Aldermanic runoffs show that big money doesn’t always win

City Hall

Photo by William Camargo

If there’s a takeaway from Tuesday’s aldermanic runoff election, it may be that money doesn’t always guarantee a win in politics.

Of the 18 aldermanic runoffs, the candidate who had raised the most money since the Feb. 24 election lost in at least six of them, with three additional races still too close to call but appearing to lean toward the candidate with less money.  [See our infographic for details on how much each candidate has raised and what percent of the vote they won.]

In several wards, challengers overcame large fundraising gaps to defeat multi-term incumbents who had the backing of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his allies.

For example, Chris Taliafarro, a police sergeant who had loaned his own campaign nearly $17,000 over the course of the election, and raised a total of just $19,000 since Feb. 24, defeated Ald. Deborah Graham, an Emanuel ally in the 29th ward on the West Side. Graham raised more than five times as much as Taliafarro since Februrary, and had an additional $36,000 spent on her behalf by the Emanuel-aligned Chicago Forward PAC.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Chicago) said that Graham’s fundraising advantage might have hurt her, especially since her donors included a trade group for Illinois beer distributors and the owner of a business that sells liquor. Davis, who endorsed and helped fund Taliaferro, said he thinks voters also were aware that Graham was a loyal supporter of the mayor and worried that Emanuel’s cash swayed her votes in the City Council.

“People started getting upset about the money,” said Davis, former alderman of the ward and a resident there when he isn’t in Washington. “Why is all this money being poured into our community, our ward? We never heard of that kind of money being put into an aldermanic election in the area where we lived. And so people began to ask the question: why all this interest?”

That a candidate like Taliafarro was able to beat a deep-pocketed, well-connected incumbent goes against conventional wisdom that says fundraising is paramount in elections. A report by Illinois PIRG Educational Fund, a non-profit that conducts research on the influence of special interests in politics, showed that the candidate who had raised the most money in the February aldermanic elections won a majority or plurality of the votes in 93 percent of the races.

“I think the influence of money has a big impact earlier in the process,” said Abe Scarr, executive director of Illinois PIRG and the author of the report. “That’s why we often talk about it as the ‘money primary’—it has an effect on who has the resources to run in the first place,” Scarr said.

In the 18th Ward, challenger Derrick Curtis, who was also the ward’s Democratic committeeman and superintendent, beat incumbent Lona Lane 68 percent to 32 percent, despite having raised only $4,000 in large donations during the last week of the campaign, compared to Lane’s $18,500 raised since the February election.

Lane had “lost touch with the ward, and that left an open door” she couldn’t close with dollars, said Scott Biszewski, Curtis’ campaign manager. “The bottom -line is that the people here wanted somebody else; they were looking for new leadership, and I don’t think that money played a role in this one.”

Lane had a reputation of being inaccessible, and she worsened matters after the February election by skipping several re-election events, including meetings and debates where only her challenger showed, Biszewski said.

“Having money doesn’t mean that you’ll spend money well,” Scarr said. “All the money in the world is not going to overcome not being out there and campaigning.”

In the 43rd Ward, challenger Caroline Vickrey appeared to be headed toward a win over freshman incumbent Michele Smith, who had raised almost $200,000 since the first election, compared with less than $60,000 for Vickrey. Unofficial election results showed Vickrey with a six vote lead.

In the 21st Ward there was a near coup where challenger Marvin McNeil, a virtual unknown, nearly unseated incumbent Howard Brookins Jr. McNeil had reported zero donations of $1,000 or more since the February election, compared to more than $80,000 in donations and Chicago Forward support for Brookins. As of Wednesday, Brookins had won by about 200 votes.

“It’s not impossible,” Scarr said. “Especially the more local you get, the more possible it is to run competitive campaigns even without resources.”

On the other side of the coin, Susan Sadlowski Garza, a school counselor and Chicago Teachers Union area vice president who had the significant financial backing of the teachers union and SEIU, appeared to have won—by just 89 votes—her race against four-term incumbent John Pope, according to unofficial results published Wednesday evening by the Chicago Board of Elections. Garza had outraised Pope by about $4,000, despite nearly $9,000 in spending by Chicago Forward PAC both in support of Pope and opposing Garza.

Depending on the final result, Garza could be a case study in how fundraising can make a big difference in a tight race.

“I think it’s a little too early to tell what the impact is here, but I’m confident that we’ll still see that the big money from individuals and from PACs of all stripes will have an impact on who can run competitive campaigns on this level,” Scarr said.

His organization is lobbying for small-donor matching programs in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, which would incentivize candidates to get donations of $150 or less, which would then be matched by the city four-fold or more. Similar programs exist already in New York City and Montgomery County, Md.

The candidates raised a total of $2.5 million during the last seven weeks of the campaign, with an additional $2 million spent on their behalf by PACs, according to Illinois PIRG.

In the Feb. 24 election, almost four-fifths of voters supported the idea of a small-donor matching program for Chicago.

Note: Dollar figures cited in this post, as well as in the infographic below, refer to large donations ($1,000 or more) reported as of April 8, 2015.  Further filings may be incoming after this date. 

Aldermanic runoff election results

Infographic by Asraa Mustufa

(Click to enlarge infographic.)