Once upon a time, Illinois was known as the “Wild West” of campaign finance because the state lacked any substantive limits on what candidates could raise and spend on their runs for political office.
That was supposed to change five years ago, when lawmakers in Springfield established the state’s first-ever contribution limits.
But the deluge of dollars resumed a year later, following the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Citizens United case, which struck down spending limits on corporations, labor unions and outside political funds.
That, along with a major loophole in Illinois’ campaign finance law, produced an unparalleled fundraising orgy of nearly $100 million in this year’s governor’s race, nearly twice the $55 million raised in 2010.
The loophole that opened the financial spigot allows donors to ignore the state’s contribution limits if a candidate gives his or her own campaign $250,000, or an individual or independent expenditure committee pumps more than $250,000 into a race.
Governor-elect Bruce Rauner blew the self-funding threshold out of the water by donating more than 27 million of his own dollars to his campaign, but even if he hadn’t given himself a dime the limits would have been negated by the super-sized expenditures of others who supported him or his vanquished opponent, Governor Pat Quinn.
So unless Congress or the courts reinstate regulations on the flow of political money, cash — and the conflicts that come with it — will continue to be a part of the political process.
Reformers are frustrated, but instead of throwing in the towel they’re trying to limit the influence of money in politics in a number of creative ways.
To borrow a term from baseball parlance, they’re playing “small ball.”
One innovative approach is the Mayday PAC launched earlier this year by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University academic.
Billed as a Super PAC designed to eventually get rid of Super PACs, and heralding the catchphrase “embrace the irony,” Mayday is raising millions of dollars for candidates committed to campaign finance reform.
This year’s pilot effort raked in nearly $11 million from more than 68,000 donors — the average contribution is about $160 — for eight Congressional candidates, and Mayday is considering backing up to 80 candidates in 2016.
Lessig also supports tax rebates for small donations, which is similar to the “check box” on income tax returns for $3 donations to Presidential campaigns.
Another public financing approach that’s gaining traction matches small donations from individuals with grants in tax dollars. To qualify, candidates have to accept spending limits, self-funding caps or restrictions on donations from corporations and unions.
The flagship program is in New York City, where every private donation of $1 is matched with $6 in public financing. That accounts for more than 90 percent of the contributions in New York’s local elections.
A few other cities, including Los Angeles, have similar strategies, and small donor matching grants are now on the horizon in the Chicago area.
Officials in Evanston and Oak Park are considering enabling legislation, and thanks largely to the efforts of Common Cause Illinois, Chicago voters will be considering an advisory question on the February ballot.
The goal is to encourage more people to run for office, reward them for seeking support from everyday citizens, and make them less reliant on money from the deep pockets of unions and corporations.
Those objectives led five Chicago-area women to launch runclean.org earlier this year — an effort aimed at giving candidates visibility online, in printed materials and through public debates and forums, in exchange for their acceptance of negotiated spending limits.
The group is focusing on aldermanic candidates in Chicago’s 2nd and 33rd wards.
“We have a perception of government being quite corrupt because of the disproportionate amount of money that corporations and various interest groups put into elections,” says initiative organizer Phyllis Mandler, who is also a supporter of the Better Government Association.
“This is not the democracy that it’s supposed to be,” Mandler adds, “so we have to reinvigorate faith in our democracy.””
The challenge for all of these campaign finance reform initiatives is to find enough candidates who are willing to mount campaigns that include limits on private donations, even if it puts them at a financial disadvantage.
That approach can’t begin to match the dollars special interests pump into political races.
But until Congress and the courts recognize that unlimited contributions from deep pocketed donors and groups discourages participation in the political process, undermines civic engagement and threatens our democracy, we’ll have to rely on “small ball” to create oases of sanity on the dystopian political landscape.
Hey — it’s worked well for some baseball teams, so why not the game of politics?
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.