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In Chicago mayoral race, money talks

Dan Weissmann Feb 23, 2015
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In Chicago mayoral race, money talks

Dan Weissmann Feb 23, 2015
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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces four opponents in the city’s February 24 election. He started election season with low approval ratings but has a sizeable lead in fund-raising. With some $19 million dollars in contributions, according to figures compiled by WBEZ in Chicago, Mayor Emanuel has raised more than four times as much as all of his opponents, combined.

Bob Fioretti is a member of Chicago’s city council, running for Mayor. Which means dialing for dollars, even during an interview.

With a reporter in the room, he gets lucky. Somebody actually picks up, and commits to a $5,000 donation.   

After hanging up, Fioretti says, “I should have you in the room all the time.”

Fioretti is rarely this successful, and he is way, way behind. This interview takes place less than a week before election day, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel has almost 17 times as much money as he does.

In a recent poll from the Chicago Tribune, a fifth of voters didn’t know who Fioretti was.

“If you can’t raise money, you’re not a player,” says Paul Green, a Roosevelt University professor who has been watching Chicago politics for generations.

Let’s face it,” he says. “If you want to raise money, it’s better to know rich people than poor people.”

It’s a strategy that has been working for Mayor Emanuel. Last summer, his approval rating was below 30 percent. But, with the help of six-figure donations, he’s advertising on TV, and he’s been climbing in the polls.

More than half of Mayor Emanuel’s donations come from outside the city limits, and about half of those come from outside of the state of Illinois.

Paul Green thinks this isn’t really an upgrade from the old, infamously-corrupt Chicago political machine. “They were really more honest than the way we raise money now,” he says. “They would go door-to-door and talk to you.”

Emanuel’s profile is consistent with that of members of Congress with national reputations, according to David Levinthal, a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, which tracks political money nationwide.

Those politicians share a consistent trait, he says. “They get the lion’s share of the money, not from their home state, or their home district, but from everywhere else.”

For incumbent politicians, Levinthal says, the rules are simple. 

First: “Don’t do things that are just monumentally stupid.” Like, say, tweeting a lewd picture of yourself to somebody, or getting caught on tape smoking crack.

Second: “Raise a whole lot of money,” Levinthal says. “If you do those things, that is a recipe for success.”

Emanuel’s success is not a sure thing. A week before election day, polls showed 45 percent of voters supporting him. But in Chicago’s non-partisan election, he needs 50 percent — plus one vote — to avoid a runoff.

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