Reform for Illinois: New name, same great organization
Progressive group builds on its Illinois Sunshine initiative on campaign contributions to revive statewide interest in democracy
By Ted Cox
Reform for Illinois: new name, same great organization doing critical work on our democracy.
That’s right, previously known as the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform for the first two decades plus of its existence since being created in 1997 by U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a Democrat, and Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra, a Republican, Reform for Illinois adopted its new name in September.
According to Executive Director Mary Miro, the organization wanted to shift away from describing itself as a “campaign,” which suggested that its ambitions were short-term rather than ongoing, and it also wanted to downplay the very idea of the “political.”
“It’s such a buzzword,” Miro said. “It’s potentially such a turnoff.
“The idea was not to disassociate from politics, but to create a new name that represented the work that we’re doing as an advocacy organization,” she said, adding that the new name “better captured the nature of the work that we do” and “how we wanted to be presented publicly.”
Whether called Reform for Illinois, RFI, or by the outdated acronym ICPR, the group is still probably best known for its Illinois Sunshine website, which beginning in 2002 took the basic data on campaign contributions compiled by the Illinois State Board of Elections and made it accessible with a user-friendly online website.
Since then, the state Board of Elections has been almost compelled to keep pace with its own online search engine for political contributions, although Illinois Sunshine has remained out in front on ease of use, augmented by a Twitter feed that passes along major contributions almost as soon as they’re reported.
“Campaign finance,” said David Melton, a former executive director who now sits on the Reform for Illinois board. “People’s eyes glaze over when you say the term, basically.”
“People never invite us over for dinner,” added fellow former director and current advisory-board member Cynthia Canary with a laugh as the three spoke in the Reform for Illinois offices in Chicago’s River North neighborhood on Friday.
“So it’s hard to get over that hurdle of them saying there’s no way to get money out of politics,” Melton said. “And I say that’s absolutely right. There is no way to get money out of politics, but there is a better way to ensure that the politics serves the interest of all the people rather than just the few rich and powerful.”
In short, Reform for Illinois takes an almost stealthy approach to making the oatmeal of good government seem interesting and appetizing. Like many other public-interest groups, it’s looking more these days into social media and communicating hard data through entertaining, sometimes animated videos to get people involved with the workings of democracy.
“It’s like the plumbing isn’t sexy,” MIro said.
The prominent focus is on campaign contributions, Melton said, because so many other issues stem from that basic element of the political system. “Campaign finance reform is important, not because it’s necessarily at the top of your priority list when you compare it with things like global warming or nuclear war,” he said, “but because until we fix the campaign finance system, addressing any of those other issues is going to be that much harder.”
“It’s the issue behind every other issue,” Canary added.
“There is no way to get money out of politics, but there is a better way to ensure that the politics serves the interest of all the people rather than just the few rich and powerful.”
David Melton of Reform for Illinois
Reform for Illinois and its Illinois Sunshine website do a generally terrific job of monitoring reported campaign contributions and spending, but what they’re hoping to build on is a way of reporting the so-called dark money coming into the system, which Melton estimated at 40 percent if not half of the total amount spent on politics these days. They’re looking to reforms California has adopted in an attempt to lay bare massive contributions coming from groups like the National Chamber of Commerce or the Koch brothers, although Melton quickly adds that Democratic groups have increasingly tried to keep pace.
“One of the problems is it’s hard to tell how big a problem it is,” Canary said, pointing out that dark money is dark precisely because it’s not clear how much is being contributed or where it’s coming from.
Other key issues include general election reform and voter turnout, to make sure Illinois steers clear of the voter suppression seen in other states and continues to make voting as clear and convenient as possible. On the other side of the equation, they’re also looking into ballot access for prospective candidates — something especially in the news in Chicago right now as lawyers joust trying to kick candidates off the ballot for the upcoming 2019 municipal election.
Melton pointed out that high demands for petition signatures tend to favor incumbents, and that Chicago law is particularly protective of those already in power. He cited how it takes 12,500 signatures to get a mayoral candidate on the ballot, while statewide a candidate for governor needs just 5,000.
Other parts of the state aren’t immune from such abuses, with Melton citing how third-party candidates are often required to file more petition signatures than the established Democratic and Republican parties — of course, in the interest of keeping those major players alone at the top of the political heap.
Gerrymandering remains a hot-button issue for Reform for Illinois as for politics nationwide, especially as states will be redrawing their district boundaries after the 2020 census. Melton agreed that it’s a national issue and not something Illinois should simply adopt unilaterally.
“I would love to see a national solution, and I totally support the idea of those groups that are working to try to find some way to do it,” he said. In the meantime, they’re looking into the concept of matching up states to adopt gerrymandering reforms in pairs or other small, equitable groups.
In the considerable wake of the #MeToo movement, the group has also adopted sexual harassment as a key issue in politics. Melton pulled up short of fully applauding a report issued this fall by the Anti-Harassment Equality and Access Panel headed by state Sen. Melinda Bush, state Rep. Carol Ammons, and Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
“I think there remain issues about the legislature looking at itself,” Melton said, “the same kind of issues that you encounter whenever you get a body trying to police itself.” Yet Reform for Illinois of course generally agreed with the report’s proposal that, if you put more women in both the Democratic and Republican Party as well as in government, reforms can’t help but follow, as it recently honored both Bush and Ammons.
Yet enforcement remains a problem there, as it is with the state Board of Elections, which they feel is too often content to simply report campaign contributions without policing when they cross legal limits.
There’s also the problem of elected officials carving out benefits for themselves — as with the ballot requirements — or making themselves exempt from reforms, the way the state’s 2009 campaign reform act left the major political parties relatively unfettered when it came to spending limits.
That, Melton added, was in part a consequence of the ensuing Citizens United case the U.S. Supreme Court decided giving corporations the same rights as individuals when it came to contributions.
“The federal system that was adopted in the wake of Watergate worked for several decades, but has now broken down,” Melton said. “There was an attempt to fix some of the ways that it had broken down in the McCain-Feingold bill, but since then it has broken down because a majority of the Supreme Court is hostile to the idea that rich people should have their powers reined in a little bit in the democracy, in terms of public policy.”
Is politics becoming the sport of billionaires? Melton pointed to the last two Illinois governor races, as well as the potential entry of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the next presidential campaign, as a concerning trend where democracy is concerned. Reform for Illinois advocates matching funds for small donations and vouchers as ways to try to level the political playing field.
Melton said the recent U.S. Supreme Court appointments by President Trump had set the high court back decades if not more than a century to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision mandating the public policy of “separate but equal.” The justices in that era “were an opponent of the progressive movement trying to revitalize our democracy and take back power from the monopolies during the Gilded Age,” he said.
“We’re probably going to be facing a hostile Supreme Court for maybe 30 years,” Melton added.
Yet that, in the opinion of Reform for Illinois, has actually served as a catalyst to renew public interest in the political system, as seen with the high voter turnout for the midterm elections last month.
“One silver lining of the Trump election is there has been an increased consciousness (that) politics does make a difference,” Melton said. “You can’t just ignore it. So I think that we’re seeing that in the increased public attention on these issues and just increased awareness.”