Voters vs Donors: $95.8 million circling Illinois legislative races creates loyalty concerns


Zoe Haworth

Voters vs Donors: $95.8 million circling Illinois legislative races creates loyalty concerns

By Eric Bradach

Money equals greed, and in the world of politics, it equals power. That power could strongly influence policymaking, according to many concerned voters.

Money in politics was a contentious topic during the 2016 election cycle. In the presidential race, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was criticized for the amount of money she received from Wall Street—investment banker Goldman Sachs in particular. GOP candidate—and now president—Donald Trump accused the former secretary of state of being a puppet controlled by her donors.

Throughout the transition period for the Trump administration, the issue has been front and center because of concerns about conflicts of interest and the financial motivations of Trump’s cabinet nominees, such as former CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson, secretary of state. 

While the nation’s eyes and ears were glued to the endless stream of controversies surrounding the presidential election, the money used within state and local elections was overlooked despite it reaching unprecedented numbers in Illinois.

These growing funds raise the question: Do candidates represent voters or donors? 

When donors contribute to a political candidate, they expect a favor in return. An individual who gives large donations gets more clout in a state representative’s eyes, said Trevor Gervais, the lead organizer for Common Cause Illinois—a nonpartisan group that promotes open, ethical and accountable government.

“Whoever gave a million-dollar donation is going to have far more access than an actual constituent,” Gervais said. “With so much money in the process, we can’t guarantee that elected officials are going to be accountable to the people who live in their district.”

According to campaign contribution data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Montana, state legislative candidates in Illinois raised nearly $100 million in the 2016 election cycle, with Democrats raising approximately $60 million and Republicans $36 million. This is a increase from the $70 million raised in 2014.  Illinois was second only to California, which had nearly $150 million raised for state legislative races and has three times the population, according to a  July 2016 estimate from the U.S. Census.

The Republican Party started its funding earlier and was able to raise its total thanks to Gov. Bruce Rauner and his political allies, whose increases caused the Democratic donor base—unions, organized labor and law firms—to respond in kind, according to Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

“Previous state level elections in Illinois have been contentious, and that’s always the case,” said Brune, whose nonprofit organization promotes campaign finance reform, government ethics, judicial selection and voter education. “But both parties were fundraising at an unprecedented clip [in 2016].”

The cash influx has raised questions not only about whether candidates answer to their donors, but about how much independence politicians can exercise in their voting when a few key individuals in each party rake in the money and redistribute it.

 “[Legislators] know if they go against the wishes of [their political party] leaders, it can be very difficult for them to finance their campaign and their party can work against them,” Brune said. “It makes it difficult for rank and file legislators to be truly independent. They really have to stick their neck out if they are going to make an independent decision.”

Former Democratic State Rep. Kenneth Dunkin, 5th District, often voted against his party, which caused the Democratic donor base, including other Democratic legislators, to contribute more than $2 million to primary challenger Juliana Stratton, Illinois State Board of Elections records show. 

Dunkin was able to attract donations from a Republican group. According to Illinois State Board of Elections records, Dunkin received $1.3 million from the Illinois Opportunity Project—a nonprofit group that conservative radio host Dan Proft co-founded. He inevitably lost the primary, and Stratton went on to sweep the district unopposed in the general election.

The campaign committee for Rauner was the most powerful conduit for political funding in Illinois’ last election. According to Illinois State Board Elections records, Citizens for Rauner transferred more than $25 million in 2016 and raised $57.2 million. However, after the November election, the governor himself contributed $50 million for a head start on his re-election bid for 2018. He also gave $9 million to Republican House Leader Jim Durkin, 82nd District, in an individual contribution.

“It’s a critical problem and something average folks don’t pay as much attention to as they should,” said Jay Young, political director at Common Cause Illinois. “I don’t think it necessarily registers with them.”

Durkin, a Burr Ridge-based legislator, was unopposed in his re-election bid and raised more than $18.5 million in 2016, which also included $3 million from Citizens for Rauner and $5 million from Kenneth Griffin—CEO and founder of Citadel LLC, a global investment company, and the richest man in Illinois. More than $18.4 million of Durkin’s funds were transferred to other Republican candidates, the Illinois Republican Party and the House Republican Organization, Illinois State Board of Elections records show.

“If you’re able to raise several million dollars from people who don’t live in [your] district, and you’re able to win that way, then you don’t have a huge incentive to listen to the actual constituents,” Gervais said. “That’s a problem.”

According to Illinois State Board of Elections records, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, 22nd District, raised more than $3.5 million in 2016 and transferred more than $1 million. The Chicago-based Democrat did not have opposition for re-election.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, 6th District, transferred more funds out of his campaign committee, Citizens for John Cullerton for State Senate, than it raised in 2016. It collected more than $2.6 million and transferred more than $3 million. Cullerton received $20,000 from the Chicago Teachers Union, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.

It is common for the legislative leaders to receive funds from their party’s supporter base and redistribute it among the contested races, according to Dick Simpson, political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former 44th Ward alderman.

“What that means is it gives the legislative leaders much more control over their members,” he said. “Because the members, if they should get into an [election] fight, need the support of the money the leaders have.”

Young said voters could see the influence of party leaders in previous legislation. He pointed to an automatic voter registration bill, Senate Bill 250, which Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly supported and passed last year.

However, Rauner vetoed the bill Aug. 12, and several Republican legislators switched to Rauner’s side when a vote to overturn the veto was taken. Young said other legislators had told him while in Springfield that the governor was “breaking arms” to get Republicans to vote in his favor.

“When you have one donor who has the ear of the entire legislator, that’s a problem,” Young said.

Simpson said Illinois ranking second in the nation for total funds raised in state legislative races is not surprising because of the political battle between Rauner and Madigan for control of the state’s legislature. In past elections, those races were normally about $250,000 per candidate, he added.

“State legislative races were higher than they’ve ever been,” Simpson said. “In the most contested races, candidates on both sides spent more than $2 million each. The cost per voter in the most expensive race was more than $100 per vote.”

Denise Roth Barber, managing director at the National Institute on Money in State Politics, said she was surprised to learn Illinois ranked so high because the state established contribution limits in 2010. 

Currently, Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah and Virginia have no restrictions on campaign donations to political candidates from individuals, state parties, political action committees, corporations and unions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

While Illinois does have limitations to campaign donations, Barber said they are some of the nation’s highest. The limits on PACs in Illinois are the highest in the nation and much larger compared with the individual-donor restrictions, which is unique to Illinois, Barber added.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislative candidates in Illinois can receive up to $5,400 from individuals, $53,900 from PACs, $10,800 from corporations and unions, and have no restrictions from state parties during the general election.

According to Brune, Illinois is the only state in which candidates can be exempt from contribution limits, such as Durkin. She said the idea behind this provision is if a wealthy donor starts to support a particular candidate, their opponent should have the opportunity to fundraise freely and not be restricted by contribution limits.  

“Whether that’s right or wrong—the jury is still out—but it certainly contributed to the amount that was spent [in 2016],” she said.

With the 2016 election results in, Democrats lost four of their previously held 71 out of 118 seats in the State’s House of Representatives, three of which had incumbents losing their re-election bid. This means in order to override a veto by Rauner, which requires a three-fifths majority, Madigan will need Republican support. In the Illinois State Senate, Republicans were able to obtain two of the 39 seats Democrats held, but the latter still retains a super majority.

“Rauner was trying to break the so-called super majority that Madigan held in the House,” Simpson said. “He did in a technical sense, but Madigan never had control over a couple of those Democratic votes. After all the money was spent, you have the status quo in Springfield.”

It is inevitable for voters to focus on national elections, such as the presidential race, according to Gervais. However, he encourages people to be involved and pay attention to state and local elections because “that is where people are impacted the most.”

Gervais said the nearly two-year Illinois budget stalemate has cost jobs, lives and changed how the state functions. Local and state politicians have a greater impact on people’s lives than the president does because they can slash funding to localized social services and public education, he added.

As someone who works in the collection of campaign financing data, Barber said it is important for that information to be made public so voters can know who is funding their elected officials, whether it is at the national, state or local level. Constituents can then question their representatives and determine for themselves whether donors influence their policymaking decisions, she added.

“The reality is, when someone donates a million dollars to a candidate, they’re not doing it for the sake of being a good person,” Gervais said. “They expect something in return.”