By Bob Seidenberg
Second Ward City Council member Krissie Harris said earlier today she has already taken steps to return a pair of $6,000 donations — the most allowed individuals under election law— that critics have maintained were being used to buy influence in Northwestern University’s stadium project.
In a phone interview earlier today, Harris declared the donations were “neither solicited nor requested.” She said she has never had conversations with the individuals whose names are listed as the donors.
Harris, a first-time candidate for office, was appointed by Mayor Daniel Biss to fill the Second Ward seat in November, after longtime seat holder Peter Braithwaite stepped down, having accepting a job with Northwestern.
Harris said the donations came in at a time when she had gone to the hospital for medical treatment, with members of her campaign team holding off notifying her about the money.
She said her campaign team is now going through the steps required not to accept the contributions. She indicated during the interview that she had just been notified of a third contribution but said she did not have specifics.
“I don’t know why at the end of the race [the runoff election is April 4] we would need this,” she said about the contributions. “This is strange to all of us.”
Group points to Ryan family connections
The Community Alliance for Better Government (CABG), a local activist organization which is backing one of Harris’s opponents, Darlene Cannon, called attention to the donations, listed on the Illinois Board of Elections website.
On March 12, Harris received a $6,000 contribution from Jennifer Glass, identified on the Illinois Elections website as a New York City psychotherapist, the group noted.
On March 13, another $6,000 donation was listed as received from Alice Topping, identified as a retired Evanston resident.
CABG’s release pointed out that an Alice Topping is employed as Chief Communications Officer at Ryan Specialty Group, the international specialty insurance group owned by Patrick Ryan.
The group reported that a Jennifer Glass recently married Rob Ryan, Patrick Ryan’s son.
Ryan’s “transformative” gift to the Northwestern in September 2021 — a record-breaking $480 million donation — included funds specifically earmarked for the University’s billion-dollar stadium project.
The project, which will include a request for zoning relief allowing the University to hold concerts at the stadium and at nearby Welsh-Ryan arena, will eventually go before the full City Council.
The RoundTable left messages at Glass’s and Topping’s offices but had not received responses to the group’s findings as of Monday.
CABG’s Williams maintained, “Evanston has almost never seen campaign donations like this in a city council race.
“This shows how determined Northwestern is to control our city’s government, and that the Ryans are only too happy to open their checkbooks to help.”
In a follow-up release, responding to Harris’s statements that the funds were being returned, Williams said that the group “was pleased that Ms. Harris has done the right thing by returning the $12,000 in donations she received from the Ryan family and staff. However, the question remains: Why would two Ryan affiliates feel so strongly about her candidacy that they would make such a large contribution to sway the election results? Why are they so desperate to keep Harris in and keep Darlene Cannon out?”
Some 2nd Ward residents expressed concern, too.
Karla Thomas, who serves as Chair of Evanston’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, observed
Constituents are wondering why Harris waited a week to give the money back. Karla Thomas commented that, “if those donations landed in my campaign, I would have treated it like the plague. I would have made a statement immediately that I was aware of how this looked given the impending Ryan Stadium decision to be made by the city, but that I wanted to set the record straight the moment the check was received. I would have come forward immediately to ensure it was clear that I was in no way not only soliciting this, but neither was I willing to take money that undoubtedly would come with an unwritten quid pro quo agreement.”
Longtime Second Ward resident Dickelle Fonda expressed wider concerns about outside influence on the campaign. “Regardless of which candidate residents of our ward support, we should all be concerned about the attempt by special interests, who have their own agenda, to influence this election through financial donations and letters to residents. We will do our own due diligence to choose the candidate that we believe will best represent us on council”.
Harris, manager of student life and campus inclusion at Oakton Community College, said, “I’ve been very open with my books. You can see my donations. I don’t know if everyone else has been transparent but I am.”
Campaign filings show Cannon, an activist and lifetime Second Ward resident who ran a close race for the seat against incumbent Peter Braithwaite in 2021, has received no large individual donations at this time.
Patricia Gregory, a physical education teacher in District 65 and member of the City’s Parks and Recreation Board is the third candidate in the Second Ward race.
Mayor Daniel Biss has aggressively campaigned for both Harris and Juan Geracaris who is running to retain the Ninth Ward seat to which Biss appointed him. The mayor named the candidates to fill the seats in those wards until the special election, presiding over a public process that included a community candidate forum.
He saluted Harris for her decision to return the donations, calling it “another indication of her integrity and character.”
Biss, a member of the State Legislature from 2010 to 2019 and one time candidate for Governor, observed that he had seen candidates fail to act in similar cases.
“Harris’s strong message of ‘No thanks, I work for the community,’ is a sign of why she’s needed on the City Council,” he maintained.
The Second Ward is one of two Council races residents will have a chance to vote on April 4, or sooner, as early voting began March 20.
In the Ninth Ward, on the city’s far south end, Geracaris, also appointed by Mayor Biss to fill the vacated seat until the April election, is facing a challenge from Kathelyn “ Kathie” Hayes.
Geracaris is believed to be the first Hispanic member of the Evanston City Council. He works as the senior network systems at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Hayes, a public service and community relations professional, worked as an administrative analyst with Cook County.
Her experience in government includes a stint in the city’s now-dissolved Township program, where she helped administer General Assistance.
In that race, three large contributions, triggering the $1,000 reporting requirement, have been filed —all going to Geracaris.
Adman Finlayson, listed as treasurer of Geracaris’s campaign committee, gave $1,000 donations on Dec.4 of last year; on Feb. 28.
Finlayson’s occupation is listed as Vice President of Software Payments with Cornell College.
He previously served for just over seven years as Functional Solutions Manager at Northwestern, according to his resume on LinkedIn.
Another $1,000 contribution to Geracaris’s campaign was made on Jan.19 by the Friends of Matthew Marley Mitchell, the records show.
Matthew Mitchell, a lawyer and former Ridgeville Park District commissioner, ran for Council in the nearby Eighth Ward in 2021, narrowly losing to Devon Reid.