Center panelists urge revamp of political system, increased engagement as personal wealth impacts state government
Missed our forum Tuesday? Here's a recap.
The Center for Illinois Politics' Money in Politics and the Impact of Personal Wealth on State Government forum on Sept 10 featured a panel of five experts including former public officials and current civic leaders in Chicago and Illinois politics. The panel was moderated by Audra Wilson, executive director of the League of Women Voters Illinois.
Panelists included Lake Forest College Professor Zachary Cook, Citizen Advocacy Center Executive Director Maryam Judar, former Paul Simon Public Policy Institute Director Mike Lawrence, the Hon. Jeff Schoenberg, and Common Cause Executive Director Jay Young.
“The rules of engagement have changed” following Governor Bruce Rauner’s campaign in 2014, former Schoenberg, a former state senator, said. Much of the panel’s discussion centered on the 2014 and 2018 gubernatorial elections, what with winners from both cycles having poured tens of millions of dollars into both cycles.
Former Republican Gov. Rauner, and current Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker may have stark ideological differences, but shared the practice of funneling millions of their personal wealth into their campaign war chests as well as state political party funds. Pritzker last fall shattered a nationwide self-financing record, infusing his own campaign with more than $170 million.
Asked Tuesday by Wilson if the winning candidates would have proven successful without their immense fortunes, the majority of the panel and the audience agreed the outcomes of the elections would not have concluded the way they did.
“Local and state primaries are where money makes the most impact,” Cook said.
Then-candidate Rauner ran against several well-established legislators in 2014, he went on. When Rauner began an avalanche of dollars in ads into that primary, he experienced a spike in polling that eventually handed him the Republican nomination and victory against Democratic Governor Pat Quinn.
Campaign advertising is not the only device affected by person wealth, nor are gubernatorial races the only contests experiencing large insertions of cash, panelists suggested.
“We are seeing more money spent in mayoral elections across Illinois,” said Judar. “Any challenger [to an incumbent] is challenged themselves,” typically through disputed signatures needed to make it on the ballot.
“There’s a reason we have many uncontested elections in Illinois.The ballot process requires money for election lawyers.”
Personal wealth has demonstrated other indirect effects in recent elections, namely with candidate “viability”. The ability to finance, or rather self-finance, a campaign is an important component to a candidate’s viability. Lawrence, who was a former press secretary and advisor for Governor Edgar before serving as director at SIU, turned to the clout Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan held in determining the 2018 gubernatorial primary.
“When [Speaker] Madigan threw support to J.B. Pritzker,” Lawrence said, unions and establishment Democrats followed and the candidacies for rivals like Daniel Biss became irrelevant. “Pritzker’s candidacy became inevitable.”
Concern also persisted regarding Governor Pritzker’s salary supplementation for key officials. “Working for a governor requires loyalty to that governor as well as to the public since they fund their salaries,” Lawrence explained. Pritzker’s addition to these salaries, though conducted with good intention, raises further questions.
“People talk about the ‘slippery slope’, and there is one,” he said. “What about the next governor?”
Looking ahead, Judar insisted transparency and accountability among government officials and administrations are key to protecting a democratic body. Other panelists agreed.
“The reality is, at some level, if we want our citizenry to be comfortable and engaged with our democracy, they need to feel like they have a voice,” said Jay Young, Executive Director of Common Cause Illinois. “What kind of democracy do we want to be?”
As the forum drew towards conclusion, Wilson posed a hypothetical: What if Citizens United, the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision protecting corporate campaign finance from onerous federal regulation, was overturned? What else would need to be done?
Cook explained that, even with such a change, a person of high wealth—the “sole donor”—could still exert immense influence through funding thanks to Buckley v. Valeo, a 1971 SCOTUS decision that found the FEC’s regulations infringed on rights asserted by the First Amendment.
Other panelists highlighted policies such as publicly financed elections, which would support candidates without such wealth and make sure they have a better chance of winning elections.
“If we want to inject new voices into the system,” Young said,” we need to address the whole system.”
As to the responsibility of individual citizens, Lawrence suggested “better education of civic engagement at earlier ages.
“Better informed citizens,” he said, “will help protect against money in politics.”
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