Editorial: The peril of 'big money' in elections

  • Democrat J.B. Pritzker, left, and Republican Bruce Rauner raised a combined $255 million, most of it from themselves, in their campaigns for Illinois governor.

    Democrat J.B. Pritzker, left, and Republican Bruce Rauner raised a combined $255 million, most of it from themselves, in their campaigns for Illinois governor. Associated Press

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 11/14/2018 6:22 PM

While many in the United States have focused their campaign reform cries on untraceable "dark money" pouring into election campaigns, we in Illinois have a problem of another sort.

The source of campaign funding in the Nov. 6 vote for Illinois governor was pretty transparent -- yet, it needs to change.


That's because the two candidates in that single race raised more than $255 million, a record-setter that -- in the words of our columnist Burt Constable -- could have paid the annual salaries of about 8,000 new teachers or funded the Greater Chicago Food Depository for two decades.

Now, spending that nine-figure sum isn't an either-or proposition, so the money was never going to get diverted to the hungry. The big problem was where it came from: very rich people, starting with the candidates themselves.

Almost all of the $176 million winner J.B. Pritzker raised came from his own fortune. Departing Gov. Bruce Rauner raised about $80 million, two-thirds from his own pocket and most of the rest from buddy Ken Griffin, the richest person in Illinois.

Running for governor clearly was never meant to be the sole province of bazillionaires. Yet, even a pretty rich person with merely a spare million or two to throw around could not compete with these numbers.

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Also worrisome, Pritzker gave millions to statehouse Democrats. He said that doesn't make them beholden.

Rauner did the same. But Rauner never was going to get the Democrat-majority legislature to do his bidding. With the General Assembly on his side, Pritzker's donations could carry a lot more weight.

Pritzker promises campaign funding reform. It's essential that he follow through. Illinois' spending limits survived a court challenge this year but haven't come into play in recent governor contests, where the cap is lifted when either a candidate or an outside independent group throws a quarter-million dollars into the race.

That alone signals a need for reform to reduce the influence of big money, broaden the voice of small donors and open the door to campaigns by candidates beyond the über-rich.

Voters on Election Day approved ballot initiatives in Denver, Baltimore and New York City in which government matches small donations, sometimes while also limiting big contributions. Fresh from the barrage of negativity in the just-completed campaign, Illinois voters might not be eager to help pay for the next one.

Yet, it's worth a look to see where we might learn from others' experiences and find a way to curb spending on campaigns, lest the only future governors come from the Forbes 400 -- a dangerous limitation to democracy in our state.

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