When Chicago voters head to the polls on Tuesday, they will not only decide the fate of their mayor, they will have a chance to vote on a referendum that has a chance to even the field for campaign spending during the next election cycle.
The “small donor matching” system before voters proposes to provide public money to match small contributions by individual donors — a plan proponents say will weaken the power of special interest money, open the pool of candidates to average citizens and restore faith in an election process seen by voters as controlled by a wealthy few.
On the face of it, this makes sense. Cronyism is baked into Chicago’s political culture stretching back decades. A 2012 report by the University of Illinois at Chicago showed that Chicago is by far the most corrupt city in the U.S. The Illinois Northern District, which contains Chicago, accounts for 84 percent of public corruption convictions in Illinois, outranking any other federal district in the U.S. since 1976.
Indeed, advocacy groups pushing the referendum say that public financing is already a proven success in New York City, which passed a similar program in 1988. In New York, candidates for office receive $6 in taxpayer money for every $1 they raise up to $175 per donor. The Brennan Center For Justice reports that in 2013, 79 candidates for office in New York signed up to participate.
Though those that helped get the referendum on the ballot will not say it outright, the recent “x factor” that underscored the need for campaign finance reform is current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His outsized campaign war chest dwarfed those of opponents in his first run for office and, this election, nearly 90 percent of his $30 million campaign fund is comprised of donations totaling $1,000 or more. According to a report by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, 43 percent of Emanuel’s donors wrote checks of $1,000 or more. For Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the mayor’s closest opponent, those donors made up only seven percent of contributors.
Sarah Brune, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign For Political Reform, insists that Tuesday’s referendum is “not targeted to any one candidate” in the election. Brune says that if Chicago implements the system, it will require closer scrutiny of candidates with the fattest bank accounts
“It will give candidates the freedom to listen to their average citizens and not spend so much time on the phone or in meetings trying to get those special interests to sign with them,” she says.
Even if Tuesday’s voters approve the referendum, however, it doesn’t actually become law. Rather, a “yes” vote only gives activists momentum to draft a model ordinance that will still need to wind its way through the city council. But, right now, even that first step is an open question: Election debates have failed to make the referendum a hot topic this cycle and Chicago voters seem disinterested in Tuesday’s vote in general. (In 2011, the last time Chicago chose a mayor, roughly 40 percent showed up at the polls, fairly good by US standards for a non-presidential year, but not the kind of turnout that inspires the word “mandate.”)
And the disinterest appears prevalent among elected officials, as well. Or is it lack of political will? According to Common Cause Illinois, of the 50 Chicago City Council members polled on the proposed ordinance, only seven gave their endorsement.