Rahm Emanuel
Rahm Emanuel Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

My favorite tidbit to emerge so far about the backroom scheming in the race to be Chicago’s next mayor came at the bottom of a recent Sun-Times account of private talks between White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Congressman Mike Quigley.

According to political columnist Lynn Sweet, Emanuel and Quigley met on September 22 for about an hour in the rooftop bar at the W Hotel, where they talked about the race over virgin drinks: “Quigley had lemonade, Emanuel had ice tea.”

As if an hour wasn’t enough, they followed up with two phone calls in which they “discussed issues facing the city—such as tax increment financing.”

Boy, would I have loved to have been on the line for the TIF talk. If I know Emanuel, his end of the conversation probably went like this: “Mike, I know you’ve explained this to me before. But one more time, how the fuck does the TIF shit work?”

I’m just assuming Emanuel’s confused. I’ve been interviewing politicians—including plenty of mayoral wannabes—for years about Mayor Daley’s favorite slush fund, and most of them are. Most have absolutely no idea how it works, even if their positions would seem to require it. Even when they do get it, they’ve been so wary of upsetting the mayor they speak in vague generalities or go off the record. Of course, some get TIFs but won’t knock the slush fund because it’s funding some pet project.

Emanuel, congressman Danny Davis, state senator James Meeks, congressman Luis Gutierrez, Cook County sheriff Tom Dart—none of these prominent names in the mayoral race has ever made any significant contribution to the TIF debate that I know of. And I follow this stuff relentlessly.

They’re members of a generation of prominent public officials—including virtually the entire City Council—who are clueless about a program that’s diverted more than $3 billion in desperately needed cash from the schools, parks, county, and other property-tax-collecting bodies in the last ten years.

The only significant officeholder who’s ever taken a stand on TIFs is Quigley, which is undoubtedly why Emanuel turned to him. I once asked congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. for his opinion of Mayor Daley’s TIF program, and he responded, “Isn’t that Quigley’s thing?” As if there were only room for one politician on the issue.

I was there at Quigley’s great TIF awakening. It happened in 2006, when I called Quigley, then a Cook County commissioner, to ask why he wasn’t taking a strong stance against the TIF program.

He said he didn’t know a whole lot about TIFs. He promised to look into the matter and get back to me.

To his credit, he did. When he called back, he observed that the program was pretty much a scam.

Eventually, he assigned two staffers—Jason Liechty and Jeremy Thompson—to write a report on TIFs.

You can still find their report, “A Tale of Two Cities,” online. It does a good job of running through the central flaws: How a program geared for poor neighborhoods largely benefits rich ones. How TIF expenditures are shrouded in secrecy, very difficult to track. How TIFs raise the amount in property taxes we all must pay. And so on.

Mayor Daley’s allies on the Cook County Board, most notably his brother, Commissioner John Daley, who’s also chairman of the finance committee, buried Quigley’s calls for TIF reform.

Nonetheless, taking a stand on TIFs did wonders for Quigley’s political career. It gave him the reformer credentials he needed to distinguish himself from the other aspirants—including state reps John Fritchey and Sara Feigenholtz—in the crowded Democratic primary to replace Emanuel, who gave up his Fifth District congressional seat to go to the White House in 2009.

In the 2007 municipal campaigns it was hard to find any mayoral or aldermanic candidate with anything at all to say on TIFs. But with Mayor Daley stepping down, candidates are starting to speak up. David Miller, the Democratic candidate for state comptroller, is proposing a “public-friendly” online database that “would include detailed information and analysis on every TIF in Illinois, including account balances, economic information and campaign contributions from developers involved in each TIF.”

Man, I could have used that database—especially the info on campaign contributions—during the last ten years.

Roger Keats and Tom Tresser, the Republican and Green Party candidates for Cook County Board president, recently issued a joint statement vowing “to fight to eliminate all TIFs” and “oppose any new TIFs in Cook County.” Even Quigley didn’t go that far.

They’re trying to distance themselves from the Democratic front-runner, Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who’s endorsed several controversial TIF districts in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area.

Fritchey, who’s giving up his state legislative seat to run for Forrest Claypool’s old county board spot—has called on Daley to use $700 million in TIF reserves to erase budget deficits at the city and Chicago Public Schools and hire more cops.

And I’ve heard from at least a dozen aldermanic candidates—including four in the 45th Ward alone—who are endorsing everything from a TIF moratorium to an outright ban on new TIF districts.

How the TIF issue plays out in the mayoral race will be trickier. The thing about TIFs is that as bad as they are for ordinary taxpayers, they’re great for all-powerful mayors.

In a nutshell, every time the City Council creates a TIF district—and there are about 160 of them now—and property tax revenues in that district increase, the increase goes into the TIF fund. Normally, that new tax revenue would be divided so many ways—among the schools, the parks, Cook County, etc—that the mayor would wind up controlling about 20 cents on the dollar. But if it’s in the TIF fund, the mayor gets to control the other 80 cents too. Meanwhile, the other taxing bodies end up raising their rates to make up for the revenues the TIF siphons off. .

As one budget director put it in an exchange with community activists years ago: “We get 80 cents on the dollar—what’s not to like?”

If you’re an upstart considering a long-shot reformer campaign—like, say, 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack—you have no choice but to call for an end to the TIF program as we know it.

But if you’re an insider, someone who’s already made his or her name and is looking to win by exploiting clout and connections—like, oh, Rahm Emanuel—you might want to say very little about the TIFs. If anything, you could issue some vague statements that can’t be held against you if you’re elected.

And once in office, any mayor—even a so-called reformer—probably won’t want to give up control over the TIF slush fund any more than Mayor Daley did.

It’s not only the way you fund your pet projects—think Millennium Park, an underground station at Block 37, handouts to corporations like MillerCoors. It’s also how you keep aldermen in line, doling out just enough TIF cash so they can run their own little slush funds.

Like Quigley figured out six years ago, the TIF program in Chicago is unfair, deceitful, wasteful, and costly. But it gives the mayor about $500 million a year in property taxes to play with. Money is power. The more tax dollars a mayor controls, the more political power he or she has. It’s a lesson Mayor Daley learned early on and never forgot.   v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.