• Michael McDevitt
    MAR 28, 2023

    Dunne, Villegas campaigns using red boxes as apparent signal to outside spenders

    Joe Dunne and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36) are two aldermanic candidates using red boxes on their websites. [Courtesy photos]

    Candidates in multiple aldermanic runoffs are using red boxes on their campaign websites often used to highlight approved ad messaging to independent political action committees, a strategy that — while not explicitly banned in Illinois — some election experts say essentially skirts legal prohibitions on coordination between campaigns and outside PACs.

    Joe Dunne, an affordable housing developer competing in the 48th Ward, and Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36), who is defending his City Council seat in the April runoff, both have red boxes on their websites. The boxed text includes messaging about both the candidates and their opponents. 

    An independent committee supporting Dunne, Get Stuff Done PAC, used messaging and phrasing from the red box found on Dunne’s website in mailers that recently went out in the 48th Ward. Get Stuff Done PAC has also paid for ads that appear to take messaging from a red box of text on the website of Kim Walz, who is running for the 46th Ward seat.

    Related: 46th Ward aldermanic candidate accused by opponent of indirectly coordinating with outside political action committees, ‘circumventing campaign finance laws’

    Get Stuff Done PAC is an independent expenditure committee that made ad buys to support City Council candidates in the Feb. 28 municipal election and is doing the same in the runoff. The PAC’s statement of organization indicates Get Stuff Done exists to “elect pragmatic candidates to the Chicago City Council.”

    Independent expenditure committees like Get Stuff Done can receive unlimited amounts of money from any source, but state law prohibits them from coordinating with a campaign on how to spend that money and what strategies to use to produce and disseminate ads. 

    But by “redboxing,” candidates denote approved messaging and phrasing within a red-outlined box of text on a campaign website, often using phrases such as “voters need to know” to indirectly suggest wording and dissemination methods to PACs. Though some election experts have criticized the practice, a state board of elections official has said redboxing isn’t illegal in Illinois.

    Since its creation in December, Get Stuff Done has received at least $1 million from prominent Chicago Democratic donor Michael Sacks, CEO of Grosvenor Capital Management. Some of its other prominent contributors include: the LiUNA Chicago Laborers' District Council PAC, which transferred in $200,000 in January; James Crown and Lester Crown, chairmen at Henry Crown and Co. who each gave $100,000 in January; and Craig Duchossois, CEO of Duchossois Group, who gave $50,000 in December.

    According to public filings, Get Stuff Done spent $20,000 on ad buys to support Dunne March 17. Dunne is facing Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, a local business owner and freelance photographer who sits on the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce board, in the runoff.

    The red box on Dunne’s website draws attention to aspects of his biography such as being a “lifelong Edgewater resident” and a “former union grocery store worker who has spent his career building over 800 units of affordable housing across Chicago.”

    The box also states: “while Joe Dunne will address root causes of violence AND keep police patrolling neighborhoods and CTA stops, Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth founded an organization which called for abolishing the police and will make Chicago less safe by cutting the police budget and taking officers off the beat at a time of rising crime.”

    “When someone puts something on their website just as a bio … that's pretty typical,” Aaron McKean, legal counsel for state and local reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told The Daily Line in a recent interview. “But when you have this additional layer of these signals, signals that talk about targeted audience information, or signals that talk about what kind of ads should be run, that's when you know that a candidate is speaking directly to those outside spenders and telling them: This is what I want you to say, this is how I want you to say it, and this is where I want you to say it.”

    A recent mailer paid for by Get Stuff Done and delivered to residents of the 48th Ward pulls much of its messaging from the red box on Dunne’s website, such as noting that Dunne grew up in the neighborhood and worked as a union grocery store employee.

    “Joe Dunne has developed more than 800 affordable rental apartments across Chicago, including here in Edgewater,” the mailer says. Dunne will “make our community safer for all homeowners, renters and commuters by focusing on the root causes of crime and keeping police patrolling out neighborhoods and CTA stops,” the ad continues.

    “But Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth founded an organization that wants to abolish the police and make Chicago less safe,” the mailer says.  

    In a statement, Dunne’s campaign declined to address questions about redboxing specifically and instead highlighted Dunne’s experience and again critiqued Manaa-Hoppenworth's stances on public safety.

    In the 36th Ward runoff, Villegas is competing against Lori Torres Whitt, a progressive educator who has served as a member of the Chicago Teachers Union Executive Board. 

    On Villegas’ website, text surrounded by a red box states: “Voters need to know that Lori Torres Whitt’s top backers called for defunding the police and replacing police and prisons. They bought her vote and will make Chicago less safe.”

    The box further says Villegas “is a progressive who has combated crime by replacing vacant lots with new housing and businesses, funding better mental health care, and reversing historic disinvestment in communities left behind.”

    On March 15, Get Stuff Done reported spending $7,500 on ads to support Villegas and another $7,500 on ads opposing Torres Whitt. The Daily Line has yet to view any advertising produced by Get Stuff Done in the 36th Ward race. 

    Get Stuff Done has also been behind ads which blast activist Angela Clay, Walz’s runoff opponent, as an anti-police candidate — ads that also appear to have taken wording from a red box on Walz’s website. 

    “It's that communication between the candidate and the [independent committee] that makes this a really problematic practice,” McKean said. 

    “This kind of coordination should be illegal because it tries to get around a lot of the rules that we have in place to uphold the integrity of our elections,” McKean said. “We have contribution limits in elections because we don't want candidates to be beholden just to big donors.”

    Get Stuff Done has also made ad buys during runoff season to support Ald. Nicole Lee (11), Ald. Monique Scott (24), Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29) and 4th Ward challenger Rep. Lamont Robinson Jr. (D-Chicago), though The Daily Line did not find information which indicated any of those candidates were engaged in potential redboxing. 

    Villegas’ campaign and Get Stuff Done PAC were not able to be reached for comment.

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