Nonprofits better than private lobbies

By Editorial Board

Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel recently solicited $200,000 in donations from local nonprofit organizations to cover the costs of his administration’s transition into office. He asked the MacArthur, McCormick, Joyce and Spencer foundations for funds, and they gladly obliged. Most of those funds will go toward covering staff holdover salaries until Emanuel is in office, and some of his campaign staffers can be put on the city payroll.

Politicians typically rely on campaign funds to cover their transitions. But soliciting donations seems like a strange move when Emanuel has approximately $2 million in campaign cash left after the election. The question of why he isn’t using those funds should be addressed to avoid any implications that he merely doesn’t want to pay for the transition out of pocket. Emanuel may have other plans for that money, but he needs to make them clear.

However, if Emanuel had to solicit funds from anyone, nonprofits are a good choice. It is obvious, though, that the aforementioned foundations are, on some level, attempting to win favor with the new administration and further their agendas. They’re cozying up to a new mayor in a city that has been run by one administration for decades with the hopes that their issues and agendas will get more attention in city government. Several members of the Joyce and MacArthur foundations have already been appointed to positions on Emanuel’s transitional committees. In layman’s terms, this is lobbying.

This sort of lobbying is an inevitable fact of life in politics in general and particularly in Chicago. If it’s going to happen anyway, it’s better that our new mayor is supported by foundations with clearly stated humanitarian and philanthropic goals rather than private and corporate donors with more mercenary motivations. Emanuel admitted he went to the foundations because he didn’t want to rely on private and corporate donors.

If the Mayor-elect’s motives are truly noble, this is a good start. However, if he wants to give the city a fresh start, he’ll have to shy away from the kind of cronyism that has defined Chicago politics for decades. He’ll also have to avoid slipping into a pattern of patronage and favoritism toward the long line of wealthy and powerful contributors who helped him win the office in the first place. Only time will tell if this is Emanuel’s first step on the road to cleaning up city government or nothing more than an empty gesture.