GOP plutocrat gallops to Rahm Emanuel's rescue: What Kenneth Griffin's support says about "Mayor 1%"

Meet the hedge funder fighting to save Emanuel's political career

Published March 18, 2015 4:28PM (EDT)

Rahm Emanuel                    (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Rahm Emanuel (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Confronting a stronger-than-expected re-election challenge from progressive Cook County commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel came out swinging earlier this month against the massive spending cuts proposed by newly minted Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R),  a close personal friend of the mayor. "These are just random cuts. There are no reforms to asking a core question: If this is an essential service, how do we do it? How do we do it better? Are we the best to do it?" Emanuel inveighed, channeling his inner Elizabeth Warren. "This budget is wrong. It's wrong for Illinois, it's fundamentally wrong for Chicago, and it will not stand."

While Emanuel hopes that such populist appeals will help him fend off Garcia in Chicago's April 7 runoff election, his rhetoric is sharply discordant with his record as mayor. The same Emanuel who castigates Rauner's callous budget cuts has shuttered nearly 50 neighborhood schools, most in predominantly African American areas; privatized city assets to the benefit of well-heeled donors and the detriment of mass transit, public schools, and city employees; slashed pensions for public workers, even as he doles out millions in tax breaks to corporations; and rewarded his political benefactors with no-bid contracts and other city perks.

It's little wonder, then, that Emanuel has earned the moniker "Mayor 1%." So we should be little surprised when we read in the Chicago Sun-Times that Kenneth C. Griffin, the billionaire CEO of the hedge fund Citadel, has just infused the pro-Emanuel PAC Chicago Forward with a cool half million in cash -- on top of the $250,000 he contributed to Emanuel's campaign shortly after Garcia forced him into the runoff?

A primer on Griffin: With an estimated net worth of $6.6 billion, the 46-year-old is one of the Republican Party's most generous megadonors. During the 2014 election cycle, Griffin and his wife Anne contributed $3.6 million to GOP candidates and outside groups for federal elections and precisely zero (0) to Democratic candidates and groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (The hedge funder does not hedge.) Additionally, Griffin lavished $8 million on Rauner's campaign fund after he ousted Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, in what the Sun-Times reports was a bid to boost Rauner ahead of his battles with the Democratic state legislature.

"One thing Rahm, Rauner and Griffin have in common is that they understand that money doesn't just talk, it shouts," Kristen Crowell, the executive director of United Working Families, said in a statement to Salon. "You see it in the disinvestment in our schools, parks and core services, as public dollars get funneled to politically connected downtown developers and education profiteers." United Working Families is the Chicago-based sister organization of the national Working Families Party.

Federal Election Commission records indicate that Griffin has also given millions to mostly GOP candidates in previous cycles, supporting such politicians as Mitch McConnell, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Aaron Schock, the disgraced Illinois congressman who announced Tuesday that he would resign amid ethics woes. GOP-aligned organizations like America Rising and Karl Rove's American Crossroads have also benefited from Griffin's largesse.

Besides Emanuel, the few Democrats to receive contributions from Griffin include former Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, the onetime Banking Committee chairman who cultivated close ties to the financial industry; and former Illinois Rep. Melissa Bean, a Wall Street-friendly centrist who ultimately went to work for JPMorgan Chase  after losing her seat in 2010.

That Griffin has now contributed nearly $1 million to pro-Emanuel groups highlights the ideological stakes of Chicago's mayoral race, a contest that reflects the larger battle between corporate centrists and progressive populists for the soul of the Democratic Party. Try as Rahm might reinvent himself as a progressive warrior, he embodies the neoliberal agenda of privatization, public sector "reforms" (i.e., cuts), and servility to corporate power. Those for whom that agenda has been such a bonanza know full well whose side Rahm is on.

Garcia managed to force Emanuel into a runoff despite being outspent 12 to 1,  underscoring that money can only get a candidate so far. But as Emanuel saturates the airwaves with ads attacking Garcia, the mayor's millions yet help him prevail their head-to-head contest. While other polls have shown a much closer contest, a recent Chicago Tribune survey found that Emanuel has opened up a 14-point lead.

"Every time Chicago voters see an ad for Rahm, they should remember who is paying for them," said Dan Cantor, the national director of the Working Families Party. "The voters need to decide if they can be bought and sold."

By Luke Brinker

MORE FROM Luke Brinker