Four men dominate the turf in Illinois’ political ‘playground of the rich’
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Judging by the numbers, Illinois might be closer than any other state to becoming a plutocracy — government by the wealthy.
A Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found that more than 25.9 percent of the money contributed to Illinois political campaigns the past two years has come from four men: Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker, Rauner supporter Kenneth Griffin and disgruntled former Rauner supporter Richard Uihlein.
Between March 1, 2016, and Thursday, more than $682 million came in to political campaigns in this state, according to the Illinois Board of Elections website.
More than one of every four of those dollars — close to $177 million — came from Rauner, Pritzker, Griffin or Uihlein, the Sun-Times analysis found.
Though big spenders are increasingly common in other states, too, the 2018 race for governor of Illinois could end up breaking the spending record of $280 million set by California’s 2010 contest between Democrat Jerry Brown and Silicon Valley executive Meg Whitman, said Don Wiener, a contributor at the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit watchdog organization in Madison, Wisconsin.
Whitman personally spent $144 million on her losing bid, but Wiener said the total tab for the top job in Illinois could reach $300 million this year if Rauner and Pritzker end up facing each other in the general election. Spending in the Illinois governor’s campaign could represent about 20 percent or even 30 percent of all the money in 36 governor’s races nationwide this year, he said.
“Except for that rare occasion in California, where you had the CEO of eBay running, you’re busting all records with one-third the voting population of California,” Wiener said.
Rauner leads the way in Illinois, having made political contributions totaling $67,722,600 in the last two years, including:
- $57.2 million to his Citizens for Rauner campaign fund in 2016.
- $9 million to the political committee of state House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
- $2.5 million to the right-wing Liberty Principles PAC.
- $1 million to Comptroller Leslie Munger’s losing re-election campaign two years ago.
A spokesman for Rauner declined to comment.
Pritzker, a billionaire venture capitalist and Hyatt Hotels heir, has spent nearly $63.7 million so far, including the $63,200,034.95 he’s given his own campaign in the March 20 primary. Over the weekend, Pritzker’s campaign reported that he gave his campaign $7 million.
The amount Pritzker has invested in the race dwarfs what his two primary rivals, Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss, have collected, allowing Pritzker to flood the airwaves with campaign ads.
During the past two years, Pritzker also gave $310,000 to Personal PAC, an abortion rights group. And he wrote a number of smaller checks to a long list of Democratic politicians. Among them were Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ($2,500) and Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia ($2,500).
On Friday, Pritzker — whose personal wealth reportedly exceeds $3 billion — said he was forced to spend big because of Rauner’s $50 million contribution to his own campaign in December 2016.
“We Democrats can’t unilaterally disarm in this environment,” Pritzker told the Sun-Times.
He also blamed the big spending on the lack of tighter rules governing campaign contributions nationally.
“The failure of the current contributions limits means that Republicans have poured tens of millions, if not hundreds, into the state of Illinois,” Pritzker said. “As the only progressive Democrat you’re writing about, it’s my duty to stand up for issues that matter most to me and for candidates who stand up for progressive values.”
Griffin, who’s the CEO of Citadel, a downtown investment management firm, gave more than $33.6 million to Illinois campaigns in the last two years, the Sun-Times analysis found.
Roughly two-thirds of Griffin’s political cash went to Rauner in two chunks: $20 million in May and another $2.5 million on Dec. 21.
Other Griffin contributions the past two years included $5 million to Durkin, more than $5 million to Munger and about $1 million to the Liberty Principles PAC.
Liberty Principles PAC is run by talk-show host and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Proft. Its stated mission is electing “principled conservative reform candidates” and defeating Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Griffin did not return messages seeking comment.
Uihlein, a corporate executive from Lake Forest, has contributed $11.9 million in the past two years, records show. Most of that — $7 million — went to the Liberty Principles PAC.
In late January, Uihlein made contributions of $2 million and $500,000 to Rauner’s primary foe Jeanne Ives. The money from Uihlein allowed Ives to air TV ads. Uihlein and Proft are former Rauner supporters who fell out with the governor during his first term and now support Ives.
Uihlein had contributed more than $2.6 million to Rauner — but nothing since late 2014.
Uihlein did not respond to messages left at the corporate headquarters of Uline, his company, in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Uline makes shipping boxes and packaging materials.
It’s become common for the ultra-rich to spend record sums on campaigns across the country, said John Jackson, a political scientist at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
“At the top, particularly for those major executive offices, American politics have become the playground of the rich,” Jackson said. “If you don’t have great resources of your own or access to someone with those tremendous resources, you can’t play in that top game.”
But Illinois could set a national record in 2018 primarily because “we have four or five very wealthy individuals who are giving so heavily,” said Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
“Now, we see it as common to have contributions for $7 million, $20 million or even $50 million,” Brune said. “It began in 2014 with Rauner. Now, it happens on both sides of the aisle.”
Another problem specific to Illinois, she said, is that limits on the amounts of contributions are lifted once one candidate puts $250,000 into his or her own campaign. The threshold for lifting the limits on contributions should be raised or removed entirely, Brune said.
That could further favor wealthy candidates who are self-funding their campaigns.
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform also supports creating a program that uses public money to match small, local contributions and limits contributions in those races to no more than $500 from any one person or company.
“That’s the reform we think would be most effective,” Brune said.
Pritzker said he supports a small-donor matching system and would favor stricter limits on campaign contributions if he’s elected.
“We need to find a way to limit those contributions across the board,” Pritzker said. “I would limit contributions from me, from Bruce Rauner, from Ken Griffin, from Dick Uihlein and from everybody.”