Trying to offset well-heeled Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s threat to bankroll legislative candidates, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan has been on a fundraising tear, courtesy of a quirk in state campaign finance law that allows him to amass multiple five-figure contributions from the same donor into four funds he controls.
As a result, Madigan raised more than $7.1 million in 2015, including $2.8 million that arrived in December alone, State Board of Elections reports showed. That 2015 total is about $2.3 million more than what Madigan collected during the same pre-election period two years ago.
The haul is an indication of the high-stakes game expected to play out between the two political titans in 2016 over control of the General Assembly and the House in particular.
A Tribune review of the donations to the Madigan funds underscores some of the major themes in a lengthy Springfield stalemate pitting the veteran speaker against the first-term governor. More than 68 percent of the political money that moved to Madigan in 2015 came from organized labor, trial lawyers and law firms.
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Rauner has made weakening the political power of organized labor, particularly public-sector unions, a key plank in what he calls his “Turnaround Agenda.” The governor also is pushing for changes in civil liability law as well as making the standard more difficult for employees to win workers’ compensation claims for job-related injuries.
The impasse over that agenda has kept Illinois without a spending plan for its current budget year, which ends June 30. Madigan, citing Democratic support of its labor allies, has refused to consider Rauner’s agenda items and contends they are unrelated to putting together a state budget that fully funds social services.
The massive fundraising by Madigan, leader of the 71 Democrats in the 118-member House for all but two years since 1983, is a response to the threat leveled by Rauner, a wealthy former equity investor who started 2015 with a flush campaign fund. After winning the November 2014 election, Rauner put $10 million of his own money into his campaign account. Billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin added another $8 million, and conservative businessman Richard Uihlein put in another $2 million.
The huge donations, viewed in Illinois politics as seed money for Republican legislative candidates, were allowed because Rauner had lifted campaign contribution limits during the governor’s race by spending more than $35 million of his own money on the contest.
Illinois did not have campaign contribution limits until a 2009 law was approved in the wake of the scandal created by imprisoned former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich. While the law limited each candidate to one principal campaign fund, it also authorized campaign funds for political parties and caucuses.
For Madigan, who wears several hats in Illinois politics, that means he’s allowed to control four campaign fundraising entities – Friends of Michael J Madigan, the Democratic Majority fund, the Southwest Side 13th Ward fund and the Democratic Party of Illinois account.
So when Madigan set out to raise campaign money to offset the avalanche of Rauner cash, he was able to ask labor unions and trial lawyers to contribute to all of them. And they have.
A labor union political action committee, which is limited to giving $53,900 per election, can provide the maximum amount to each of Madigan’s four funds as well as sending the same maximum figure directly to the campaign funds of individual candidates. The same is true for supportive law firms, which are limited to $10,800 for corporations, and individuals, who are limited to $5,400 per election.
State campaign finance reports show the Service Employees International Union HealthCare Illinois Indiana political action committee has given the $53,900 maximum for the primary to all four of Madigan’s accounts. Also among that group were the Washington-based union-affiliated Laborers Political League Education Fund, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Chicago Land Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC, an affiliate of the Operating Engineers Union.
The Construction & General Laborers District Council of Chicago, the SEIU Illinois Council PAC and an Operating Engineers Local 150 PAC gave the maximum to three of Madigan’s funds.
Madigan is able to transfer as much as he wants out of his own fund into the accounts of the Democratic Party, Democratic Majority and 13th Ward. Those three funds, described as political party funds, can give unlimited money and help to individual Democratic candidates in the November general election.
The per-election limit is important since the March 15 primary election and the Nov. 8 general election count as two separate elections. That allows contributors to effectively double their donations for the main contests in the fall. Some of the labor unions also have contributed the maximum amount allowed to House Democrats who are potential GOP targets in November 2016.
Through Wednesday, the Democratic Party of Illinois raised more than $2.5 million, Democratic Majority collected more than $2 million, Friends of Michael J Madigan more than $1.7 million and the 13th Ward fund more than $754,000, according to campaign reports filed with the state. A Tribune review showed more than 53 percent of the speaker’s yearly total has come from organized labor and 15 percent has come from law firms and lawyers.
Kent Redfield, a negotiator on the campaign reform legislation, said the ability of political leaders to control multiple funds was a “weakness” in the law. Redfield said Democrats argued that campaign donation limits were to offset the appearance of corruption, but political parties should be exempt because they couldn’t be corrupted.
“This was the first time we got limits (on campaign donations in Illinois), and so there was a sense in which this (law) was viewed as the first step. Then it turned out to be the last step. But clearly, that was all we could get,” said Redfield, a campaign finance expert and professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Still, even with the fundraising blitz, Madigan trails Rauner. The governor had more than $19.6 million in his campaign fund at the start of October. Turnaround Illinois, which supports Rauner’s agenda, had another $2.6 million available. Additionally, a group aimed at pushing Rauner’s issues among Democrats, Illinois Growth and Opportunity, had nearly $9 million.
Redfield suggested Madigan’s fundraising flurry “is a direct response to that $20 million sitting in the governor’s fund, which he then can transfer to the state Republican Party.”
While Rauner has money available to help Republicans, Madigan has one nondollar advantage. Democrats drew the state’s legislative boundaries after the 2010 federal census, giving them a political and demographic advantage against Republicans in general elections.