Every candidate should have one.
It’s not a formal prerequisite, but all aspiring elected officials can benefit greatly from having a personal cause. It increases what political operatives call a candidate’s “likability” and shows commitment to public service.
The best such example we have in Illinois are the Jesse White Tumblers. On many weekends, you’ll find the longtime Democratic secretary of state trotting along with his high-flying tumbling team, waving to the crowd at parades across the state as he carries the trampolines farther down the street.
Similarly, the Rauner Family Foundation gave big to education groups, including charter schools serving low-income kids, before the wealthy businessman Bruce Rauner ran successfully for governor.
Now, Chris Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination to challenge Rauner is heavily emphasizing Top Box Foods, the charity started by Kennedy and his wife, Sheila. According to the tax returns from the couple’s Chicago-based nonprofit group, it’s a “hunger relief organization that offers easily accessible, delicious and healthy food at affordable prices to underserved communities, including food deserts” — places lacking in grocery stores.
“Top Box provides boxes of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and delicious fresh-frozen meats,” the group told the IRS.
The organization buys food from suppliers and sells it to people in underprivileged communities. In the past five years, Chris Kennedy says, Top Box Foods has grown to partner with churches and community groups across the city, in Lake County and in the Gulf Coast.
“They pay half what it would cost at a Jewel or Mariano’s,” Kennedy says.
But even good causes can be fraught with pitfalls for politicians. Like any nonprofit organization, Top Box Foods annually files tax returns, which provide the public — including nosy, skeptical reporters — with a glimpse into its finances.
The organization isn’t big. Total expenditures were less than $400,000 in 2015, the last year for which Top Box Foods was required to file tax returns.
On the same day Top Box Foods was formed in November 2011, state records show, Kennedy also started a company called North Bank & Wells LLC. In 2012 and 2013, Top Box Foods paid a total of nearly $600,000 to the company for management services.
Kennedy says he had to pay Top Box Foods staff through North Bank & Wells while waiting for the federal government to approve the charity’s tax-exempt status.
In fact, nothing required him to do that. But nothing prohibited it either. Because of this arrangement, the public can’t tell how much each of the employees got paid.
All of the money paid to North Bank & Wells went to employees who were working for Top Box Foods, Kennedy says.
“Zero profit,” he says. “No fees. No mark-up. No margin.”
Top Box Foods initially reported that it paid Kennedy more than $234,000 in 2013. The tax return for 2013 was amended earlier this year — just days before he announced his run for governor — to show the payments went to North Bank & Wells rather than Kennedy himself.
Kennedy says that was an honest mistake by the group’s then-accountant.
“I’ve never made a penny out of this,” he says.
Kennedy loaned the group $150,000 in 2012. The loan agreement was amended to allow Top Box Foods to borrow as much as $1 million, and the group owed Kennedy more than $737,000 at the end of 2015. He says he and his wife paid off the entire amount due last year.
“This thing probably has cost us three-quarters of a million dollars,” Kennedy says.
In 2015, he put an average of two hours a week into Top Box Foods as chairman and president, according to the tax return. Sheila Kennedy worked an average of 40 hours a week as executive director of the group, which is based on the second floor of the Merchandise Mart.
Saturday was this month’s delivery date for Top Box Foods. In the next few months, we’ll see if the charity stimulates voters’ appetite for Kennedy’s campaign.