Rahm Emanuel: Will big bucks decide the Chicago election?

The race for Chicago mayor has never seen this level of fundraising. Rahm Emanuel has raised almost $12 million – and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun less than half a million.

By , Staff writer

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    Chicago mayoral candidates, from left, Rahm Emanuel, Gery Chico, Carol Moseley Braun, and Miguel del Valle, participate in a debate at WGN-TV in Chicago on Jan. 27. Mr. Emanuel has raised millions more than any other candidate, allowing him to reach the public through ads – including a spot in Sunday's playoff game – instead of in-person appearances.
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Rahm Emanuel’s bid to become the next mayor of Chicago is outflanking the competition by millions of dollars, most of it raised before a new Illinois law went into effect to limit contributions from donors.

According to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections, Mr. Emanuel’s campaign fund totals $11.8 million, about four times more than rival Gary Chico, who has received $2.4 million. Former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun has $446,000 and Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle has about $170,000.

Emanuel’s multimillion dollar lead in fundraising is unprecedented in a Chicago mayoral race, says Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a non-profit public interest group located in Chicago. The majority of Emanuel’s take, about $10.5 million, was earned though fundraising that took place between July and December. On Jan. 1, a new state law went into effect that limits individual contributions to $5,000, corporations and unions to $10,000, and political action committees to $50,000 per election.

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Ms. Canary’s organization helped advocate for the bill’s passage in an attempt to rectify the pay-to-play politics brought up following the December 2008 arrest of impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. She says that Emanuel’s fundraising advantage has made the current race not dissimilar to previous election cycles involving incumbent Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, where the opposition could generate little financial support to make it an even fight.

“I don’t think anyone [in a Chicago mayoral race] has raised that amount of money in the time line that Rahm Emanuel did. If I were being complimentary, I would say it’s a tour de force. It was absolutely stunning,” she says.

Emanuel’s donations reflect his strong ties to both the financial services and the entertainment industries. President Clinton appointed him to the board of Freddie Mac in 2000 and his brother is an agent with William Morris Endeavor, a powerful talent agency in Hollywood. According to the data, several agents at William Morris contributed up to $5,000 each, totaling $150,000. Emanuel also received money from Hollywood donors such as film director Steven Spielberg, who contributed $75,000, television writer Aaron Sorkin, who contributed $10,000, and David Geffen, who contributed $100,000.

Other contributions have come from prominent real estate development and law firms, in Chicago and elsewhere, some of which have performed work for the city in the past. Donald Trump, who opened a hotel and condo complex in downtown Chicago in 2008, contributed $50,000. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange contributed $200,000.

The Emanuel campaign says it set a voluntary cap on individual contributions at $100,000. Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune last week that his donors consist of “people who have known me throughout my career as a congressman and also as President Obama’s chief of staff and senior adviser to President Clinton.”

Emanuel’s financial leverage allows him to blanket the Chicago airwaves with media ads at the expense of participating in as many community forums as his opponents, most of whom can’t afford to afford to skip the face-to-face exposure. For instance, Emanuel spent $150,000 for an ad that ran during last Sunday’s highly watched football match between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers.

“His money is the key. His connections are the second key,” says William Grimshaw, a political science professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago who specializes in Chicago politics. “So he’s reaching a lot of people, but he’s using money more than public appearances.”

Mr. Chico, the candidate with the second-biggest bankroll in the race, received the majority of his donations from companies his law firm represents in lobbying City Hall, as well as the city’s leading construction companies. He too raised the majority of his donations before the Jan. 1 donation caps went into effect.

Mr. del Valle, who is polling last in the race among the four leading contenders, is using campaign finance reform as one of his primary platforms. He is refusing to accept money from businesses that have contracted with the city and says he favors spending limits more than donor caps because Emanuel would still be able to raise more money than the opposition due to his wealth of contacts across multiple industries.

Speaking by phone Friday, del Valle says the state’s tarnished reputation for pay-to-play politics will never fully vanish due to the US Supreme Court ruling last year that invalidated a part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law that sought to limit corporate donors in political campaigns. He says he is using his campaign to highlight what he calls the “hypocrisy” between denouncing pay-to-play politics and the lack of political will to change how campaigns are funded.

“I’m saying you can’t have it both ways. You can solve the problem though public financing and campaign spending limits. Once you even the playing field, then it can become a democracy again where a poor person can run against a rich person,” he says.

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