Chicago mayoral runoff candidate Lori Lightfoot on Thursday defended receiving a major campaign contribution from a “dark money” group that’s hiding where the money comes from.
Lightfoot responded to WBEZ’s story on Change Chicago, a new nonprofit organization that gave her $40,000 – the second-largest check the campaign had received before her first-place finish in last month’s election.
Lightfoot made clear she had no intention of returning the check, despite criticism from her opponent in the April 2 runoff, Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
“That was a contribution that happened about four or five months ago,” Lightfoot said of the contribution from Change Chicago, which her campaign reported receiving on Dec. 3 – a little over three months ago. “This isn’t a news story.”
Preckwinkle has said accepting the contribution from the 501(c)(4) group – which can legally engage in political activity while obscuring its funding sources – contradicts Lightfoot’s assertion that she is a progressive reformer.
“I know the Preckwinkle campaign is kind of desperate to try to do something to stop the momentum that’s building,” Lightfoot said at an event on the Northwest Side, where she accepted the endorsement of the LIUNA Chicago Laborers District Council.
“They decided from election night that they were going to try to tar and feather me and smear me and portray me as something other than the person that I am … I’m not going to be distracted by the nonsense that comes out of the Preckwinkle campaign out of fear and desperation.”
A spokesman for Preckwinkle replied, “Desperation is accepting dark money from unknown sources to boost your campaign. Instead of trying to blame someone else for accepting dark money, perhaps she should take a look at her own values and see if maybe she should stop pretending to be a progressive.”
Preckwinkle says she hasn’t received any donations from dark money groups. But with backing from major labor groups, including the teachers and service employees unions, she has raised nearly twice as much campaign cash as Lightfoot. Lightfoot has reported receiving more than $3 million, much of it since she finished first with 17.5 percent of the vote in the Feb. 26 election.
On Thursday, Lightfoot said she favors campaign-financing reform, but she quickly added, “We’re playing with the cards that we’re dealt.”
Democrat and progressive reformers frequently blast dark money groups that promote conservative, corporate interests without disclosing how they get their money.
The pro-Lightfoot Change Chicago was formed in July, shortly after she announced that she was running for mayor.
“The reality is this is an organization that was set up by somebody who is supportive of our campaign,” Lightfoot said. “You can certainly talk to them about why and how they decided to make their investments.”
But the corporate lawyer who founded Change Chicago, Lightfoot donor Coco Soodek, declined to comment when reached this week by a WBEZ reporter.
“The people that are involved in that organization, to the extent that I know it, are people who also love their city and are looking for a leader who stands for reform and is not part of the broken political machine,” Lightfoot said Thursday.
The single December donation to Lightfoot was the only contribution that the group has made to a political campaign or cause, according to state election-finance data.
Aside from that, it’s unclear what the group does.
Its homepage offers a brief explanation of the organization’s principles. It says it has “two reasons” for being: “To help you learn about what’s really going on in Chicago” and “To promote policies and actions that can really Change Chicago.” The website goes on to bemoan problems with the school system, violent crime and “corrupt city government,” and it ends with a call for a handful of reform measures.
There is no further information about the group’s funders or its leaders on the Change Chicago website.