EVANSTON, Ill. — Municipal elections are being held in cities, villages and towns across the next next Tuesday. But in Evanston, voters are hearing from candidates and a newly-formed political action committee attempting to influence the election.
Early voting for offices like mayor, city council and clerk is underway in Evanston. Outside of normal campaign messages, voters have been receiving mail from what some are calling a “dark money” organization.
It all began on March 2 at a NAACP candidate forum. Toward the end of the Q and A session, candidates were asked a question about an issue that hasn’t been at the forefront of any campaign.
Currently, Evanston operates under a “weak mayor system.” Voters elect a city council and a largely ceremonial part-time mayor. The council hires a city manager who oversees the administration of city departments.
A so-called “strong mayor system” would have voters elect city council members and a CEO-style full-time mayor, who then would manage the city’s departments.
According to the Illinois Constitution, any change would require referendum approval.
But after a handful of candidates expressed a willingness to discuss the change, mail from a group called “Evanston Together, LLC” started showing up on doorsteps. The campaign mailers warn residents that some candidates are trying to “bait and switch residents” and will “abolish” Evanston’s form of government.
The mailers also use what some critics have called “dog whistle phrases.” The mailers say “don’t let Evanston become like Cicero.” Cicero is made up of nearly 90% Latino or Hispanic residents.
WGN News attempted to find out who is behind the group. The group’s official filing with the state’s board of elections lists its purpose as “elections in Cook County, Illinois” and says its address is 1555 Sherman Avenue, #286. WGN News went to that location, only to find it was a UPS Store and a PO box.
One of the candidates under attack from the group is Clare Kelly in the city’s first ward.
“They’re putting out misinformation,” Kelly said. “Really what it comes down to is the voters deserve to know who exactly is funding this campaign to influence their vote.”
Judy Fiske is Kelly’s opponent and is endorsed by “Evanston Together.”
“The group that you referred to has nothing to do with our campaign. We’ve not been involved with it. I don’t know who they are,” Fiske said. “I just don’t know what my opponent is referring to.”
The same slate of candidates supported by the group is endorsed by outgoing Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty.
“I’d be surprised if anything could happen in secret in Evanston. So if you were an organization – let’s say people got together to try to swing an election,” Fiske said. “I’m not sure that everybody wouldn’t know about it the next day.”
WGN News reached out for a statement from “Evanston Together.” We have not heard back at this time.