How the mayoral money contest can change overnight

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We’ve heard it again and again in the race for Chicago mayor.

If Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis really wants to launch a run against the formidable Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she had better pull the trigger — and fast — to compete against the millions of dollars Emanuel has stockpiled.

But there’s a law that people often forget about. And it could quickly be a game changer in the mayoral race.

It went into effect in 2012 and creates an easy path to being financially competitive, even late in the game, for people like Lewis and possibly Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).

The law says that the state’s limits on campaign contributions in any municipal race would be lifted for every candidate if an outside group like a super PAC spends $100,000 or more to advocate or attack any candidate in the race.

That means if Chicago Forward, the super PAC that’s been created on Emanuel’s behalf, spends $100,000 to blast Karen Lewis on Monday, then on Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers can plow $1 million into her campaign committee.

These days, it takes all of five minutes for a campaign operation to burn through $100,000.

Andy Nauman, deputy director of the division of campaign disclosure for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said as long as the outside group is not coordinating with the campaign and spent more than $100,000 in expressed advocacy in support or opposition to a candidate, “then the contribution limits can be lifted.”

The same holds true, by the way, for statewide elections, except the threshold is $250,000. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner triggered the cap removal on his own through a different route: self-funding. Once he donated more than $250,000 of his own money to the campaign, the legal limits on campaign contributions, signed into law in 2011, were lifted. Under the law, contributions are limited to $5,300 from individuals and $10,500 from corporations, unions or associations.

For a group like the AFT, there could be benefits to directly giving Lewis money. Under campaign finance rules, Lewis could use that money in campaign ads to talk directly into the camera — widely seen as the most effective way of getting the message to voters.

Super PACs, which are independent expenditure committees, must by law act independently from the candidate. So they can spend money to prop up a candidate or tear another down, but they can’t feature the person they’re behind on camera.

Chicago political consultant Ken Snyder, who worked on Gery Chico’s mayoral campaign in 2010, said Chico was able to raise $4.2 million, within campaign limits, from October to the February mayoral election.

“You can certainly raise the money and work really hard. It’s possible to raise the money within the limits,” Snyder said. “What not having the limits allows you to do is take $1 million from a group. The downside is now you can be cast as a subsidiary of whatever that group does.”

Lewis could have a problem shedding her one-issue image if the AFT is her biggest funder. Fioretti could suffer if he were to be seen as bought by one group or another. Emanuel, however, is likely the biggest beneficiary of caps coming off, because he’s not only the incumbent but can easily tap large donors.

“Rahm is viewed in the donor community as a very formidable candidate. You’ve got to convince them you can beat him, and you’ve got to convince them every day, all day,” Snyder said. “The question is, does anyone considering running have the fortitude, the work ethic and the Rolodex to compete effectively against those circumstances?”

We shall soon see. Lewis and Fioretti never expected to out-fundraise Emanuel.

But if money makes you a contender, then we may quickly have a few contenders in this mayoral race.

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