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Can Campaign Finance Be Reformed In Chicago? Ald Wants $250 Cap On Donations From Insiders With ‘Outsized Influence’

Ald. Matt Martin has proposed an ordinance that would reward campaigns for raising small donations from residents.

Ald. Matthew J. Martin (47th) looks on at a City Council meeting on June 25, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Ald. Matt Martin (47th) is proposing an ordinance that would encourage city elections for aldermen and the mayor to be publicly financed.

Under the plan, campaign hopefuls and officials seeking reelection would have a choice to opt-in to new fundraising guidelines, which would cap large donations from influential donors and multiply small ones from community members.

The proposed ordinance would put a $250 cap on campaign donations from any individual, corporation or business “who has business dealings with the city,” Martin said.

Funds will be matched six-to-one for every small donation of $175 or less, Martin said.

To qualify, aldermanic campaigns would have to raise $17,500 from at least 100 small donations. Mayoral hopefuls would have to raise $200,000 from at least 1,145 small donations, Martin said.

The matching donations would max out at $150,000 for aldermanic races and $3.6 million for mayoral races, Martin said. Other eligible races, with their own tailored caps, are city clerk and city treasurer, Martin said.

What would fund the matching donations is to be determined, but it could be raised from “city coffer” and penalties collected from campaign finance violations, Martin said.

The average cost to win a contested aldermanic race is $250,000, while a successful mayoral campaign can run upwards of $5 million, said Dick Simpson, a former alderman and a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor.

Simpson, who publishes an annual report on Illinois political corruption, said Martin’s plan is a “good reform” that he does not expect to pass.

“There’s too many incumbents in City Council who have solidified connections,” Simpson said.

A similar ordinance was introduced in 2016 by Ald. Michelle Harris and former alds. John Arena and Joe Moore. It failed to pass, Martin said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Supporters cheer as Mayor Lori Lightfoot kicks off her reelection campaign at Starlight Restaurant in Ashburn, alongside Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) and Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) on June 8, 2022.

The touchy task of reforming campaign finance will require “much further discussion” of the proposed plan amongst council members and community members, Martin said. He’s introducing it now so election financing “is a part of the conversation” as local races heat up.

If passed, the ordinance would likely take effect for 2027 municipal elections, Martin said.

Martin modeled the ordinance on New York City’s Matching Funds Program, which has led the city to have “recent elections where a large representation of minorities are running and winning races,” he said.

Muzzling large donations and encouraging small ones would level the playing field for candidates without powerful ties, Martin said.

“At local levels of government, it can be challenging to raise funds to run the races so many folks wish they could run,” Martin said. “We clearly have too many corporations and wealthy individuals who have outsized influence in elections.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Election judge Victor Ombalino demonstrates how to fill out a ballot at Hibbard Elementary School in Albany Park during the Primary Election on June 28, 2022.

Martin pointed to Richard Irvin’s failed gubernatorial bid — which was backed by $50 million from hedge fund manager Ken Griffin — as an example of the public disconnect when “a campaign is bankrolled by and tailored to the proclivities of one person.”

“Look how well that election went for them,” Martin said.

Martin said the proposal is based on feedback from “residents deeply frustrated with the state of politics.” He expects the “vast majority” of his colleagues to opt-in.

“You can spend so much more of your time talking to everyday residents instead of a small number of wealthy individuals as you led up to an election,” Martin said. “We all spend way too much time fundraising.”

Seats at a City Council meeting on March 23, 2022.

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