CHICAGO (AP) — The wealthy Republican running for Illinois governor is catching heat for pledging $1 million of his personal fortune to a credit union on Chicago's South Side for loans to small African-American businesses.
Bruce Rauner, who's been courting black voters as he tries to unseat Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn, made the promise during a meeting this week with more than 60 members of an African-American economic development group.
"He said, 'I can put up more than $1 million,'" said Mark Allen, president of the Chicago chapter of National Black Wall Street. "That's when the room just erupted. People were saying 'Do you know what you just said?' ... He got a standing ovation."
Allen and other members of the organization say the funds will make a world of difference to mom-and-pop businesses struggling to keep their doors open in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce. They also say there was no promise of votes or an endorsement in exchange for the money.
But the pledge has raised ethical questions and drawn criticism from Democrats, who say it's a blatant attempt to buy votes by a political newcomer who has vowed to end Illinois' well-known system of pay-to-play politics.
"This is the guy who's going to shake up Springfield?" said Rikeesha Phelon, Illinois spokeswoman for the Democratic Governors Association. "What a fraud."
Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf defended the move, saying it's in keeping with the Rauner family's long history of philanthropy.
"For Bruce Rauner, this is putting his own money where his mouth is, helping create jobs, business opportunities, and a better life in African-American neighborhoods — a cause he has pursued in his private life for decades," Schrimpf said.
Allen said his organization invited both Quinn and Rauner to meet with them and pledge to spend some of their millions in campaign funds to open offices in black neighborhoods, run ads in black media and hire ex-offenders to do some campaign work.
He said the group members are tired of empty promises from politicians and looking for a more concrete — and immediate — way to help their community. Rauner accepted the invitation immediately and agreed to their requests, Allen said, adding that they have yet to hear back from Quinn.
During the closed-door meeting, first reported by WLS-TV, credit union member and activist Otis Monroe decided to take it one step further. He said he asked the venture capitalist to also pledge money as "citizen Rauner."
Even if the agreement didn't break campaign finance laws, it creates a perception problem that can be "corrosive," said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield and campaign finance expert.
"The perception is you're essentially having an auction, in terms of who's the highest bidder," Redfield said. "Whether it's fair or unfair, people are going to connect those dots."
Redfield said Rauner's handling of the seemingly off-the-cuff exchange may be a sign of political inexperience. But he runs the risk, if elected, of having a portion of the population believe he bought the election.
Schrimpf, Allen and Monroe all pointed to a $55 million anti-violence program that Quinn started in the weeks before his 2010 election, which he narrowly won thanks to heavy support from black voters. The program was intended to curb violence in Chicago neighborhoods, but a state audit recently found it had "pervasive" problems, including misuse of funds.
"Many would say the same thing about (the anti-violence program)," Monroe said.
Federal and state authorities are investigating the initiative, and on Friday U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk also asked federal authorities to look into $5 million in federal disaster relief money that also went to the program.
Quinn has said he quickly addressed the problems, including abolishing the agency that ran it.