Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz was clearly sending a political message to Mayor Rahm Emanuel when he signed $200,000 in checks to challenger Paul Vallas.
But what exactly was the meaning behind the message?
Has the United Center co-owner, catering, liquor and real estate magnate — whose family has long been one of the most clout-heavy in Illinois — really written off the two-term incumbent mayor of Chicago?
Or was Wirtz simply sending a message to Emanuel about the mayor’s decision to raise the amusement tax on large venues to bankroll a waiver for small, neighborhood theaters?
And if Wirtz is four-square behind Vallas with no turning back, has Vallas promised to return the favor by lowering the amusement tax?
“Wirtz is saying to Rahm,`Pay attention to me.’ He feels very strongly about the amusement tax. He’s never bitten his tongue about it,” said Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), whose Near West Side ward includes the United Center.
“He’s delivering a message, but it’s not too late. Everything is negotiable. The mayor, if he hasn’t already, should have a conversation with Rocky.”
Burnett pointed to the United Center that Wirtz and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf built with their own money that served as a catalyst for a West Side renaissance.
The alderman also pointed to the $65 million, double-rink practice facility Wirtz built on the site of the old Malcolm X College that doubles as a West Side recreation center.
“They didn’t have to do those things. We should have given them a break on the amusement tax,” said Burnett, who has also received campaign contributions from Wirtz.
“We need to relook at this and try to figure out something else. There may be other ways. If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Wirtz could not be reached for comment about his eyebrow-raising contributions to Vallas, delivered in checks totaling $200,000 from five Wirtz-owned companies: Distillers Distributing Co., Sauk Development, WSports Media LLC, 35L Sportsmans LLC and Fair Chance Farm, Inc.
Emanuel and Wirtz have been at loggerheads ever since the mayor decided to bankroll an amusement tax waiver for neighborhood theaters and concert venues with fewer than 1,500 seats by raising the amusement tax on major concerts from 5 percent to 9 percent.
“Have you considered the fact that, by raising the amusement tax, there is a strong possibility that there will be a net revenue loss to the city as a result of concerts that divert to Rosemont or another city?” Reinsdorf wrote late last year, in a private email to the mayor.
When Reinsdorf noted that sports moguls had done a study that would “shed some light on that, the mayor replied, “We have run ours as well and we make money.”
On the day the City Council voted 47 to 3 to approve a 2018 city budget that included the amusement tax overhaul, Emanuel sent an email to one of his supporters, Chicago actor David Schwimmer, formerly of “Friends.”
“Today was a great day for community performers and youth arts education. Thanks for supporting,” the mayor wrote.
Although Emanuel and Wirtz worked together to lure to Chicago and host the NHL Draft, the amusement tax controversy was not their first run-in.
In 2015, Emanuel’s refusal to extend an expiring United Center property tax break nixed plans for a $95 million retail-and-entertainment complex in the shadows of the stadium.
After forcing the Cubs to renovate Wrigley Field at their own expense with an influx of outfield-sign revenue, Emanuel was not about to extend the property tax break granted to the United Center at a time when the Bulls and Blackhawks were “pioneers” on the Near West Side.
The mayor also took a political beating for his proposal to use $55 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) money to build a DePaul basketball arena near McCormick Place that doubles as an “event center.” Wirtz strongly opposed Wintrust Arena because it competes for concerts against the United Center.
The financing was subsequently rearranged to use TIF money to acquire land for a hotel.
“What happened in the past was one thing. Now, we’re at a point that there’s a critical mass on the West Side, and it’s a good investment for them to make,” the mayor said when he allowed the United Center tax break to expire.
“Like Wrigley Field, we’re not giving tax assistance. These are good, private-sector investments. We’ll make an investment in improving the Blue Line. We’ll make an investment in improving Malcolm X’s campus. And because of those other investments, they have the confidence to make their own investment.”
Howard Pizer, executive vice president of the United Center, said the entertainment complex “would have been great.” But the Hawks and Bulls were not about to build it without an extended property tax break, and Emanuel “obviously wasn’t comfortable” with that.
Instead, the Bulls and Blackhawks agreed to build a standalone office building — with a ground-level retail store and a public atrium connection to the United Center — that freed up space inside the stadium for more entertainment and fan amenities.
“Sometimes I’m watching the Hawks game and I envision what it would be like to be checked by one of the Blackhawks,” Wirtz said on the day that revised office building project was announced.
“After the last few meetings with the mayor, I found out what it feels like to be checked.”
Emanuel parried: “You may have thought that was a check. In the Emanuel home, that’s the way we say, ‘I love you. Welcome home.’ At family dinners, we’re a contact sport.”
Although $200,000 is chump change for Wirtz, at least some in the Emanuel camp believe the Blackhawks owner has concluded he “wants a mayor who takes better care of guys like him.”
They noted that Emanuel, who is trying desperately to shed the “Mayor 1 percent” label, has actually been “way tougher on billionaire sports owners” than his predecessors ever were.
Wirtz has received “no hand-outs” from Emanuel and has not succeeded in “pushing the mayor around,” an Emanuel adviser said, so he may want “a more pliable, inside-deal friendly mayor.”
Yet another Emanuel adviser said, “Did Paul Vallas promise to reduce the amusement tax on sports teams? Isn’t that the real question? What’s his plan to replace the revenue? Will he raise the tax on small theaters and artists? Isn’t this the same, pay-to-play politics he accused the mayor of?”
In a series of text messages to the Sun-Times, Vallas refused to say whether or not he plans to revisit Emanuel’s amusement tax restructuring if elected mayor.
He would say only that the amusement tax issue had nothing at all to do with Wirtz’s decision to become Vallas’ biggest campaign contributor.
“I’ve never had a discussion with Rocky or anyone else about lowering or changing the amusement tax,” Vallas wrote, noting that during his tenure as city budget director, he raised the amusement tax to help bankroll a street resurfacing program.
“Rocky Wirtz told me he was supporting me for the same reasons so many others are: Because Chicago is faced with serious issues and we need a candidate with ideas and a record to address them.”