Most any member of the Chicago City Council would tell you the best way you can help your ward is to help the incumbent alderman stay in office.
But it seems few aldermen blur the lines as much as Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) has done in the first major initiative of her second term.
After barely surviving a runoff election last spring with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s backing, Smith announced she was starting “an exciting new group” to supplement her efforts on behalf of the generally affluent and often hard-to-please voters of Lincoln Park, Old Town and the Gold Coast.
“We believe the 43rd Ward is the best place to live and do business in the City of Chicago, but there is always more progress to be made,” Smith wrote in a fundraising pitch for what she called the new Lakefront Leaders group.
“When you join Lakefront Leaders (LL), your contribution will help hire outreach staff to help neighborhood residents, business and civic organizations with their concerns,” she added. “Lakefront Leaders will help our office deliver great constituent services as well as be a vital forum for economic development through support of local businesses and increased tourism opportunities.”
Membership in the new group costs a minimum of $750 a year. But you have to pony up $5,000 a year to earn “Lakefront Leaders Chair” status and get “special acknowledgment and preferred seating” at the group’s biannual events, according to Smith’s letter.
Only at the bottom of the two-page letter do we see any indication that there is not really any new group called Lakefront Leaders. To join Lakefront Leaders and pay your dues, Smith wrote, you have to send your checks to Friends of Michele Smith.
Yep, Friends of Michele Smith is the alderman’s personal political campaign committee.
And only after you click on the link to sign up for Lakefront Leaders will you find this admission, in the fourth paragraph of the fine print: “For this year, we’ll also put our campaign fully behind us by retiring the remaining expenses of the campaign.”
In other words, contributors to Lakefront Leaders may have to re-up their membership next year before a penny actually goes to ward services. As I read the letter, initial contributions may go for nothing other than paying bills Smith’s political campaign already racked up in her desperate re-election fight earlier this year.
There is no record of any group called Lakefront Leaders being registered with the Secretary of State’s office.
Smith told me Tuesday she never intended to form any new group. Lakefront Leaders, she said, “is just the name of an event” that will take place two or three times a year, not a separate organization.
“It’s like forming a leadership circle,” the alderman said. “It’s perfectly commonplace and appropriate that we do that.”
Smith did not break any rules in her letter because she eventually disclosed that the money would go to her campaign fund, said David Melton, executive director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Still, Melton said the Lakefront Leaders letter from Smith was misleading.
“She should have made it clearer that the money is going to her campaign fund and, in the first year at least, would go mostly to pay off her campaign debt,” he said. “It’s not illegal misrepresentation but it’s more buried than it should be.”
If the goal of Lakefront Leaders really is to improve the ward, rather than just re-elect the incumbent, then it also would be more honest and transparent to legally incorporate the new group as a not-for-profit and keep its books apart from Smith’s political fund.
Caroline Vickrey, who lost the runoff election, seized on Smith’s blurred lines.
“I am appalled that local businesses are being pressured into making campaign contributions to a sitting alderman under the guise of an economic engine for the ward,” said Vickrey, who’s considering running again in 2019.
Smith could best serve herself and the ward by forming a truly new group that’s clearly helping constituents — not just replenishing her political fund for another tight 43rd Ward election battle.