Longtime Bears lobbyist who secured Soldier Field financing now trying to do same at Arlington
A longtime associate of the Chicago Bears who helped secure the public financing deal for Soldier Field renovations more than two decades ago is now trying to get taxpayers' support for the team's move to Arlington Heights.
Roger Bickel, a partner at Chicago-based Freeborn & Peters, is behind the Bears' latest lobbying effort in Springfield as the NFL franchise seeks legislative approval for a massive property tax break at the 326-acre Arlington Park site it just purchased.
Bickel, who was former Gov. George Ryan's top attorney when Ryan was lieutenant governor and secretary of state, heads one of the three clout-heavy lobbying firms the Bears have hired to advance their interests at the state capitol, according to a Daily Herald review of lobbyist registration filings with the secretary of state's office.
Principals with the two other firms the Bears have retained also have connections to bigwigs in state and local government -- both current and former, and on both sides of the aisle. One of the firms, established just in 2021, has ties to Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Also wielding influence is the lobbying firm brought on last week by school districts in and around the shuttered racetrack site who fear a substantial cut to their future property tax revenues if the Bears' bill is approved as is. John Dunn, Cozen O'Connor Public Strategies managing director, was former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's director of intergovernmental affairs, serving as Daley's senior adviser on all legislative and political matters.
None of the lobbying firms responded to requests for comment about their work in Springfield as negotiations over the so-called Payments in Lieu of Taxes financing mechanism begin.
Bears officials also declined to comment.
State Rep. Mark Walker, an Arlington Heights Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation in the House, said it's not unusual to see so many lobbyists on one issue -- let alone three working for one side.
"The reality is all of these lobbyists on both sides -- on all sides -- all are old hands in Springfield, and all know each other," Walker said.
Here's a closer look at the three firms working for the Bears and the major power brokers behind them:
• Freeborn & Peters: Bickel serves as chairman of the law firm's government and regulatory law practice group. After serving as Ryan's general counsel and chairing a state ethics commission, Bickel was brought on by the Bears in 1999 to provide legal and political advice in the team's long quest for a new stadium.
At the time, then-team President Ted Phillips wouldn't characterize Bickel as a lobbyist but a stadium strategist instead. But it was Bickel who was eventually involved in securing state bond authorization for $487 million in renovations to Soldier Field and related improvements to the Chicago lakefront -- legislation that was signed by then-Gov. Ryan on Jan. 5, 2001.
• Point of Difference Strategies: The firm is run by Lisa Duarte, who was Pritzker's first assistant deputy governor for budget and economy -- a role that included oversight of 17 government agencies and some 170 boards and commissions. Duarte helped negotiate the gambling expansion bill and consolidation of the police and fire pension systems. She also was responsible for identifying essential and nonessential businesses under Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan during the pandemic, according to her online biography.
Duarte was previously legislative counsel to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel when she first interacted with legislators and state agencies.
In a similar way, her associate Maria Virginia Martinez recently represented the city in Springfield as Lightfoot's senior legislative counsel.
• Nicolay & Dart: The firm is run by John Nicolay, the one-time general counsel to former Senate President James "Pate" Philip, legislative aide to former Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, and special assistant to former Gov. Jim Thompson. Law firm partner Tim Dart is the brother of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
As for the school districts -- Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 -- they're splitting the $9,000-per-month cost to retain Cozen O'Connor. In addition to Dunn, who worked for the Daley administration, other principals include Patrick Carey, who also worked for Daley and later Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and Darren Collier, a former Chicago Mercantile Exchange lobbyist, Illinois Housing Development Authority lawyer and policy aide to former Attorney General Jim Ryan.
Walker, whose 53rd District borders the Bears' new property to the south, may just be a sponsor of the bill in name only at this point. Like the companion bill's sponsor in the Senate, fellow Arlington Heights Democrat Ann Gillespie, Walker has expressed reservations about the PILOT incentive.
He said he's met with the Bears and their lobbyists by phone and in person multiple times, as well as officials at the school districts. He passed their newly hired lobbyist in the hallway and plans a formal meeting in the coming days.
But he's leaving negotiations up to the Bears, schools and the representatives they've hired.
"The bill in its current form is not moving. But I'm waiting for reasonable amendments to come out of the parties that are interested in it," Walker said. "I've told everyone when you want to change something, let me know. But I'm not gonna call it before that."
"The onus really isn't on me," Walker said. "The onus is on them to come to an agreement."
As written, Walker's House Bill 3565 and Gillespie's Senate Bill 1350 would allow developers of "mega projects" -- those worth at least $500 million -- to make negotiated payments to local taxing bodies such as schools while also getting an assessment freeze of up to 40 years.
Gillespie has said she filed the bill so that it could be part of a larger conversation about her long-sought reforms to tax-increment financing, which also takes a cut of schools' tax revenues for economic development projects.
Walker said this week taxing districts such as schools who "have the most skin in the game" should have "the most voice in the negotiation" over changes to the legislation.
The current spring session of the General Assembly is scheduled to run until May 19. Talks over the Bears bill could last at least that long.
"I think they've come to realize that this is a complex deal that's going to take some time," Walker said.