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Casino owner, others with gambling-industry ties helped Lori Lightfoot become mayor

But Lightfoot says campaign money and personal relationships will play no role in Chicago casino and other key decisions.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
“I’m going to play by the book,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot says when asked about how her decisions on a casino in Chicago and other gaming matters could affect her campaign contributors and clients of her old law firm.
Sun-Times files

With legal gambling set to explode across Illinois, Mayor Lori Lightfoot will be among the government officials who’ll have a strong say in how that plays out in Chicago.

Among those who could benefit from decisions she makes on such matters, including where Chicago’s first casino should go and whether slot machines go in at O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport, are some of Lightfoot’s campaign contributors and clients at her former law firm.

Consider the new mayor’s ties to the owners of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines — who include billionaire real estate developer and casino operator Neil Bluhm, Bluhm’s family and Kentucky horse-track operator Churchill Downs. A spokesman says they are considering applying to operate the Chicago casino.

The final decision on where that casino would go lies with the Illinois Gaming Board. But Lightfoot is expected to play a big role in determining the best site, as well as who would run the casino.

Lightfoot says campaign contributions won’t influence her, noting “the worst thing” anybody could do is try to sway her by giving her campaign money. “I’m always going to look after the best interests of the city . . . I’m going to play by the book,” she says.

Lightfoot attended law school at the University of Chicago with Bluhm’s daughter Leslie Bluhm, and they remain close friends.

Leslie Bluhm and her sister Meredith Bluhm-Wolf, who have a financial stake in Rivers, gave a total of $212,500 to Lightfoot’s mayoral campaign fund, records show. Leslie Bluhm also co-hosted a fundraiser for Lightfoot.

Greg Carlin, a top Rivers executive, contributed $1,000 to Lightfoot’s campaign, records show. And Craig Duchossois, whose family operates Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights with Churchill Downs, gave $50,000 to Lightfoot’s campaign.

A Bluhm spokesman, Dennis Culloton, says Leslie Bluhm “went to law school with Lori, and that’s where the really strong connection comes from.” Leslie Bluhm says: “I am proud to support Lori Lightfoot . . . because of her courage and fairmindedness and vision for the city. I know that Mayor Lightfoot will always put Chicago first in every decision she makes.”

Lightfoot says she’s known Leslie Bluhm “since 1986, when we first met in law school, so the support she’s given” stems from their 30-year-plus friendship.

Rivers also uses Lightfoot’s former law firm, Mayer Brown LLP, for regulatory lobbying work, as does a rival casino in Elgin that the family of Gov. J.B. Pritzker long held an interest in, state records show.

Real estate developer and casino magnate Neil Bluhm (left) with actor Jim Belushi at the opening of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines on July 17, 2011.
Real estate developer and casino magnate Neil Bluhm (left) with actor Jim Belushi at the opening of the Rivers Casino in Des Plaines on July 17, 2011.
Provided photo

Mayer Brown’s point person on that lobbying work, John Janicik, represented the Casino Queen in East St. Louis in a 1994 land-dispute lawsuit along with the law firm’s former chairman, Ty Fahner, and Lightfoot herself.

Fahner is close friends with Lightfoot, gave $40,000 to her campaign and got others to give as well.

Janicik, whose household contributed $750 to Lightfoot earlier this year, wouldn’t comment.

Lightfoot says her past legal work on gambling matters was very limited.

“I’m not a gaming expert,” she says, though, from “time to time” when she was a partner in the firm, colleagues would consult her on “regulatory issues” related to gaming.

Other lawyers with Mayer Brown — which has hundreds of attorneys around the world — gave more than $150,000 to Lightfoot’s campaign, records show.

Before running for mayor, Lightfoot was an equity partner at the firm, where Neil Bluhm once practiced law.

But the mayor says, “I don’t have any more financial ties” to Mayer Brown, which she says she divested from a year ago. And she says personal relationships will play no role in her decision-making.

The mayor says it’s too early to talk about possible casino locations and operators because there hasn’t even been a study to see whether it makes financial sense for the city under the law the Illinois Legislature recently passed to expand legal gambling in the state. If a study shows a casino is viable, “then we’ll move forward.”

If not, it might mean going back to legislators “to get it right,” she says.

If and when it comes time for the gaming board to choose a casino operator, Lightfoot says: “Of course, we’ll weigh in . . . . We’re at the beginning of a long journey.”

As the General Assembly crafted a massive gaming-expansion bill that included a provision for a casino in Chicago, Lightfoot pushed, as her predecessors at City Hall had, for the city to own it. She backed down, and legislators ended up agreeing to a privately owned casino that would be Chicago’s first, with the city getting a big cut of the money it brings in.

The legislation — which Pritzker hasn’t yet signed into law, though he’s expected to do so soon — also would allow the city to have slot machines at the two airports. But any airport gambling would come out of the 4,000 “gaming positions” the city is allowed for a new casino, making the possibility potentially less attractive.

O’Hare is minutes away from Rivers. Culloton says casino executives didn’t oppose that provision of the legislation and don’t see gaming machines at O’Hare as competition.

The legislation also:

• Allows for five other new casinos, beyond Chicago’s and the state’s 10 existing casinos.

• OKs a new horse track in the south suburbs that would offer casino-style gaming in addition to racing.

• Lets existing horse tracks, including Arlington, offer slot machines and table games and also sports wagering.

• Allows existing casinos to add gaming positions and sports betting.

• Allows big sports stadiums to offer wagering on sporting events.

For arenas in Chicago — including those for the Bears, Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks — it’s unclear yet whether all of the teams want sports betting and what authority City Hall would have over that.

Executives from some of those teams were large campaign contributors to Lightfoot, among them Laura Ricketts, whose family owns the Cubs and who gave $52,500, records show.

A Ricketts family spokesman says: “Laura Ricketts supports Mayor Lightfoot because of her fearless record of integrity and corruption fighting and did so long before there was even discussion of sports gambling bills in Springfield. . . . Laura threw her full support behind Lori Lightfoot in the runoff, believing that Lori is the best person to chart a future course for the city while she also makes history as the first LGBTQ+ and woman of color to hold the office.”

Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts.
Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts.
Getty Images

The spokesman also says the team is exploring the possibility of sports wagering at or near Wrigley Field.

Now that Lightfoot will have some authority over gaming matters in the city, will she stop taking campaign money from casino operators and other gaming interests?

“The mayor will adhere to the city and state’s existing fundraising restrictions and the previous administration’s executive order, which created more stringent rules prohibiting lobbyists, city employees and city contractors from contributing to her campaign committee,” a Lightfoot campaign spokesman says.