Illinois: New frontier in politics, money and endless campaigns

Posted at 11:05 AM, May 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-27 12:39:02-04

Illinois has a long, tawdry and amusing history as an innovator in influence peddling. That distinguished heritage is flourishing in the regime of Gov. Bruce Rauner, the newly elected Republican who vowed to reform Illinois politics, as they all do. 

Rauner became a billionaire in the private equities business. Like all good modern moguls, he believes in “disrupting” stale business models. As governor, his disruption has been to amass an enormous, perhaps unprecedented post-election war chest to help cajole, lubricate and power his agenda.

Many states are facing fiscal fractures, but Illinois is among the worst. Rauner campaigned last year as a businessman who could balance the books by reining in labor unions, cutting public pension liabilities and stuffing pro-business reforms down the throat of the Democratic machine.

Since the election, the fiscal crisis has worsened. The Illinois Supreme Court recently overruled a plan to save billions by cutting pension benefits for public employees; that escape route appears to have been cut off. Moody’s, the bond rating company, has downgraded Chicago’s debts to junk levels.

So now the Republican governor and the Democratic legislature are facing a $6 billion deficit and are supposed to pass a budget this week. The situation resembles the budget gridlock that is now routine on the federal level.

Rauner, however, is bringing in some of the heaviest artillery ever seen on the state level, with about $34 million in ammunition. He’s using much of his own money and the rest from a couple big names in Illinois finance and gossip pages. If successful, Rauner could indeed be the political entrepreneur who takes perma-campaigning to new levels.

Since the 2014 election, Rauner’s campaign committee has raised $20.6 million. Rauner himself chipped in $10.6 million. Another $8 million came from one of the biggest hedge fund operators in the country, Kenneth Griffin. According to Forbes, Griffin is the richest person in Illinois. Another $2 million was donated by the CEO of a privately-held Wisconsin company, Richard Uihlein.

In addition, there’s Turnaround Illinois, a new PAC financed primarily with $4 million from Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate man who gained fame and infamy by taking the Tribune Company into bankruptcy. Rauner contributed $250,000 to the PAC.

There’s one more PAC, Illinoisans for Growth and Opportunity. It has raised $8.5 million from four different donors.

In recent weeks, Rauner’s network has contributed to the campaign committee of every Republican in the state legislature, totaling $400,000. It has been reported that these groups will also be running ads, furthering the permanent campaign to the state level.

Compared to the billions Hillary Clinton is expected to spend and gazillions Super PACs are raising on the federal level, these numbers seem puny. They aren’t on the state level.

For example, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, “Since March 1, 1,363 contributions of $1,000 or more—with a total value topping $4 million — have been disclosed by legislators, constitutional officers and state political parties.” So Rauner’s bankroll is pretty gaudy.

Don’t think the Democrats are pikers. According to the Chicago Tribune’s analysis of state records, the Democratic House Speaker and Democratic Senate President control a combined $3.4 million right now. Last year, the Democratic Speaker, Michael Madigan, contributed $6 million to Democrats running for the statehouse.

Let’s just hope that super-sized political money disrupts state politics in the same wonderful, purifying way it has on the national level.

[Also by Dick Meyer: North Korea: Better nukes but no lobsters]

Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at