CHICAGO – A key subcontractor working on the campaign to promote President Barack Obama's health care law in Illinois is a Chicago political strategy consulting firm owned by three former aides to some of the state's most-powerful Democrats.
The three political strategists – Mike Noonan, Victor Reyes and Maze Jackson – are among the individuals whose billing rate of $282 an hour is raising questions about whether Illinois did enough to rein in taxpayer costs within a $33 million contract funded by a federal grant. The hourly rates were first reported this week by The Associated Press.
Their firm, Compass Public Affairs, could take assignments directly from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's administration under a special provision of its subcontract. Compass was part of a team assembled by the main contractor, the Chicago office of public relations agency FleishmanHillard.
Branded "Get Covered Illinois," the campaign surpassed a federal enrollment target, signing up more than 217,000 people. But the hourly billing rates exceeded similar contracts in other states, and the enrollment number fell short of an internal goal.
Illinois officials viewed the campaign as similar to a get-out-the-vote drive, according to AP interviews with more than a dozen people directly involved. The hiring of Compass, whose owners are among the best-known Democratic political strategists in Illinois, fit with that viewpoint.
Noonan is a former staffer for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and a former campaign manager for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Reyes is an ex-aide to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and founded the powerful Hispanic Democratic Organization. Jackson is a former statewide field director for Quinn.
In particular, Noonan played a crucial leadership role in the campaign, according to documents reviewed by the AP.
In mid-October, as the broken federal HealthCare.gov website drew relentless news media attention, Noonan called for daily meetings of high-ranking executives from FleishmanHillard and other subcontractors. The daily meetings continued through mid-December.
"We needed to touch base every day to talk about the reality on the ground, what we were hearing from our navigators, whether HealthCare.gov was or wasn't working, what problems we were encountering," said Jennifer Koehler, the state's top official involved with the campaign.
When asked whether political favoritism played any part in awarding the contract, Quinn administration spokesman Mike Claffey said FleishmanHillard won the bid "purely on the merits" and because it offered the best overall price.
Compass was recruited to the team before FleishmanHillard won the bid, said Jack Modzelewski, a senior partner of FleishmanHillard. He said Compass had been recommended by a trusted acquaintance, Gene Reineke, whose company, Hawthorne Strategy Group, also became a subcontractor.
"We really needed some deep experience in reaching specific communities around the state," Modzelewski said. Compass knew how to influence black and Hispanic communities, seen as fundamental to the campaign's success, Modzelewski said. And Compass could reach the mayors, congressmen and state lawmakers, who would be asked to motivate their constituencies.
Compass helped develop the campaign's grassroots strategy and supervised outreach to church leaders, black business leaders and ethnic media.
Noonan declined to comment directly, saying in an email that Modzelewski was "speaking for the entire team."
The other subcontractors working with FleishmanHillard had various degrees of political experience:
— Hawthorne Strategy Group: The Chicago consulting firm worked on small business outreach. Hawthorne was founded by Republican-turned-independent Reineke, who was chief of staff to former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, and led President George H.W. Bush's 1992 campaign in Illinois. In 2012, a few months before starting Hawthorne, Reineke told Crain's Chicago Business that he considered himself an independent, voted for Barack Obama in 2008, contributed to his campaign and planned to vote for him again that year.
— Downtown Partners: The Chicago midsize advertising agency developed TV and digital ads for the campaign. The company also has produced ads for the Illinois Lottery, the Chicago Cubs, Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics and Attorney General Lisa Madigan's re-election campaign. "Illinois state politics are interesting to say the least," says Downtown Partners' website. "But we do have an Attorney General always looking out for those in need. We helped keep her in office."
— Elemento L2: The Chicago marketing agency specializes in multicultural outreach. It developed a process for translating Get Covered Illinois materials into Spanish, helped engage Spanish language media and planned Hispanic community events including a traditional Mexican Day of the Dead festival.
Associated Press medical writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson