Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas dropped $836,500 into his mayoral campaign fund on Wednesday in the first significant fundraising report filed by any of the seven candidates vying to unseat Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Four years ago, Vallas finished ninth in a 14-candidate mayoral field, with 5.43% of the vote.
He hauled in $200,000 in campaign contributions from Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who had spent months complaining about then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to raise the city’s amusement tax on large venues to bankroll a break for small theaters.
But after Emanuel chose not to seek a third term, Vallas’ fundraising efforts stalled.
He didn’t have the money to compete with Lightfoot, who rose from single-digit obscurity to finish first in the first round of the mayoral election, then routed County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the runoff.
But Vallas’ second-quarter fundraising report shows this time around may be different.
Vallas reported $836,500 in donations, including six-figure contributions from some heavy hitters.
They include $500,000 from prominent Republican donor and golf course magnate Michael Keiser; $100,000 apiece from John Canning and James Perry of Madison Dearborn Partners; $50,000 from Noel Moore, managing partner of Endurance Asset Management; and $25,000 from Edgar Bachrach of Bader Clothing.
Vallas also reported receiving $10,000 contributions from Petco Petroleum’s Jay Bergman; the O’Donnell Family LLC; and Edward J. Wehmer, president and CEO of Wintrust Financial.
After a first-quarter fundraising frenzy — her best since taking office — Lightfoot still had just $1.7 million in cash in her primary political account.
Since then, millionaire businessman Willie Wilson joined the fray and contributed $5 million to his own campaign, blowing the cap on fundraising for all 2023 mayoral candidates.
Lightfoot has yet to file her final fundraising report for the second quarter. But she had raised more than $558,000 according to reports filed through July 5. That would leave her with more money in the bank than Vallas — unless she ends up spending more money than she took in.
Her political director Dave Mellett could not be reached for comment.
If Vallas manages to out-raise the mayor in the second quarter, it would be something of a political embarrassment for the embattled incumbent.
It would also be more evidence of how difficult it could be for Lightfoot to raise the $8 million to $15 million political observers believe she needs to offset her 25% approval rating in recent public opinion polls.
But the six-figure donations from Republican heavyweights like Keiser and Canning could also be a double-edged sword for Vallas.
Veteran political operative Peter Giangreco said it proves what he said the day Lightfoot launched her reelection bid: Lightfoot’s “only path” to victory is to “hope and pray that she gets into a runoff with Paul Vallas,” then paint Vallas “as a Republican in a city that’s 70% Democrat.”
Added Giangreco: “Paul Vallas has always been a closet Republican at heart. He’d be the most anti-union mayor of Chicago we’ve ever had. And half a million dollars plus from big-time Republican donors kind of solidifies this,” said Giangreco, who advised mayoral challenger Susana Mendoza in 2019.
“This is a guy who has always sort of flirted with Trumpian rhetoric. Now it’s clear that he is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party.”
In a text message to the Sun-Times, Vallas said he is “very pleased” with his first fundraising report and “expect more to come.”
“As to the political leanings of some of our contributors, the mayor’s race is non-partisan [and] many of my ‘Republican’ donors have supported many Democratic mayoral candidates in the past. Some even supported Lori Lightfoot the last time around,” Vallas wrote.
Vallas argued “donors from across the spectrum” share his “concern for the future” of Chicago.
“No matter how Lightfoot spins it, the streets are less safe. The schools are a mess. And our city’s budget is in a free fall requiring more than all-too-easy tax increases, fines and fees as the answer to all of our problems,” he wrote.
“People are looking for change from someone who has the knowledge and the know-how to turn Chicago around.”