Polls suggest that Cook County board President Toni Preckwinkle could topple Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but she’d need to raise some serious money first.
Polls suggest that Cook County board President Toni Preckwinkle could topple Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but she’d need to raise some serious money first. Credit: Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

If Toni Preckwinkle is thinking about challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel, her campaign coffers don’t show it.

Emanuel has turned on his fund-raising spigot well in advance of the mayoral election next year, collecting about $4.2 million in contributions since last July. Meanwhile, Preckwinkle, the Cook County board president, has brought in just $366,000 though she’s on the ballot in November.

Preckwinkle’s prospects—and Emanuel’s vulnerability—made headlines when a poll released last week by the Illinois Observer put her ahead in a potential matchup. Preckwinkle has repeatedly said she’s focused on winning reelection to her current job in November. But that doesn’t reveal much—if she’s pondering a mayoral bid she wouldn’t say so publicly until after the fall campaign is over, even though she won’t have more than token opposition. At the same time, she’s carefully avoided ruling out a run for City Hall.

Preckwinkle certainly hasn’t refrained from criticizing Emanuel on issues like school closings and police initiatives that have led to stubbornly high arrest rates in African American neighborhoods.

Still, she hasn’t been collecting checks like someone preparing to square off with one of the most prolific fund-raising politicians in the country. As of the end of the 2013, she had about $1 million on hand, and has reported raising about $135,000 since, according to state records.

Emanuel had about $6 million on hand at the end of the year and has received $1.4 million since.

Scott Kastrup, Preckwinkle’s political director, wouldn’t comment. But another political operative close to her says she didn’t seem to be moved by the Observer poll. “But what happens if her numbers keep going up?” he says. “When the day comes when it’s clear that she will win and not just that she can win, then I have to believe she’ll run.”

In other words, she’s still thinking about it.

She doesn’t have a ton of time, especially given her financial disadvantage. The politico close to Preckwinkle believes that any credible challenger will need at least $5 million.

Mayor Emanuel can raise more than what he needs, and scaring potential opponents out of the race is part of his strategy.

The truth is that no foreseeable Emanuel foe will be able to engage him in a financial arms race. His connections with wealthy donors in Chicago, Washington, New York, and Hollywood mean that he can raise more than what he needs, and that scaring potential opponents out of the race is part of his strategy.

Emanuel collected $14 million leading up to the 2011 election and spent $12.5 million of it to secure a first-round victory.

John Kupper, one of Emanuel’s political advisers, says they won’t discuss specific fund-raising strategies. “Mayor Emanuel is running for reelection next year and is raising funds in anticipation of a competitive election,” Kupper said in an e-mail. “He does not take any election for granted and is determined to clearly communicate his vision for Chicago’s future to the city’s voters.”

Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti puts it another way: “He’ll try to buy the election.”

Fioretti says he too is considering a mayoral bid, but by his own admission he would have to ramp up fund-raising as well. Fioretti has received $107,000 in donations since last July.

Two long-shot candidates have already announced that they’re running against Emanuel in 2015, but neither of them—former alderman Robert Shaw and community organizer Amara Enyia—has reported raising a dime for the race.

Money isn’t everything, even in an election after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Organizing will have to be at the root of any serious campaign challenge, primarily through alliances with the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor and community organizations hit by Emanuel’s job cuts and closings of schools and clinics. Voter registration and mobilization drives are essential, especially in the black neighborhoods where the mayor is unpopular.

But candidates also need money to launch these efforts and get their messages out. Emanuel will have enough cash to plaster his name and face all over the city—that is, the places he hasn’t already.

His opponents will have to work hard to find donors who aren’t already committed to the mayor or knock-kneed at the thought of crossing him.

Since the 2011 elections, the state law was changed to limit most individual contributions to $5,300 apiece per election cycle. The mayor’s supporters have already shown their willingness to pitch in that amount—and to get colleagues and family members to contribute the maximum as well.

For example, the top single source of contributions to Emanuel since last July was Citadel, the investment firm led by the mayor’s billionaire friend Ken Griffin. Griffin, his wife, and other firm executives and family members gave Emanuel a total of just under $140,000.

Another $117,000 came from executives at Guggenheim Partners, also an investment firm, and their family members. Donors with ties to Grosvenor Capital Management, led by Emanuel’s friend and adviser Michael Sacks, gave $116,000.

Emanuel also received smaller amounts from politically connected firms such as Katten Muchin, the law firm that drew up the parking meter deal; Winston & Strawn, which defended the meter deal against a lawsuit challenging its legality; and Greenberg Traurig, which helped craft the city’s billboard privatization agreement.

Preckwinkle has shown that she can bring in money herself: she raised more than $3 million in her successful 2010 campaign for county board president.

But some of her most wealthy and powerful donors also give to Emanuel, and the checks he gets are typically bigger. For instance, Grosvenor executives have chipped in to her political fund in recent months—but only $7,500, just a sixteenth of what they came up with for the mayor. While members of the wealthy Crown family gave Preckwinkle $10,000, they sent Emanuel more than $63,000.

Fioretti isn’t in the same fund-raising league yet, but he’s received donations from potentially critical allies such as the Chicago Teachers Union and AFSCME, whose members would be a major asset in any upstart campaign. And though the alderman has battled with Emanuel and Richard Daley before him, he’s received support from a number of onetime City Hall insiders, including former city corporation counsel Mara Georges, former mayoral aide Terry Teele, and Daley & George, where the former mayor’s brother is a partner.

Fioretti says such donors are interested in “hearing my ideas.” He stresses that money will be important, but ultimately the mayoral race will be a referendum on Emanuel.

“What jobs has he brought in? What has he done for the neighborhoods? These are failed policies. They’re noninclusive and they don’t embrace the whole city. They’re for the 1 percent, and that’s who his funders are.”