How a Few Thousand Voters—and $2 million—Could Break the Illinois Budget Stalemate | WBEZ
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How a Few Thousand Voters—and $2 million—Could Break the Illinois Budget Stalemate

Governor Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Mike Madigan have been locked in a battle focused on unions. Their stalemate has left Illinois with no budget since mid-2015.

However, one of them will win a big skirmish in this long-running battle—on primary day, March 15.

Democrats started 2015 with a veto-proof majority. That means House Speaker Michael Madigan could pass legislation and there was nothing Governor Rauner could do about it.

But only so long as all his democrats stuck together: Madigan had only a one-vote margin.

Then, last fall, Representative Ken Dunkin, broke rank, twice. The Chicago democrat skipped big votes and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner scored big victories.

Now, Dunkin’s got a primary challenger funded by Madigan’s union allies.

Madigan and the unions need to show they can punish a renegade like Dunkin, so others don’t follow. Rauner and his anti-union allies need to show they can protect him.

So far, in an election where just a few thousand people tend to vote, the two sides have put up close to two million dollars—putting this race in line to double previous spending records in legislative primaries.


Ken Dunkin has two major supporters. One is Dan Proft, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate who now hosts a morning show on a local conservative talk-radio station and runs a political fund that supports Republican candidates.

Proft puts the fight against public-employee unions at the top of his to-do list. “You cannot have structural reform with public-sector unions,” he says.

Unions are major political donors, and they’ve helped democrats maintain a fundraising advantage for decades.

A non-profit Proft founded, the Illinois Opportunity Project, gave Ken Dunkin’s campaign a half-million dollars.

When asked who funds the Illinois Opportunity Project, Proft replies: “We’re not required to disclose our donors, so I’m not going to.”

The Illinois Opportunity Project is a special kind of non-profit, called a 501c4, with minimal disclosure requirements. Campaign-finance experts call 501c4s “dark money.”

Dunkin’s other big supporter is Illinoisans for Growth and Opportunity— Illinois GO, for short, founded last spring. In its first weeks of existence, Illinois GO collected nine million dollars — from a total of five donors.

“All of our donors are lifelong democrats,” says the group’s director, Greg Goldner, a political consultant who has worked extensively with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“They want to try to see something different,” Goldner says. “And part of that is: How do you have a counter-balance to certain special interests within the party?

Asked if unions were the special interests he was talking about, Goldner says, “Unions have a right to exist. At the same time they don't necessarily have a right to rig the game by electing everyone.”

Illinois GO’s support for Ken Dunkin—more than $700,000 so far—is the very first spending from its $9 million political fund.

Illinois GO also has a dark-money arm, which Goldner told me has $6.5 million of its own. “We have not disclosed the donors,” he says. “We are not required to, by law.”

Between dark money and regular political donations, groups aligned with Rauner’s agenda have put together more than 42 million dollars. The donors—those that have been disclosed—are from just nine households.  

Dan Proft sees a counter-balance, not a conspiracy.

“This whole idea of, ‘Oh My gosh, they’re spending so much money!’— Do you have any idea?” he says. “People look at this as one-sided because it’s new. All Bruce Rauner and his allies have been doing is leveling the playing field.”

Ken Dunkin’s opponent, Juliana Stratton, has collected more than 700 thousand in contributions. A WBEZ analysis shows that more than 85 percent of Stratton’s money comes from unions.


Her biggest contributor: AFSCME—the Association of Federal State County and Municipal Employees. “We are the way that 100,000 working and retired men and women pool their small contributions,” says Anders Lindall, the union’s director of public affairs.

Kent Redfield has been watching money in Illinois politics for more than two decades. He’s a retired political science professor from the University of Illinois. Here’s his take:

“You can certainly talk about big money on one side balances out big money on the other side,” says Redfield. “Does that make for a fair fight? Well, by one definition of fair, then sure. Is it good for democracy? Not particularly.”

Redfield says he’s troubled by the concentration and the lack of transparency. And he says giant spending contests tend to drown out the voices of people who actually live in the district.

Dan Weissmann is a staff reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissmann

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