Compared to the battle of the billionaires for Illinois governor, the eight Democratic candidates vying to become attorney general are relying on chump change to fuel their campaigns.
Yet the shortage of digits in their fundraising totals hasn’t kept campaign cash from becoming a focal point of the race.
At nearly every get-together for three months, the candidates have traded accusations over the propriety of special interest money, unlimited contributions and self-funders in a campaign for a job that arguably requires the highest level of ethics — the state’s top legal officer.
Though most complaints have been aimed at the perceived front-runners, state Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago and former Gov. Pat Quinn — who also have compiled the most campaign money — nearly every candidate has taken some fire.
First-time candidate Sharon Fairley, a former federal prosecutor, goes so far as to argue the contest has become the “poster child for what’s wrong with campaign-finance laws” in Illinois—even as others point to her $420,000 in personal contributions as part of the problem.
At a recent candidate forum sponsored by the Sun-Times, Renato Mariotti, another federal prosecutor turned first-time candidate, said, “It blows my mind how much money drives our political system, and it’s wrong.
“It’s a crime. It’s an absolute shame that, in order to be able to run a normal campaign, you have to be somebody like me. And you should be more outraged than you are,” said Mariotti, who parlayed his social media commentary on the investigation of Donald Trump into 130,000 Twitter followers and regular appearances on cable news shows — which has helped him bring in more than $500,000 in campaign contributions.
Still, the fundraising for attorney general is hardly unique.
“What’s happening in that race is unfortunately commonplace at this point,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which tracks money issues in politics.
Fundraising became a flashpoint early after Raoul accepted $100,000 from companies owned by Glenview tobacco mogul Donald R. Levin, who also owns the Chicago Wolves.
Raoul’s opponents say that’s an ethical lapse because the attorney general’s office is engaged in litigation with one of Levin’s companies, Top Tobacco, along with other tobacco companies, over how much they owe the state each year under the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.
Litigation with the tobacco companies is expected to continue for years — the settlement calls for the payments to continue forever — meaning the next attorney general will still be dealing with the issue.
Defending his decision to keep the money, Raoul cites his 100 percent voting record with the American Lung Association and says his 13-year record in the Legislature shows he is “not for sale.”
Part of the problem was that Levin made the contributions with 10 checks of $10,000 each from his various companies in what looked like an effort to circumvent the state’s $11,100 limit on corporate contributions.
That aspect became somewhat moot on Christmas Eve when another candidate, state Rep. Scott Drury of Highwood, disclosed that he and his father had contributed a combined $295,000 to his campaign. That exceeded the $250,000 personal contribution ceiling for a candidate in a statewide race, which, under Illinois law, voids all limits on donors.
The result has been a spate of large donations.
“Now, it’s completely the Wild West. It’s completely out of control,” said Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering, who quickly moved to give $178,000 to her own campaign.
Drury, best known as the only Democrat to oppose Michael Madigan as House speaker, went on to take $241,000 from venture capitalist Steven N. Miller.
Two years ago, Miller teamed with former securities trader Blair Hull to fund an independent expenditure committee, Illinois United for Change, that spent $1 million trying to help Jason Gonzales take Madigan’s House seat.
Drury’s detractors protray Miller as a Republican, but it’s not that simple. Miller voted in the last two Republican primaries and gave money to Gov. Bruce Rauner. But he also gave money to former Democratic Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and previously voted regularly in Democratic primaries.
Quinn also found a deep-pocket donor, reporting a $200,000 loan from prolific Evanston tax appeals lawyer Richard Shapiro. That drew criticism, given controversies over the role of tax appeals lawyers in the property assessment system, some of which has been stoked by Quinn.
Quinn’s campaign says this is different because Shapiro specializes in appeals for homeowners, not the downtown commercial buildings that are the primary domain of clout lawyers. Shapiro and Quinn are old friends from when Quinn also was a property tax lawyer. The two share Sox season tickets.
Raoul accepted $75,000 from Stephen Schuler, executive director of PharmaCann, one of the state’s biggest players in the medical marijuana industry, with four dispensaries and two cultivation centers.
The attorney general’s office is heavily involved in the medical marijuana arena, defending the state in lawsuits brought by individuals who want to expand the illnesses for which cannabis can be prescribed.
Raoul favors legalizing marijuana.
The senator’s finance chairman is billionaire casino owner Neil Bluhm, whose gaming interests frequently bring him in contact with the Legislature — and potentially with the attorney general. Bluhm, his family members and related businesses have given more than $100,000 to Raoul’s campaign.
Rotering, who says she devotes seven hours daily to fundraising calls, is one of three candidates — including Raoul and Chicago Park District President Jesse Ruiz — to take money from utility companies, even though the attorney general represents consumers in rate cases before the Illinois Commerce Commission. They say that, if elected, they will cease the practice. Quinn, who has criticized the donations, took contributions from utility executives when he was governor.
Altogether, six of the eight candidates have put at least $100,000 of their own money into their campaigns — excluding only Raoul and Mariotti.
Fairley, who previously was married to Ariel Capital founder John Rogers, said she would never have made her $420,000 contribution if Drury hadn’t. But she defends it by saying, “I don’t have a conflict of interest with myself.”
Most of the candidates made their personal contributions in the form of loans, but history shows losing candidates find it difficult to recover those funds.
Raoul said he couldn’t have afforded such a large personal donation. His $2.3 million political war chest still more than doubles his nearest competitor.
The eight candidates have raised a combined $7.5 million through March 8 — counting funds at their disposal at the beginning of 2017 or collected since then. Not included are small contributions from 2018, which have yet to be reported.
Total spending in the contest should easily surpass the $8 million mark.
That wouldn’t even make the $9 million monthly nut in J.B. Pritzker’s $63 million-and-counting primary campaign for governor.
The candidates and their money
State Sen. Kwame Raoul
Fundraising total: $2.3 million
Personal contribution: $3,500
Biggest donor: Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC, $110,808
Former Gov. Pat Quinn
Fundraising total: $1.1 million
Personal contribution: $100,000
Biggest donor: Richard Shapiro, property tax lawyer, $200,000
Rep. Scott Drury
Fundraising total: $1.1 million
Personal contribution: $295,000 (includes father)
Biggest donor: Steven N. Miller, venture capitalist, $241,000
Fundraising total: $916,454
Personal contribution: $105,600
Biggest donor: John Rowe, Exelon chairman emeritus, $30,600
Fundraising total: $770,768
Personal contribution: $178,000
Biggest donor: Semersky Enterprises, $21,100
Fundraising total: $650,020
Personal contribution: $420,000
Biggest donor: Steve Crown, general partner, Henry Crown and Company, $25,000
Fundraising total: $404,688
Personal contribution: $32,306
Biggest donor: Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates, $16,100
Fundraising total: $245,277
Personal contribution: $222,000 (includes family members)
Biggest donor: Sheldon Sorosky, defense lawyer, $3,000
NOTE: Fundraising totals include cash on hand Jan. 1, 2017, plus receipts reported to the Illinois State Board of Elections to have been received through March 8.