Small campaign donations of less than $150 represented only 11 percent of contributions given last year to 2015 Chicago aldermanic candidates.
That's according to a new campaign finance analysis of Chicago's aldermanic elections and runoffs by the Illinois PIRG Education Fund.
The report, based on campaign finance data from January 2014 through last Friday, comes ahead of Chicago's April 7 election, which features 18 aldermanic runoff races. In each of these 18 aldermanic contests, no candidate reached the 50 percent plus one needed in the February 24 election to avoid a runoff. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and top challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia are also in a runoff.
Last year's 11 percent figure for small donations to aldermanic candidates, based on the most current available campaign finance data, is troubling to Abe Scarr, director of the Illinois PIRG Education Fund.
"Not every candidate has access to big money, or they have access it, but their positions may not appeal to big donors. And we think candidates who are funded [and] supported at the grassroots level should be able to compete for voters, and that's why we support small donor campaign finance reform," he said.
In last month's election, Chicago voters overwhelmingly backed a referendum question asking their opinion on the idea of implementing a small donor campaign finance matching program. The question, which saw support from 79 percent of voters, asked: "Should the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois reduce the influence of special interest money in elections by financing campaigns using small contributions from individuals and a limited amount of public money?"
Common Cause Illinois spearheaded the "fair elections" referendum, placed on the ballot via legislation sponsored by Ald. Joe Moore (49th).
Similar small donor financing programs, which seek to even the playing field when it comes to candidate campaign spending, have been put in place in New York, Los Angeles and Montgomery County, Maryland. Scarr said legislation for small donor campaign finance reform might be introduced in the Chicago City Council before the new council is sworn in next month.
Among other key findings from the report, 93 percent of aldermanic candidates with a fundraising edge over their opponents won either a majority or plurality of votes in their respective races in the February 24 election.
"That fact alone isn't necessarily troubling," Scarr said of the 93 percent figure. "As you would expect, candidates that are running stronger campaigns and are good candidates would have resources and would be able to attract donors just as they're able to attract voters. Where the concern comes in is the source of that money and the fact that there could be good candidates who should be able to win the support of voters but can't even get to that stage of the process ... because in order to run competitive races these days you need to have access to big donors, and that's a shrinking pool of a smaller and smaller set of people who are putting up the big money" for campaigns.
Chicago aldermanic candidates with the bigger campaign war chest were more likely to win election outright and avoid a runoff, the report found. And collectively, incumbent aldermen had nearly $7 million more in campaign funds than their closest challengers leading up to the February 24 election.
All but one incumbent alderman in last month's election had a fundraising advantage. The exception was Ald. Rey Colon (35th), who was the only incumbent defeated outright in the primary. Colon lost to challenger Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a 26-year-old community organizer and former congressional caseworker in U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez's (D-IL,4) office.
"We certainly don't want to just reduce it down to the money alone," Scarr said of the outcome of the 35th Ward contest. "Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is largely credited with running an effective campaign and had a lot of grassroots support ... We certainly wouldn't make the claim that it's only because of his fundraising advantage that he won. But I think it just demonstrates that, again, you need to be competitive in fundraising in order to be competitive in the election."
Scarr noted that Ramirez-Rosa's financial advantage was due to the $100,000 spent on his behalf by outside groups.
Fifteen out of the 18 aldermanic runoff candidates who garnered the most votes in the February election had, and still have, a financial edge over their opponents, the report found. Thirteen out of the 15 candidates with a fundraising edged have continued to out-fundraise their opponents since the February 24 election.
The three runoff aldermanic candidates who garnered the most votes while at a financial disadvantage in last month's election include Brian Hopkins in the 2nd Ward, Derrick Curtis in the 18th Ward and Omar Aquino in the 36th Ward. Aquino has since garnered a fundraising advantage over his opponent Gilbert Villegas in the race for the open 36th Ward seat.
"You do see candidates who were challengers who weren't getting as much money [as their opponents] getting more money once they've proven they are viable or forced a runoff," Scarr said. "But for the most part, people who already had an advantage have grown their advantage."
For the report, the Illinois PIRG Education Fund looked at the potential impact on four aldermanic races if Chicago had a small donor matching system in place. Researchers examined the 1st, 23rd, 26th and 45th Ward races, in which challengers raised the most money from small donors.
In the 23rd Ward, challenger Martin Arteaga, who vied to replace incumbent Ald. Michael Zalewski, "would go from a significant fundraising disadvantage to an advantage" if Chicago had a small donor matching program, the report reads.
For challengers Anne Shaw, who sought to unseat current Ald. Joe Moreno in the 1st Ward, and Juanita Irizarry, who took on Ald. Roberto Maldonado in 26th Ward, their fundraising disadvantages would have each been reduced by about one third, the report found.
"You can't say for sure, but we're thinking that if those challengers had significantly more resources that they could have forced runoffs there," Scarr said of the 1st and 26th Ward races.
In the 45th Ward, current Ald. John Arena, who is in a runoff against top challenger John Garrido, would have bolstered his fundraising edge if Chicago had a small donor matching program. That's because Arena already had a "significant small donor and medium donor base," the report says.
"In a lot of cases, this type of program would help challengers and help create more competition and demonstrate that an incumbent, if they're able to build a strong grassroots base, could benefit from [a small donor matching program] as well," Scarr noted.