Politics: City Council urged to approve public financing of Chicago municipal elections

Public funding of Chicago elections would cost $66.8 million over four years, but the return on that investment would be “huge,” preventing a “handful of big-money donors” from “drowning out the voices of ordinary Chicagoans,” alderpersons were told Monday.

Alisa Kaplan, executive director of Reform for Illinois, and New York City Council member Shahana Hanif made the case to the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Ethics and Government Oversight.

They urged members to follow the trail blazed by New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington D.C. and Denver and pass an ordinance championed by committee vice chairman Matt Martin (47th) — or some version of it.

Kaplan called it “one of the most powerful tools we have to create a more just and ethical political system in Chicago.” That’s saying something in a city with a long and sordid history of public corruption.

“Our current campaign finance system is a mirror of the social and economic inequality that plagues our communities today. Indeed, the system helps entrench that inequality by allowing wealthy individuals and special interests to drown out the voices of ordinary Chicagoans,” Kaplan said.

“Fair elections … empower candidates and elected officials to pay more attention to the constituents who need the most instead of those who can pay the most. And they reduce opportunities for corruption and the pay-to-play politics that can waste money and undermine the public’s trust in government.”

Kaplan pegged the cost of Martin’s version of public financing at $66.8 million over the course of a four-year election cycle. She called that “big bang for the buck.”

“If we’re talking about a tenth of a percent of the budget, we’re talking about really a very small investment in something that can really have a very high return on investment in terms of how it transforms the political landscape,” she said.

Hanif described her district, which includes parts of Brooklyn, as “among the most affluent and white” districts in New York. She is one of just two South Asians elected to the New York City Council.

“I came in thinking fundraising would be the hardest part of running and it turned out to be the easiest part,” she said.

“I cannot underscore just how critical our city’s public financing program was for me. I ran with no ties to institutional wealth or the wealth of the political establishment and special interest groups. Many of my opponents came from more privileged backgrounds. But because of our city’s public matching program, we ran on a more even playing field.”

A voter enters a North Side polling place considered accessible to people with disabilities for the April runoff election in 2019.

A voter enters a North Side polling place to cast a ballot in the April 2019 runoff election.

New York City’s program includes an 8-to-1 public match.

Martin’s long-stalled ordinance calls for a 6-to-1 public match, totaling up to $3.6 million for mayoral candidates, $180,000 for candidates for city clerk and city treasurer and $150,000 for aldermanic candidates.

To qualify for those matching funds, mayoral candidates would be required to raise “no less than” $200,000 in “matchable contributions” of up to $175 apiece from 1,145 Chicago residents.

Candidates for city clerk and city treasurer would need to raise at least $175,000 from at least 100 contributors, each with the same $175 limit.

The minimum for City Council candidates would be $17,500 raised from at least 100 contributors. Of the first 100 who donate no more than $175, at least 60 must live in the ward. The others could live outside the ward but must be Chicago residents.

All qualifying contributions would have to be received no earlier than six months before an election and no later than 90 days after voters go to the polls.

The ordinance says nothing about the source of the public funding.

Though no vote was taken during the subject matter hearing, several alderpersons voiced their support.

“It’s a travesty … that we won’t be able to have a public financing program or a public matching program for this cycle. But it’s my sincere hope that when we’re looking at the 2027 elections, that such a program can be in place,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), chairman of the Council’s Socialist Caucus.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) called public financing of Chicago elections “crucial” to upstart candidates like himself. Vasquez in 2019 defeated Pat O’Connor, who had served as Council floor leader under mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel.

“I had no relationships with anybody with funding when I was running for office — to the point that I had to borrow tens of thousands of dollars from my 401(k) just to move a campaign forward. … I had to raise $200,000 to run up against $1.5 million to try to get our message across.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) said he’s “very open” to public financing but wants to make sure he’s not “handicapping myself” at a time when unions are still allowed to contribute up to $60,000.

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