Emanuel and the Foundations: What price access?

In fundraising there’s an old saw that if you want someone’s money, you ask for his advice.  Leave it to the ever-innovative Rahm Emanuel to turn this observation into an ultimatum, telling people equipped with useful advice that it won’t be heard unless it comes wrapped in money.

That, in effect, is the meaning of Mayor-elect Emanuel’s request to a group of Chicago foundations that they pay the costs of his transition, costs  traditionally covered by leftover campaign funds, of which Emanuel has plenty.   In a city whose political culture has long consisted of being punished for disagreeing with or disobeying the mayor, the foundations faced an unattractive choice: call the mayor-elect on his inappropriate pick-pocketing and look forward to 40 years in the desert, or pay the man the $2 (or $200,000, as the case may be) in order to be heard.

I don’t blame the foundations for ponying up, though I wish they hadn’t: their job is to influence public policy and make change, and the mayor’s office is an important route (sometimes the only route) to doing so.  But the Emanuel administration-in-waiting should never have asked for this sort of tribute.  Whether intended or not, the request makes it appear that access to city government is restricted to those who tithe.  There’s nothing new about that—the title “City That Works” has always ended in a silent “For Pay”—but Chicagoans might be excused for having hoped for something new post-Daley.

Many of my colleagues in the nonprofit sector are dismayed at having to compete with city government for the foundations’ largesse, and that’s a legitimate concern, though a belated one: the Daley administration never hesitated to ask private and foundation donors to subsidize city expenses with money that would otherwise have gone to independent community groups.  (Can you say “Millennium Park”?  “Olympic bid”?)  But I’m more concerned about a new mayor’s implying, and establishing a precedent for the idea, that even being heard on the 5th floor requires big bucks.

Some wag once said that New York was about culture and Washington about power, but Chicago was all about money.  Plus ca change . . .

Author: Kelly Kleiman

Kelly Kleiman is a freelance writer on the arts, feminism, travel and social justice. Her reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor, among other dailies; in magazines, including In These Times and Dance; in the alternative press; on the BBC; and on Chicago Public Radio, where she’s one of the “Dueling Critics” and a contributor to the Onstage Backstage theater blog. She is also a consultant to charities and editor and publisher of The Nonprofiteer, a blog about charity, philanthropy and nonprofit management. She holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago.

7 thoughts on “Emanuel and the Foundations: What price access?”

  1. But I’m more concerned about a new mayor’s implying, and establishing a precedent for the idea, that even being heard on the 5th floor requires big bucks.

    Rahm is just shooting for par on his home course. Far more spectacular is the august place we find ourselves on the national golf course: The Supreme Court decided that lobbyist weren’t being heard enough, and so decided in favor of corporations in Citizens United. Does anybody except the premise? That lobbyists weren’t being heard enough? Really? You’d think there wouldn’t be enough tea-flavored kool-aid in heaven to make a sane person accept that premise. Yet here we are, drunk and dumb and getting ready to tee off on the par-six 13th hole….

    The country is sick to the bone. Really ill.
    And there really are only two options available:

    1) Do something about it. Work like hell to bring it back from the brink.
    Good luck with that, because that’s what we are being told the teabag party is doing…

    2) Step back and watch the whole damn thing swirl down the oligarchial toilet while making cynical comments about aristocrats and chuckling over their mores…

    So has anybody heard any good Rahm golfing jokes lately?

  2. Doesn’t this sort of presume that foundations are generally pushing worthwhile causes? I think most of the dreck that’s coming out of these so-called education reform foundations is exceptionally harmful.

    Though I suppose it does make one wonder whether Rahm has any particular ideas or predilections about urban policy. If not, why become Mayor?

  3. The anti-corruption law that would fix this would be three lines long and could be sold to anyone’s political party: probably some combination of huge restrictions on post-election campaign expenses, enhanced money for (city) transition jobs, and a ban on this kind of solicitation. Actually, I’d be okay with banning all contributions of any kind after, say, Oct. 15, but I guess the Supreme Court feels differently.

    It’ll never happen, though, because today’s tsking is the last we’re going to hear of it until the next Chicago mayoral election, etc. etc. ad infinitum.

  4. LK: “Doesn’t this sort of presume that foundations are generally pushing worthwhile causes?”

    Not really. Rahm is shaking them down because they have money they want to spend on political influence. It’s just Willie Sutton-ism. Does he also think they have useful advice? Not clear we have any real indication.

  5. “Actually, I’d be okay with banning all contributions of any kind after, say, Oct. 15, but I guess the Supreme Court feels differently.”

    I’m not really sure they do feel differently about that, so much as they ‘feel’ that money spent expressing your opinion isn’t a “contribution”, and you can’t justify shutting up political speech exactly when it’s likely to have the most impact.

  6. @koreyel: Chicago isn’t actually more corrupt than anyplace else; we just seem to take more perverse pride in our reputation for corruption. But having lived in Baltimore and Boston as well, I believe their politics to be as stupid and corrupt as anything we can bring from the Central Time Zone. I don’t agree that we can’t stop corruption: shining a light on it is a good place to start.

    @LincolnKennedy: Certainly a lot of crap comes out of the foundation world, but there’s also a fair amount of useful information based on experience in funding certain types of projects. In any case, one would expect the foundations to think they had something useful to contribute (other than money), and therefore to be eager to be given the opportunity to be heard. So I give them a bit of a pass–I guess I must think extortion is worse than bribery!

    @Matt: Again, the problem is a national one (hence the Supreme Court’s involvement), not just a Chicago one. But you’re right: if we funded transitions publicly, that would solve the problem.

    @Seth: You’re right–Rahm went to the foundations because that’s where the money is. I’m sure he has plenty of ideas of his own about how to run the city–or else why try to be its mayor? Oh, right: because that’s where the money is.

    @Brett: You and my ex-professor Scalia to the contrary notwithstanding, money isn’t speech, and corporate money is distorting our electoral process beyond recognition. Compared to the damage done by Citizens United, what I’m complaining about with respect to the Mayor-elect is a flyspeck.

  7. It’s quite true that money isn’t speech. It’s also true that, if you pass a law regulating the use of wood pulp, whose application depends on the nature of the words printed on the wood pulp, you’re not regulating wood pulp, you’re regulating use of the press.

    When you pass a law regulating ‘money’, which applies or does not apply depending on the nature of the ideas that money is spent promoting, it’s an obnoxious sophistry to pretend that you’re not really regulating speech. McCain/Feingold is not a law regulating money, it is a law regulating political speech.

    If Citizens United were promoting a movie about breakfast cereal, they’d still be spending money, and the ‘reformers’ wouldn’t be trying to shut them up. That makes the ‘reformers’ censors, not financial regulators.

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