LINCOLN PARK — The gloves came off during Tuesday night's 43rd Ward aldermanic debate as candidates took aim at Ald. Michele Smith's $84,000 consulting role at an arts foundation.
Smith has said multiple times that she is a full-time alderman during the campaign, but all three of her challengers question that position.
Smith's $84,000 consulting gig in 2013 was with the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts, a foundation run by a donor who has contributed more than $367,800 to Smith's campaigns since 2006.
The Sun-Times first reported that the Wilmette-based arts foundation spent nearly half of its 2013 total fundraising efforts of $150,000 on Smith's services as a consultant.
Tim and Helen Coburn Meier were the only donors to the fund in 2013, giving all $150,00, according to the charity's records.
The foundation's tax forms list Smith as a director who serves on average 40 hours a week, but the alderman said that was a clerical error and the foundation's accountant recently filed corrected forms.
Smith, instead, said she works on an "as needed" basis for the foundation and plans to continue serving in that role.
"Just like lots of people in our ward who serve on boards and give their time outside their workday to really good arts causes, I do too," she said.
According to tax records, Smith was a director of the foundation in 2011 and 2012, but was not paid either year.
Helen Meier has been a major donor to Smith's campaigns over the years, having donated $132,000 to Friends of Michele Smith in 2007, $125,000 in 2009 and $90,000 in 2010, according to campaign finance records.
Those donations came before new campaign contribution limits were enforced.
In March, Helen Meier donated the maximum $5,300 to Smith's campaign fund and $5,000 to the 43rd Ward Democrats, which Smith leads as the ward committeeman.
Smith is the only candidate Meier has donated to over the past nine years, according to state records.
Smith called the revelation of the consulting job a "gotcha" tactic and said she was "completely proud" of the work she had done for the nonprofit, which annually awards three artists a $33,333 grant.
A Chicago Magazine piece highlighted the arts foundation in 2012.
"This is just people trying to play gotcha over the fact that I have another source of income," Smith said after the debate hosted by the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce. "I'm 60 years old. I'm a successful Fortune 500 executive."
"Of all the frivolous things that are coming at us in this election, this one really has to take the cake," she said. "I work over 60 hours a week and I've got the results to prove it."
All three opponents of Smith — Jen Kramer, Jerry Quandt and Caroline Vickrey — said they would be a full-time alderman with no outside income if elected.
Quandt said he has already put his consulting business on hold during the election, as he received advice that the best way to get elected was to start acting like an alderman.
"I know the job of the alderman is a difficult one," Kramer said. "To be everywhere and be everything to everyone, you need to be present in the ward and available at all times."
Vickrey called on Smith to answer to the allegations during a heated moment of the debate.
"She's either part-time alderman or these tax forms are not correct," Vickrey said.
Kramer, whom Smith has repeatedly called part of the "old machine" politics over the course of the election, said her own campaign contributions have come from a wide range of sources including developers, unions, friends and ward outsiders.
"I'm certainly not somebody who will be influenced by that," Kramer said. "These are people who I know inside the ward and outside the ward. That is all available."
Vickrey said she was proud to say she doesn't accept donations from developers, political action committees, unions or large donors outside the ward and she does not intend to.
"I think that's inappropriate," she said.
Smith also said she does not accept money from developers with business interests in the ward.
Quandt said he is the only candidate without a political allegiance other than to the entirety of the 43rd Ward.
"I have been extremely, extremely blessed to not only have friends and family support me, but over the past three weeks as my message has gotten out, more and more people are coming out to support the campaign financially," he said.
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