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Illinois politics marred by deep-pocketed, self-funded candidates and dark money

A tearsheet with a 100 dollar bill peeking through with the Illinois capitol's dome.
Brian Munoz / St. Louis Public Radio
Photo via Pexels; State of Illinois
Primary meddling, dark money and self-funding loopholes help skew Illinois politics to favor moneyed candidates. But there are also solutions — like fighting big money with public funding of campaigns.

CHICAGO — There is still bad blood, and perhaps some anger, over Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decision to “meddle” in last year’s Republican primary.

Pritzker’s $24 million contribution to the Democratic Governors’ Association led to a hefty ad buy that painted Republican primary candidate Darren Bailey as “too conservative for Illinois” — a crafty strategy aimed at actually fortifying Bailey’s standing among conservative Republicans. It ultimately boosted Bailey’s candidacy over former Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, a moderate whose candidacy was backed by millions from billionaire Ken Griffin.

The strategy worked. The more “extreme” a candidate is, the easier to defeat, Pritzker’s camp correctly predicted. But with the millions spent to boost Bailey, the Democratic governor — who has staunchly spoken out about the dangers former President Donald Trump posed to democracy — elevated a MAGA candidate who has repeatedly pushed a narrative that election fraud is rampant.

The tactic was used successfully by Democrats in eight of 15 Republican primaries last year, according to a Washington Post analysis. And it’s certainly not new. Former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018 used it in a different way, running ads and robocalls early in the Democratic primary to hit the candidate he knew he would be facing after the primary: Pritzker and his war chest of millions.

State Sen. Darren Bailey urges a full repeal of the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform at a news conference with county sheriffs earlier this month.
Jerry Nowicki
Capitol News Illinois
Former Illinois State Sen. Darren Bailey urges a full repeal of the SAFE-T Act criminal justice reform at a news conference with county sheriffs.

It’s just one example of the influence of money in Illinois politics — and the disingenuous ways in which it’s sometimes used. It’s not always about what’s best for voters and their own political beliefs and values. It’s about winning. And to the power players and their camps, it’s “just politics.”

In the Land of Lincoln and across the country, money is power, and some candidates are using every legal loophole they can find to win, especially in light of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed individuals and corporations to funnel unlimited funds to super PACs.

The Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ and the University of Chicago are examining the challenges to American democracy as part of the Democracy Solutions Project. Primary meddling, dark money and self-funding loopholes are among some of the most influential campaign finance actions affecting the state. But there are also solutions — like fighting big money with small donations.

An attempt at reform

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s conviction in 2011 was tied in part to his planned solicitation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Exactly a year after Blagojevich’s arrest, former Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law a measure that changed the way Illinois campaign finance works, supported by the Democratic leaders in the Illinois General Assembly: Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.

The law that went into effect in 2011 limited individual donors to giving $5,000 in elections; corporations and unions to $10,000 per election and political action committees to no more than $50,000 per election. At the time, Illinois was far behind other states in enacting campaign finance reform legislation.

The legislation included no cap on in-kind contributions from legislative leaders to candidates in primary races. And it had a provision for self-funding candidates — which would soon become the future of Illinois politics.

In statewide races, contribution caps could be sidestepped if a candidate or family member gave more than $250,000 to their own campaign or to a super PAC that then spent money on their behalf. In non-statewide races, the amount to sidestep the cap was $100,001.

Republicans, including then-Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, voted against the measure over multiple concerns, including that the caps on leaders didn’t apply to general elections.

A federal judge in 2012 struck down two provisions of that law, finding that limits for super PACs and the number of PACs an individual can establish were unconstitutional.

That led Quinn to sign into law a follow-up bill in 2012 that allowed candidates to get around contribution caps if a super PAC contributed more than $250,000 to an opponent in a statewide race or more than $100,000 to an opponent in a local or legislative race.

A reform workaround emerges

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (left) listens as State Representative Jim Durkin speaks to members of the media about the Illinois state budget for fiscal year 2019. 
Tyler LaRiviere
Chicago Sun Times
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (left) listens as State Representative Jim Durkin speaks to members of the media about the Illinois state budget for fiscal year 2019. 

The initial aim was to give equal opportunity to both wealthy and non-wealthy candidates — and to protect those who are opposed to independent expenditure groups, also known as super PACs. But it has since then been used as a bank account for legislative leaders to take in donations from mega-donors and special interest groups, and to spread the wealth to their preferred candidates.

One small caveat for the little guys: Once the caps are exceeded, all candidates in the race can benefit — not just the ones who can loan themselves $100,000 or more, or receive that amount from a super PAC.
Durkin in 2016 received a $101,843 contribution from Turnaround Illinois, a super PAC backed by Rauner, which allowed him to take in $12 million from Rauner and his wife, Diana. It opened the floodgates to receiving more than $17 million — and the power to give $14.3 million to other statehouse Republican candidates.

Madigan in 2018 similarly broke the caps, then transferred almost $6 million to the Illinois Democratic Party and the Democratic majority committees he controlled.

Durkin, who stepped down as Republican leader in January, still defends blowing the caps. He called it “self-preservation” for himself and his caucus — and the only way to go up against Madigan.

“The money that would be piled into his campaign accounts is astronomical. I could never keep up with them,” Durkin said. “But there was a couple of years under Gov. Rauner that if I’m going to compete, I have to play by this. I’m going to use the same laws that he’s utilized. I didn’t like it. But it’s just a question of self-preservation and making sure that I’ve got to do everything I can to raise money to make my candidates and my incumbents competitive.”

Durkin acknowledged the money in legislative races is getting “worse and worse.

“But I’ll just say this. If they don’t, they’re foolish,” Durkin said of blowing the caps.

Reform not meant to be a 'millionaire’s loophole'

Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks to reporters in the lobby at City Hall in 2022.
Brian Rich
Chicago Sun Times
Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn speaks to reporters in the lobby at City Hall in 2022.

Quinn says that he did not anticipate that candidates would loan themselves cash to break the caps when the bill was crafted. But Illinois was behind other states when it came to campaign finance reform, and the impetus was on Quinn and the legislative leaders to do something, anything, in light of Blagojevich’s arrest.

He also denies that it’s a “millionaire’s loophole.”

“It wasn’t put in to give millionaires a break. It was really designed to make sure there was a level playing field,” Quinn said. “...That provision was put in to at least have fairness. And again, to put it in perspective, I may be the very last person, I hope not, I may be the last middle-class person ever elected governor in Illinois.”

Indeed, Illinois has been led by wealthy, self-funding governors since Rauner took office in 2014. Rauner, a multimillionaire, spent $136 million of his own funds on his two campaigns for governor. Pritzker, the billionaire heir to the Hyatt fortune, has poured $323 million into his two campaigns.

Quinn — sworn in after Blagojevich’s impeachment — said there was no alternative “if you wanted a fair system or at least somewhat fair system.” The former governor created the Illinois Reform Commission as his first official act as governor, which ultimately led to the 2009 legislation.

Quinn said he pitched a similar commission to Pritzker after he took office in 2018. Quinn told Pritzker there should be a reform commission at least once every decade, appointed by the governor, to propose “far reaching reforms.”

“You know, we got a lot done there,” Quinn said of the 2009 commission. “We didn’t get everything done by far, but on campaign finance, we finally did something big. Getting limits.”

Campaign finance reform and red-light cameras

For his part, Pritzker in July signed into law a measure that banned red light camera companies from donating to candidates for public office, both at the state and local level. That was in response to a slew of convictions of public officials tied to red light cameras.

Last year, the governor signed into law a measure that caps contributions to judicial candidates to $500,000 from “any single person.” Pritzker, however, gave $500,000 each from his campaign fund to two Democratic candidates for Illinois Supreme Court, Elizabeth Rochford and Mary Kay O’Brien — and another $500,000 to each from a personal trust fund.

Republicans accused Pritzker of skirting limits he himself had signed into law. But the Illinois State Board of Elections said the contributions were allowed.

Quinn thinks Pritzker, and legislators, should also take action to ban political contributions from utility companies. A federal jury in May convicted four former political insiders— Michael McClain, former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, ex-ComEd lobbyist John Hooker and onetime City Club President Jay Doherty — of a nearly decade-long conspiracy to bribe Madigan. The former speaker is set to face his own trial in April 2024 on charges of racketeering.

‘Who has their ear?’

Lawmakers have resisted changing laws that would allow taking away legislative retirement checks if politicians engage in statehouse-related wrongdoing after leaving office — as now-convicted lobbyist Michael McClain did.
Manuel Martinez
Lawmakers have resisted changing laws that would allow taking away legislative retirement checks if politicians engage in statehouse-related wrongdoing after leaving office — as now-convicted lobbyist Michael McClain did.

City and statewide races have seen an outpouring of “dark money’ in recent years — including in the latest Chicago mayoral race and in races for the state Supreme Court. Dark money refers to funds from groups that are not required to disclose their donors, such as nonprofit political advocacy groups.

On the federal level, corporations cannot donate to races. But in Illinois, it is not uncommon for state corporations to donate through an LLC or whatever corporate entity they have. Corporations in Illinois can break the self-funding loophole by making contributions to super PACs that aren’t coordinated with a campaign, leading to extremely large contributions — with no requirement to report where the money is coming from.

Super PACs do have to disclose their donors, but those donors do not have to disclose the source of the contributions they have received.

“That’s a big problem because voters don’t know who their candidate or their elected official is beholden to,” said Alisa Kaplan, executive director for the campaign finance watchdog group Reform for Illinois. “Who has their ear? And they don’t know who’s supporting them and trying to influence the elected official or frankly, trying to influence the voters with TV ads and any kind of political advertising.”

A potential fix

Kaplan believes there’s a fix to the system — enacting legislation that would require donors who contribute to super PACs to disclose where significant amounts of money came from. Similar bills have passed in Rhode Island, California and Massachusetts.

Rhode Island’s 2012 law was in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, which enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend unlimited funds on elections. The Rhode Island law requires disclosure of spending by outside groups. The law requires groups spending $1,000 or more on ads to disclose donors that gave at least $1,000 to fund the ads, among other provisions.

“This isn’t something that’s impossible to get past,” Kaplan said. “I feel like there’s often this sense of Illinois exceptionalism, like we can’t do those things here because we have this entrenched system and what not. And that’s just nonsense. Anything they can do in another state, we can do here.

Voters dissatisfied with big money in politics

A Pew Research study released in October showed voters’ widespread dissatisfaction with the role of money in American politics. In one question, 85% of respondents said the cost of political campaigns made it hard for good people to run for office. That answer was split between Republican and Democratic respondents. In another question about spending limits in campaigns, 72% said there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns.

Cities like Seattle and New York City have created public campaign financing programs to make regular voters feel like they’re part of the process. The programs use public funds to match low-dollar contributions to candidates.

The Democracy Voucher Program in Seattle, created in 2015 via a public referendum, was aimed at increasing transparency and accessibility in Seattle elections. Run by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, eligible residents are distributed “Democracy Vouchers” and can assign those vouchers by writing in candidates’ names. The commission verifies signatures before releasing funds to campaigns, and all contributions are published online.

Seattle’s first-in-the-nation program, which costs the average homeowner about $8 a year, according to the city, was funded after voters approved a property tax bump of $3 million per year to fund the program for 10 years. Mayoral candidates participating in the program must abide by individual contribution limits of $550, with $100 of that coming from “Democracy Vouchers.”

Small-donor public financing in New York City allows eligible voters to donate $50, with the city kicking in eight times that amount — another $400. Candidates participating in the program must also honor spending limits.

In October, Evanston became the first city in Illinois to adopt a public financing program. Under the program, candidates for mayor would receive a 9-to-1 ratio for donations of up to $150 from city residents.

Both Kaplan and Quinn believe a similar system should be enacted in Chicago and the state of Illinois. Kaplan said a study in New York found that political giving increased by up to 24 times in minority communities with the implementation of their program.

“It enables candidates to run who aren’t either personally wealthy themselves, or don’t have access to wealthy friends or special interests, or don’t want to have to rely on those sources of funds,” Kaplan said.

A similar program in Arizona is funded by increasing criminal and civil fines. Still, Kaplan calls the programs “comparatively very inexpensive.”

“They’re really like a tiny, tiny portion of the budget,” Kaplan said. “Especially in comparison to the potential benefits.”

Last year, Ald. Matt Martin (47th) resurrected the idea of publicly funding city elections in Chicago, but his proposed ordinance never gained traction. 
Ashlee Rezin
Chicago Sun Times
Last year, Ald. Matt Martin (47th) resurrected the idea of publicly funding city elections in Chicago, but his proposed ordinance never gained traction. 

There have been efforts in the city and state to enact a similar program, including a measure that cleared the Illinois Senate in 2017, but was not taken up in the Illinois House. A proposed ordinance introduced to the Chicago City Council last year by Ald. Matt Martin (47th) called for providing a 6-to-1 public match — up to $3.6 million for mayoral candidates, $180,000 for candidates for city clerk and city treasurer and $150,000 for City Council candidates. A hearing was held on the proposal, but it never moved forward.

“People acknowledge that money in politics is here to stay and that you actually need a critical mass of money to run a competitive election and to get your message out,” Kaplan said. “The concern is, yes, the amounts of money can get completely grotesque, but if we can enable candidates to run a competitive campaign, even if they can’t raise a kajillion dollars, if they can raise enough to get their message out, that could go a long way to restoring some balance to the system.”

This story is part of the The Democracy Solutions Project, a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.

Tina Sfondeles is the chief political reporter, covering all levels of government and politics with a special focus on the Illinois General Assembly, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration and statewide and federal elections.