October 31, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Dawn Clark Netsch, the venerable voice of Illinois political reform, called early Friday morning even though it was going to make her late for a dentist's appointment. She was concerned I was going to get it wrong. That I was going to blast the Legislature for once again passing a watered-down, weak-kneed bill on campaign finance reform that they would hail as progress.
That's exactly what I was thinking about doing.
But I listened.
I always listen to Netsch because at 83 she has more street cred than almost anybody, having been state comptroller in 1990, the Democratic nominee for governor in 1994 and a bona fide reformer.
"They've moved incredibly far," she said of lawmakers who ended the week by passing the first-ever campaign donation caps on candidates, corporations and political action committees.
"For the first time, there are real limits to what people can pour into campaigns," she said. "Year-round disclosure, random audits. For anyone to say this is no improvement is simply not true."
And yet, it has been less than a year since Illinois took the national spotlight, not for the historic election of a president, but for the FBI arrest of a Democratic governor while his Republican predecessor was doing time in Club Fed.
Campaign cash was at the heart of the alleged crimes.
Wasn't that a signal that it was time to build a new house, not just patch the siding on the old one?
The short answer is no.
And so, while candidates, corporations and PACs will be limited in the amount of campaign cash that can be given or received, political parties and their leaders (read House Speaker Michael Madigan), will be exempt from any significant limitations. They keep their clout.
"In the end, we had to make a really hard judgment," said Cindi Canary, the chief negotiator for the reform group, Change Illinois.
"The good outweighed the bad," she said by phone from Springfield Friday. "But there are holes I don't like."
Canary, 50, has fought the reform fight in this state for more than a decade. The "holes" she doesn't like include a Clintonesque bit of legislative language that defines the "receipt" of a campaign donation as the day it becomes a "deposit" in the bank. Thus a candidate can hang on to a check and skirt new requirements for timely reporting of contributions until, say, after an election.
"This is not how we teach our children about making public policy," Canary said. "For right now, it's the best we can do. . . . [Senate President John] Cullerton and Madigan were immovable objects. . . . The governor just parked himself in a corner and wasn't a player. . . . All those editorials, press conferences and peoples' calls did not outweigh legislative personal interest."
Like when it passed an Open Meetings Act but made legislative caucuses exempt?
Now comes campaign finance reform, and the Legislature has made political parties exempt.
Are we surprised?
If there is a bright side, as Netsch firmly believes, it is that politicians have to disclose the amounts and sources of their money more often than before.
If there is something to celebrate in this tortured process, it is that Illinois has not yet succeeded in killing off all its reformers who do this thankless work on our behalf.
"We fought like hell, we fought like hell," Canary said. "And I wish I could bring a lion back to the people of my tribe, but it's something less."
It was not for lack of trying.