Top Legislators Blowing Past Limits in Illinois Campaign Finance Reform Law

Democrats violate the spirit of a law they authored. Republicans take advantage of loopholes in legislation they opposed. Both sides reap millions from big-money contributors and dole out cash to favored legislative candidates.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon late last year loaned his own campaign $100,001, which triggered a “millionaire’s exemption” that allowed the Oak Park Democrat to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars above campaign contribution limits. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times)

In 2009, with yet another governor ensnared in scandal, Illinois’ Democratic legislative leaders authored a package of laws they promised would begin to reform Illinois’ culture of corruption.

One of the biggest items in the legislative package would finally establish statewide limits on campaign contributions, a measure Illinois was one of the last states to adopt.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, who sponsored the legislation, hailed it as a way to “help restore public confidence in Illinois government.” State Sen. Don Harmon, the Democratic sponsor in the Senate, praised it for enacting “historic contribution caps, real disclosure requirements and strict enforcement measures.”

But years later, Madigan and Harmon are using a controversial loophole written into the reform bill to raise millions of dollars above the limits the legislation set. Their Republican counterparts have also blown past the limits, as all four men have collected a combined $44 million more than the contribution limits allow, a Better Government Association examination shows.

Most of that money was doled out to support favored candidates in their respective chambers, records show, as part of a longstanding tactic to win loyalty and ensure their own status atop their party hierarchy.

“They completely gamed it,” said Cynthia Canary, former executive director of the organization now called Reform for Illinois, who helped negotiate the decade-old reform measure.

At the time, the law limited individual campaign contributions to $5,000 per politician, corporate and union contributions to $10,000 and contributions from political action committees to $50,000.

All four leaders are unapologetic about bypassing the limits as part of a political strategy they say is necessary for their parties to compete in elections.

“As a leader in the fight against radical Republicans and the party of Donald Trump, I will not surrender any tool to elect Democrats to stop them,” said Harmon of Oak Park, who in January succeeded John Cullerton as Illinois Senate president.

The tool Harmon refers to is dubbed the “millionaire’s exemption,” which allows all candidates in a General Assembly race to exceed legal campaign limits and raise unlimited funds from contributors, but only after any one candidate in a specific race spends more than $100,000 in personal funds on his or her own race.

Harmon — the most recent lawmaker to use the loophole — defended the millionaire’s exemption a decade ago as a way to level the playing field for underdogs challenged by ultra-wealthy, self-funded candidates.

None of the four lawmakers exceeding the limits has ever been threatened by self-funded millionaires. Harmon isn’t even up for re-election until 2022.

Yet, the heir apparent to Cullerton began blowing through the limits within weeks after Cullerton announced last fall that he planned to retire.

On Dec. 4, Harmon loaned his own campaign exactly $100,001, which triggered the millionaire’s exemption, and later that day the Friends of Don Harmon campaign fund collected a cascade of cash from unions, lawyers, corporations and others. In all, the fund brought in $527,300 that day, $131,600 of which came in above the limits that had been in effect one day earlier.

Harmon pdf
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon on Dec. 4 donated $1 above the $100,000 threshold, enabling him to raise unlimited cash from supporters. (Jared Rutecki/BGA)

After he was elected Senate president, Harmon began parceling out the extra cash to favored Senate Democratic candidates and committees.

According to the fund’s latest campaign disclosures, Harmon has raised nearly $1.3  million in donations that exceed the limits, about one-third of the more than $3.9 million he raised during 2019 and 2020.

Among the contributors exceeding the limits were three PACs tied to labor unions, which collectively gave him $900,000, marijuana industry investor Stephen Schuler and his philanthropist wife, Mary Jo, who together gave $75,000, and a total of $100,000 from three gaming companies.

‘A BAD LAW AND A BAD IDEA’

The Democrats who authored the limits are not the only ones to benefit from the loopholes. The two top Republican lawmakers in Illinois, harsh critics of the reform effort they felt didn’t go far enough, are cashing in as well.

“There’s more holes in this legislation than a ton of Swiss cheese,” state Sen. Bill Brady said during a floor debate in 2009.

“Supporting this is doing nothing more but give authority to a few individuals who control party purse strings, who can raise money and shift campaign contributions,” he said. “Don’t vote for this.”

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin
Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin in 2012 railed against legislation that extended the exemption for campaign contribution limits.  (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times)

Rep. Jim Durkin of west suburban Western Springs also spoke out when the General Assembly in 2012 extended the millionaire’s exemption for campaigns when outside groups independently spend more than $100,000 advocating for or against particular candidates.

“Have you forgotten the crimes of Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan? Have you forgotten how large campaign contributions to politicians made Illinois a national laughingstock?” Durkin asked during the 2012 floor debate, echoing an advocacy group’s opposition to the bill. “This is a bad law and a bad idea. Vote no.”

The reform measures followed nearly a decade of scandal in Springfield that first sent ex-Gov. George Ryan to federal prison and then former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was charged with — among other things — trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat then being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. Blagojevich in 2009 was impeached and removed from office, and later sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. In February, President Donald Trump commuted Blagojevich’s sentence and he was released.

Since their failed opposition to the reform measures, both Brady and Durkin received promotions in Springfield. Brady became Senate GOP leader in 2017 and Durkin became head of the House Republicans in 2013. Three years later, Durkin became the beneficiary of the same exemption he once railed against. 

On Oct. 5, 2016, records show, an independent political committee backed by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner spent $101,843 on radio ads promoting Durkin’s re-election campaign.

The group, Turnaround Illinois, was funded by Rauner, a Republican, and billionaire investor and former Chicago Tribune executive Sam Zell to help legislative candidates who sided with Rauner, and “to oppose those who stand in the way.”

 

Beginning the day after the exemption was triggered and throughout that October, Durkin’s campaign committee raised $12 million from Rauner, his wife, Diana, Rauner’s campaign committee, and $5 million from hedge fund founder Kenneth Griffin — all well above the limits.

Durkin ran unopposed that November, and didn’t need the $17 million for his own legislative race. Instead, he sent $14.3 million to support other Republican candidates for the General Assembly and more than $4 million to the Illinois Republican Party.

In 2018, Durkin took advantage of the loophole again, this time with help from a DC-based group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, or RSLC. The group spent $105,000 on a website promoting Durkin’s candidacy.

With limits off again, Durkin raised $6 million from Griffin, then gave $5.7 million to the House Republican Organization and another $525,000 to the Illinois Republican Party.

In June of this year, Durkin broke the limits a third time, records show, after the RSLC spent $105,000 to promote his campaign. It’s too early to tell how much Durkin will collect over the limits this year, but he’s already taken in $300,000 from the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC, far above the current maximum of $57,800 for PAC donations.

Durkin’s campaign spokeswoman, Eleni Demertzis, said Durkin “has complied with the finance laws passed by the Democratic majorities. He stands by his statements from 2012 and will continue to follow the law.”

Neither Rauner, Zell, nor the RSLC responded to emailed questions or calls for comment.

Durkin’s ability to raise unusually large sums may have helped his party pick up four House seats in 2016, robbing Madigan of the Democratic “supermajority” that made it easier to override vetoes by then-Gov. Rauner.

State Senate Republic Leader Bill Brady
After Illinois Sen. Bill Brady became head of the Senate Republican leader, his campaign fund received more than $1.75 million from two contributors, Ken Griffin and Richard Uihlein. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times)

After Brady became Senate Republican leader in 2017, the Bloomington Republican took advantage of the millionaire’s loophole in the month before the 2018 general election.

He too was unthreatened by a self-funded millionaire when he made a $100,001 personal loan to his campaign on Oct. 1, 2018, declared his race self-funded and set the stage for unlimited donations.

As a result, Griffin was able to donate a total of $1.5 million to Brady, and conservative billionaire Richard Uihlein chipped in $270,000.

Brady was unopposed in the general election and with money to spare, he helped finance Republican campaigns for the Illinois Senate, directing more than $2.5 million to the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee and distributing $327,000 among six GOP candidates facing close races against Democrats. Of those, two won.

In December 2018, Brady’s campaign repaid his loan, records show.

“One of my responsibilities is to support Republican candidates for the Senate and to work to elect more Republicans to the Illinois Senate,” Brady said in an emailed response to BGA questions. “All our fundraising and financial activities are conducted openly and legally.”

Once limits were lifted in these races, no single donor gave more than Griffin, who contributed millions to support Republicans in the General Assembly. 

“Leadership in Springfield has failed to improve our schools, end decades-long corruption, and stop the pattern of reckless spending that threatens to bankrupt our state,” he said in an emailed response.

Uihlein declined to be interviewed. 

‘AN EXISTENTIAL FIGHT’

In 2018 — two years after Durkin first broke the limits, — Madigan fought back, using the $100,001 technique.

On Aug. 16 of that year, the speaker personally donated one dollar above the $100,000 trigger and notified the Illinois State Board of Elections that he was “self-funding” his unopposed re-election race for state representative.

Madigan then used his district campaign committee as a depository for contributions he could disburse to other Democrats, a maneuver he’s made repeatedly over the years to help him secure his power as speaker and one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

By breaking the limits, Madigan raised nearly $12 million more than normally allowed, records show. He sent $5.9 million to the Democratic Party of Illinois and the Democratic Majority, two campaign funds he also controls and uses to distribute cash to favored Democratic legislative candidates. He also spent more than $2.1 million on payroll and other office expenses for his political organization. 

The influx of cash apparently worked. Democrats gained seven House seats in 2018, restoring Madigan’s “supermajority.”

In August of 2019, Madigan broke the limits again with a second $100,001 personal donation and has since raised more than $6 million in over-the-limits funds for the 2020 election.

Madigan justified breaking the limits, saying in a written statement that the Rauner administration had attempted a “hostile takeover” of the state.

“Rauner attempted to leverage his personal fortune to bully lawmakers into enacting an extreme agenda that would have padded the profits of big corporations and further enrich billionaire CEOs,” Madigan’s statement said. “Because I stood in his way, the vast majority of this spending targeted me personally…but his real target was middle-class families.”

House Speaker Michael Madigan
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan raised nearly $12 million over the limits in 2018 after breaking campaign finance restrictions he sponsored. (Sun-Times File Photo)

Since breaking the limits, Madigan's three biggest contributors  have been union and construction industry PACs, which collectively donated more than $8 million during the three-year period, far above the maximum the three PACs could have donated under statutory limits.

“We saw just constant attacks on union wages, on rights at work, on workplace protections, all under the guise of workplace reforms,” said Ed Maher, spokesman for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, which is affiliated with two of Madigan’s top contributors. “This is an existential fight.” 

Campaign finance expert Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the exceptions to the limits were intended to defend against ultra-wealthy candidates and interest groups.

“They were not meant to be offensive mechanisms, used proactively to gain leverage by allowing your supporters to make unlimited contributions on your behalf,” he said. 

The repeated use of loopholes is “unseemly,” said Christine Radogno, Senate Republican leader until 2017.

“Stop playing the game that we have limits because we really don’t.”