The night before the full City Council unanimously approved Chicago's second Walmart store, about 20 people gathered at Columbia College to hear a couple of investment bankers talk about what they called "insurgent candidates."
Nick Delgado and his wife, Haydee Caldero, run a political consulting firm called the Freeman Institute out of the same Willis Tower office as their wealth management firm, Dignitas. They say they're hoping to shepherd up to four "insurgent" campaigns against incumbent aldermen in next winter's municipal elections.
After everyone took their seats in a classroom that's usually reserved for journalism students, City Council hopefuls got a tutorial from Delgado and Caldero covering topics ranging from fund-raising to surviving petition-signature challenges. Delgado presented equations and charts breaking down some of the most meticulous details of being a candidate—including how many handshakes a candidate should offer in an hour.
Delgado told me the purpose of the seminar, aside from attracting clients, was to persuade potential candidates to take the leap.
"What we want to do is basically demystify the process of running for office and encourage more high-quality candidates to get in the game," says Delgado. "We think if you have a more competitive environment, then in a small way some of the elected officials would be held more accountable."
But some aldermen and political observers wonder what the Freeman Institute is trying to hold them more accountable for. The group has worked closely with the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce to help sway public opinion on one of the most contentious issues in the City Council—Walmart.
For years the City Council has struggled with the big-box retailer's plans to expand into Chicago. In 2004 aldermen approved the city's first Walmart, in west-side Austin, while narrowly rejecting another store that would have been built in south-side Chatham. Two years later the council approved a so-called living wage ordinance, which would have forced big boxes to pay at least $10 an hour plus $3 in benefits. But Mayor Daley vetoed it, and supporters couldn't come up with the votes to override him. Union leaders then funneled millions of dollars and resources to union-friendly candidates in the 2007 municipal elections, including Robert Fioretti in the Second Ward, Pat Dowell in the Third, and JoAnn Thompson in the 16th.
The Freeman Institute was also active in some of those races, most notably in the 49th Ward. Challenger Don Gordon, who pulled Walmart-skeptical incumbent Joe Moore into a runoff, got $60,000 from David Herro, a partner with the Chicago-based investment firm Harris Associates who distributed more than $140,000 to Walmart-friendly candidates, according to state records. During the runoff, which Moore barely won by 251 votes, Gordon hired the Freeman Institute to the tune of $5,500.
Caldero says Herro's support of Gordon wasn't part of some Walmart-led conspiracy against Moore, though Harris Associates is invested in the big-box retailer. But Moore, who was a sponsor of the 2006 living-wage ordinance, says he believes Walmart was acting through the Freeman Institute, though he admits, "I couldn't give you any hard evidence to back that intuition up."
After the municipal elections, the Chatham Walmart continued to float in legislative limbo, even though all it technically needed was the John Hancock of Mayor Daley's top city planner. But Daley apparently didn't want to take all the heat for the store and instead tossed the hot potato to the aldermen.
In June 2009, the chamber of commerce, of which Walmart is a member, hired the Freeman Institute to poll Chicago residents about Walmart. The results: 73 percent wanted their aldermen to approve the Chatham store, and 65 percent said they would support a Walmart in their neighborhood.
But the poll didn't appear to have much of an effect on the City Council. The day after the results were released, powerful aldermen Ed Burke (14th) and Richard Mell (33rd) used a parliamentary maneuver to table any vote on the Chatham Walmart until after the International Olympic Committee announced the host city of the 2016 Summer Games.
That summer the chamber of commerce also hired the Freeman Institute to conduct ward-by-ward polling and to maintain a website, OurCommunityOurChoice.com, to boost public support for the Chatham Walmart, according Michael Mini, director of government relations for the chamber. The blog Chicagoist (where I am a former contributor) last winter called Our Community Our Choice a "fake community group" trying to "manufacture support" for the Chatham store after a pseudonymous commenter posted pro-Walmart remarks from an IP address associated with Walmart's local PR firm, Serafin and Associates. Caldero says this was a result of a "breakdown in communications" with the firm. (CEO Thom Serafin was on vacation and did not return a call to comment for this story.)
"I want to be absolutely clear: Freeman does not advocate that type of stuff," Caldero says. "Any type of public affairs work that we're doing on the issue-advocacy work says 'sponsored by' whoever the client is. It was a mistake."
Caldero also says the Freeman Institute doesn't have an ideology when it comes to the Walmart debate and notes that the firm has worked with pro-union candidates, including Rudy Lozano, who ran unsuccessfully for state rep of the 23rd District in the primary against incumbent Daniel Burke, the brother of 14th Ward alderman and union sympathizer Edward Burke.
One of Lozano's biggest backers during the primary, 22nd Ward alderman Ricardo Munoz, says the Freeman Institute's work on Walmart concerns him. "Walmart is a negative," says Munoz, one of four aldermen to vote against the Chatham store last month. "But I don't know if being a Freeman Institute candidate is the same as being a Walmart candidate."
After the February primary, Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale unveiled the Pullman Park development, a mixed-use project that included another proposed Walmart. The proposal was trapped in the City Council's zoning committee until late June, when union leaders announced they had reached a deal with the retailer over wages.
Right before the committee planned to vote on Pullman Park, Dennis Gannon, then president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, told reporters Walmart had agreed to a starting wage of $8.75 an hour with the possibility of a 40- to 60-cent raise after the first year. After the zoning committee signed off, Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo told reporters no such figure had been agreed upon with union leaders and that the chain wouldn't guarantee any raises after the first year. Still, the development cleared the full City Council in June, paving the way for the Chatham Walmart to be approved.
Caldero says the Freeman Institute wasn't involved with the chamber's efforts on the Pullman store. State records show that the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce paid the consulting firm $8,000 right before the Pullman Walmart made its way through the City Council, but Caldero says the firm was enlisted to help the chamber look at demographic trends and analyze voting records ahead of the upcoming municipal elections. "[The chamber is] going to try and fund-raise more than they have historically," Caldero says.
Jerry Roper, president and CEO of the chamber, says he's considering retaining the Freeman Institute's services during the elections as well. He says there's "no doubt" that the chamber is going to be more involved in some campaigns than in previous years.
"Obviously, what we would do is think about the type of help that [candidates] need in an election, and it isn't just throwing money at any particular person, but the type of feet on the ground that they need," he says.
Roper won't reveal which wards the chamber has in its sights. "We'll have to wait and see the evaluation, see who's going to declare, who's going to run, who's not going to run, and then make that decision," he says. But he did say the chamber's political action committee will meet next month to begin planning for the aldermanic races.
Mini wouldn't say whether Walmart is represented on that committee. "That's not something we typically make public," says Mini. "They obviously make sensitive decisions."
The Freeman folks, however, have specified wards they think are ripe for the picking. At the candidates' seminar, Delgado presented an "at-risk" list of incumbents who'd won with less than 54 percent of the vote in 2007 and were sitting on smaller war chests.
Among the targets: Sixth Ward alderman Freddrenna Lyle, who introduced a new living-wage ordinance in April; 24th Ward alderman Sharon Dixon, who signed onto Lyle's living-wage ordinance; 25th Ward alderman and zoning committee chair Daniel Solis; 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack, who's mulling a run for mayor; 46th Ward alderman Helen Shiller, who has since announced she won't run for re-election; Moore, who voted against the Chatman Walmart last month and signed onto Lyle's living-wage ordinance; and 50th Ward alderman Bernard Stone, who supported Lyle's living-wage ordinance while also supporting the Pullman Walmart.
While the City Council was debating the Pullman Walmart, Lyle says, Beale and former mayoral aide turned Walmart flack Gyata Kimmons tried to get her to back off the living-wage stuff. "I was basically warned that Walmart was going to put up $700,000 against the anti-Walmart aldermen. I said, 'OK, thank you very much.'"
Like Roper, Caldero says which wards the Freeman Institute actually does go into will be based on who's running. She insists the Freeman Institute isn't looking for just "pro-business" candidates like the chamber, but she told me the institute would like to continue working with the chamber in the future.
"I've been told that Walmart wants to be more active. I've been told that the chamber wants to be more active," Caldero says. "A lot of people are saying they want to be more active. They realize that the City Council is becoming more important given that the mayor does not get unanimous votes anymore, like the budget and issues such as Walmart."
After the Freeman Institute seminar, I briefly spoke with Rafael Vargas, a civil rights attorney who's thinking of running for alderman of the 43rd Ward, whose current alderman, Vi Daley, has since announced that she plans to bow out when her term is up. Vargas wouldn't say how he'd differ from the incumbent on the Walmart issue, but he did say he's concerned about attracting businesses to the ward.
"We definitely have a couple of proposed ordinances that we're going to introduce from the very beginning of the campaign with respect to retail," he said. v
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