Money Counts: How Dollars Dominate Illinois Politics and What We Can Do About It

Jan 1, 2001

The ultimate symbol of money in Illinois politics is a shoe box. Even though it has been decades since the death of Secretary of State Paul Powell in 1970, and the subsequent discovery of more than $800,000 in cash in his hotel room, the image of that tattered box endures.

Powell was the "gray fox of Vienna," three-time speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, a deal maker extraordinaire. As a public servant, he never made an annual salary of more than $30,000 from a career in elected office that lasted nearly 35 years. Those outside of Illinois politics may have been shocked to discover that Powell died with all that cash and an estate valued at more than $2.6 million. But those on the inside had known for a long while that in the Land of Lincoln, money can drive politics and politics can drive money.

The playing field in 1970 was remarkably wide open. In keeping with the political culture of the time, laws regulating campaign finance, lobbying, and political ethics were so weak and unenforced that they were virtually nonexistent. There were no restrictions on giving money or other gifts to elected officials and no restrictions on what elected officials did with them. Bribery, extortion, theft, and fraud were crimes then as now. But the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that private money and public power intertwined to distort and corrupt the political process were unabated by laws or public scrutiny. Robert Hartley's biography of Powell, published in 1999, focused new attention on his career and the times in which he lived. A comforting thought would be that Paul Powell and his shoe box represent a different era in Illinois politics, "a long time ago and far, far away."

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But Powell is hardly an anachronism, even in the Illinois politics of today. In 1994, on a highway near Milwaukee, an unqualified Illinois truck driver named Ricardo Guzman caused an accident that killed six children. Investigation into how Guzman obtained his license touched off a federal investigation into a bribes-for-licenses scheme that implicated five Chicago-area secretary of state testing facilities. By April 15, 2000, Operation Safe Road, as the ongoing investigation was called, had secured 25 guilty pleas. Former secretary of state employees admitted that they tunneled over $170,000 in bribe money into then-Secretary of State George Ryan's campaign fund. Ryan won the governorship in 1998, before the investigation had gathered its momentum. He subsequently denied knowledge of his employees' illegal activities, and, by May 2000, had donated $200,000 from his campaign coffers to charity, a gesture apparently designed to show he was purging tainted money from his accounts.

Personal ethics aside, what about Powell, the politician? How would he do in modem Illinois politics? Until recently, the answer certainly would have been, "Quite well." From 1970 to 1997, the only substantive changes in the official rules of the game of money and politics were a reporting and disclosure law passed in 1976. That law covered the contribution and expenditure of campaign funds, and in 1993 a lobbyist registration and expenditure reporting law passed.

Even these changes were weak laws with grossly underfunded agencies providing minimal oversight and enforcement.

What about more recent changes? The years 1997 and 1998 were, by Illinois standards, a period of remarkable reform. The state now mandates electronic disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures, with increased details on where contributions come from. Candidates' reports are posted on the State Board of Elections' web site. There is a ban on using campaign funds for personal use, along with other ethics reforms. There are much stronger lobbying registration and reporting requirements, a ban on gifts to public officials, and greatly enhanced competitive bidding regulations for government contracts. The press is more attentive, more knowledgeable, and more aggressive in reporting the role that money plays in Illinois politics. The success of these efforts has energized and empowered public interest groups pushing for more sweeping reforms. Looking forward in early 1997, most of the changes that have become law looked impossible. By 1999, the momentum had clearly shifted. Surely the day is near when we can confidently say that Powell's politics as well as his ethics are hopelessly out of place in Illinois politics. Or is it?

Illinois politicians spent a record $91 million running for the legislature, governor, and the other five constitutional offices elected in 1998.


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In the heyday of Paul Powell and Otto Kerner, horse track owners tied the knot between campaign money and favorable legislation. Today, the state's gambling industry includes riverboat casinos. A small number of gambling interests contributed more than $1.9 million to legislators and constitutional officers in 1997 and 1998. They followed up with more than $900,000 in contributions in 1999. In that year, a major gambling bill extended riverboat gambling to Cook County and allowed those casinos to operate without cruising. The measure also gave racetrack owners tax breaks and direct state subsidies based on a percentage of the revenues generated by the Cook County boat. The bill passed the legislature and was signed into law by the governor. Was this an isolated incident? No. That same legislative session, Chicago Blackhawks owner and liquor distributor William Wirtz was a major proponent of a bill that would require liquor suppliers to give three months' notice and provide justification before bowing out of contracts with their current distributors. Interests supporting the Wirtz bill contributed more than $300,000 to legislative and constitutional officer candidates in 1998 and 1999. Wirtz also hired lobbyists who contributed more than $300,000 on their own during the same period. The General Assembly passed the protectionist legislation for both the liquor and soda pop distributors in the spring of 1999, even though the Federal Trade Commission called the measures anticompetitive. Governor Ryan signed the legislation as soon as it hit his desk, and the law took effect immediately. So, in 1999, we see that large campaign contributions and highly paid lobbyists drove issues that had little public support but huge financial implications for their supporters. Why? Because there are still no limits on how much groups, corporations, and individuals can contribute to the political funds of candidates. People with the most money don't always win in Illinois, either in the legislature or at the ballot box.

But they almost always beat those without money in both arenas.

A stark reality of Illinois politics at the turn of this century is the overwhelming political power amassed by the legislative leaders. Their control over legislative elections and the policy process in the legislature is almost total, and it rests, to a significant degree, on their unrestricted ability to raise and spend campaign contributions. No clearer example of the exercise and the consequences of the leaders' power exists than the $49 billion state budget rubber-stamped by the legislature in April 2000. The budget was almost exclusively a product of negotiations among the four legislative leaders and the governor.

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Ours is still a politics in which the pursuit of winning and power and jobs and clout usually prevail over principles and policy and ideals. One of the tools of this type of politics is money. The rules of the political game still favor those outside of government who have money and know how to use it. Within government, those who are willing and able to use their power and position to raise money enjoy the same advantage. In spite of recent reforms, Illinois still has the most wide-open, unrestricted campaign finance system in the nation.

Political power is concentrated in the hands of legislative leaders and the governor in ways that Powell could only imagine. Paul Powell was a leader with a well-deserved reputation for making deals and raising money. As a politician, he would not just survive in our current politics. He would thrive. 


Selected Redfield recommendations

Contributions from individuals, candidate committees, party committees, and noncandidate committees should be limited to $5,000 during a two-year period; no more than $2,500 prior to a primary election, and no more than $2,500 prior to a general election from a single source and for the office held or sought.

Candidates for office should be limited to having only one campaign committee, and party organizations should have just one committee at the local, county, legislative, and statewide levels. Finally, corporations, unions, and associations should be allowed to form only one political action committee.

Ban direct contributions from corporations and unions.

Every noncandidate group or entity that gives more than $3,000 to candidates or political committees during a six-month period should be required to form a political committee and file reports of receipts and expenditures as specified by the State Election Code.

The official name of any noncandidate committee must reflect the source of the funding for the committee, and contributions made by a noncandidate committee must be made and reported using the official name. Also, the purpose given in the organizational documents filed by the committee with the State Board of Elections when forming a political committee must reflect the specific interests of the contributors.