When Rahm Emanuel was a first-time candidate for Congress, Greg Goldner was behind him, quietly marshaling the patronage troops that helped get him elected. When Emanuel ran for mayor, Goldner was there again, doling out campaign cash to elect Emanuel-friendly aldermen to City Council.
And when the rookie mayor was looking for community support for his school reform agenda, there was Goldner, working behind the scenes with the ministers who backed Emanuel's plan.
Now, it turns out the longtime allies share another interest — the installation of automated speed cameras in Chicago.
As consultant to the firm that already supplies Chicago its red-light cameras, Goldner is the architect of a nationwide campaign to promote his client's expansion prospects. That client, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., is well-positioned to make tens of millions of dollars from Emanuel's controversial plan to convert many of the red-light cameras into automated speed cameras.
Emanuel is expected to present his speed camera proposal to City Council on Wednesday, and his aides began briefing aldermen on the plan Monday.
In an interview at his Resolute Consulting LLC offices, Goldner said there is no connection between his political support for Emanuel and the mayor's staunch support for speed cameras. He said he wasn't aware Emanuel was pushing a speed camera plan in his hometown until he read it in the Tribune in late October.
He acknowledged others may have a different perception.
"The fact is you guys are going to write your story, and you know, it's legitimate," Goldner said. "It's a legitimate news story. … I can't dispute it."
In a city long defined by the intersection of political clout and business might, Emanuel campaigned on a pledge to change a culture where government is "an insider's game, serving primarily the lobbyists and well-connected." But the converging interests of the mayor, his political consultant and the camera company are likely to fuel more skepticism about an initiative already labeled by critics as a money grab for the cash-starved city.
Emanuel declined to answer questions about Goldner. But spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton said, "There is no connection.
"As the mayor has said, this is about doing the right thing for our children and keeping them safe," she said.
Goldner's unassuming style and California roots belie his critical role in the political careers of two consecutive Chicago mayors. A former campaign manager for former Mayor Richard Daley, Goldner helped command political street armies that also worked to elect Emanuel to Congress in 2002. Goldner was Emanuel's campaign manager in that race.
In late 2010, as Emanuel was launching his campaign to replace Daley, Goldner formed a political action committee, For a Better Chicago, to help elect a pro-Emanuel City Council. The lawyer who helped set up the PAC, Michael Kasper, was defending Emanuel against a ballot challenge that nearly knocked him out of the mayor's race.
Kasper is a state lobbyist for Goldner's camera client, Redflex, an Australian company that counts Chicago as is its largest U.S. customer.
After Emanuel's election, Goldner said, he began working on plans for legislation to legalize speed cameras statewide. To bolster his efforts, he said, in September he retained the services of a key Chicago traffic expert who had just left City Hall.
But Emanuel pre-empted any statewide effort with one just for Chicago. The mayor had a bill introduced in Springfield in October to let him transform much of the city's existing network of nearly 200 red-light cameras into the equivalent of automated radar guns near schools and public parks.
With the Chicago police chief and schools CEO fronting the effort, Emanuel pitched the plan as a child-safety initiative and rolled to a quick victory at the Statehouse, despite questions about the statistics the mayor used to justify the push.
Goldner and Kasper both said they never talked to Emanuel about the camera issue.
But by last fall the interests of Resolute, Redflex and Emanuel had officially converged — though it would be nearly impossible for the public to know.
The Emanuel administration has repeatedly denied Tribune requests for public records related to the speed-camera push, releasing a small fraction of the requested information months after the mayor's bill was passed by state lawmakers.
Redacted city email shows Kasper, Redflex's lobbyist, had suggested changes in the Emanuel speed-camera bill.
Resolute got on board with the mayor's push after he announced it, Goldner said. The firm said it has since provided the city with data and "talking points" on the issue.
But until now, Resolute's role as a primary player in the national traffic camera debate has been largely unpublicized — including its efforts here.
Most of the firm's work on the issue is done through the Traffic Safety Coalition, a group it created with funding from Redflex that seeks to establish support across the country by forging relationships with law enforcement, pedestrian-friendly groups and relatives of pedestrians killed by errant drivers. The coalition pushes for new camera laws, defends against regional uprisings to ban cameras and produces gut-wrenching video testimonials about fatal crashes.
Resolute Consulting was first hired by Redflex in late 2009 amid a successful effort to fend off a backlash in the Illinois Legislature that could have resulted in a statewide ban on red-light cameras.
In its filings with the Australian Securities Exchange, Redflex said, "In Illinois, a firm was engaged to manage the media interface, develop an advocacy to write letters to the editor, blog on a micro-site about street safety, and be ready to testify in committee hearings." The company confirmed that firm is Resolute.
Within weeks of being hired, Resolute was producing news releases sent out under the name of the Traffic Safety Coalition. The coalition is based at Resolute offices in Chicago, and Goldner confirmed Redflex is the coalition's sole financial supporter.
The news releases touted the effectiveness of automated traffic cameras and described the coalition as "a grass-roots organization comprised of public safety professionals, law enforcement officials, victim's advocates, health care professionals, academics and industry leaders."
The coalition soon began showing up in battleground states for traffic cameras, including Ohio, New Mexico and Texas.
Goldner acknowledged last week that the coalition's strategic model involves an early appearance in markets that interest Redflex, building community support, finding examples of children victimized by errant drivers, videotaping their parents and then asking sympathetic policymakers to file a bill or pass an ordinance in support of automated traffic cameras.
In other instances, Goldner said, Resolute and the coalition end up playing defense to tamp down proposed camera bans and other community opposition. Goldner acknowledged that the aim of all the coalition work related to the expansion of his client's business.
While Resolute was working to expand Redflex's business across the country, in fall 2010 Chicago was focused on the much-anticipated announcement of Emanuel's run for mayor. Goldner's attention likewise turned to local politics.
Goldner and his chief operating officer at Resolute, David Smolensky, formed For a Better Chicago in late 2010 and armed its political action committee with more than $855,000 in donations from business interests the group was not required to disclose under the law. At Goldner's direction, the political action committee worked to elect aldermen who would support a pro-business, pro-Emanuel agenda on the City Council.
Goldner said none of the secret donations to For A Better Chicago came from Redflex.
"Not from the company or anyone associated with them in any way shape or form," he said.
Resolute stepped up its speed-camera campaign in 2011. Goldner and two other top Resolute executives from Chicago who manage the Redflex account formed the Texas Traffic Safety Coalition in that state in March. A day later, the coalition filed a lawsuit that helped stop a ballot initiative against red-light cameras in the Gulf Coast town of Port Lavaca.
Goldner said 2011 was also when he began speaking with Illinois lawmakers about an initiative to allow the use of speed cameras throughout the state.
By late May, less than two weeks after Emanuel was inaugurated, the city's transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, sent the first of more than 500 city emails on the issue of speed cameras, according to a log provided to the Tribune.
One of Klein's top deputies at the time was John Bills, who ran the city's red-light camera program and played an instrumental role in Redflex's city contracts.
By late September, Bills had quit his city post and begun doing consulting work for Resolute and the Traffic Safety Coalition. Goldner acknowledged the perception of a conflict but said last week he would not have hired Bills had he known at the time the city was considering speed cameras.
"I would say in hindsight that if I knew this bill was going to pass and there might be a procurement coming out and would we still do the same thing with John Bills, probably not," he said. "I don't have the luxury of making decisions going in reverse."
By mid-September, though, Emanuel's proposal was already quietly under review in the Statehouse, the Tribune has learned. It wouldn't become public until October.
On Sept. 25, Resolute shot a series of videos at the annual Stop for Maya walk, marking the death of 4-year-old Maya Hirsch, run down in 2006 near Lincoln Park Zoo by a man accused of blowing the stop sign and who pleaded guilty to leaving the scene.
Goldner's For a Better Chicago co-sponsored the march, along with Goldner's Resolute Consulting and his client Redflex, which also had sponsored the event in 2010.
The mayor did not attend, but Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, was there as the honorary chairman. On a Resolute video, Cullerton urged participants to go to Springfield and try "to pass legislation that can make a difference."
In late October, Cullerton officially filed Emanuel's bill.
In pushing state lawmakers to support speed cameras, Emanuel said he needed to move fast to save children's lives. It's an argument he continues to make, despite questions about the accuracy of safety statistics the mayor uses.
Goldner, who directed more than $445,000 in campaign donations to City Council races last year, was adamant that neither he nor his operatives have had any contact with the aldermen he supported through For a Better Chicago.
"There's not one member of City Council that would ever say that I've called to lobby them on any of those issues," he said.
Goldner's resume in bare-knuckle Chicago politics dates to his time as a political aide for Daley. After leaving to form Resolute, Goldner was Daley's 2003 campaign manager and a consultant to the Hispanic Democratic Organization, a patronage army that provided campaign muscle for Daley.
In a federal investigation of City Hall hiring, a former high-ranking city official who admitted to running a patronage army testified in 2006 that he took election-season orders from Daley operatives including Goldner, whose firm was subpoenaed by prosecutors for records. He also testified that he led city patronage workers who helped elect Emanuel to Congress in 2002, with Goldner as the campaign manager.
About the time he was launching the PAC to support Emanuel's latest campaign, Goldner also dedicated some of his firm's resources to supporting a push for longer school days and more charter schools — key planks in Emanuel's school reform agenda.
Goldner recently acknowledged to the Tribune that he coordinated with ministers who have delivered busloads of witnesses to testify in favor of the mayor's proposals at public hearings.
But much as he explains his education work as nothing more than an interest shared with the new mayor, Goldner says his speed-camera campaign and the mayor's push are simply coincidence — parallel paths that didn't intersect until late last year.
"It wasn't until we read the media reports that we knew about Chicago," he said. "I don't know how to be any more clear than that. I just don't."
Tribune reporter Kristen Mack contributed.