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EDITORIAL: How do you run for governor in Illinois if you are not a billionaire?

Illinois Democratic Gubernatorial candidates, from left, Bob Daiber, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and Tio Hardiman participated in a forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

To understand why Illinois must reform the way state elections are financed, look no further than Tina Sfondeles’ report in the Sun-Times on Wednesday.

J.B. Pritzker is spending $156,355.64 to run for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Each and every day.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is spending $195,369.25 to run for the Republican nomination.

Each and every day.

Those numbers, calculated from the two billionaire candidates’ latest quarterly filings with the Illinois State Board of Elections, tell a discouraging story. More than ever in politics, money talks. If you don’t have it, good luck getting a word in edgewise.

We assume you’ve noticed all those Pritzker and Rauner ads.


On Wednesday, when the six candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, they generally agreed on the need for campaign finance reform. Two of the candidates — Chris Kennedy and state Sen. Daniel Biss — are on record as supporting the turbocharging of small campaign donations by matching them with a larger amount of public financing, typically six public dollars for every dollar a small donor gives.

“We should learn from the experience we have had,” Kennedy said.

Pritzker, who essentially is self-funding his campaign, said he also supports a move to greater public funding, in concept. “We need to create a system here in Illinois where people can get some public funding,” he said, “so they have the ability to step up and run if they can’t do it themselves.”

For Democrats, Biss added, the heart of the matter is what does the party stand for.

“I think the Democrats in 2018 have a choice to make about the soul of the party,” Biss said. “Donald Trump is the president and Bruce Rauner is the governor . . . and we have assumed that is the only way forward. Or we can build a fundamentally different vision of politics.”

A system of small matching public donations would encourage candidates to listen more to ordinary voters, not just the rich. As things work now, candidates don’t always pay much mind to people who might be able to kick in a measly $100. That won’t make them a contender. But if that $100 were matched by $600 in public funds, the candidate might rediscover the virtues of retail politics — talking to regular folks about their everyday concerns while holding out the tin cup.

Proposals for matching public dollars have been introduced at various levels of government, but gone nowhere. A bill passed the state Senate in the last session but died in the House. A Cook County Board bill is sitting in committee, as is one before the City Council. Legislation in Congress has stalled in both chambers because of Republican opposition.

Supporters are planning a renewed push this year in the state House, and a similar effort is planned for candidates seeking office in Evanston.

Some form of matching dollars for small donations exists in many large cities. The measure proposed in Chicago would require candidates to agree not to accept donations of more than $500. Candidates also would be required to collect $17,500 from small donors in their ward before they could qualify for donation matching. Candidates accepting small donor matching also would agree to a cap on total contributions.

We understand the glaring weakness in all these schemes: The money’s still not much when you look at what billionaire candidates, their billionaire friends, the biggest labor unions and others can throw into an election. Pritzker contributed more than $42 million to his campaign through the end of the last year. Rauner raised more than $73 million through the end of the year, including a $50 million check he wrote to himself.

But even a relatively modest system of campaign public financing could put wind into the sails of the many candidates who are well qualified in every way but financially. They, too, deserve to be heard.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.