Eleven of the Chicago area's billionaires are showing major muscle in the 2012 election -- with a collective $2.1 million in campaign donations in the past six months alone, an audit of campaign finance filings shows.
Leading the pack is hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin of Chicago. The founder and CEO of the investment firm Citadel, Griffin has given $1.75 million to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's SuperPAC, Restore Our Future, since last December, according to March filings released last week by the Federal Election Commission.
Two days after writing a March 26 check to Restore Our Future, Griffin wrote another one -- for $700,000 -- to American Crossroads, the SuperPAC linked to Republican adviser and former White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove.
Griffin's spokeswoman, Devon Spurgeon, declined to comment for this story. However, Griffin was quoted last month as noting that he believes "ultrawealthy" people have an "insufficient influence on politics."
Griffin, with total donations of $1.79 million between Oct. 1 and March 31, is the biggest donor by far among the 19 Chicago-area people listed as billionaires by Forbes, 11 of whom made political donations during that period.
The majority gave to Republican causes, and all of the donations to SuperPACs from the 11 billionaires supported Republicans. Donors to SuperPACs, unlike donors to regular political action committees, face no restrictions on how much they can give.
Griffin led a list of other well-known wealthy donors, including Sam Zell of Chicago, Eric and Liz Lefkofsky of Glencoe, Lester Crown and family of Chicago, Patrick George Ryan of Winnetka, Neil Bluhm of Chicago and several members of the Pritzker family.
Liz Lefkofsky, the wife of entrepreneur Eric Lefkofsky, wrote three separate checks totaling $71,600 Dec. 29 to Democratic political action committees -- the Obama Victory Fund, the Democratic National Committee, and Obama for America. The couple gave $82,100 in all during the six-month period.
Lester Crown and family, whose many business interests have included stakes in General Dynamics, the Empire State Building, the New York Yankees and the Chicago Bulls, gave $31,000, including $10,000 to the We Mean Business PAC aimed at promoting public pension reform in Illinois and $5,000 to the campaign of Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego.
Neil Bluhm of Chicago, who built Des Plaines' Rivers Casino, donated $25,400 during the six-month period, including $5,000 to Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan's campaign for Illinois House of Representatives and $15,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
Pritzker Group Founder J.B. Pritzker, of the Chicago family that founded the Hyatt hotel chain and owns land in Lake County, donated $20,000, including $5,000 to the campaign of Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo and another $5,000 to the campaign of Patrick Daley Thompson of Chicago for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner.
Business executive and Tribune Co. Chairman Sam Zell of Chicago sent $50,000 last December to Restore Our Future, Romney's SuperPAC, followed by another $20,000 March 1. Zell also contributed $50,000 last December to the New Prosperity Foundation, the Chicago-based SuperPAC working to elect Republicans in the Midwest.
Aon insurance tycoon Patrick George Ryan, of Winnetka, gave Restore Our Future $25,000 in early January. And Janet Duchossois, the wife of Churchill Downs board member and Duchossois Group Chief Executive Officer Craig Duchossois (the couple are from Oak Brook), contributed $500,000 to the organization through two separate $250,000 checks on Dec. 28 and Jan. 23.
Donors to standard political action committees are prohibited from contributing more than $5,000 to a campaign each election cycle. But SuperPACs are political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. They are the product of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2010 that the government cannot ban political spending by corporations in elections. While SuperPACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates, they can spend unlimited amounts of money to promote the candidates they back, with fewer restrictions than a candidate's own campaign committee has under federal election law.