Crossroads of the Nation: Land of…the Benjamins

By Darrius Atkins

Due to astronomical levels of self-funding from a former chairman of a private equity firm and a former venture capitalist, the Illinois gubernatorial race is well on its way to becoming the most expensive in U.S. history, and Illinoisans— from Hyde Park to Cairo— should be alarmed.

Campaigns are deeply embedded in the foundation of representative democracies. They are a part of the process by which governments “of, by, and for the people” separate the wheat from the chaff. Whether a candidate is vying for the highest office in the land or a seat on the local school board, campaigns should chiefly be identified by the way ideas are engaged—a contest of ideas that judge proposed solutions to problems that ail a particular constituency and examine proposals on how government can better serve its citizens.

Illinois is grappling with staggering pension debt, an enormous backlog of unpaid bills, and a population exodus that outpaced every other state in the country in 2016. Our unemployment rate is higher than the national average, one in every five children live in poverty, and state corrections facilities are overcrowded by more than 10,000 prisoners than they were designed to hold. In the midst of this distress, the top two financed contenders for the governor’s mansion have personally contributed approximately $100 million combined to their campaigns—roughly 1,640 times the state’s average household income. More than ever, the Land of Lincoln needs the best ideas to carry the day in Springfield.

In a society where financial success is not only aspirational but celebrated, why should Illinoisans care if a multi-millionaire and billionaire dump enormous amounts of their personal wealth into their campaigns to lead the sixth most populous state in the country, especially at a time when there is a leadership vacuum at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

State elected officials make crucial decisions, ranging from administering Medicaid, to setting public education policy, that have immediate and lasting effects on families and communities. When gubernatorial campaigns are financed primarily by rich candidates, their rich friends, and special interests, the ordinary electorate’s role in shaping the policies that impact their lives dramatically diminishes. When everyday citizens make campaign contributions, they are really voting with their dollars for the candidate’s ideas. When a campaign is fueled by contributions from everyday citizens, it necessarily becomes more accountable and responsive to the will of the people.

An electoral process which sanctions such self-funding risks diluting the contest of ideas. Without candidates having a financial imperative to listen to a broad range of ordinary citizens, there is a real possibility that the best ideas and the people who believe in them will go unheard. When a candidate can write his campaign a personal check far surpassing the war-chests of all his opponents combined, the candidate can saturate the airwaves, hire exponentially more staffers and professional canvassers, and garner a disproportionate share of the attention of statewide media outlets. This meaningfully disadvantages other candidates, and in some cases, excludes them entirely. Plutocracy is a bad deal for Illinoisans.

Narrowing the field without the accountability that accompanies contributions from everyday Illinoisans, the former venture capitalist or former private equity chairman could set demand-less policy agendas and lose their incentive to “bring their A-game” to the contest of ideas.

The broader issue of campaign finance reform has not gone completely unnoticed. The members of the state’s Campaign Finance Reform Task Force, including the 25th District’s retiring House Majority Leader, stand on the frontline advocating for legislative safeguards to protect Illinoisans from the consequences of political monopolies sustained in part by the state’s campaign finance system. However, the self-funding regime that dominates today’s gubernatorial primary suggests that there is still more work to do.

Imagine the type of disqualifying precedent that self-funded campaigns would have set had they been the norm before now. Perhaps the city of Chicago would not have elected its first African American mayor—who resided in 53rd Street’s historic Del Prado— less than 65 years after its infamous race riots. Perhaps the Land of Lincoln would not have sent a “skinny kid with a funny name” –who challenged the world to hope in the face of difficulty— to the United States Senate.

Selling an office of public trust undermines an essential tenet of our representative democracy: “We the People.” The possibility that the governor’s mansion could be sold to the highest bidder should startle every Illinoisan. Such a phenomenon chips away at an already weakened voice— a voice faint not because it isn’t shouting, but because our trustees are less inclined to listen.

Darrius Atkins is a J.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Law School, a Harry S. Truman Scholar, and a 2015 Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow at the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan.