03/29/2011 04:13 pm ET Updated May 29, 2011

Emanuel and the Foundations: What Price Access?

In fundraising there's an old saw that if you want someone's money, you ask for his advice. Leave it to the ever-innovative Rahm Emanuel to turn this observation into an ultimatum, telling people equipped with useful advice that it won't be heard unless it comes wrapped in money.

That, in effect, is the meaning of Mayor-elect Emanuel's request to a group of Chicago foundations that they pay the costs of his transition, costs traditionally covered by leftover campaign funds, of which Emanuel has plenty. In a city whose political culture has long consisted of being punished for disagreeing with or disobeying the mayor, the foundations faced an unattractive choice: call the mayor-elect on his inappropriate pick-pocketing and look forward to 40 years in the desert, or pay the man the $2 (or $200,000, as the case may be) in order to be heard.

I don't blame the foundations for ponying up, though I wish they hadn't: their job is to influence public policy and make change, and the mayor's office is an important route (sometimes the only route) to doing so. But the Emanuel administration-in-waiting should never have asked for this sort of tribute. Whether intended or not, the request makes it appear that access to city government is restricted to those who tithe. There's nothing new about that -- the title "City That Works" has always ended in a silent "For Pay" -- but Chicagoans might be excused for hoping for something new post-Daley.

Many of my colleagues in the nonprofit sector are dismayed at having to compete with city government for the foundations' largesse, and that's a legitimate concern, though a belated one: the Daley administration never hesitated to ask private and foundation donors to subsidize city expenses with money that would otherwise have gone to independent community groups. (Can you say "Millennium Park"? "Olympic bid"?) But I'm more concerned about a new mayor's implying, and establishing a precedent for the idea, that even being heard on the 5th floor requires big bucks.

Some wag once said that New York was about culture and Washington about power, but Chicago was all about money. Plus ca change.