Pre-Election Notebook: Nonprofit involvement questioned, anonymous groups, misinformation and other notes from the local campaign trail
(Editor’s Note: This story was updated at of 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, to include a followup comment from Mike Murdock.)
Political signs are a regularity in election season, but that doesn’t mean they’re all regular.
A campaign sign in the window of the Wilmette Theatre, 1122 Wilmette Ave., has drawn scrutiny to Wilmette Park Board candidate Mike Murdock for reportedly using the nonprofit theater for electoral gain.
Murdock is president of the board of directors for the theater, which under the Wilmette Theatre Education Project is a certified 501c3 entity. The nonprofit also owns the building that houses theater programming.
U.S. Code (Section 501) outlines definitions and restrictions for tax-exempt 501c3 organizations, stating that one is defined in part as a group “which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
As of press time (Wednesday, March 29) a campaign sign supporting Murdock was taped inside the front door of the theater.
Murdock told The Record that he brought campaign signs to the theater for them to be displayed. He said he does not believe the sign constitutes participation in a political campaign.
At least one Wilmette resident — who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation — has filed a formal complaint to the IRS over the displayed sign at the nonprofit theater.
In addition to the sign on display, the theater published a brief profile of Murdock to the hompage of its website sometime between March 7-23, according to an internet archive. The same profile also topped the theater’s weekly electronic newsletter on March 20 and March 27. The feature does not mention Murdock’s candidacy for Park Board.
According to the newsletter, Murdock’s profile is part of its ongoing “Meet The Board” series, which featured other theater board members prior to Murdock.
In a text message to The Record, Murdock said he participated in the profile at the request of theater staff and did not dictate how and when it was published.
Murdock also serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit Rebuilding Together of North Suburban Chicago and has served on boards for North Shore Country Day School, Michigan Shores Club and Ronald Knox Montessori School.
• Another sign related to Murdock also caught the attention of the community.
A yellow sign with black lettering is promoting four candidates — Scott Krone, Patrick Lahey, Julie Goebel and Cecilia Clarke — for Wilmette Park Board; however, not one of the four candidates was aware of the campaign effort.
“I find it interesting that signs are appearing with my name and without my consent or even inquiry,” Goebel said. “They can do that, but I would imagine whoever it is would have asked.
She added, “It is unusual that some hidden group wants to invest money in controlling the results of the park (board) election.”
The signs are attributed to the group These4theparks.org, which is described on the website as a group of residents who want a change in Park Board leadership. Specifically, the group opposes the re-election of Mike Murdock, the current Park Board president.
Members of These 4 The Parks have in general remained anonymous; however, at least two members — Walter Keats and Patrick O’Gara — have come forward. Keats is a former Park Board candidate and Wilmette parks advocate who monitors and reports park district activity as Wilmette Park Friends. O’Gara has remained active in Park Board proceedings since leading the charge against paddle-tennis expansion in West Park in 2022.
The These 4 The Parks website says the group includes residents from across Wilmette.
In an email obtained by The Record, Murdock told members of These 4 The Parks that he would not run for board president if he were to win another term on the Park Board.
• Other groups provide less clarity into their intentions and composition. Mailers and flyers that hit New Trier area mailboxes within the past weeks were attributed to New Trier Moms for Kids and Asian Moms 4 New Trier.
In a flyer, Asian Moms 4 New Trier provides its website; however, the link is broken. It also provides a link to a separate website that claims “our children are in danger” because of sex education that does not align with “North Shore community values.” On that site, New Trier High School Board candidates Jennifer Yeo, Bernie Hossfeld and Blanca Kaufmann, as well as Winnetka School Board candidate Patrick Conway, are endorsed — though it is unclear by whom.
A website for New Trier Moms for Kids does not list any members and does not directly endorse any candidates in the race for New Trier High School Board (6 candidates for 3 positions).
While not directly supporting any issues, the site and a flyer from the group ask questions about buzzy conservative concerns, such as white privilege discussions and transgender bathroom use, that are not currently in front of the high school board of education.
• Conservative propaganda publication, North Cook News, has again involved itself in local elections.
The digital and print product is one of thousands of titles nationwide that are disguised as credible news sources but are funded by “advocacy groups who share our beliefs in limited government,” the North Cook News website says. The business has been the subject of numerous editorial investigations — New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review and plenty others — into its disinformation and pay-for-play tactics.
Recently, the local version published a profile of Scott Krone, a candidate for Wilmette Park Board. The North Cook News featured no other Wilmette Park Board candidates as of Wednesday, March 29.
Krone told The Record he was unaware of the publication and its history when it contacted him.
“They just called me to interview me, and I said sure,” Krone said. “… I haven’t turned down any requests to be interviewed.”
Krone said he is running a nonpartisan campaign.
• The Wilmette Platform Tennis Players Association has also gotten involved in local races — and not just the obvious one.
On its website, the association provided endorsements for Wilmette Park Board and Wilmette Village Board elections.
In its endorsements for Village Board candidates Gerry Smith, John Kolleng and Stephen Leonard, the association says incumbent Gina Kennedy “was the strongest opponent to the expansion of the paddle facility at West Park.”
All six members of the Wilmette Village Board, as well as Village President Senta Plunkett, criticized a measure to issue a special-use permit to the Wilmette Park District to expand its paddle-tennis offerings. In 20202, Wilmette trustees unanimously approved the permit in coordination with a list of conditions.
Kennedy is the only incumbent trustee seeking re-election.
In an email to its members, obtained by The Record, the association misrepresented the process that led to the scaled-back, paddle-tennis expansion, saying that the Village Board used “zoning authority to impose” controls such as a “50% cut in the expansion” and “the elimination of the planned community deck.”
Based on unanimously negative feedback from the Wilmette Zoning Board of Appeals, it was the Wilmette Park District and Park Board that developed and approved a scaled-back project — including the 50 percent court cut and deck elimination — prior to the project reaching Kennedy and the Village Board.
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Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319