Study Details Clout of Wealthy, White Donors in Chicago Politics

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  • Scott Swenson, Dale Eisman
Report Has Implications for Localities Across U.S.

A study released today documents the dominance of wealthy whites in financing Chicago elections and makes a powerful case for a citizen-funded election plan that would encourage candidates to focus attention on small dollar donors who more closely reflect the city’s population.

The report, “How Chicago’s White Donor Class Distorts City Policy,” was released by Common Cause, Demos, Reclaim Chicago and People’s Action. It examines the city’s hotly-contested 2015 mayoral race, concluding that more than 90 percent of the money raised by the two leading candidates came in donations of more than $1,000 and that just over half of the money was provided by out-of-town donors.

Nearly nine out of every 10 of those large-dollar donors were white and almost three-quarters of them make more than $100,000 per year, the report said. In contrast, just 39 percent of Chicagoans are white and only 15 percent earn $100,000 or more annually.

“These findings demonstrate how out-of-balance and out-of-touch with everyday Chicagoans our local government has become,” said Trevor Gervais, lead organizer for Common Cause Illinois. “By virtue of their ability to pour big money into the campaign chests of local leaders, a relative handful of wealthy white donors is able to drown out the voices of African-American, Latino and other residents and drive policy decisions by the mayor and aldermen.

While the study focused on Chicago, Gervais said the findings carry an important message for cities across the country.

“To make local government more representative and amplify the voices of hard-working Chicagoans in every part of the city, we need to pass citizen-funded programs like the Chicago Fair Elections Ordinance,” he asserted. “Systems like the one the ordinance would create have helped rein in the power of big money donors in New York City and states including Arizona, Maine and Connecticut. They’re part of a national movement to fight the power of big money and give us a political system with common sense rules that apply to everyone.”

The Fair Elections Ordinance would provide $6 in public funds for every $1 in contributions of $175 or less collected by candidates for mayor, city clerk, city treasurer and alderman. To qualify for the matching funds, candidates would have to refuse all contributions from political action groups and corporations and refuse donations of more than $500 from individuals doing business with the city.

The matching system would make an individual contribution of $175 worth $1,225 to participating candidates, giving those candidates an incentive to focus their fundraising on small dollar donors.

The study was written by Sean McElwee, a policy analyst at Demos, a New York-based think tank, in collaboration with Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes, two political scientists at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and experts on the issue of money in politics.