At secret meeting, right-wing radio host Dan Proft dangled $20 million to Darren Bailey’s governor run

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The day after Darren Bailey won the 2022 Republican governor primary, he and his campaign manager made an urgent, unscheduled helicopter trip from downstate to meet political operative and right-wing radio show host Dan Proft for a closed-door meeting to talk about “serious” campaign funding.

At a Chicago-area country club, Proft met both men at the front door and led them to a secluded room where he placed a white envelope on a table and said it contained $20 million from ultraconservative billionaire mega-donor Richard Uihlein.

Bailey was then given a choice: Either fire his staff and hire Proft as campaign manager and gain direct campaign access to Uihlein’s cash or Proft would hold onto it and use the Uihlein money to continue his political action committee’s backing of Bailey from the outside.

Either way, the message was clear: Uihlein’s money would follow Proft.

Bailey offered Proft an advisory role with the campaign but Proft refused. And Bailey stuck with Jose Durbin as his campaign manager after Proft belittled Durbin as a “f—ing moron” and disparaged the campaign’s advertising and messaging while Durbin attacked Proft’s lackluster track record in electing candidates during the 30-minute to hourlong meeting.

The meeting and Proft’s proffer of Uihlein’s campaign cash — both of which have never before been disclosed publicly — was one major piece of testimony Monday by Proft, Bailey and Durbin in an Illinois State Board of Elections hearing on a campaign complaint that Proft’s independent expenditure PAC engaged in illegal coordination with Bailey’s campaign.

Independent expenditure PACs by law are not supposed to coordinate spending activities with campaigns they support.

In making the complaint, which followed Chicago Tribune reporting about the situation, lawyers for the state Democratic Party alleged the meeting showed Bailey knew there was $20 million from Uihlein available and that Proft would use the money and likely more for the campaign if the operative became the campaign manager, and that dollars for the campaign would be less if Proft continued to operate the Bailey-supporting PAC.

But Proft and his lawyer as well as an attorney for Bailey’s campaign said Monday that there was no coordination of spending activities, including advertising and messaging for the general election in which Bailey was defeated by two-term Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, 55% to 42% after Pritzker spent $167 million on his self-funded campaign to win reelection.

“They had no control. They had no input. I never spoke with them,” Proft said of Bailey’s campaign. “Categorically, across the board, up and down, eight ways from Sunday.”

The testimony revealed the influence that Uihlein, the Lake Forest billionaire owner of Uline office supply, and his money has with Proft, a former failed candidate for Illinois governor who now resides in Naples, Florida.

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Proft formed the PAC after being told by business associate Brian Timpone that Uihlein was backing Bailey in the GOP primary. Timpone is the publisher of local and national “pink slime” publications and websites promoting right-wing political candidates camouflaged to look like newspapers.

The day after Proft created the People Who Play By The Rules PAC, Uihlein gave it $1 million and added another $7.1 million during the rest of the primary campaign. After Bailey turned down Proft’s offer to run the campaign, Uihlein gave the Proft PAC almost $34 million. In contrast, Uihlein gave Bailey’s campaign $9 million during the GOP primary campaign but only $3 million for the general election campaign versus Pritzker, campaign finance records show.

On the night Bailey won the June 28 GOP primary for governor, defeating five opponents and getting 57.5% of the vote, Timpone called the nominee and said he should meet with Proft. Bailey also heard from Jeanne Ives of Wheaton, a far-right former state lawmaker and longtime Proft ally who has lost bids for governor and Congress but sits on the state Republican Central Committee.

Proft also called Bailey and urged him to meet.

“He called and said he wanted to meet and I told him I was too busy because I have a lot of press obligations we were going to take advantage of and he was very insistent, said he had serious funding available, so he became very insistent,” Bailey said of Proft in a previously taped deposition played at the hearing. “I assumed that money was involved.”

Proft said Uihlein’s offer “was motivated by the desire to support Bailey’s candidacy in a way that he believed most likely led to victory.”

“I’m bringing $20 million into the campaign and this is the situation. It’s not really a hire. It’s an offer,” Proft testified Monday. “Actually, I think I said my preference was to stay out, but in the interest of doing what’s best, I’m willing to come in.”

Under questioning Monday, Proft acknowledged some of the PAC’s pro-Bailey TV ads used background video that the Bailey campaign had posted on its campaign YouTube channel without sound. Proft said the video was “online” and “fair use” for members of the public to use.

Proft also regularly featured Bailey on his morning radio talk show. But he sought to counter the Democratic lawyers’ contentions that Bailey’s appearances in which he discussed Chicago crime were essentially information sharing with the PAC, which also aired ads about crime in the city.

Proft said he didn’t need Bailey to tell him that the PAC ads should focus on Chicago crime, calling the city “manifestly unsafe. It’s what anybody who has spent anytime here understands.”

A hearing officer’s recommendation on the complaint against Proft and Bailey is expected in July.

Proft’s PAC was previously cited in February by the state elections board, which levied $25,500 in civil fines for multiple violations of failing to file timely reports of expenditures in excess of $1,000 in the 2022 campaign for governor. The fines have not been paid, according to the state board’s website. The PAC reported a balance of more than $1 million at the end of March.

In 2016, the state elections board cited Proft for having illegal coordination with candidates through “pink slime” political mailers funded by a previous independent expenditure PAC.

Earlier this month, the State Board of Elections asked Attorney General Kwame Raoul to consider legal action against Timpone for using the pink slime publications to publish personal information about Illinois voters, despite a statutory prohibition on the use of voter lists for anything other than “bona fide political purposes.”