Should mayoral candidates release tax returns?

December 8, 2010

Updated at 7:52 p.m.

Campaigns for major office often make their income tax returns public in an effort to be transparent about possible conflicts of interest that have arisen, or will arise. Some do so with great fanfare in an effort to score points (see Pat Quinn), others do so begrudgingly (see Bill Brady) and others don't do it all (see Jason Plummer). More on this later.

Every candidate for Chicago mayor had to file a Statement of Economic Interest before the November 22nd deadline. The Cook County Clerk's office provided me with copies of all those, and you can check them out here. If you do, you'll likely be a bit annoyed. There is next to no information to be gleaned from them.

That's why I asked the campaigns of the six "major" candidates – Gery Chico, Danny Davis, Miguel del Valle, Rahm Emanuel, James Meeks and Carol Moseley Braun – if and when they planned to make available copies of their candidates' income tax returns. I put "major" in quotes, because I understand some of the other candidates may take issue with the label. For my part, I picked those six based on their past electoral performance, and my knowledge of their political organizations. And there's also the logistical reason: going through the financials of all fifteen candidates still in the race seemed a bit unwieldy for a single reporter to handle.

The first responder

The first campaign to respond was that of Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle. His campaign provided copies of the del Valle family's federal and state tax returns from the past three years. Here's what I found:

  • Del Valle reported total income of $114,726 in 2009, $118,908 in 2008 and $120,000 in 2007. The candidate's W-2s confirm that income comes almost entirely from his salary as city clerk. The slight reduction over the years, the campaign said, is the result of del Valle's decision to take city furlough days.
  • Over the three years, the family took a total of $2,448 in student loan interest deductions, $8,000 in tuition and fees deductions and a $920 refundable education credit.
  • Del Valle itemized his deductions in all three years, claiming $13,466 in 2009, $12,931 in 2008 and $14,087 in 2007. These figures include home mortgage interest of roughly $5,000 each year, and charitable donations of about $2,700 each year.
  • The del Valles' "total [federal] tax" added up to $13,365 in 2009, $15,194 in 2008 and $14,891 in 2007. They overpaid in withholding each year, entitling them to refunds. In state tax, they owed $3,231 in 2009, $3,216 in 2008 and $3,223 in 2007.

What about the other campaigns?

Chico’s campaign said the campaign will release the candidate's returns, but won't say when. Likewise, a spokeswoman for Davis said the congressman is reviewing his returns, and plans to release them soon. (Davis' federal financial disclosure forms are available at OpenSecrets.org.) Emanuel’s campaign said the ex-White House chief of staff will release his "recent tax returns this month," while pointing to his other financial disclosures, including the form he filed as a presidential appointee (read it via the Sunlight Foundation).

Meeks’ spokesman said the state senator/minister will release his returns only if he makes the April runoff election. I have heard nothing back from the Moseley Braun campaign.

But...should they release them?


This was a fairly big issue in the race for Illinois governor this past year. Incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn and his running mate, Sheila Simon, released their returns and challenged Republican state Sen. Bill Brady to do the same. Brady initially refused, then relented, releasing returns showing that he owed no federal income taxes the past two years. The Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, Jason Plummer, held firm during the campaign, never releasing his tax information. He insisted it was a distraction fueled by the Quinn campaign.

On Tuesday I called former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, to see what he thinks about the whole business of releasing returns, and whether he thought the candidates for mayor should do it. He's currently a fellow at the University of Illinois' Insitutue of Government and Public Affairs.

“I guess that’s their decision,” Edgar said. He pointed out he released his returns when he ran for secretary of state and governor, doing so “mainly because it was an attempt to kind of reassure the public [with] information about me that there wasn’t a conflict or I didn’t make a lot of money from ill-gotten gains or whatever.”

Edgar said that his tax returns were never really complicated because he wasn’t a business owner (as Brady and Plummer are).

“Some will say, well, you know, 'I shouldn’t have to do that.' But if you’re going to be in public life, you’re kind of living in a fishbowl. And if you don’t like that, then don’t run for public office," Edgar told me. "I always thought that was a reasonable thing to do."

I asked Edgar what he thought of James Meeks’ response – that the candidate would release the returns if he made the runoff. On its face, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable position, given that I never requested tax returns from the long list of Republicans engaged in the gubernatorial primary. But Edgar wasn’t sold on the runoff-only argument.

“In this case, people have got to make important decisions in primaries, and in many cases that [will] determine who’s going to win the general election,” Edgar said. “I don’t know if you can make the argument very well that...you need to wait for the runoff.”