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Super PAC brings 'DC-style politics' to local ward races, but to what effect?

A well-funded political action committee has sent a fresh round of negative mailers against two of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s more vocal critics on City Council, but it remains unclear how much of an impact it’s having on their local ward races.

With city elections less than two weeks away, much has been made of the so-called “super PAC” created by a longtime aide and supporter of Mayor Rahm Emanuel to bolster his policy agenda.

Chicago Forward is the first political action committee created expressly to funnel unlimited contributions into Chicago municipal races. So far, it has raised roughly $2.6 million from fewer than 50 donors, as it seeks to influence the mayoral election and roughly 20 aldermanic races.

But to some observers, the super PAC’s involvement in often sleepy ward races is a little like bringing a gun to a knife fight.

“Of course Rahm is using this to attack the Progressive Caucus of alderman,” said Steve Jensen, an IT consultant and president of the Bucktown Community Organization.

Jensen’s own alderman, Scott Waguespack (32nd), is among the most vocal of the eight Progressive Caucus members in City Council. As a bloc, they often dissent from Emanuel.

Jensen said he doesn’t think it makes sense for a multimillion dollar, outside organization to try its hand in local ward races.

“We can reach constituents more effectively with town hall meetings at the neighborhood level, social media, and a few mailers,” Jensen said. “And that right there is less than $100 thousand.”

With a highly-coordinated field campaign of volunteers door knocking, phone banking and spreading the word about a candidate, Jensen said a relatively low-budget grassroots campaign could certainly prevail, even when a better-funded super PAC deploys glossy attack mailers.

That’s the main reason Waguespack said he wasn’t too concerned with Chicago Forward’s negative pieces against him. In fact, at a recent campaign fundraiser at WhirlyBall, he tried to turn the point to his advantage.

“I don’t know how many of you got the mailer the other day,” he said to a seated crowd of supporters. “I was the recipient of the first mail piece from the superPAC.”

The mailer blamed Waguespack for keeping potholes in his ward unfilled, because he voted against Emanuel’s budget last year (which still passed). Waguespack said the message backfired, because voters know that Chicago’s Department of Transportation is responsible for potholes — not aldermen. CDOT falls under the purview of the mayor.

“I need your support over the next few weeks, phone banking, calling your friends, telling them (to) get out there and vote. This is not going to be an easy election,” Waguespack continued. “They’re throwing millions of dollars at my fellow members.”

In fact, Chicago Forward has spent much more money trying to get Emanuel’s city council allies re-elected. John Arena (45th) is the only incumbent who’s found himself, like Waguespack, at the receiving end of an attack.

This week, Chicago Forward blanketed his ward with a negative mailer that claimed Arena would raise taxes. Arena, also a member of the city council’s Progressive Caucus, has a record of voting the least with the mayor.

The injection of an outside player with access to limitless funds worries Waguespack. He accuses Emanuel of using Chicago Forward to bring “DC-style politics” to Chicago. “[He’s] using money to stifle any kind of discussion,” Waguespack said. “Divisive, mean-spirited, bullying-type attitude that he brought with him.”

Rebecca Carroll, the CEO and Chairman of Chicago Forward, says the super PAC’s objective is the opposite of that: she claims the group is trying to create consensus around how to deal with city challenges.

In an email to WBEZ, Carroll wrote, “We need strong leaders at city hall who will roll up their sleeves and work as partners with this administration to address these challenges, even if they have differences in opinion or don’t always agree with it.”

In fact, in Chicago, very few aldermen ever disagree with the mayor — city council votes with him 90 percent of the time. So what’s the point?

“There’s aldermen that are being rubber stamps that don’t want to be rubber stamps,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr. “It has a very chilling effect, which is what it is designed to do.”

Orr, a former Chicago alderman, said the purpose of Chicago Forward may not just be to weaken Emanuel’s critics in the Progressive Caucus. Instead, it may be a tool to keep Emanuel’s allies in check.

“I already have got a lot of alderman that I know darn well tell me one thing in terms of who they’re publicly supporting [versus] who they want to support,” he said. “So yes, it doesn’t always have to be to defeat someone. It can make you worry about being free to speak your mind.”

But if Chicago Forward serves to muzzle some voices, it may also amplify others.

“It distorts things by making the views and opinions basically of the wealthy donors — gives them an unfairly loud voice in the candidates’ ears about what policies and positions the candidates should pursue,” said David Melton, Executive Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Indeed, Chicago Forward’s money is overwhelmingly from super-wealthy power players in the finance industry, with each contributing an average of $53,000.

“And that is not a good thing for our democracy,” Melton said.

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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