Emanuel backed by tech’s most powerful players | WBEZ
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Emanuel backed by tech's most powerful players

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is scheduled to make a stop Thursday with one of his coziest constituencies: Chicago’s tech community.

It turns out, the warm, fuzzy feeling between the two is mutual.

One of Emanuel’s major successes as mayor has been his courting of tech companies. During his reelection campaign, Emanuel has touted the jobs he’s brought to the city, especially from tech companies.

Chicago added nearly 12,000 tech jobs from 2011 to 2013 according to a report from CBRE Inc.

With Google in the West Loop and Motorola Mobility in Merchandise Mart alongside local startups like Braintree, Chicago has been boosted by the tech community.

And so has Mayor Emanuel.

A scroll through donor lists to Mayor Emanuel’s campaign reads like the Fortune 500 list for tech. It includes not just the most well-known names in Chicago’s tech community, but also the heads of Apple, Google and Microsoft, all donating since Emanuel began his first run for mayor in 2010.

  • Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google; donated $55,300 last year, including $50,000 in December
  • Steve Ballmer, retired CEO of Microsoft and owner of the Los Angeles Clippers; donated $15,300 since 2013, including $10,000 in January
  • Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook; donated $35,700
  • The late Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple; donated $50,000 in 2010, while his wife Laurene Powell Jobs has contributed $55,300.
  • Elon Musk, head of Tesla and SpaceX; has contributed $55,300 since 2013

Julie Samuels, executive director of tech lobby group Engine, said that for a long time the tech industry didn’t want to engage in politics, but has become more comfortable interacting with candidates.

“I think you’re seeing them get involved because the industry is maturing,” Samuels said.

Search Chicago poltical donations with our Campaign Finance Tracker

What’s unusual in Emanuel’s case is that most heads of global tech companies don’t involve themselves with local elections.

According to FollowTheMoney.org, Schmidt has contributed $888,055 to 53 different campaigns, but Emanuel is the only mayoral candidate on that list. The same is true for Ballmer and Musk.

Facebook’s Sandberg has backed two other mayoral candidates; Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C., and Christine Quinn in New York. Both lost in primaries.

Chicago’s tech community has been very vocal in its support for Emanuel, especially since the Feb. 24 election when challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia pushed the mayor into a runoff.

The tech sector’s share of Emanuel’s overall war chest is relatively small. Emanuel has raised more than $40 million for associated campaign committees since he started running for mayor in 2010.

Emanuel has raised a little more than $1 million from the tech world, according to an analysis of data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The Center for Responsive Politics tracks the tech community’s donations at the federal level. According to research director Sarah Bryner, $1 million for a single candidate is exceptional.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Bryner of the Washington-based campaign finance watchdog group. “Just as point of comparison, the top candidate receiving money from this industry in our books was Corey Booker, who took in $405,000 for a Senate race.”

Bryner says Silicon Valley’s political involvement in Chicago is a natural evolution from its growing political savvy at the federal level. That’s especially true of companies like Google and since President Barack Obama has come on the scene. Much of that involvement has also come from Obama’s efforts to cultivate relationships with the tech community.

Engine’s Julie Samuels says Mayor Emanuel has now also tapped into those relationships with Silicon Valley, which go back to his time in the Clinton administration.

“I don’t think you’ll see people getting involved in the race over a random alderman or some other local position,” she said. “That’s something specific to this particular mayor, this particular moment.”

Still, Samuels expects to see more tech companies getting involved in state and local politics because many issues, especially those involving sharing economy companies like Uber and AirBnB, are first hashed out in cities and states. (WBEZ’s research shows that neither Uber nor AirBnB executives or the companies themselves donated to Emanuel or Garcia’s campaigns.)

“So much regulation that affects these companies happens at the local level,” Samuels said. “These companies — even when they’re not based in Chicago — they play a huge role in our lives.”

While national figures have more name recognition, some of the largest dollar figures have come from Chicago tech companies.

Groupon CEO Eric Lefkofsky gave more than $400,000 to Emanuel’s campaign. A Groupon spokesman said Lefkofsky was traveling and was unable to comment.

Venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker donated $167,000, while Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto added $160,000.

1871 CEO Howard Tullman, who has donated $5,300, dismissed notions that campaign contributions to Emanuel meant more access.

“I don’t think people who contribute to him think they are buying much of anything,” he said. “He is independent and objective and tells it like it is.”

Tullman has known Emanuel for decades. He says he supports Emanuel because he feels the mayor understands and advocates for the tech industry. He points to job growth within the Merchandise Mart — especially Motorola Mobility — as proof.

“Motorola had a chance to go to Sunnyvale [California] or Chicago. That was a lot of lobbying by Rahm and other city leaders to retain them and that’s thousands of jobs. Ultimately he’s been really good for that,” Tullman said.

With those gains, leaders in Chicago’s tech industry want to avoid any possibility of breaking that momentum

“I would really hate to take three steps back and say why don’t we give somebody a trial or learn on the job and learn how to do this?” Tullman said.

Chris Hagan is a WBEZ web producer. Niala Boodhoo is host of WBEZ’s Afternoon Shift.

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