races.
Special thanks to RFI Research Assistants Annie Dhal, Ryan Michaud, and Aidan Shannon for their assistance in preparing this report.
Check out who’s funding – and influencing – candidates for yourself with Reform for Illinois’ Sunshine Campaign Finance Tracker.
See Chicago mayoral and city council candidates’ positions on campaign finance reform, elections, and ethics issues in our good government questionnaire.
Read Reform for Illinois Executive Director Alisa Kaplan’s op-ed in the Chicago Tribune on how to shed light on dark money in Illinois.
- These races are expensive. Candidates in the five aldermanic races featured in this piece have collectively raised more than $3.7 million for a chance at a city council seat, with the top fundraiser, Ald. Gilbert “Gil” Villegas, taking in $792K. Independent expenditure committees, also known as super PACs, have spent more than $853K to support or oppose these candidates.
- Realtors and charter school advocates are some of the biggest super PAC spenders. The Illinois REALTORS Fund has spent more than $353K to support Ald. Villegas, Kim Walz, and Alds. Timmy Knudsen and Nicole Lee. The INCS Action Independent Committee, which is affiliated with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, has spent more than $172K in these races.
- CTU and SEIU are flexing their political muscle in the 36th and 46th Wards. Lori Torres Whitt (36th) and Angela Clay (46th) both count the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU (Service Employees International Union) among their top donors. Together, Torres Whitt and Clay have received over $300K combined from CTU and SEIU.
- The Get Stuff Done PAC and SEIU’s new super PAC are also active in these races. The new Get Stuff Done super PAC, which supports “pragmatic” City Council candidates, has spent $192K in these five races. The PAC’s funders include investor and prolific Democratic donor Michael Sacks, James and Lester Crown, top Vallas donor Craig Duchossois, and LIUNA Chicago Laborers’ District Council PAC. SEIU’s new super PAC, Working Families for Chicago, has spent $135K.
- Incumbency advantage? Of the five races we covered in this piece, three feature an incumbent. Ald. Villegas (36th), who was first elected in 2015, outraised every other candidate featured in this piece by $150K or more. Alds. Knudsen (43rd) and Lee (11th) are recently appointed incumbents with large fundraising advantages in their respective races, though neither candidate was able to win outright in February.
- All five races have a clear fundraising leader. On one end of the spectrum, more than $510K separates Rep. Lamont Robinson from Prentice Butler in the 4th Ward race. Meanwhile, $106K separates Kim Walz from Angela Clay in the 46th Ward, a smaller but still significant edge.
- Second campaign committees come in handy for Ald. Villegas and Rep. Robinson. One of Ald. Villegas’ top donors this cycle is his congressional committee, Gilbert Villegas for Congress, which made a $37.5K in-kind contribution to his aldermanic committee back in January. Similarly, Rep. Robinson’s committee for state representative is his aldermanic committee’s top overall donor this cycle.
- Labor, other electeds, and corporate interests make up the bulk of candidates’ top donors. SEIU is also a top donor for Rep. Robinson and Ald. Lee. Robinson, Prentice Butler, and Kim Walz each count elected officials among their top overall donors. Corporate donors like DoorDash are also featured in Alds. Knudsen and Lee’s top donors lists, as well as Walz’s.
Note: Incumbents often stockpile cash for their reelection campaigns years in advance. Here we’ve focused on contributions beginning in January 2022, so that initial fundraising is not reflected in this piece.
36th Ward: Villegas has a large lead over Torres Whitt in the money race; super PACs back Villegas
Total Funds Raised: $1,101,517.41
Villegas: $792,810.42, Torres Whitt: $308,706.99
The 36th Ward, which formerly covered parts of the Northwest Side, was redrawn during ward remapping to resemble what some have called a water slide or pool noodle, stretching from Montclare to West Town. It’s arguably the most gerrymandered ward in Chicago. As a result of remapping, the 36th Ward lost about half of its constituents to neighboring wards.
Incumbent Ald. Gilbert “Gil” Villegas led the Latino Caucus’s efforts to adopt a different map proposal last year. He has implied that the odd new shape of the 36th Ward was retribution for his opposition to the Black Caucus’s map, which was eventually adopted. Villegas was first elected to City Council in 2015 and mounted an unsuccessful bid for Illinois’ 3rd congressional district last year.
Villegas has raised more than $792K for his reelection campaign since the start of 2022. His largest contributions are from the 36th Ward Dems ($40K), Gilbert Villegas for Congress ($37.5K), and Purple PAC ($13.7K). Villegas has received a steady stream of contributions totaling $270K during the runoff.
Leonor “Lori” Torres Whitt, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, has raised just over $308K for her bid to represent the 36th Ward. Torres Whitt is backed by several progressive groups and politicians, including Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the progressive organization United Working Families. About a third of Torres Whitt’s total campaign cash was received during the runoff.
Torres Whitt’s largest contributions came in the form of in-kind contributions for mailers and polling: $70K from the Chicago Teachers Union PAC (Illinois Federation of Teachers); just under $70K from CTU Local 1 PAC, which also transferred $10K to Torres Whitt’s campaign back in October; and $30K from Grassroots PAC. Torres Whitt has reported fewer contributions than Villegas during the runoff, though they are also some of her campaign’s largest contributions to date: $30K from SEIU Healthcare IL IN PAC on March 25th and a $20K in-kind contribution from the Chicago Teachers Union PAC (Illinois Federation of Teachers) for mailers on March 28th.
Super PACs, for their part, have been very active in this race – and they’re backing Villegas. Outside spending to support Villegas’s campaign totaled $122K during the primary, with an additional $80K in runoff spending reported. The Get Stuff Done PAC spent an additional $7.5K on March 15th for a media buy to oppose Torres Whitt’s campaign. No independent expenditures supporting Torres Whitt have been reported.
The largest pro-Villegas super PAC spender is the INCS Action Independent Committee ($86K), which is affiliated with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. The next largest spender in the 36th Ward race is the Illinois REALTORS Fund ($68K), which is a super PAC that has spent heavily in Chicago’s aldermanic races this cycle. The Get Stuff Done PAC ($48K), which was created to support moderate candidates for City Council, has also been involved in this race along with HACIA PAC ($2K), which “support[s] candidates that share our goal of promoting the interests of Hispanic contractors and professionals.” HACIA PAC’s independent expenditure appears to have been misfiled, since Villegas’ campaign reported receiving a transfer for the same amount on March 29th.
Block Club Chicago recently published a piece examining a practice called “red boxing,” where candidates signal approved ad messaging to outside spenders in their race via their websites. Ald. Villegas was one of the candidates mentioned in that piece – read more here.
|Name of Pro-Villegas Spender||Classification||Total Amount Spent||Purpose of Spending|
|INCS Action Independent Committee||Super PAC||$86,149.44||Mailing, Texting, Digital|
|Illinois REALTORS Fund||Super PAC||$68,857.80||Mailing, Digital, Field Organizing|
|Get Stuff Done PAC||Super PAC||$48,258.99||Mailing, Media Buys|
4th Ward: Robinson dominates fundraising and draws support from super PACs; Ald. King is Butler’s top donor
Total Funds Raised: $760,630.56
Robinson: $636,817.56, Butler: $123,813.00
Chicago’s 4th Ward comprises parts of Hyde Park, Kenwood, Bronzeville, and the South Loop and was represented by Ald. Sophia King since 2016. King’s decision to run for mayor means that the 4th Ward race is one of eight aldermanic runoffs this cycle without an incumbent.
State Rep. Lamont Robinson is the clear fundraising leader in this race, raising more than $636K since his campaign committee for alderman was created in late 2022. Robinson’s single largest contribution to date was a transfer from his other campaign committee ($68.5K), followed by contributions totalling $51K from SEIU Healthcare IL IN PAC and a $50K contribution from fellow state representative Larry Walsh. Robinson has raised an additional $178K during the runoff, with the majority of that cash coming from labor groups ($91K).
Prentice Butler, Ald. King’s chief of staff, has raised just over $123K since beginning his run for the 4th Ward seat. King and her campaign committee occupy the first two spots on Butler’s top donors list, contributing $16K and $10K respectively. King’s contributions to Butler’s campaign as an individual appear to violate Illinois campaign finance law, which sets a $6.9K limit on contributions from individuals to a candidate committee during an election cycle. Butler’s next quarterly report (due April 17th) should tell us if the contributions were reported in error or otherwise returned (in the amount exceeding $6.9K). If the irregularity is not rectified by then, the Illinois State Board of Elections will notify the committee of the excess contribution. Butler will then have 30 days to return it.
Butler has raised just $28K during the runoff, though he has received endorsements from every other candidate that ran for the 4th Ward seat back in February.
Robinson has received a significant amount of super PAC support during his run for alderman. In contrast, no independent expenditures have been reported so far to either support or oppose Butler. Outside spending to support Robinson totaled $65K during the primary, and another $69K in independent expenditures from super PACs were reported in March. The new Working Families for Chicago super PAC is by far the largest super PAC supporter of Robinson’s campaign, having spent $88K since early February. Working Families for Chicago is entirely funded by SEIU. The Get Stuff Done PAC ($20K) and the INCS Action Independent Committee ($26K) have also been active in this race during the runoff.
|Name of Pro-Robinson Spender||Classification||Total Amount Spent||Purpose of Spending|
|Working Families for Chicago||Super PAC||$88,326.82||Printing, Postage, Mailing, Digital Ads, and Field Work|
|INCS Action Independent Committee||Super PAC||$26,350.92||Mailing|
|Get Stuff Done PAC||Super PAC||$20,000||Media Buy|
46th Ward: Caps are off due to super PAC spending; Walz’s largest donors are elected officials, CTU and SEIU back Clay
Total Funds Raised: $683,058.99
Walz: $394,821.55, Clay: $288,237.44
The 46th Ward includes Buena Park, Uptown, and part of Lakeview. Ald. James Cappleman has represented the ward since 2011, but decided not to seek reelection last year. Community organizer Angela Clay faces Walgreens executive and former aide to U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley Kim Walz for the seat.
Walz has a roughly $106K lead in the fundraising race, raising more than $394K over the course of her campaign. Her campaign’s largest overall contributions came from Quigley for Congress ($28K) and Citizens for Sara Feigenholtz ($25.8K). She also received smaller contributions from the campaign committees for retiring Ald. Tom Tunney ($10K) and Alderman-elect Bennett Lawson ($10K). Apart from these contributions from elected officials, Walz’s other top contributors include Realtor PAC ($15K), Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce PAC ($15K), and DoorDash ($10K). Walz has raised about 43% of her total campaign cash during the runoff.
Clay has raised $288K towards her aldermanic run since May of last year. Her top donors are the Chicago Teachers Union PAC ($60K), SEIU Healthcare IL IN PAC ($30K), and SEIU Illinois Council PAC ($30K). Clay has actually outpaced her primary fundraising total during the runoff, raising over $155K in March and early April. CTU and SEIU collectively account for just under 60% of that fundraising haul. Another interesting tidbit from Clay’s most recent quarterly report: 16% of her fundraising during the last few months of 2022 came from small contributions of up to $150. Walz received 5% of her contributions from small donors during that same period.
The 46th Ward race also has the distinction of being the only City Council runoff race without contribution limits. Contribution caps were lifted March 21st after three super PACs spent a combined $102K to support Walz and oppose Clay.
The Illinois REALTORS Fund is by far the largest outside spender in the 46th Ward race. The super PAC has spent north of $139K on independent expenditures to support Walz since early January. Just over $43K of the PAC’s spending in early March counted towards the $102K total that triggered removal of contribution caps in this race. The INCS Action Independent Committee was the next largest spender: $59.9K to support Walz and oppose Clay. The only other super PAC active in this race, the Get Stuff Done PAC, spent $37K to oppose Clay’s campaign in March.
|Name of Spender||Candidate||Classification||Total Amount Spent||Purpose of Spending|
|Illinois REALTORS Fund||Kim Walz (Support)||Super PAC||$139,066.68||Digital Ads, Mailing, Digital Media, and Field Organizing|
|INCS Action Independent Committee||Kim Walz (Support)||Super PAC||$21,000.00||Digital|
|INCS Action Independent Committee||Angela Clay (Oppose)||Super PAC||$38,931.84||Mailing|
|Get Stuff Done PAC||Angela Clay (Oppose)||Super PAC||$37,775.00||Media Buy|
43rd Ward: Knudsen leads in fundraising and super PAC support; Comer accelerates fundraising during runoff but draws scrutiny for campaign finance irregularities
Total Funds Raised: $608,684.74
Knudsen: $477,334.74, Comer: $131,350.00
The 43rd Ward comprises most of the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, and Old Town. Former Ald. Michele Smith, who was first elected in 2011, decided to resign her seat in August of last year. Current Ald. Timmy Knudsen was appointed to the seat by Mayor Lightfoot in September 2022.
Though contribution caps are currently in place for Knudsen and Comer during the runoff, the 43rd Ward was one of two aldermanic races without contribution caps during the primary. (The 25th Ward was the other race.) Third-place finisher Rebecca Janowitz, a retired attorney, loaned $750K to her campaign last September and triggered the “self-funding” loophole, which removed contribution caps for all 43rd Ward candidates until February 28th. Caps were reinstated in the race after her loss. Janowitz’s $750K self-fund is the largest in the Chicago City Council’s history.
Knudsen has a fairly substantial lead in the money race: $477K raised to opponent Brian Comer’s $131K. Knudsen’s largest contributions come from a mix of corporate and individual contributors: $25.7K from Newsweb, LLC, which was founded by top Lightfoot donor Fred Eychaner; $16.9K from Donald Wilson, a charter school proponent and former Emanuel donor; and $16K from investor Matthew Pritzker, who was one of Knudsen’s first donors last year. Knudsen has raised more than $148K during the runoff. That sum is less than his $328K pre-primary fundraising, though it’s likely that contribution caps have restricted his fundraising somewhat over the last month.
Comer has reported over $92K in campaign contributions since the start of the runoff, far exceeding his $38K haul before the primary. His largest contributions this cycle came from Michael (and Ellen) Condron ($13.5K), the managing director of Newport LLC, a business advisory firm; MADO Healthcare – Old Town ($12K); and Paula Tordella ($10K), who lists AMEX as her employer on contribution records. Condron is also listed as the treasurer of Comer’s candidate committee.
Comer’s campaign has come under scrutiny in recent days for Condron and Tordella’s aggregate contributions, both of which appear to exceed the $6.9K contribution limit for individuals during an election cycle. Comer received $10K from Michael Condron and $10K from Tordella in March. Though both Knudsen and Comer were able to receive unlimited contributions during the primary, self-funder Rebecca Janowitz’s loss meant that both candidates were subject to normal contribution limits during the runoff. Comer told the Chicago Tribune this past weekend that the excess contributions were “filing errors” that would be corrected.
Only one super PAC has made independent expenditures in the 43rd Ward race this cycle: the Illinois REALTORS Fund. The super PAC spent more than $70K in February and March to support Knudsen’s run for a full term in City Council.
|Name of Pro-Knudsen Spender||Classification||Total Amount Spent||Purpose of Spending|
|Illinois REALTORS Fund||Super PAC||$70,744.00||Digital Ads, Mailing, Digital Media, Field Organizing|
11th Ward: Super PACs back Lee, who outraises Ciaravino 2:1
Total Funds Raised: $561,973.85
Lee: $381,618.85, Ciaravino: $180,355.00
Chicago’s 11th Ward has a storied history in the city: it’s home to the Daley family, five former mayors, and the city’s Democratic political machine. Before remapping, the ward covered all or parts of Bridgeport, Canaryville, East Pilsen, and University Village. Former Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (of the aforementioned Daley clan) was first elected to the seat in 2015, but resigned in February 2022 after his conviction on federal tax fraud charges.
Mayor Lightfoot appointed Ald. Nicole Lee to the 11th Ward seat in March. City Council then approved new ward maps that included Chinatown in the 11th Ward, making it the city’s first ever Asian-American majority ward. Lee faces police officer Anthony “Tony” Ciaravino in the runoff.
Lee has raised $381K in her bid to retain the 11th Ward seat, with most of her fundraising ($227K) occurring during the primary. She has reported raising an additional $154K during the runoff. Lee’s largest overall donors are SEIU IL Council PAC Fund ($45K), the Asian American Leaders Caucus PAC ($21K), and LiUNA Chicago Laborers’ District Council PAC ($15K). Her top donors during the runoff are those same contributors. Lee has also been endorsed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Cook County Commissioner John Daley, though no member of the Daley family has contributed to her campaign. (Lee’s campaign did report four contributions from a John Daley at Daley Strategy, who does not appear to be related to the Daley family.)
Ciaravino has raised $180K during his campaign for alderman. Most of his fundraising, like Lee’s, was received before February 28th, though he has raised an additional $66K during the runoff. Ciaravino’s top donors are Joseph and Dawn Parente ($31K), the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge#7 ($18.6K), and Parente & Norem, P.C. ($12K), where Joseph Parente is a partner. As the Chicago Sun-Times first reported, Ciaravino has also received contributions from companies “affiliated with longtime Daley supporters Fred B. Barbara, a trucking and waste-hauling magnate, and Joseph Feldman, a developer and former publisher of the Bridgeport News.” Barbara and Feldman each contributed $1K to Ciaravino. (Barbara also contributed $200 to Lee’s campaign.)
The 11th Ward race has always been subject to contribution limits, meaning that the most Ciaravino could receive from an individual donor should have been capped at $6.9K during an election cycle. Joseph Parente’s $25K contribution to Ciaravino in October appears to exceed that limit. An additional $6K donation was originally attributed to Joseph Parente, though Ciaravino’s campaign now says that contribution came from Dawn Parente. Just like in the 4th Ward race above, Ciaravino’s quarterly report should tell us if his campaign returned the excess contribution. If the irregularity is not rectified, the Illinois State Board of Elections will notify the committee of the excess contribution. Ciaravino will then have 30 days to return it.
Super PACs have also been very active in the 11th Ward race, and Lee is the clear beneficiary. Outside spending to support Lee’s campaign has totaled more than $190K since January: just over $124K was spent before the primary, with $66K in independent expenditures reported during the runoff. The largest spender in the 11th Ward race is the Get Stuff Done PAC ($86K), followed by the Illinois REALTORS Fund ($74K), and Working Families for Chicago ($28K).
The HACIA PAC also reported a $1K independent expenditure to support Lee’s campaign, though the purpose of the expenditures is listed as “donation,” which calls into question whether the PAC actually made an independent expenditure, or if the expenditure is actually a contribution to Lee’s campaign (just like with Ald. Villegas above). No independent expenditures supporting Ciaravino have been reported, though Working Families for Chicago made one independent expenditure on March 24th to oppose Ciaravino’s campaign.
|Name of Spender||Candidate||Classification||Total Amount Spent||Purpose|
|Get Stuff Done PAC||Nicole Lee (Support)||Super PAC||$86,625.88||Media Buy, Mailing|
|Illinois REALTORS Fund||Nicole Lee (Support)||Super PAC||$74,890.36||Digital Ads, Mailing, Digital Media, Field Organizing|
|Working Families for Chicago||Nicole Lee (Support)||Super PAC||$28,472.16||Digital Ads, Printing, Postage, Mailing|
|Working Families for Chicago||Tony Ciaravino (Oppose)||Super PAC||$18,334.44||Mailing|