Alderman says Chicago Cubs ownership looking to take him out of the (political) ballgame

Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, stands outside a construction fence at Wrigley Field on Nov. 29, 2018. Tunney has been a resident of Chicago's Wrigleyville area for 40 years and an alderman for 16 years.
(Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

Baseball and cold beer were distant dreams on a recent icy afternoon as Ald. Tom Tunney hustled past Wrigley Field, pointing out the several restaurants and bars in the new hotel and office building the Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs, put up around the stadium’s west side.

Workers on cherry pickers rose up along the facade of the ballpark itself, carrying out the latest renovations in a yearslong modernization.

“When they say I’m standing in their way, all I can say is ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Tunney asked, raising his arms to take in the new construction.

Since the billionaire owners bought the team in 2009, they set out to spend about $1 billion on the Friendly Confines and developments around the park, Ricketts family spokesman Dennis Culloton says. Through it all, Culloton says, Tunney’s stood in the team’s way.


Now, Tunney says the Ricketts family is looking to help finance somebody’s election campaign to take him out. Culloton acknowledges the family is thinking about backing a challenger.

READ MORE: Tom Ricketts looks to stamp ‘family’s legacy’ on Wrigley Field and neighborhood »

Welcome to the 44th Ward City Council race, an aldermanic joust for the future of the Lakeview neighborhood, the old ballpark and surrounding tavern district that long have been famous for sun-drenched bacchanalia.

While the Cubs owners haven’t officially backed a Tunney opponent, they were “among the funders” of a community organization called Neighbors for a Better Lakeview, which has sent out mailers ripping the alderman for high residential property taxes in the tony lakefront ward, Culloton said.

And Tunney contends they also are contributing to a political action committee that’s hammering him.

Culloton won’t talk about the PAC, but says, “it has been painful” negotiating with Tunney throughout the development process in and around the park.

“The Ricketts family has been extremely open about their aspirations, from the modernization of Wrigley Field to the development of properties near the park,” Culloton said. “Oh, and a World Series championship for the Cubs.”

The family has raised its political profile in recent years, particularly in the Republican Party. Team co-owner Pete Ricketts recently won a second term as the GOP governor of Nebraska. And co-owner Todd Ricketts took over early this year as the Republican National Committee’s national finance chair.

When they say I’m standing in their way, all I can say is ‘Are you kidding?’

Ald. Tom Tunney

Now, Tunney said they’re turning their political focus to the local level, making a power play to consolidate their control over the ward by backing a new City Council representative. He said the Rickettses have been searching for more than a year for a candidate to support against him. But the alderman argued the move would be counterproductive for the billionaire Cubs owners.

“I don’t know what more we can do for these guys,” Tunney said. “They’ve gotten the OK for all these huge projects, and I just want to be sure I’m sticking up for the whole ward. I’m a pro-business alderman.”

Countered Culloton: “If Ald. Tunney is a pro-business alderman, I’d hate to see him take an anti-business slant.”

“All the Ricketts family has done is employ thousands of union men and women on projects they have paid for in and around Wrigley Field,” Culloton said.

Ald. Tom Tunney, from left, joins Ald. Pat O'Connor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig at a ceremony for the Wrigley Field restoration project on Oct. 11, 2014.
Ald. Tom Tunney, from left, joins Ald. Pat O’Connor, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig at a ceremony for the Wrigley Field restoration project on Oct. 11, 2014.
(Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

Among the clashes the alderman has had with the team over the years, he’s argued over the size of the left field video screen and right field ad board they wanted as among the first big changes inside Wrigley Field in order to bring in money to pay for other work.

Tunney also said outfield walls shouldn’t be pushed back to allow for wider park concourses, saying the narrowing of sidewalks along Waveland and Sheffield avenues would create safety hazards.

He tried to hold down the number of night games the team would get and opposed a pedestrian bridge over Clark Street from the hotel to the park. He worked to limit the hours of the team-owned outdoor plaza to the west of Wrigley Field, saying it could turn into a massive beer garden that would lead to more neighborhood congestion and put longtime bars in Wrigleyville out of business.

READ MORE: In 2016, Ald. Tom Tunney said the Cubs wanted a giant ‘outdoor beer garden’ »

Still, when the team got city approval in 2013 for a massive package of alterations in and around the park, Tunney praised the deal as “transformational for the city.”

He has said he sometimes took tough stances in negotiations in order to look out for the interests of other businesses and residents in the congested neighborhood. And he said the modernization of much of Clark Street south of the park with a huge new apartment complex and massive retail development to make the neighborhood a year-round attraction started before the Ricketts family bought the team. “We had this vision for Wrigleyville,” he said.

“Now they want to push out everything that isn’t theirs,” Tunney said. “They are extremely jealous about any money going outside their franchises, whether for a T-shirt or a beer.”

The new Hotel Zachary, which is owned by the Ricketts family, is across from Wrigley Field and is shown this summer.
(Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Culloton acknowledged the Ricketts family is considering supporting at least one Tunney challenger. “I think it’s definitely a possibility going forward that the family may back one or more candidates” for alderman, he said.

Adding to the antagonism, Culloton pointed to Tunney promising the Cubs owners on the City Council floor in 2013 that he would “be up your butt every day” if they didn’t honor their commitments to Wrigleyville residents.

“(Tunney) has been disrespectful to a family that has been investing huge sums and trying to improve the neighborhood,” Culloton said. “If that means they need to support someone to get a different voice in this process, that’s a possibility.”

Three people submitted petitions to get on the ballot to challenge Tunney in February’s municipal election: Austin Baidas, Patrick Shine and Elizabeth Shydlowski.

Baidas said he has known Cubs co-owner and board member Laura Ricketts for years, since he was an official in Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration and she was campaigning for marriage equality in Illinois. Among the Cubs-owning family, Laura Ricketts has stood out as a vocal supporter of progressive causes. “I spoke to her about my candidacy, and I think she supports me, but she has not done so financially,” Baidas said. “I don’t support the right-wing politics of her brothers.”

READ MORE: Offseason renovations resume at Wrigley Field — and Captain Morgan Club is the first to go »

Baidas manages manufactured home communities in Michigan and elsewhere, and said he got in the race because Tunney isn’t dealing proactively with problems of increasing crime, rising property taxes and empty storefronts in the ward. “He seems to be looking backward instead of forward,” Baidas said. “These problems aren’t going to fix themselves if we rely on ideas that may have worked in the past.”

Baidas, who also worked at the federal Department of Transportation during the Obama administration, has sunk $200,000 of his own money into the race. He has gotten contributions from family members and others totaling about $130,000, plus $20,000 from Chicagoan Lana Wachowski, one of the creators of “The Matrix” films, according to state campaign finance records.

Shydlowski is a consultant for the Jack Kemp Foundation and former administrator at nonprofits and government offices, including Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans and former U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk. Shydlowski, who also worked for the state as an administrator in the Department of Healthcare and Family Services during Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration, cited rising taxes and crime in the ward for prompting her to run.

“We Chicagoans have come to expect the bare minimum,” Shydlowski said. “I don’t get the sense (Tunney) has unified the entire ward, and I think I have the background to bring together businesses, nonprofits and residents to tackle these issues.”

Shydlowski said she hasn’t received any support from the Ricketts family, though she would welcome it.

Shine could not be reached for comment.

In the 47th Ward just northwest of Wrigleyville, team officials already are putting in money to support Heather Way Kitzes, who works for the Cubs as manager for government and neighborhood relations. Cubs CEO Tom Ricketts, his wife, Cecelia, and Laura Ricketts each contributed $5,600 to Kitzes in the crowded race for the seat being vacated by Ald. Ameya Pawar.

And Chicago Cubs Baseball Club LLC contributed $8,437 in food and drinks to a reception Kitzes held, campaign finance records state.

They may not yet be directly backing a candidate in the 44th Ward, but according to Tunney, the Ricketts family has targeted him in other ways. In addition to the contribution to Neighbors for a Better Lakeview, Tunney pointed to the creation of the “” website, which focuses on escalating taxes and crime in the ward.

The site is funded by The Jobs PAC, the political action committee of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. Tunney said the Cubs owners contributed to the PAC, which then launched the site. “It’s a pass-through,” he said.

Culloton declined to discuss whether the family gave money to the PAC. He referred questions to Gregory Baise, the outgoing president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association who also serves as the PAC’s treasurer.

Baise did not respond to messages asking whether the Ricketts family helped pay for the anti-Tunney website. Instead, he released a statement saying the manufacturers association has long supported “pro-business, pro-growth” candidates. “This is nothing new,” Baise said.

Twitter @_johnbyrne