The Chicago Board of Elections late last month ruled Cynthia Bednarz, a real estate broker with d’aprile properties, had enough signatures on her campaign petitions to run against Alderman Walter Burnett (27th), one of the most powerful and longest-serving incumbents in the City Council.
About two weeks later, LG Development sprang into action. The firm, whose portfolio includes five properties in Burnett’s ward, donated $10,000 to his campaign fund, according to election records. It was the second-largest single donation received by Burnett since 2017, behind a $20,000 contribution from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign fund.
While LG’s donation was among the most generous, it was far from the only Fulton Market developer to write a check to Burnett’s campaign since the start of 2018. Developers and property owners during that time have given at least $76,000 to the alderman’s election fund, according to an analysis by The Real Deal.
Burnett did not respond to a request for comment. But in 2008 he told the Chicago Tribune he doesn’t “personally tell anyone, ‘If you do this, you’re going to get this,’” adding there’s “nothing unusual” about developers donating to aldermanic campaigns.
First elected in 1995, Burnett became a close ally of Mayor Richard M. Daley and then Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voting with Emanuel about 97 percent of the time in 2017, according to WBEZ.
His ward stretches from the tony Old Town neighborhood and the former site of the Cabrini-Green Homes, where Burnett grew up, out to the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the West Side.
The ward also includes almost all of Fulton Market, where the developer of every proposed warehouse build-out and office complex has had to earn Burnett’s personal approval.
Burnett buried his last challenger, Gabe Beukinga, by a 48-point margin in 2015, and his new opponent will also face long odds in Tuesday’s election. Bednarz has raised about $8,400 for her campaign in the last 15 months — with the only real estate industry contribution a $300 donation from a colleague at her firm — compared to $556,000 raised by Burnett.
But that hasn’t stopped real estate interests from stepping forward to help the alderman try to win a seventh term in the City Council.
On top of $76,000 from developers, another $67,000 in donations can be traced back to builder groups and architects, including a $5,000 check from Antunovich Associates, which is designing McCaffery Interests’ 128,000 square-foot Twelve01West office building in Fulton Market.
Brokers gave Burnett’s campaign fund an additional $16,000, bringing his total sum of contributions from the real estate industry to nearly $160,000. That’s almost a third of the $556,240 in donations the alderman has declared since January 2018.
Aberdeen Development, which specializes in industrial conversions, made five separate donations to Burnett’s campaign totalling $10,500 between December 2017 and this month, making it the most generous overall donor among developers.
Walnut Street Properties, which owns a light manufacturing warehouse at 219 North Paulina Street on the Near West Side, donated $6,000. Another $6,300 came from Phil Denny, an early investor in Fulton Market who now owns dozens of properties in the area.
“I’m a big supporter of the alderman — I think he’s done tremendous things during the 15 that I’ve been an active investor in the neighborhood,” Denny said. “I genuinely like him as a person, and I’m always happy assist him if he’s in need of money during the campaign cycle.”
Denny added that he rehabs existing properties instead of proposing new construction, meaning he does not need to ask Burnett for zoning changes.
Michigan Avenue Real Estate Group owner Thomas Meador, who donated $200,000 to Bill Daley’s campaign for mayor, also cut a $5,000 check for Burnett’s reelection.
Structured Development made two donations of $1,500 each in May and December. In between, Burnett endorsed Structured’s proposal for its Shops at Big Deahl development on the Near North Side when it came before the Chicago Plan Commission.
Smaller donations came from multiple developers who have been active in Fulton Market during the past five years: $3,500 from Tandem Partners, $1,500 from Shapack Partners, $1,500 from R2 Companies and $1,000 from Mark Goodman & Associates.
The Tribune Media company, which is proposing the 37-acre River District project along the eastern boundary of Burnett’s ward, also gave $1,000 to the alderman’s campaign fund.
Among brokers, Burnett’s most generous donor has been Scott Maesel, managing director of SVN Commercial’s Chicago office. Maesel has donated three times since last year, combining for $7,500.
The alderman also received $4,000 from various leaders of CBRE, plus $1,500 from @properties.
One developer who donated, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they donate to multiple aldermen, including some in whose wards they don’t own property and have not proposed building anything.
“It takes a lot to run ward offices, and we try to be supportive,” the developer said, adding that they don’t expect to be able to “buy zoning” approval.
Real estate donors also contributed to candidates in the crowded mayoral race, spreading more than $13 million among the various candidates.