CHICAGO — Democrat Chris Kennedy has made Illinois property taxes — among the highest in the nation — a focus of his campaign for governor. He’s railed against an appeal system that he has likened to “extortion” for kicking lucrative tax breaks to politically connected insiders with high-powered lawyers.
But even as Kennedy took to social media and forums to complain about a “rigged system,” he was actively pursuing a second property tax appeal of his own — asking for a 20 percent reduction for his personal home in the Chicago suburb of Kenilworth.
Kennedy then quietly withdrew his appeal request, according to a letter obtained by POLITICO, seven days after a story surfaced that was critical of property tax reductions won by his chief primary opponent, billionaire J.B. Pritzker.
“Dear board members, please withdraw the above-referenced complaint for the 2016 assessment year,” said the letter, dated May 19.
It was penned by Kennedy’s attorneys, Tully & Associates, a firm has donated at least $60,000 to members of the board that considers such requests. The firm also represented Kennedy and business partners when they won a nearly 63 percent reduction in one of the buildings under development, according to Crain’s Chicago.
Kennedy’s campaign says the candidate didn’t know the second appeal had been underway and put on the brakes when he learned of it.
Still, the timeline calls into question Kennedy’s contention that he is an outsider trying to reform a broken system.
“That whole appraisal business, where the rich can hire lawyers and get their value of their homes or their commercial properties knocked down by somebody with an inside track, are you aware that that happens? Has anybody heard of that? Yeah you have. That’s a terrible system. Why do we allow that to occur?” Kennedy said in a May 12 speech.
On May 30, Kennedy gave a lengthy speech about the very system he had tapped himself, referring to it as “extortion” and positioning himself as an outsider to entrenched interests. The next day, the state’s Property Tax Appeal Board approved Kennedy’s request to withdraw his ongoing home appeal.
Kennedy, the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, is locked in an intense gubernatorial primary where the Illinois Democratic establishment — led by state party leader Michael J. Madigan — has steered behind-the-scenes support to Pritzker. Top state Democrats believe the billionaire has the best chance of going head-to-head against multi-millionaire incumbent GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner in a general election.
Kennedy’s sharp-edged remarks — including calling the system “extortion” — were considered a broadside against Madigan, whose private law firm specializes in trying to reduce property tax assessments.
“In the 18 years he’s owned his home, Chris has only appealed his property taxes once. His initial appeal on the assessment was granted, which was still an increase over the previously assessed value. As a matter of routine, a further appeal was subsequently made by counsel to PTAB,” Kennedy’s campaign said in a statement to POLITICO. “This was not Chris’s intention and once he learned of it, he directed that it be withdrawn. As Chris has said since he announced his candidacy, the property tax system is broken and needs reform. He is the only candidate who has outlined common sense reforms to restore integrity back to the system.”
The property tax issue has surfaced repeatedly in Illinois’ gubernatorial race — a race that’s on a trajectory to become the costliest the nation has ever seen. Pritzker was lampooned following revelations that he won a property tax break after declaring the mansion he bought adjoining his existing mansion was “uninhabitable.”
Rauner himself has sought a freeze on property taxes in Illinois as he heads into a difficult reelection campaign. He has not yet had success, as Democrats complain such a move would harm schools, which rely heavily on property taxes since the state doesn’t adequately fund schools.
State Sen. Daniel Biss, one of Kennedy’s opponents, has pointed at both Pritzker and Kennedy as beneficiaries of a broken system.
"Chris Kennedy and J.B. Pritzker’s hypocritical use of the rigged property tax system to inflate their bank accounts at the expense of the middle class is emblematic of why Illinoisans can’t rely on one ultra-rich guy to take out another ultra-rich guy in Bruce Rauner,” said Abby Witt, a Biss spokeswoman. “They think there’s one set of rules for them, and one for everyone else. Progress in Illinois doesn’t need someone who is well practiced in gaming the system. It requires someone who we can trust to dismantle it."