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Cubs boss Tom Ricketts works to douse Obama political firestorm

Chicago Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts 2011.  (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chicago Cubs' owner Tom Ricketts in 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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Updated: July 1, 2012 12:15PM



Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts says neither he nor any member of his family — not even his arch-conservative father — would condone “racially insensitive” attack ads against President Barack Obama by using the fiery sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The fact that a new Super PAC bankrolled by billionaire family patriarch Joe Ricketts was even considering such a $10 million campaign is a “distraction nobody wanted” during a “bad weekend to be throwing curve balls” at Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Tom Ricketts said in an exclusive interview with the Sun-Times on Friday.

Ricketts can only hope the political distraction is temporary and that Emanuel’s anger cools in time to resurrect a deal paving the way for the $300 million renovation of Wrigley Field.

“I wouldn’t say it’s embarrassing. [But] it obviously was a distraction nobody wanted. I don’t think anybody in the family was pleased to see that article” in the New York Times about the ill-fated anti-Obama ad campaign, Tom Ricketts said.

“It misrepresented who we are as a family. It isn’t us to do anything as racially insensitive as some of the things in that proposal. People who know us know that’s not who we are. We just hope those who don’t know us don’t jump to conclusions.”

Tom Ricketts was asked to describe the conversation with his father, who has since disavowed the anti-Obama campaign.

“I’m not really involved in what my father does on the political side, and he’s not involved in anything we do as a team. We talked. I didn’t yell. He was already in the process of putting out a statement that made it clear he rejected the proposal,” he said.

“He knows it’s very important for us to maintain the image of the Cubs at the highest level. He understands that would complicate some of our efforts on the funding side. But we didn’t spend time talking about it. It was more like, `These are the cards we’ve been dealt. Let’s address the issue.’”

Tom Ricketts is trying to put out a political fire started by his own father that threatens to derail — or at least delay — an elusive Wrigley deal. That’s not a comfortable position for the Cubs chairman to be in at the family dinner table, let alone the shark-infested waters of Chicago politics.

Nor does it feel good to place an apologetic phone call to Emanuel, not have that call returned, then read about how the mayor is so livid that Emanuel has no interest in returning the call anytime soon.

“There’s a lot going on this weekend. I’m not too worried about getting a call back right away. I’m sure we’ll talk at the right time,” the Cubs chairman said.

Ricketts said he has no idea whether Emanuel is genuinely angry or just using the incident to drive a harder bargain.

But he said, “We look forward to setting aside some of the emotion and focusing on the fact that this is a great project and a great deal for the city and state that creates 2,100 jobs, generates more tax revenue and saves Wrigley Field. Events of the last 36 hours have been a big distraction that has gotten us off course. But hopefully we can have it back on track soon.”

Why does a billionaire family that can afford to bankroll a $10 million political ad campaign need a $150 million taxpayer subsidy?

“The $10 million PAC is my father’s. He’s not involved in the team. That’s not my money. I don’t have that flexibility. It’s apples and oranges. Maybe it’s a difficult for some people to separate the two. But that’s just the way it is,” he said.

Before his father’s conservative politics got in the way, Ricketts said the Wrigley project had “a lot of momentum” — maybe even enough to push through $300 million in tax exempt state bonds during the final two weeks of the state General Assembly’s spring session.

The bonds would be paid off by new advertising, sponsorship and concession revenues at Wrigley and a $150 million variation of the financing scheme that Emanuel once called a “non-starter” — forfeiting 35 years’ worth of amusement tax growth.

The Cubs are pushing for a spring vote to avoid losing another whole year of construction on a project that would be phased in over “three or four” off-seasons to allow the Cubs to keep playing at Wrigley, just as the Boston Red Sox did while Fenway Park was being renovated.

The project would begin with “infrastructure-type stuff,” including the “power plant, electrical work and footings” of the 98-year-old stadium, Ricketts said.

“We’d like to be in the ground on the project the day the season ends,” he said. “You can only use off-seasons. Each year is pretty important. If you miss a couple months, you’re a whole season behind.”

Before the Joe Ricketts controversy, Emanuel was privately pushing a Fenway-style plan to relax Wrigley’s landmark status and allow the Cubs to wring as much as $150 million in advertising and sponsorship revenues out of the stadium.

The changes range from more outfield signage behind the Wrigley bleachers, possibly including a Jumbotron in right field, to street closings on Sheffield and Waveland every game day for money-making street fairs that duplicate the festival atmosphere around Fenway.

Ricketts says he hasn’t made a final decision on a Jumbotron, that new outfield signs would be done “in a tasteful way maintaining that delicate balance” and that’s he’s willing to work with the rooftops on “ways to work together to generate revenue” that might include “advertising on their buildings.”

What happens if the elusive stadium deal falls apart because of his father’s politics?

“Right now, we’re just optimistic we can get this back on track, get it done and move forward. If it’s not gonna happen, we’ll have to think of something else. It’s a lot of work to get to this point with one idea, much less develop a Plan B,” Ricketts said.



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