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Pro-charter school Walmart heirs jump in Chicago mayoral, aldermanic contests

Supporters dance onstage at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters at a news conference on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, as a deal was reached to end the Acero charter schools strike. The Chicago Teachers Union is heading into contract talks with the wind at its back: A new poll that shows likely voters have a favorable view of the union that has stood toe-to-toe with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and overwhelmingly embrace the union’s “educational justice agenda.”| Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — With major financial help from the billionaire heirs of the Arkansas-based Walmart fortune, the PACs related to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools are aiming to become a political force in the upcoming Chicago mayoral and aldermanic campaigns.

The children and grandchildren of Helen and Sam Walton, founders of the Walton Family Foundation and Walmart, are donors to the nonprofit Illinois Network of Charter Schools and its two allied political action committees, either from the family foundation or individual contributions, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis revealed.

Those PACs are stockpiling cash for the Chicago municipal elections.

In December, the INCS Action Independent Committee collected a little over $1 million, fueled by jumbo donations from two Walton heirs and Jim Frank, the executive board chairman of Wheels, Inc., in Des Plaines, according to reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

“We’re always fundraising. But we are making a push because we think we will need substantial resources in the 2019 elections to be involved in the number of races we want to be involved in,” INCS president Andrew Broy told the Sun-Times.

Broy is also the treasurer of the two PACs the INCS created in 2014: the INCS Action PAC and the INCS Action Independent Committee, which is an independent expenditure PAC.

An independent expenditure PAC can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors. However, the money cannot be given directly to a candidate. An independent expenditure PAC runs its own campaign to support or oppose a contender.

The Chicago election is Feb. 26 with a run-off April 2.

Overall, the INCS-related PACs spent about $1 million in the November midterms on Illinois General Assembly contests, for mailings, phone banks, digital ads and organizing, campaign disclosure records show.

Members of the Walton family, one of the wealthiest in the U.S., are active nationally in bankrolling pro-charter organizations, causes and candidates supporting school choice.

Chicago is home to 122 charter schools with about 60,000 students, Broy said.

The publicly funded, privately operated charter school movement in Chicago may be at a crossroads, fighting to not lose political ground and retain enrollments in a period of slowing growth.

A charter school champion, the anti-public union Gov. Bruce Rauner lost his re-election bid; another supporter, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is stepping down, and the race to replace him is wide open, with the powerful Chicago Teachers Union backing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

The CTU organized at the 15 schools in the Acero-managed charter network in Chicago and earlier in December successfully led the first strike ever in the U.S. against a charter school operator.

Because the stakes in the February Chicago elections are so high, the INCS political arm, mainly through independent expenditures, is raising political cash to bolster pro-charter school candidates.

Broy is investing in research before determining the candidates to back.

“Right now we have polls out in the field in a couple of aldermanic races. We’ve got a mayoral poll coming in … this week. We’ve got a questionnaire out, so we are getting those back from candidates, and we will be doing interviews with mayoral and aldermanic candidates in the coming weeks.

“And then by late January we will have a PAC board meeting where we’ll make a decision about who to support, how to support, all that sort of work,” he said.

Broy said political spending for the Chicago elections will likely be more than $1 million, depending on the number of races in play.

Substantial backing will flow to aldermen “who have been supportive of high quality charter schools” who have “meaningful challengers,” he said.

It will remain to be seen what the PACs will do for “aldermen who are kind of in the middle on our issue,” Broy said, adding, “we will try to find opportunities there, but it’s really hard to say.”

A Sun-Times review of records and charitable giving reports reveals the cash the Walton family members and their foundation have been pumping into the Illinois charter school movement.

•Though INCS — the nonprofit organization, not the political arms — does not disclose donors on its annual 990 IRS filings, the Walton Family Foundation yearly reports do reveal grantees.

The Walton Family Foundation annual reports show grants to INCS totaling $7.4 million between 2009 and 2017.

Last year, the Walton foundation cut its grant to INCS to the lowest level since 2010. In 2017, the foundation sent $542,000 to INCS, compared with $1,191,144 in 2016.

While Walton foundation giving to INCS is down, direct political contributions from individual Walton family members to the INCS PACs are continuing at robust levels.

•Alice Walton, the daughter of Helen and Sam Walton, has donated almost $1.4 million to the two INCS PACs between 2015 and this month, most of it to the independent expenditure committee, according to state disclosure records.

On Dec. 19, Alice Walton contributed $250,000 to the INCS Action Independent Committee.

•Her brother, Jim Walton, also gave $250,000 to the same committee on Dec. 19. Since 2015, he has donated $543,800 to the two PACS, state disclosure records show.

•Three Walton grandchildren are donors to the INCS Action PAC.

Steuart Walton contributed $10,800 in 2015; Carrie Walton Penner, $33,000 between 2016 and 2018; and Lukas Walton, who has a Chicago home, $22,200 in total to the INCS Action PAC in 2017 and 2018. He listed a post office box at 1341 W. Fullerton Ave. on campaign disclosures as his address.

On Dec. 6, when Emanuel opened The Hatchery, a $34 million food and beverage incubator in East Garfield Park, Lukas Walton was noted in the City Hall press release as one of the donors.

•The longtime local backbone of the INCS network includes Frank; John Rowe, Exelon chairman emeritus; and David Weinberg, now a photographer, whose family sold its stake in Fel-Pro, the gaskets and auto parts manufacturer in Skokie.

Weinberg is the chairperson of both of the PACs affiliated with INCS.

Through the years, Frank has poured about $1.4 million into the PACs run by INCS, including $300,000 to the independent expenditure committee on Dec. 3.

Broy said Frank “has a strong interest in urban education and he also understands that in this environment, we have to be active politically to ensure that candidates who support our member schools and (are) good for us get support from us.”

Weinberg overall has given more than $400,000 to the PACs, the latest $116,700 on Dec. 10 to the independent expenditure arm. Rowe had given more than $300,00 to the PACs.

•Alice, Jim and Lukas Walton are also donors to One Chance Illinois and its related independent expenditure arm. The purpose of the One Chance Illinois PAC, according to state records, is “to engage in the campaign process to promote educational choice initiatives.” Alice Walton and Jim Walton each donated $136,100 to the Once Chance PACs in October, a total of $272,200. Lukas Walton donated $11,100 on Dec. 19, a week after an INCS political contribution. 

Said Broy, “We started this work in 2013 in response to attacks on charter public schools.

“It is not our preference to do political work. We just feel the necessity to do it because without it, it is difficult to move policy in a direction that helps our students.”