ILLINOIS (WCIA) — A political activism group for moms based in Chicago’s northern suburbs received a small donation from J.B. Pritzker three days before their founder blasted Pritzker’s primary rival Chris Kennedy in a press release as “disheveled” and “disrespectful to women.”
The Pritzker campaign could not say with certainty if his recent gift of $128.50 was the only time he’s given money to the group, but the paper trail revealing the donation could serve to confirm suspicions from progressives who remain skeptical of Pritzker’s attempt to co-opt grassroots groups.
“I’m not surprised,” said Rebecca Abraham, a former board member at Mom + Baby who stepped down citing differences of opinion with the board. Abraham supports Daniel Biss for governor and was one of Kennedy’s most vocal critics after meeting with him in July. When she learned about Pritzker’s donation, she said, “I get that the optics probably don’t look so good.”
Alexandra Eidenberg founded the group Mom + Baby after twins interrupted her 2014 bid for Congress. As a 501(c)(4) group, Mom + Baby can get involved in politics, but federal law prohibits them from making politics their primary focus.
“It’s a gray area,” said Sarah Brune, Executive Director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Generally speaking, the IRS says a 501(c)(4) cannot spend more than fifty percent of their budget on political activity. Political activity can include paid TV ads, mailers or specific advocacy for or against a candidate.”
Mom +Baby was one of more than sixty organizations to sponsor a Democratic Primary Forum at the Chicago Teacher’s Union headquarters last Sunday. During the forum, Kennedy blamed his bad reviews from his meeting with Mom + Baby members on the Pritzker campaign.
Asked about his critics, Kennedy replied, “Truthfully, a number of them were interviewing for jobs with J.B. Pritzker and a lot of the criticism came out of that job application process.”
Eidenberg, who was at the event, denied Kennedy’s claim, writing in a statement, “This is not true! Our members have full plates of their own and love volunteering on campaigns but none attempted a job on a gubernatorial campaign.”
However, the group’s political and financial ties to Pritzker and his allies date back long before his campaign launch.
The group’s “2017 Mom of the Year” award went to Becky Carroll, one of their top donors who also aided Pritzker with media relations before his campaign hired full-time communications staff.
Two sources currently working for the Pritzker campaign confirmed Carroll’s ongoing and active involvement in the communications and media strategy. A wide-ranging series of interviews with reporters who have covered Pritzker found that Carroll has reached out and pressured them to alter or soften their coverage before publication.
“She works on campaigns all the time. She worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, she worked on Rahm Emanuel’s campaign. She was a part of J.B.’s original launch team,” Eidenberg said.
Carroll’s company C-Strategies also advises Personal PAC, a pro-choice group that raised $309,000 from Pritzker in March as it ramped up a campaign in support of House Bill 40.
Before opening her own public relations company, Carroll raised $5.4 million for Chicago Forward, a super PAC with high-dollar donors like Michael Sacks, a Pritzker ally and adviser, and Ken Griffin, the richest man in the state who is a regular donor to Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.
One of Carroll’s early jobs in Illinois politics was as the communications chief and later the Deputy Chief of Staff for now-disgraced governor Rod Blagojevich. She omits any reference to Blagojevich on her LinkedIn and C-Strategies biography pages.
One source inside the Pritzker campaign suggested that Carroll is intentionally kept off the payroll because her ties to Blagojevich could prove damaging to Pritzker’s reputation during a highly visible election contest.
“I don’t know, probably the Blago thing. That’s the most toxic name in the state,” the source said, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign. While most Democratic operatives with any experience in Illinois have connection to Blagojevich administration, few were so close to his inner sanctum.
Carroll also works as a mentor for 1871, a technology incubator owned by Pritzker. 1871 did not answer questions about Carroll’s role with the company. Carroll did not respond to multiple phone calls, voicemails, emails and text messages.
Eidenberg, who is now running in a crowded Democratic primary to represent Illinois’ 17th House district, sees Pritzker’s wealth as a solution to her own fundraising woes.
“I had a goal of raising a million dollars when I ran for US Congress and I didn’t get anywhere near there,” Eidenberg said in July.
“There’s only so much money that’s going to come out of the community. At the end of the day, if [Pritzker] is not asking for that dollar, that dollar is going into other Democratic races. By him not taking it, it’s freeing up a ton of money.”
Asked how Pritzker’s political donations compare to Rauner’s, Eidenberg said, “[Rauner] is literally buying the ballot. He and the Koch brothers are just literally like doling out millions left and right to buy it. I think that’s a very different regime.”
Eidenberg painted Pritzker’s donations as righteous political activism free of undue influence. But in her own group, disgruntled former board members say they were forced out after allegedly being told their political speech “offended donors.” Simmering tensions within the group show how deeply personal and intense this primary contest has become.
Eidenberg admits to her political leanings, but emphatically denied Pritzker paid her. She wrote, “I support JB for Governor. I am not paid by JB, I do not work for JB’s campaign.
“Chris Kennedy stated that we were being paid by JB to ruin his campaign. These are lies!”
Pritzker did donate to her group, although the small amount was designated toward a specific piece of legislation.
“Mom + Baby and 11 other organizations focused on women and family issues came together to put out a “No Salary History” Bill postcard campaign,” said Galia Slayen, a spokeswoman for the Pritzker campaign. “JB personally contributed $128.50 to help cover a portion of the postcard campaign cost.”