Friday, October 31, 2008

Money matters

The ongoing federal probe into alleged pay-to-play politics in Illinois demonstrates attempts to influence state business by donating to political campaigns. But the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform released another round of campaign contribution totals this week that seem to reinforce the fact that money drives politics behind the scenes, as well.

The Illinois Senate Democrats will pick a replacement for Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who retires in January. Since Jones announced his retirement, a lengthy list of candidates has started campaigning to replace him. The caucus will need 30 votes to select a new president. Watch for more about the candidates in the November edition of Illinois Issues magazine. UPDATE: Here's the story.

One way those candidates are trying to differentiate themselves is through cash. The more money they can raise for their political campaigns, the more they appear capable of strengthening an already extraordinarily big Democratic Caucus (of 59 total senators, 37 belong to the Senate Democratic Caucus).

According to two nonpartisan think tanks, the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform in Chicago and the Sunshine Project in Springfield, Senate presidential candidates have doled out more than $1 million to their party candidates and incumbents.

The top two givers are Sen. James Clayborne of Belleville and Sen. John Cullerton of Chicago, two who repeatedly have been mentioned as front-runners in the race to replace Jones.

Clayborne has given $418,000 to other Senate Democrats, while Cullerton has doled out $336,000. According to the Campaign for Political Reform, Clayborne has transferred money from his own political committee, Friends of Clayborne. Top donors to that fund include the Illinois Education Association, AT&T and Ameren Corp.

Cullerton has used money from his committee, Citizens for John Cullerton, but he also formed a new committee, the Senate Democratic Victory Fund. Top donors to both funds include Chicago Wolves chairman Don Levin; Sen. Heather Steans of Chicago, her husband Leo Smith and her parents; and the Illinois Hospital Association. We’ll talk more about the Democrats who are receiving these funds in another blog.

Political insiders are used to Jones raising that much money or more ($3.6 million in 2006), but when these new candidates aren’t even president yet and are raising those amounts, the totals are striking. But it’s also part of the legislative process in Illinois.

“The leader is supposed to help raise a lot of money, and that’s part of their job,” says David Morrison, assistant director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Part of what Cullerton and Clayborne are doing here is showing that they can shoulder that kind of burden, [that] they help their colleagues in that regard.”

Yet, this is one time when Morrison — ironically for a campaign finance reformer — says it’s not all about money. This internal election is about context. So even though these numbers look big, there are many other factors that are in play for whom the next Senate president will be.

  • Jones’ retirement: It means the person whom businesses donated to in the past is no longer the person who will funnel the funds to other Democratic members. Without knowing who will serve as the hub for accepting donations and funneling them to other Democrats, donors have to take their chances.
  • The Obama factor: It translates into record numbers of Democrats who will come out to vote for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama for U.S. president and who likely will continue voting Democratic down most of the ticket. Democrats are expected to have a good year, so money in some ways is less important this year than it was in 2004 and 2006, when Jones was trying to build on a majority of seats in the chamber.
  • Personality: Then there’s a question of which qualities that Senate Democrats want in their next leader. The most common characteristic cited is someone who can compromise and refresh the atmosphere in the Capitol, thereby breaking the stalemate of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his ally Jones against House Speaker Michael Madigan.

But the money is still important. It’s not just who is giving, but why are they giving? Morrison says it’s hard to tell if the Senate presidential candidates are attracting new donors, getting increased donations from patron donors or if it’s a combination. It’ll be easier to tell when the next detailed campaign finance reports are due in January. One thing is for sure, he says: “There’s a lot of money flowing around.”

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