Bill Conway says he is running for Cook County state’s attorney to “get politics out of the state’s attorney’s office.” He has presented himself as the candidate “who doesn’t owe anyone anything except the people of our county.” Yet Conway’s entire campaign—his donors, his campaign officials, even his close family members—are deeply rooted in Chicago’s old guard. His candidacy is built on a bed of money and influence—and poses significant conflicts of interest.
In terms of funding, Conway’s campaign is almost completely backed by his father, a co-founder of the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest investment firms. The elder Conway donated a half-million dollars soon after his son declared his candidacy—and has continued to plow money into the campaign, totalling $4.85 million as of the end of middle of January. Another $195,000 has come from other Carlyle higher-ups. In fact, 86 percent of Conway’s 2019 campaign cash from contributions greater than $1,000 came from Carlyle Group executives or employees.
The Carlyle Group, a $222 billion company, is a troubling foundation on which to build a campaign—and a hypocritical choice from the supposed anti-influence candidate. Reportedly founded to “combine capital with politically connected people,” the firm has a scandalous history. In New York, for example, Carlyle employees attempted to corrupt the state’s pension system by using campaign contributions and payments to middlemen to win pensions’ business. In 2009, the company agreed to pay $20 million to settle the scheme.
Meanwhile, Carlyle’s investments have wreaked havoc on the vulnerable. After the firm bought HCR ManorCare, then the second-largest chain of nursing homes in the United States, in 2011, it sucked $1.3 billion out of the company to pay its investors, leaving service at the homes to deteriorate. Because of Carlyle’s leeching, the number of health-code violations in HCR ManorCare facilities reportedly rose 26 percent each year from 2013 to 2017.
Of those 2019 Conway donors not affiliated with the Carlyle Group, about a third are longtime supporters of Chicago political players. Conway himself donated $5,400 to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2016. Emanuel is intricately connected to the Carlyle Group: Carlyle employees donated $18,550 to Emanuel’s 2008 congressional campaign, and Emanuel’s new employer, the investment firm Centerview Partners, has done business with the Carlyle Group. Conway’s supporters have also ponied up hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Emanuel’s mayoral campaigns, and they helped fund the reign of the former Mayor Richard M. Daley, members of his family, and the indicted Alderman Ed Burke.
Old-guard Conway funders include several billionaires. Lester Crown—whose family has owned large stakes in Hilton hotels, Maytag, the Chicago Bulls, and Rockefeller Center—and his wife have so far given $11,600. Crown has been the subject of numerous scandals throughout his life, including giving $23,000 in the 1970s to a fund to bribe Illinois legislators to get higher weight limits on state highways for the trucks in his construction supply business. Billionaire brothers J. Christopher and M. Jude Reyes, co-chairmen of Reyes Holdings, which includes the nation’s largest beer distributor, have also donated to Conway.
Conway’s funders also include Norman Bobins, a retired banker and four-term Chicago Board of Education appointee under Richard Daley. In past cycles, Bobins has given to Emanuel, Daley, Burke, and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. And yet another Conway donor is James “Big Jim” Thompson, a former Republican governor of Illinois and former US attorney appointed by President Nixon, who famously represented his fellow former Illinois Governor George Ryan pro bono when he was facing federal fraud and racketeering charges in the 2000s.
Other members of Conway’s circle of backers have their hands deep in Cook County real estate—apparently focused on dominating the market and extracting the earnings of homeowners. One of Conway’s supporters, John Crenshaw, who donated $1,000 to the Conway campaign shortly after it kicked off, works for one of the country’s largest mortgage servicers, Freedom Mortgage Corporation. And Thomas Anselmo, Conway’s campaign treasurer, is a lawyer who has built his career representing creditors and debt-collection agencies, profiting off the debts of Cook County homeowners through foreclosure, eviction, and other default-related actions. Anselmo’s firm has been sued multiple times for violations of the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which seeks to regulate abusive debt-collecting strategies. Thomas Anselmo also happens to be Conway’s father-in-law.
Conway’s campaign is run by experienced influence-peddlers—people intimately familiar with leveraging politics for their own gain. Trisha Rooney Alden, a previous fundraiser and donor to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, is the campaign’s chair, and has a rich history in Chicago machine politics. The Emanuel administration wrote a loophole into the contribution ban for city contractors so that donors like Rooney Alden could contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Emanuel campaign even though her record-management company, R4 Services, had a contract with the city. In addition to Conway’s campaign, Rooney Alden now chairs Chicago Victory PAC, an independent campaign committee that raises money from Emanuel allies and could provide it to Conway in 2020. Conway and Alden are also both on the board of A Better Chicago, a nonprofit sponsored by management-consulting company Bain & Company and global law firm Latham & Watkins.
With Conway’s closest supporters mired in scandals that have built vast amounts of wealth for them at the expense of the health, safety, and prosperity of everyday citizens, voters can’t be blamed for being skeptical of where Conway’s loyalties lie.