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updated: 3/23/2012 5:22 AM

Education groups spend big in 31st Senate race

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  • Melinda Bush

    Melinda Bush

  • Joe Neal

    Joe Neal


Education-related organizations already are proving to be top donors to the candidates seeking a 31st Senate District seat in Lake County, campaign disclosure documents show.

Republican Joe Neal has received contributions from Stand for Children Illinois, an education reform group. Democrat Melinda Bush's donors include the Illinois Federation of Teachers union and its Lake County branch.

David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform watchdog group, said voters can learn much about candidates by seeing the sources of their money. He said groups typically research candidates and contribute to those who are like-minded on issues.

"It's like an endorsement that way," Morrison said. "Maybe an endorsement on steroids. There is a lot of muscle."

Neal, a civil engineering corps naval officer from Wadsworth, will face Bush in the Nov. 6 general election. Neal topped a field of three other candidates to win the GOP primary, while Bush was unopposed Tuesday.

Domestic troubles prompted Republican state Sen. Suzi Schmidt of Lake Villa to not seek re-election. District 31 covers most of northern and parts of central Lake County.

Bush, a Lake County Board member from Grayslake, and Neal are each making their first run at a state Senate district seat.

Neal has collected $65,000 for his campaign this year, with $30,000 coming from the Stand for Children before the GOP primary, according to Illinois State Board of Elections documents. The group has pushed for a longer school day for students, lifting a cap on the number of charter schools allowed and greater teacher accountability.

Spokeswoman Mary McClelland said Thursday the organization's support for Neal isn't a given for the November election. Another endorsement process will occur and include Bush, she said.

"If these people really are pro-education, then I don't see why I won't get their endorsement," said Bush, a former technology worker at Grayslake Elementary District 46.

Neal said his previous work tutoring and mentoring low-income children in Chicago was one reason he received the group's money in the primary. He said financial support for his campaign will come when voters receive his message about the need for fiscal responsibility in state government.

"Raising money is not the number-one goal of my campaign," Neal said.

Stand for Children's executive director, Mary Anderson, issued a statement this week calling the organization a "strong supporter" of Neal since his campaign started.

"We are confident that Neal's thoughtful approach to advocating for kids will be a tremendous assist in the legislature, with Illinois students as the beneficiaries," Anderson said.

Although she didn't have a primary opponent, Bush said she's accumulated about $50,000 so far for her campaign.

State Board of Elections campaign disclosure reports show among her top donors this year are the Illinois Federation of Teachers and its Lake County branch, which have given a combined $7,000.

State election law requires a report to be filed whenever a candidate collects at least $1,000 from a single donor in a year.

Lake County Federation of Teachers President Michael McGue said Bush is a former member and is worthy of support as an education proponent.

"For me, the campaign is not about who is going to get what," Bush said. "It's about who I think is the best person for Springfield. And I think that's me."

Financial disclosure documents show Stand for Children's political-action committee had $2.9 million in available funds in the most recent quarterly reporting period that closed Dec. 31. The Illinois Federation of Teachers PAC had roughly $1 million and the Lake County branch $11,221.

McGue said it'll be difficult for the teachers union PACs, funded by dues, to match Stand for Children's bankroll for the November election. Members of Chicago's Crown family, Groupon Inc. co-founder Eric Lefkofsky and DRW Trading Group founder Donald Wilson Jr. and have contributed thousands to the organization, records show.

"People say unions have big money," McGue said, "but it'll be impossible to keep up dollar for dollar with these guys."

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