Pay Attention to This Education Group Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Written by Rich Miller   
Sunday, 23 January 2011 05:03

An out-of-state education-reform group raised a whopping $2.8 million in the days leading up to historic state caps on campaign contributions.

All of the money raised by Stand for Children’s Illinois PAC came in five- or six-figure contributions from some very major Chicago-area business types. Members of the famed billionaire Pritzker family kicked in a total of $250,000 on December 29, two days before the end of the old campaign-finance system, which allowed for unlimited contributions to groups such as Stand for Children’s PAC.

Ken Griffin, the CEO of the Citadel Group, contributed $500,000 on December 15. Griffin gave hundreds of thousands of dollars last year to Illinois House Republicans and GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady’s campaign. Sam Zell, the owner of Tribune Co., contributed $100,000 on the 20th. Members of the Henry Crown family kicked in $400,000. And Paul Finnegan, the co-CEO of Madison Dearborn Partners, contributed $500,000.

The group’s political action committee made history last year with the single largest non-leadership contribution in modern Illinois times – a $175,000 check to Republican state House candidate Ryan Higgins, who ended up losing his race. The PAC contributed a total of $610,000 during the fall campaign to legislative candidates in both parties.

That money did not go unnoticed at the Statehouse. During the post-election legislative session, House Speaker Michael Madigan tried to push through education reforms supported by Stand for Children that were deemed overtly hostile by the teachers’ unions. Among the reforms was an all but total ban on strikes by Chicago teachers. The teacher unions refused to contribute to Madigan and many of his candidates last year after Madigan pushed through public-employee pension reforms.

The group’s December fundraising push left it with almost $2.9 million in the bank as of the end of the 2010, when contributions to state PACs were capped at $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for corporations per calendar year. None of the group’s $2.8 million in December contributions would’ve fallen under those caps.

To put this in perspective, the Illinois State Medical Society, which is one of the most powerful lobbying forces at the Statehouse, had $1.8 million in its political-action-committee account at the end of the year. The Illinois Hospital Association and the pro-choice juggernaut Personal PAC ended the year with about $1.4 million each. Stand for Children beat them all by a lot.

Jonah Edelman, Stand for Children’s national founder, said last week that the December contributions represented the "significant generosity of Illinoisans." Edelman refused to say whether the group planned to spend the war chest in the coming campaign or use it as a long-term fund. He did say his organization was now focused on passing the education-reform bill that was backed by Speaker Madigan, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel, and others during the lame-duck session. Emanuel took in hundreds of thousands of dollars from Stand for Children’s contributors.

The group’s legislation ran into a brick wall in the Senate, where Education Reform Committee chair Senator Kimberly Lightford resisted a move to rush through any reforms and insisted that the teacher unions play a role in the negotiations.

Lightford has received high marks from both Stand for Children and the teacher unions for running fair-minded, well-organized meetings. One longtime teacher-union lobbyist said this month that Lightford’s meetings were some of the best-run he’s attended during his entire career. Stand for Children’s legislative person comes from the Senate Democratic staff, so she has a long relationship with Lightford and offered up her own high praise. Another Lightford meeting is scheduled for this week.

It’s not that legislators and their leaders bow deeply to anybody with a fat wallet. But they most certainly take lots of notice when somebody comes out of nowhere and antes up with $2.9 million.

And Stand for Children’s lobbying stable includes some of the biggest contract lobbyists at the Statehouse. They’ve basically run the board, with heavy-hitting lobbyists tied to both parties and the black and Latino caucuses.

Stand for Children has gone from nowhere to one of the biggest, and potentially one of the more successful, players in the building within just a few short months, all without attracting significant media attention. It’s truly an amazing story.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.


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