CHICAGO — The long-shot prospect of taxpayer help to renovate Wrigley Field grew more remote Thursday, upended by revelations that the patriarch of the Chicago Cubs’ ownership team had considered using a super PAC to run racially tinged attack ads that linked President Barack Obama to his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Joe Ricketts, the conservative billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade, whose family trust was used to purchase the Cubs from Tribune Co., quickly sought to tamp down the controversy along with his children who run the day-to-day operations of the baseball club.
But the political damage was done.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, was furious.
“I don’t think that’s fitting in a campaign of any nature,” Emanuel said. “You can have disagreements without being disagreeable.”
“America is too great a country with too great a future with the content they are talking about,” added the mayor. “And it’s insulting to the president, it’s insulting to the country.”
Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts phoned the mayor, but Emanuel didn’t return the call.
“He’s not interested in talking right now,” said one source close to Emanuel, who asked that their name not be used because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
About six weeks ago, Emanuel said he was in the “final stages” of talks with Cubs ownership on delicate negotiations over trying to find a way for a public-private deal to help renovate an aging but historic sports shrine.
The idea already faced a tough time in Springfield, where Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers are struggling to agree on staggering cuts in taxpayer-supported human services and getting a handle on runaway public worker pension costs. Helping the wealthy Ricketts family was hardly a priority at the Capitol.
Then Thursday’s firestorm struck. The timing could not have been worse for the Ricketts family.
Emanuel was busy preparing for the NATO summit of world leaders in Chicago this weekend and did not want sideshows distracting from that. If Emanuel had planned to surface a Wrigley deal ahead of the legislature’s May 31 adjournment deadline, he now can point to the Obama ad flap as reason to wait.
As first reported by The New York Times, the political consulting company Strategic Perception Inc. last week pitched ideas to the super PAC for attack ads against the president that included a strategy of reviving Obama’s connections to Wright, who retired from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in May 2008.
Obama was forced to distance and later disavow his relationship with Wright after the preacher’s inflammatory and often racially charged comments surfaced. Wright once said of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the country, “The chickens have come home to roost.”
Two of Joe Ricketts’ children, Pete and Todd Ricketts, both Cubs board members, were present for the meeting at which the anti-Obama pitches occurred, according to a source close to the family who asked not to be named. Pete Ricketts, a member of the Republican National Committee, was a largely self-funded but unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska in 2006.
The president of the Ending Spending Action Fund — the super PAC heavily funded by Joe Ricketts — said the ad proposal “reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take.”
Tom Ricketts noted in a statement that his father had repudiated the advertising strategy, and added that he would not have “further comment on this or any other election year political issue. My full-time focus is on making the Chicago Cubs a World Series champion, preserving Wrigley Field and making the Chicago Cubs a great corporate citizen.”
Joe Ricketts plays no role in the Cubs’ operation, but his desire to use his wealth to play an increasing role in conservative political causes has raised controversy after using the family trust he created to finance the team’s purchase.
He has long railed against government spending on pork-barrel projects, an irony given the Cubs ownership is trying to work out a deal with City Hall that would involve using $150 million in city amusement taxes to leverage a $300 million renovation of the National League’s oldest ballpark.
Joe Ricketts launched the super PAC in 2010 with $1.1 million in funds, federal records showed. It spent more than $254,000 in Tuesday’s Nebraska Republican U.S. Senate primary backing conservative state Sen. Deb Fischer, who won in an upset.
A week ago, the Ending Spending Action Fund began putting in at least $100,000 to back Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker against Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in Walker’s June 5 recall election.
The Rickettses made a point of saying family members have diverse political views. Laura Ricketts, a major fundraiser for Obama and a Cubs co-owner, said what distinguishes her family is that they “happen to have resources” to publicly advocate their beliefs.
Laura Ricketts said she hoped the “misunderstanding” about her father’s political efforts “will have no impact on the Cubs, which is completely unrelated. My father is not involved with the Cubs whatsoever. My hope is it won’t have an impact, but we’ll see.”
But after Thursday’s events, the tax incentives that were under consideration are likely “off the table right now,” according to an Emanuel aide.
“It’s complicated to get something like this done in the first place. This did not help,” according to an administration source. “They had a lot of hoops they had to jump through. They just added a big hurdle.”
Because the likelihood of reaching agreement appears dim before the session ends May 31, Emanuel will have more than five months to cool off. The General Assembly will convene after the Nov. 6 election for a fall session that will feature an abundance of lame-duck lawmakers perhaps more willing to vote for a Wrigley plan.
The question for Emanuel is whether he wants to spend the significant political capital necessary to get a Wrigley deal through the legislature. If he does, the reward for the mayor is high — he’ll have gotten done what Daley had little interest in doing and ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich couldn’t do. If the mayor sours on the Wrigley plan, he now has an excuse to abandon it.
What seems clear is that Emanuel already had leverage over the Ricketts family, and his hand just got stronger.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Democrat, said Thursday there was a “lack of clarity” about what the Cubs wanted and it’s unclear negotiators were “anywhere close to soup” as time ticks down. Currie said she recognized Joe Ricketts was not the owner of the Cubs, but thinks “there will be a sense that these are really rich people who don’t need our help.”
At times, the Ricketts family has appeared to do more to curse itself rather than suffer from the continued affects of the Billy Goat curse in trying to rehab Wrigley Field.
In November 2010, the family floated the idea of having the state borrow up to $300 million to repair the ballpark. The timing was odd — then-Mayor Richard Daley had announced two months earlier that he would not run again, creating a political vacuum until his successor was picked. The plan went nowhere in Springfield.
(Tribune reporters Kristen Mack, Jared Hopkins, Alex Richards, Hal Dardick, Ray Long and Monique Garcia contributed.)