EVANSTON, IL — The political action committee formed last month to support four incumbents and one challenger in Evanston’s aldermanic races released campaign finance data for the first time Thursday.
The filing indicates Evanston Together LLC violated state campaign disclosure law — before promptly volunteering evidence of those very violations — with just days to go before the April 6 municipal election, election attorneys tell Patch.
According to the first quarter financial report the committee filed Thursday, Mayor Steve Hagerty and Wilmette real estate investor Hoda Halim contributed more than 75 percent of the funding for the group in the first quarter, with the local millionaires each chipping in $5,000.
The committee’s quarterly financial report, or Form D-2, was submitted on the first day of the filing period, which runs through April 15. That means the group could have waited until after Tuesday — the last day of voting in municipal elections — to disclose information about its donors and spending.
But the quarterly disclosure also presents evidence the group violated campaign finance law by failing to disclose a trio of donations of $1,000 or greater and at least one of two large expenditures.
As an independent expenditure group in the the final weeks of a campaign, state law required that Evanston Together LLC submit a Schedule A1 standalone report within two business days of receipt. It also required the group to file a Schedule B1 within two days of spending money on the mailers.
Representatives of the group did not respond to questions about why it did not do so.
“They failed to file the A1, and they violated campaign finance law on three occasions, I believe, by doing that,” veteran election attorney Ed Mullen, who is not working for any campaign, told Patch. “There are two independent expenditures that are listed — and there’s no B1 filed for either of those independent expenditures that are over $1,000. So I believe that is also another violation of campaign finance law.”
Formed March 10 following to the ouster of two incumbent aldermen in the February, the Evanston Together group launched attack ads against challengers in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th wards and the incumbent in the 6th Ward.
In its first citywide mailing, the group warned of “radical change” and alleged the five candidates it opposes “haven’t been forthright about their plans” and want to “abolish current form of government.”
Under the Illinois Constitution, a City Council does not have the power to change the form of government. A shift away from Evanston’s managerial form of government is only possible if voters approve a referendum question about it.
A second citywide mailer from the group asserts that the candidates it opposes want a “Cicero-style Strong Mayor System,” urging, “Don’t let Evanston become like Cicero.”
Critics characterized that ad as a “racist dogwhistle” — about 90 percent of Cicero’s population identifies as Hispanic — with Mayor-Elect Daniel Biss describing it as an “ugly and racially charged effort to connect us to a majority-Latinx community with a strong mayor government.”
Biss urged Evanstonians not to “buy into the divisive rhetoric trafficked by Evanston Together LLC. They want you to think that the candidates they support are the ‘good ones’ and the candidates they oppose are the ‘bad ones.’ The truth is while the policy disagreements we have are real and important, residents who step up and offer to serve should be applauded, not vilified,” he said in a statement released Sunday.
“These fights waste precious time and energy we could instead be spending getting things done,” he added. “It’s time to bring Evanston together — and that requires us to reject the us-against-them approach of Evanston Together LLC.”
The targets of the negative advertising campaign also disputed Evanston Together’s unsubstantiated characterizations of their positions. They told Patch the group’s focus appeared to be aimed at distracting voters from more pressing issues.
Besides Hagerty and Halim, other donors to the group include fellow lakefront homeowners Michael Davis, listed as retired and contributing $1,000, and Nicole and Zak Kustok, who were also vocal and financial backers of the 2018 effort to privately finance the demolition of the nearby Harley Clarke Mansion and Coach House, and chipped in a combined $500.
The remaining contributions came from Paul Brown, a retired accountant and 1st Ward resident, Kathy Tisdahl, daughter of former Mayor Liz Tisdahl and consultant, and Kent Swanson, executive vice president of a Chicago-based real estate investment firm and one of the objectors who successfully challenged the Evanston Voter Initiative referendum last year. Each gave $500.
Evanston Together LLC’s chair, Marya Frankel, and treasurer, Dick Peach, were not listed among its contributors. Last week, Peach told the Evanston RoundTable he did not know who was financing the group, describing it as the “most non-transparent group I’ve ever been with.”
Thursday’s D2 filing shows the group raised $13,000 and spent nearly all of it with a Des Moines-based print marketing company.
Hagerty’s involvement in the committee comes as no surprise. After Biss entered the race last fall, the outgoing mayor announced he would not seek reelection and become the city’s first one-term mayor since World War II.
Prior to the formation of Evanston Together LLC, Hagerty cut checks for $1,500 to the Fiske and Braithwaite campaigns and $2,000 to the Trippi campaign.
Though Hagerty — elected four years ago by 115-vote margin after drawing on his personal fortune to significantly outspend opponents — decided against appearing on the ballot, he has been sending campaign emails from an email address associated with his defunct campaign website, stevehagerty.com, which now redirects to the city’s official site.
In his “Hagerty Huddle” emails, sent to a list of addresses that city staff say the outgoing mayor obtained independently, Hagerty shares endorsements and political commentary about the upcoming elections. His remarks have mirrored those of the Evanston Together group.
Following Biss’ statement, incumbent alderman backed by the new PAC issued similar public statements distancing themselves from Evanston Together campaign.
Eleanor Revelle said the group’s negative messaging greatly saddened her. She and her 7th Ward opponent, Mary Rosinski, had conducted civil and respectful campaigns, she said.
“These materials are very unwelcome and, in my view, are very un-Evanston-like,” Revelle said.
Melissa Wynne said she and Nick Korzeniowski, her opponent in the race for 4th Ward alderman, had agreed to run positive campaigns focused on the issues. She said she had no affiliation of any kind with Evanston Together LLC.
“I did not solicit their endorsement nor are its mailings being distributed with my support or agreement,” Wynne said. “These materials are very un-Evanston-like.”
Peter Braithwaite said he is running a positive campaign and has had no input in the Evanston Together LLC mailers. The 2nd Ward alderman is facing a challenge from Darlene Cannon in his first competitive race. He stopped short of offering any disagreements with the group’s campaign or tactics.
Likewise, Fiske, seeking her fourth term on the City Council, said her campaign has nothing to do with the committee.
“I don’t know who they are,” Fiske told WGN-TV this week. In addition to the citywide mailers, Evanston Together has financed ward-specific mailers attacking her opponent, Clare Kelly.
Patch requested a comment from the lone non-incumbent backed by the Evanston Together PAC, 6th Ward challenger Katie Trippi, and will include it here if received.
Attorney Jeff Smith, who has practiced and taught election law, said he had been surprised that the group had not previously filed disclosures of large contributions and dismayed to see the outgoing mayor’s role in the committee.
Smith is a former candidate for mayor who said he has not worked with any campaign in this election cycle, though he donated money to candidates opposed by Evanston Together following its “Cicero” mailing. He told Patch he was more offended by the duplicity of the group’s electioneering than its apparent violation of campaign finance disclosure laws.
“In a way, the campaign finance violations, which seem on their face pretty clear to me, are less disturbing than the whole tenor of the attack campaign that we’ve seen,” Smith said.
“The main thrust of the Evanston Together smear campaign was misinformation, so to hide the source of that misinformation until the last instant,” he added. “And to have Steve Hagerty funding false attacks — at the same time that he’s putting out support for other candidates claiming that civility and temperament is what we prize in Evanston — strikes me as the height of hypocrisy.”