Mayor Rahm Emanuel today defended accepting tens of thousands of dollars in political donations from hotel developers who need the approval of his administration for their projects.
Emanuel said he embraces the support he's received from the hotel industry but insists their backing doesn't influence his decision-making at City Hall. He noted that as recently as earlier this month he pushed through a parking garage tax hike over the hoteliers' opposition.
"Even though they support me we had a very public dispute as it related to the garage fee and so even though they support me I've told them when I think they're wrong, on the wrong side, and I haven't backed down from that," Emanuel said during a press conference on the South Side.
The comments followed a story in today's Tribune disclosing the mayor is taking in campaign donations from business interests who need his administration to provide crucial approval for major real estate developments, including high-profile hotel projects in some of the city's biggest tourist areas.
The political donations highlight a path around the mayor's May 2011 executive orders banning campaign contributions from city lobbyists and contractors. Ethics experts questioned the value of those rules, since they still allow business interests with multi-million dollar projects at stake to give the mayor generous donations.
Last month, the mayor recorded a $10,000 contribution from a development company just a week before the Emanuel-appointed Chicago landmark commission approved the firm's request for a multimillion-dollar tax break to convert the Chicago Athletic Association building near Millennium Park into a hotel. And earlier in March, Emanuel shoveled dirt at a ceremonial groundbreaking for a high-rise Streeterville hotel and apartment complex with two developers who combined have given him $35,000 as mayor, including $15,000 this year.
Asked if he planned to sign additional executive orders to ensure developers who have interests at City Hall aren't allowed to make donations, Emanuel skirted the question by saying that the administration is following through on the numerous campaign and transparency changes he's made since taking office in 2011.
Emanuel noted the city has been recognized for transparency under his watch. "At every level we are going to continue to make changes to build trust,"he said, adding "We've done it all so when they want to support they have been supportive but it doesn't shy away from when I disagree with them."
The mayor said the hotel industry supports him as mayor because he's helped create an environment that is open to development, resulting in seven new hotel projects employing 3,000 people.
"The hotel industry is one of the largest employers in the city," he said. "This March we had the best March ever in the history of Chicago from an occupancy standpoint."