An election 'thank you,' stamped with an alderman's government letterhead

February 26, 2011

Chicago Ald. Willie Cochran finished first in his bid for re-election on Tuesday, but his 46-percent was not enough to avoid a runoff. Nonetheless, the first-term alderman wanted to thank his constituents.

“I am grateful for this strong show of support,” Cochran was quoted as saying in a press release sent out Friday afternoon. “After years of neglect in only three short years working in partnership with residents, businesses and institutions in our ward, we have accomplished much."

The message was titled "20th Ward Alderman Cochran’s Strong Support Spells Success in April." It was sent by Bryant Payne, from the public relations firm MK Communications, and read every bit like a campaign press release.

But it wasn't. The press release bore the letterhead of Cochran's aldermanic office, and the listed contact was Barbara Holt, a city employee with a city email address.

Plus, MK Communications only has a contract with Cochran's taxpayer-funded office, not his campaign. That's according to the firm's founder and president, veteran Chicago publicist Marilyn Katz. Katz said the company is paid about $5,000 a year to do work for Cochran's office. "Very little work," Katz said. (This sort of contract, it should be noted, is not unusual among council members. Most do not employ full-time press secretaries.)

The release touts Cochran's efforts to develop the ward, and closes with this line, attributed to Cochran: "I look forward to the next six weeks to ensure that we can continue the strong alliance we have built to continue the progress and keep moving forward."

The runoff election is in six weeks, against hip hop artist Che "Rhymefest" Smith. Katz, in a phone interview Friday afternoon, denied the press release was meant to be an election piece.

"I thought it was an appropriate aldermanic thank you," she said, adding that it was sent not just to the media, but also to members of the community. "I didn’t see it as a campaign piece. If I did I’d have put it on campaign letterhead."

Though, Katz noted, she is not in possession of campaign letterhead for Cochran, because she is not working for his campaign. (She said she hopes to, though.)

Where's the line?

"My guess is that the argument would be that they were…straddling a constituent services-type message as opposed to using public resources for electoral purposes," said Cindi Canary, the head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

"It’s tricky with incumbents. [Cochran] is allowed to say 'thank you' to people,' Candary said. But "is it really necessary to do this on city stationary or is that just telescoping: 'I am the incumbent'?"

"My guess is this steps over the line," Canary said. "It’s not a good practice, but it certainly is common practice in this city."

That last point is key, and brings us to a observation made by both Canary and Katz: A lot of aldermen in Chicago routinely walk that fine line between political and government expenses.