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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 06:00 am

Reformers capitulate on campaign finance

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A few weeks ago, I asked a top Republican what his party’s plan was in the ongoing war over campaign finance reform.

“We are not for some sham ethics bill,” the official said, then added with tongue slightly in cheek, “We stand with the reformers, until they capitulate, then I’m not sure where we stand, but I’ll let you know.”

The Republicans are badly outnumbered in both the Illinois House and Senate, they don’t raise as much money as the Democrats, their party has been on the outs with voters since Gov. George Ryan went down in flames and President George W. Bush alienated most of the state.

So the Republicans did the politically smart thing and eagerly professed their undying love for reform and pledged their never-ending loyalty to those plucky reformers — all the while using the reform issue and the reform groups as a partisan sledge-hammer against the Democrats. It was a smart political play.

The assault started when Gov. Pat Quinn’s reform commission issued its report. Several of the commission’s recommendations were unworkable, and even some commissioners admitted that there were flaws in their report, but the Republicans demanded a vote on that document as it was, without changes. They were denied by the Democrats and the media immediately picked up their howls of outrage. Coverage always follows conflict and the Republicans used that hard rule of the universe to their advantage at every opportunity.

After the governor’s commission disbanded, the Republicans latched on to a coalition of reformers called Change Illinois.

“Any proposal not fully endorsed by Change Illinois will not have my support,” House Republican Leader Tom Cross defiantly declared last week.

Well, “capitulation” came just a few days after Cross’ declaration of alliance, and he and the rest of the Republican Party were left in the dust.

Change Illinois agreed to a provision which allowed legislative leaders and party committees to contribute money to candidates without any limitations during general elections, but capped those contributions in primaries. The proposal had been almost universally slammed by the state’s major newspaper editorial pages as worse than no reform at all and had been flatly rejected by the Republicans for potentially concentrating even more power into the hands of legislative leaders.

After praising the reformers and vowing to stand with them for most of the year, the Republicans resorted to attacking the reformers when they cut the deal. Rep. Suzie Bassi (R-Palatine), for instance, suggested that the reform coalition may have been “bought out.”

But the legitimacy conferred on the reform groups by people like Leader Cross for the past several months made the Republicans’ angry reaction look more than a little hollow.  Any suggestion that the reformers had been somehow bought off just isn’t believable.

The Republicans and the other critics are probably right about the bill’s merits. Not capping the contributions made by the caucus committees and the party organizations while capping everybody else’s contributions isn’t exactly fair and certainly does nothing to address the massive spending by those entities during general elections.

Ironically, or perhaps intentionally, the House Republicans may suffer the most from this contribution cap during primaries. History has shown that it’s a rarity for a Democratic legislative primary to drastically impact the outcome of a general election (although there may be one next year in Chicago, of all places). But the House Republicans have fought off organized primary assaults from their own party’s right wing for decades. They spent a fortune because if those ultra-conservative candidates prevailed in the primary then the Democrats would have a good shot at picking up those seats in the general election.

There are a few curious aspects to the bill. For instance, the language which bans political parties from making campaign contributions in primaries expires right before the petition process begins for the 2014 campaign. So, if Attorney General Lisa Madigan decides to run for governor in that election and her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, is still the state Democratic Party chairman, the cap could disappear for her just in time for the campaign.

That may sound like a convenient gift, but it will probably cause some real headaches for Ms. Madigan. Another high-profile fight like this one over Speaker Madigan’s resistance to reform just before the campaign season starts could be a disaster for the daughter.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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