Dan Proft will tell you he was “one of the more despised people” on his college campus.
Since then, he’s been dubbed everything from a “bad apple” to a “carnival barker” by fellow Republican operatives.
So who is the one-time gubernatorial primary candidate and conservative radio show host, and why is he behind an influential super PAC that receives millions from big-name donors like shipping magnate Richard Uihlein and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner?
Proft’s Liberty Principles super PAC has become a chief conduit for allies of Rauner to influence legislative races across the state without any restrictions.
Super PACs are allowed to accept unlimited sums of money that they can use to campaign for or against candidates — as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates themselves. Unlike Super PACs, most other campaign fundraising committees in Illinois have contribution limits.
Besides running Liberty Principles, Proft, 44, is a senior fellow for the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank and run by Rauner ally John Tillman, whom Proft calls his “philosophical soulmate.” Like Proft, Tillman is viewed by political insiders as an outside political consultant to Rauner.
Uihlein — by far Liberty Principles’ largest contributor – is also involved in the Illinois Policy Institute, which just released a documentary criticizing Rauner’s nemesis, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. Rauner has given money to the Illinois Policy Institute as well.
Rauner, Uihlein and Ken Griffin are key contributors to state Republicans, with large sums of their money being donated to Liberty Principles and another super PAC, Turnaround Illinois, which in turn help fund key races.
Uihlein is Liberty Principles’ biggest donor, at $6.575 million. Rauner contributed $2.5 million and Griffin $1.1 million, records show.
Proft and Uihlein met during Proft’s unsuccessful Republican primary bid for governor in 2010. Uihlein donated $585,000, with $500,000 of that coming on Dec. 28, 2010, months after Proft lost the March primary.
Proft’s super PAC was also active in legislative races in the 2013-2014 election cycle — in that case, siding with conservatives over Republican moderates.
More recently, the Illinois Opportunity Project, a non-profit co-founded by Proft, helped to fund Democratic state Rep. Ken Dunkin’s unsuccessful primary bid this year. Though he was running as a Democrat, Dunkin had become an ally of Rauner, siding with the Republican governor on some key votes.
On Thursday, Liberty spent $230,000 on advertising for Republican House and Senate candidates in contested races.
‘FAITH, EXPERIENCE, EVIDENCE’
Proft grew up in Wheaton, attended Benet Academy in Lisle and went on to get degrees at Northwestern University and Loyola University Chicago.
He points to his adoption as one reason he’s conservative and against abortion.
“It’s not the sole basis of my view, but certainly the fact that I was born nine months before Roe v. Wade, as I often say, perhaps the world would not have been availed of my brilliance,” Proft said, adding that his Catholicism also helps guide his conservative views. “All of the above. Faith, experience, evidence, logic.”
At Northwestern, he founded an independent alternative newspaper called the Northwestern Chronicle, which was meant to be an alternative to the student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern.
He said he was known there for his conservative views.
“I was, during my time at Northwestern, one of the more despised people on campus because I was pretty outspoken,” Proft said, adding that his collegiate interests including politics, philosophy and economics.
He caught the political bug in 1994 during his senior year of college. He began working for Lee Daniels, the former GOP speaker of the Illinois House in 1995. He started his own political consulting firm in 1996. Over the next decade, he worked for Jack Ryan, and was the political consultant who persuaded Alan Keyes to run against Barack Obama in 2004 for the U.S. Senate.
He also started his own PR firm, Urquhart Media Associates, and is known for his public relations work in corruption-plagued Cicero between 2005 and 2009. He represented Cicero Town President Larry Dominick’s winning campaign, and then won lucrative contracts to do consulting work for the town itself.
He said he became involved with Liberty Principles because he wanted to improve the quality of policy thinking and wanted to change the balance of the power in the Illinois General Assembly.
“Perhaps we can provide an alternative that provides accountability for Republicans and some support for independent-minded conservatives, for legislative candidates in both the House and the Senate,” Proft said. “I philosophically disagreed with the last group of leaders with the idea that income should be protected at all costs.”
He calls himself a “conservative by choice, a Republican by necessity.”
He said he respects the job Rauner has done so far.
“I think he’s done a good job in difficult circumstances,” Proft said. “The party has been more unified around the idea of structural reform. He deserves much of the credit.
“There are disagreements, but we’re adults,” Proft said of the governor. “I don’t want to go into particular disagreements. Just saying that there’s no requirement to operate in lockstep.”
Proft is single and lives in Streeterville. When he’s not largely involved with multiple political entities, he’s on the air at WIND AM-560 from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays with Amy Jacobson.
Proft says he’s also an aspiring basketball coach, a Chicago White Sox fan, and enjoys flying planes and playing golf.
‘DIRECT AGENT OF BRUCE RAUNER’
State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie — a vocal critic of Rauner – calls Proft a “direct agent of Bruce Rauner.”
“There’s a direct relationship between Gov. Rauner and Dan Proft,” Lang said. “Clearly, Dan Proft is not an independent operator, running around the state objectively dealing with the political scene.
“He’s a direct agent of Bruce Rauner. They work very closely together,” Lang said, adding “to say they aren’t [working together] and for them to say we’re all independent people with our own thoughts and our own process is belied by the actual facts.”
But Lang called those perceived connections — between Uihlein, Rauner, Tillman and Proft – “certainly permissible and legal.”
“What is wrong is to try to play it off as if we’re all independent people working independently when the fact is they’re all clearly working together. They’re clearly one unit and doing all they can to skirt every campaign finance law they can find to skirt,” Lang said.
Still, campaign finance experts say Liberty Principles has a significant impact.
“Liberty Principles PAC is a very influential super PAC in Illinois. They spend a lot of money in the primary and they’re continuing to be very influential,” said Sarah Brune, executive director for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “And because of their role making independent expenditures, they’re able to lift the contribution limits in a lot of House and Senate races, which I think is a really important role that they play.”
Super PACs are supposed to be independent — they aren’t allowed to coordinate with candidates or the party. But the rules are very “fuzzy,” Brune said.
“They’re easy to get around. And on top of that there’s a lack of enforcement on that issue. All the way from the federal level down to the states. There’s a lack of clarity on what constitutes coordination between super PACs and the party or candidates. And that’s a problem because it’s very easy to exploit those rules,” Brune added. “I don’t have knowledge of that happening, but it’s easy to do.”
‘THIS IS A FREE COUNTRY’
Proft has had to defend his latest project: 14 weekly conservative newspapers, which he says fill the void left by the mainstream media.
Liberty Principles teamed with publisher Local Labs to produce the newspapers, which focus on local and state politics and support Republican candidates. Proft’s papers cover Maywood, River Forest, Westchester and Forest Park in the west suburbs, as well as DuPage, Lake and McHenry counties, the Quad Cities and Springfield.
Circulation is between 8,000 and 10,000, with the papers distributed by mail and in news racks. Each paper has its own web site.
There’s a federal complaint against one of the papers. Kim Savage, a Darien Democrat, filed a Federal Election Commission complaint alleging the DuPage Policy Journal isn’t an independent newspaper but is instead a political propaganda vehicle run by Proft and his political action committee.
The complaint alleges the newspaper is illegally coordinating with Republican congressional candidate Tonia Khouri. Therefore, the suit argues, the publication’s costs should be reported as political contributions.
Proft says criticism of the newspapers is baseless, and is coming from the Chicago and Springfield press corps “because it’s only legitimate if it’s a liberal in charge.”
“We’re transparent,” Proft says of the papers. “I’ll put the stories we do on politics and policy up against any other newspaper in the state.”
Of his critics, he added: “I don’t understand why they’re upset. I am conservative and I believe in certain things,” Proft said. “This is a free country.”