Just about the time I was truly, finally, completely ready to close the book on the municipal elections, I got a call from John Garrido ripping it open once again.
As you may know, Garrido was the runner-up candidate for alderman in the 45th Ward, which is centered in Jefferson Park and Portage Park on the northwest side. He wanted to talk about the insanity of our campaign finance laws, which are so riddled with loopholes that they allowed more than $1.3 million to be spent on a single aldermanic election.
“It’s out of control,” Garrido says.
And with Bruce Rauner as our governor, it’s only going to get worse around here. More on the esteemed governor in a moment.
Garrido is upset over the inconsistency of the laws, which cap some donations while lifting the lid on others.
For instance, state law limits the amount any individual can give to a candidate at $5,400. But the cap is removed when a candidate gives his own campaign more than $250,000 for a statewide office and $100,000 for a local office. In those events there are no limits.
That’s why Kenneth Griffin was allowed to contribute $8 million to Governor Rauner’s campaign fund in a single donation last December—after giving him $5.5 million during the run-up to the election in November.
The Griffins of the world can also give as much as they want to certain kinds of political action committees. Once these super PACs get their money, they’re pretty much free to spend it however they want.
Typically, that means hiring consultants to make sensational commercials that play to the basest instincts of your average voter.
Something you should know about campaign operatives, if you didn’t know it already: they have a low opinion of your intelligence, as I’m reminded every time I have an off-the-record chat with an operative, often with red wine mixed in. Hey, it helps my reporting.
Anyway, the 45th Ward race was just one of 18 City Council contests to go into a runoff. But it had great symbolic importance because the incumbent, John Arena, was one of the few aldermen willing to occasionally vote against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
So naturally the mayor decided it was really important to knock him out.
Not so much because there’s a difference between four aldermen voting against the mayor and five. Emanuel wanted to send a message to other incumbents that it doesn’t pay to oppose the mayor.
You know, in case someone like Alderman Pat O’Connor, the mayor’s floor leader, ever thought of leaving the reservation—which isn’t likely to happen until long after the Cubs win their next World Series by beating the Sox in seven games.
On the other hand, it was important for unions like SEIU to protect an alderman who might occasionally vote for their interests over the mayor’s.
Thus, Garrido became the enemy. And the weapon to fight him was a commercial—one that quoted me.
I didn’t even get royalties.
The quote came from a 2011 article in which I wrote: “He’s prolife, progun, and against gay marriage—though he’s quick to say he has nothing against civil unions and would be more than happy to march in the Gay Pride parade. ‘Let’s go—this year,’ he says. ‘Me and you. We’ll have our own float.'”
I think Chicago voters are smart enough to realize the whole quote wouldn’t amount to much of an attack ad, especially if it noted that Garrido now supports same-sex marriage.
Instead, the ad cut the quote after the words “gay marriage.” And it used a narrator with an ominous voice who sounded as if the world as we know it would end if Garrido were elected alderman.
SEIU spent $105,000 on that ad. Campaign finance laws would have prevented the union from donating that much money directly to Arena. But because it’s labelled an “independent expenditure,” they were free to spend it beating up on Garrido—another loophole in the law.
On the other hand, the “independent” attacks on Arena from Mayor Emanuel and his forces were just as misleading.
But they weren’t worried about accuracy. The mayor’s strategists tell me that their goal wasn’t supporting Garrido as much as forcing labor groups to counter with more money for Arena. That way the unions would have less money to spend on other races against mayoral loyalists.
The point is that politics is a rough game. Also: don’t believe those freaking campaign ads.
“Our elections can be bought by special interests,” says Garrido. “And I mean special interests from both sides.”
Here’s the good news: that election cycle is over.
Now the bad news: the next one is already gearing up.
Heading into primaries next year, Governor Rauner will be raising gobs of money to pay for barraging voters with mailings. He wants to convince us that he’s fixing the Illinois economy by cutting funding for programs for people with autism while handing out tax breaks to wealthy corporations.
Rauner has a few money pots to back his agenda. For starters, his own campaign fund has roughly $20 million, according to state records.
Then there’s Turnaround Illinois, a pro-Rauner PAC that’s supposed to keep legislators in line. It’s not to be confused with the ostensibly independent Illinoisans for Growth and Opportunity. While it sounds like something George Orwell invented, IllinoisGO is actually another PAC meant to keep legislators in line.
As you can see, keeping legislators in line is important to the governor.
Last week Matthew Hulsizer, cofounder of Peak6 Investment, donated $2 million to IllinoisGO. As the Tribune noted, Hulsizer is also a minority owner of the Minnesota Wild hockey team, which has been eliminated in each of the last two seasons by the Blackhawks. The Hawks are currently up two games to none in the teams’ latest playoff matchup.
Why should the state take advice from a PAC funded by a man with a stake in such a mediocre hockey team? That’s like taking advice from a man who owns the Cubs. Speaking of which: former Cubs owner Sam Zell recently contributed $4 million to Turnaround Illinois.
The way this is going, the money spent in the 45th Ward already looks like chump change. v