Mega donor Richard Uihlein ramps up donations to conservative causes
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WASHINGTON — By stepping up contributions to conservative candidates and causes, Lake Forest businessman Richard Uihlein has vaulted into the ranks of national mega donors — leveraging his personal direct political giving with funds from a charity he controls.
A Chicago Sun-Times examination of annual IRS 990 reports filed by the tax-exempt Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, where Uihlein serves as president, reveals major donations from the charity to nonprofits devoted to promoting a conservative political agenda.
Uihlein is one of the most influential — and little-known — political players in Illinois.
Uihlein drew the first significant attention to himself outside of conservative circles when he personally donated $2.6 million to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s 2014 run for governor. Uihlein tossed in an additional $350,000 to a Rauner-allied group seeking to turn out the vote for Rauner by pushing a term-limits drive.
Now Uihlein is in the GOP presidential primary spotlight because he and his wife, Elizabeth, donated $2.5 million to the Unintimidated super PAC backing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s White House bid.
To sum up just the super PAC spending reported to the Federal Election Commission: Uihlein personally donated $9.6 million to 56 super PACS between 2010 and June 30, 2015.
Uihlein has transitioned from a reliable middle-level donor to individual campaigns to a big-time super PAC player. The timing coincides with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and related cases allowing unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, unions and corporations to political groups that make independent expenditures to support the election or defeat of candidates.
Who is Richard Uihlein?
A free-markets, smaller-government crusader, he is not a familiar name to rank-and-file Illinois Republicans.
Uihlein is the co-founder, with his wife, of Uline Corp., which distributes about 30,000 products such as bags, bubble wrap, bar-code labels and boxes.
The company headquarters is in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, just across the border from Illinois. It switched its base from Waukegan five years ago. Uihlein, the CEO, accepted a financial assistance package for the company from then-Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle worth more than $6 million in connection with the move.
The Uihlein family also owns EAU Holdings, a resort, spa and supper club in northern Wisconsin.
Uihlein is the son of Edgar Uihlein, the co-founder of General Binding Corp. who died in Lake Bluff in May 2005. Richard Uihlein, a 1967 Stanford University graduate, worked for his father’s company before he started Uline with his wife.
Uihlein did not respond to an interview request about his political giving.
But Uihlein may well have inherited some of his views from his father. On July 22, 2004, Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., the conservative hero who died last November, praised Edgar Uihlein from the House floor, according to the Congressional Record.
Crane said he met the senior Uihlein when he first ran for Congress in 1969. “Ed encouraged me just as he has helped other conservative candidates and organizations,” he said then.
THE DAN PROFT CONNECTION
“He is putting his money where his beliefs are,” said Dan Proft, a WIND-AM 560 talk-show host who is a beneficiary of Uihlein’s political largess.
“That’s pretty much it. He doesn’t want anything. He wants a freer state and country. . . . Where free minds and free markets are allowed to operate out of the thumb of government,” Proft said.
When Proft made a GOP primary bid for governor in 2010, Uihlein donated $585,000; $500,000 of that came on Dec. 28, 2010, months after Proft lost the March 2010 contest.
Proft also is the chairman of the Liberty Principles independent expenditure PAC, created in 2012 “to make independent expenditures in support of liberty oriented policies and candidates,” according to its filing with the Illinois State Board of Elections
Uihlein is the major donor to the Liberty Principles PAC, contributing $2.65 million since 2012, counting a transfer in from the related federal Liberty Principles PAC Inc.
In the 2013-14 election cycle, Proft’s PAC was active in Illinois General Assembly primaries and other local GOP contests, siding with conservatives over GOP moderates.
UIHLEIN AND WISCONSIN
Outside of Illinois, Uihlein has a deep interest in Wisconsin politics. His family has roots in Milwaukee: His forebears were among the founders of the Schlitz Brewing Co.
Uihlein was helpful to Walker before he ran for president, donating $260,500 to his election and recall campaigns.
Health care consultant and West Point grad Doug Truax jumped into politics with an Illinois GOP Senate primary bid in 2014, losing the nomination to state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, who was defeated by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
A short time after an in-person meeting in Pleasant Prairie with Truax last January, Uihlein donated $300,000 to Restoration, the new super PAC Truax was launching to remain in the political game. Uihlein is basically bankrolling the organization.
“He looks for a strategy and a vision that coincides with his own,” Truax said.
Most of the resources of Truax’s Restoration PAC are devoted to re-electing Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who’s facing a 2016 comeback challenge from former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Restoration is paying for polling and ads to bolster Johnson.
Uihlein also has donated $600,000 to the Ending Spending Action fund, led by Todd Ricketts, a member of the Cubs board, a national finance co-chair for the Walker presidential campaign and a fundraiser for the Unintimidated super PAC.
CONSERVATIVE PACS AND THE SENATE
Uihlein has poured $550,000 into the Senate Conservatives Action PAC since 2013.
“He’s not giving to you just because you’re a Republican,” Proft said. The SCA has not endorsed the 2016 re-election of Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is not politically aligned with the activist conservative and tea party movements.
“It’s about ideas, not party labels,” Proft said.
Uihlein has donated $2.2 million to The Club for Growth Action PAC since 2010. The Club for Growth is backing Johnson and not endorsing Kirk in 2016.
In 2014, after Oberweis won the GOP nomination to challenge Durbin, the biggest outside group spending money against Durbin was an Americas PAC fund, a group organized under the IRS code as a tax-exempt political organization.
In 2014, I reported that Uihlein was Americas PAC biggest donor between 2013 and the first quarter of 2014, giving $950,000 to the organization.
ED UIHLEIN FAMILY FOUNDATION
The Uihlein Foundation in 2014 donated more than $4 million to the Church of Joy in Waukegan; $25,000 to Lake Forest College; and $25,000 to the Kenosha YMCA.
The Uihlein Foundation also gives to groups working to advance a political agenda. That’s legal under IRS rules.
But the reality is the foundation giving is another route to inject large sums of money into the political system through contributions to like-minded nonprofits.
For example, the Uihlein foundation donated $2.6 million to the tax-exempt Illinois Policy Institute between 2012 and 2014, according to IRS filings.
The institute, headquartered at 190 S. La Salle, is, according to its 990 IRS filing, “a free market oriented think tank dedicated to gathering, disseminating and educating Illinois constituents on local, state and federal public policy issues facing Illinois.”
In 2014, the Uihlein Foundation also donated $5,000 to the Liberty Justice Center, the Illinois Policy Institute’s “free-market public-interest litigation center.”
The institute is supportive of Rauner as he battles Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly — and that’s illustrative of the interlocking relationships between Uihlein-funded interests.
Rauner also has been a donor to the institute, which also runs lobbying and grass-roots organizing operations, according to its IRS filings. An institute board member is Beth Christie, the former founder and CEO of Avent America. She contributed $405,000 to Rauner’s campaign and was on the governor’s transition committee.
The Illinois News Network, which, on its website, calls itself “Illinois taxpayers’ watchdog — exposing the way government really works in Springfield,” is a project of the Illinois Policy Institute.
The CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, a tax-exempt 501(c)3 with an affiliated 501(c)4, is John Tillman, who once worked for Uline.
In 2011, Tillman and Proft founded the Illinois Liberty PAC — not to be confused with the separate Liberty Principles PAC — with the purpose “to support candidates for public office who embrace public policy rooted in the principles of liberty and free enterprise,” the group told the state elections board.
Tillman is no longer a chairman of the Illinois Liberty PAC, to which Uihlein personally donated $20,000 to in 2013 and 2014.
“Dick [Uihlein] wants to advance the cause of freedom and the founding principles of the country,” Tillman said.
Other examples of politically related Uihlein Foundation giving:
Between 2013 and 2014, the Uihlein Foundation gave $600,000 to the Foundation for Government Accountabilty, in Naples, Florida. According to its website, its mission is to promote “better lives for individuals and families by equipping policymakers with principled strategies to replace failed health and welfare programs nationwide.”
In 2014, the foundation contributed $300,000 to Think Freely Media, a Chicago nonprofit. According to its website, its goal is to “help other nonprofits create story-based marketing campaigns that promote liberty by empowering today’s leaders to speak out.”
Last year, the foundation gave $200,000 to the Institute for Humane Studies, a program run out of George Mason University in northern Virginia. “We believe in the power of freedom to enable people to unleash their unique potential and help create a more just, peaceful, and thriving world,” the organization says on its website.
In 2013, the foundation gave $250,000 to the American Opinion Foundation in Appleton, Wisconsin, created to “empower Americans to understand, enjoy and preserve the freedom and moral responsibility embodied in America’s founding principles.”
Also in 2013, the foundation gave $800,000 to the Liberty Foundation, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The organization works to “empower Americans to understand, enjoy and preserve the freedom and moral responsibility embodied in America’s founding principles.”
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, has received $90,000 in campaign contributions directly from Uihlein through the years.
Said McSweeney: Uihlein’s “focus is on fighting tax increases and also reforming government. He is a very astute man. He has a great knowledge base on state and national politics, and I am happy to have his support.”
Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet