Joe Ricketts’s Retreat From Obama Attack Campaign: Are the Chicago Cubs to Blame?

Joe Ricketts was reported to be an architect of a major anti-Obama campaign invoking Jeremiah Wright. Within hours, he’d backed off. James Warren on why the Chicago Cubs may be to blame.

AP Photo (2)

Joe Ricketts has had quite a day. Thursday morning’s New York Times identified the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade as bankroller of a $10 million super PAC campaign to attack President Obama over his past ties to his old pastor, the hyperbolic Rev. Jeremiah Wright—a favorite villain of the right wing during the 2008 campaign.

But by early afternoon, a Ricketts aide was disavowing the Jeremiah Wright plan, proclaiming that it went too far. He said that the anti-Obama proposal was neither authored nor funded by Ricketts, though the newspaper was careful to say it was one of several being “studied” by Ricketts. As the Mitt Romney campaign itself voiced mild disapproval, the aide blamed the confusion on Ricketts’s consultants, some of whom worked on John McCain’s failed campaign against Obama.

The roller coaster ride left political reporters scratching their heads. But the reason for Ricketts’s seeming about-face may prove the adage that all politics is local. And it just might have a lot to do with the Chicago Cubs.

Ricketts is the patriarch of a conservative clan with strong ties to Chicago; one of his sons, Tom, is chairman of baseball’s beloved, if wins-challenged, franchise. As it happens, the Cubs’ legendary stadium, Wrigley Field, is both an economically vital tourist mecca and a 98-year-old dump in need of millions of dollars of patchwork each winter. Tom Ricketts has spent much of the last two years lobbying for city, county, and state help on a planned $300 million renovation, with construction to commence as early as October.

A sudden fatherly assault on Obama could hardly be helpful to the cause—especially when you consider that Chicago’s mayor is Rahm Emanuel, formerly Obama’s White House chief of staff, and current co-chairman of the president’s reelection campaign.

“The mayor is pissed. Very pissed. Very, very pissed,” an aide to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s hyperkinetic former chief of staff told me upon reading the news of Ricketts Senior’s planned anti-Obama assault. Hours later Emanuel said brusquely, “It’s insulting to the president. It’s insulting to the country.”

Also upset: Tom Ricketts, who said: “As chairman of the Chicago Cubs, I repudiate any return to racially divisive issues in this year’s presidential campaign or in any setting—like my father has.”

But the damage may have already been done. The word that Joe Ricketts was gunning for Obama could well cost his son the support not only of Emanuel, but of many black aldermen, whose interest in aiding the Cubs arguably dropped through the floorboards Thursday.

Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, was a product of the South Side and a diehard fan of the Chicago White Sox, whose stadium has long been nestled in a distinctly white enclave surrounded by black poverty on the notoriously segregated South Side. That partly explains why Daley hates the Cubs and had no interest in helping them out—but also why generations of South Side blacks, like Michelle Obama’s parents, were fans of the North Side Cubs.

The Cubs play in a largely white, gentrified North Side neighborhood about a mile from the home of Emanuel, who has been more amenable to some deal. But Emanuel, ever a pragmatist in an era of declining city revenue, has quietly discussed only a deal where the city gets the maximum benefit with the least possible expenditure.

At the heart of it all is freezing some portion of amusement taxes paid by the Cubs and to borrow against that revenue stream. Whatever the final details, any plan would have to be approved by three government bodies, the Chicago City Council, the Cook County Board, and the Illinois General Assembly. That helps explain why the Joe Ricketts revelation can serve as a Harvard Business School case study in excruciatingly poor timing.

Any deal would be seen as a taxpayer giveaway to the wealthy, even if such deals are routine in a city like Chicago and other Chicago sports teams have benefited greatly. Still, the Cubs have been hoping for state legislative approval during the finale of the General Assembly’s spring session, so they could start rebuilding as soon as the baseball season is over.

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It won’t help matters that Michelle Obama, Cubs fan, is arriving in Chicago for the NATO summit only days after learning that a man whose wealth helped fund his children’s purchase of her team is trying to shaft Michelle’s husband. Or that some anti-corporate protesters arriving in town for the summit have a potential new, and distinctly local, target in Joe Ricketts and the Cubs.

But Tom Ricketts isn’t the only member of the family who may have been unhappy with Dad’s activities. Laura Ricketts, Tom’s sister and thus part owner of the team, is a big contributor to Obama and other Democrats and has hosted fundraisers for gay backers of the president. Two other Ricketts siblings, Todd and Peter, also have a piece of the action with the ball club.

Some details remain unclear about the Joe Ricketts plan, particularly the identities of what The New York Times termed “associates and family members” at a presentation in Chicago last week.

Were either Tom or Laura actually among the group who inspected a proposal titled, “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End his Spending for Good”?

Regardless of whether they were in attendance, one need not be a Freudian to discern a vivid example of the apparent sins of a father visited upon children.