Over the years, I’ve come to recognize the annual rites and rituals that indicate the start of a new season.
For instance, come April, the Sox and the Cubs have their openers, meaning spring weather can’t be too far away.
And in January, folks line up to get their Forest Preserve picnic reservations, a sure sign that summer will arrive one of these days.
Finally, there’s the lifting of the cap on campaign contributions, which rings in the true start of any political campaign. For the 2018 Illinois governor’s election—still more than a year away—that occurred last week, thanks to Chris Kennedy, the well-to-do businessman running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
The cap lift is courtesy of an election reform passed in 2009, proving, once again, that when it comes to reform, you can usually expect Illinois lawmakers to take a bad system and make it worse.
The cap law was intended to limit the influence of big money and guarantee a level campaign playing field for everyone, not just billionaires.
But as with many reform laws, it came with a loophole that makes it largely ineffective.
In this case, statewide candidates can “blow the cap”—stop snickering, people—if they or someone related to them donates or lends more than $250,000 to their campaign.
There have been several monumental cap blowings over the last few years.
In 2015, an obscure mayoral candidate named William Kelly blew the cap by announcing he was lending $100,000 to his campaign. (The cap is lower for municipal races.)
Ultimately, Kelly decided not to run. So you’d figured the cap would be restored. But the law doesn’t work that way. Hey, man, don’t blame me—I didn’t write it.
Without a cap, Rahm raised more than $30 million. Thus, he had enough money to air commercials that scared Chicagoans into voting for him on the grounds that the city would jump into the lake if he wasn’t reelected.
In last year’s state comptroller’s race, the contribution cap was annihilated when John Munger lent $260,000 to the campaign of his wife, Leslie Munger.
Ordinarily no one gives a hoot about about the comptroller’s race. But this time around the race had become a proxy battle in Governor Bruce Rauner’s fight with house speaker Michael Madigan, who backed Susana Mendoza, the eventual winner.
Thanks to the blown cap, Munger wound up raising about $8.6 million—much of it in big contributions from Rauner and his wealthy cronies. Oh, if Rauner only cared as much about raising money for our schools.
I could go on and on about cap blowings. Like the one set into motion last year when Rauner’s crowd bought TV commercials on behalf of state rep Jim Durkin, who had no opponent.
But I’ll spare you those details. If you want to know more about the Durkin affair, you can read about it here.
Anyway, as you can see, Kennedy was just the latest candidate to blow the cap, which he did this week by contributing more than $250,000 to his own campaign.
You’d figure that the cap would have already been removed, because Rauner had donated $50 million to his campaign. But that donation doesn’t count against the cap ’cause it came in calendar year 2016.
The devil really is in the details when it comes to Illinois election law.
Then there’s the matter of J.B. Pritzker, who may be the only gubernatorial candidate even richer than Rauner—if such a thing is possible.
Pritzker donated $200,000 to his all but announced campaign. That’s a lot of money. But as any student of mathematics can tell you, it falls short of $250,000. So the cap remained—until Kennedy annihilated it.
With the caps off, the other announced Democratic candidates—alderman Ameya Pawar, state senator Daniel Biss, and downstate educator Bob Daiber—find themselves facing a big disadvantage in getting their messages out.
So it goes. Like I always say, when someone in Illinois starts talking about reform—look out!