Campaign finance reform and other equity issues were the focus of a kickoff and rally Saturday morning at Evanston Township High School (ETHS) to make Evanston the first Midwest city to adopt new campaign finance rules that would increase voter participation and engagement in issues across race, age, and gender, encourage lower-income and marginalized people to run for office, and work to give all candidates the opportunity to run a viable campaign.
The meeting drew almost 100 people and featured speakers—recent candidates—State Senator Daniel Biss, State Representative Litesa E. Wallace, Evanston City Clerk Devon Reid, Bushra Amiwala, who ran for Cook County Board, Mary Rita Luecke, who ran for State Rep., Sergio Hernandez, Jr. - District 65 School Board Member, as well as Evanston resident Patrick Keenan-Devlin. Each talked about the high costs of campaigning and called on audience members to commit to pushing for campaign finance reform in Evanston and statewide.
Organized by Ibie Hart of Common Cause Illinois and Bobby Burns, co-founder and president of the Evanston Collective, the event included speakers from Common Cause who provided information about two public-financing options that have worked in other cities: the matching-funds system, which has been used in New York for the past 30 years, and the newer voucher system, which was adopted successfully in Seattle last year.
“This is a really important issue to me. I didn't know to get involved in anything political or civic engagement until I was in law school, and not a lot of people are able to go to law school,” said Hart in her opening remarks. "So I always think, this is so important, but why wasn't that important to me beforehand? And now that I have my degrees and I'm working in politics, I don't feel like I can ever run because I can't afford it.”
Hart and Burns have formed a coalition, called Equitable Evanston, to address a variety of equity measures going forward, with campaign finance as it’s debut.
Burns, who said that for many people, local government is something happens to you and not with you, asked the crowd to to commit to the long haul.
“Joining us in this campaign will fundamentally change things,” he said. "So not just one day, not just one election cycle, but for the next four years, because that's what
it's going to take.”
There are about 30 cities, counties, states around the country that are already using public funds to provide some degree of support to candidates.
Burns said even local government is about the big donors and frequent voters. "If you are not a big donor, if you're not a voter, you're invisible during the elections,” he said.
"And because we don't invest in engaging new voters, what happens is people don't show up to council meetings, and if you don't show up to council meetings, you're certainly not going to show up to the committee meetings where most of the policy discussions are happening. And so you're not represented. I feel like we need to fundamentally change the way we run our elections and the way government plays a role in engaging new voters.”
City Clerk Reid, who favors the voucher system of public financing, pointed out that despite many contested races in Evanston elections last year, only 34 percent of voters turned out, and that big money played a big role in the mayoral election. “The top candidate spent over $232,000 and the next candidate spent $66,000,” he said. "And so we want to make sure that we give folks an opportunity to not only get involved but to have folks have an opportunity to run competitive races.”
Jay Young, political director for Common Cause Illinois, said campaign finance reform is about restoring balance to our electoral system, that, as a result of “disastrous Supreme Court decisions," favors the rich. "Money buys access, access buys influence, and influence creates policy,” he said. “I think everybody here believes that access and influence should be as dispersed as possible.”
If you'd like to get involved in choosing which reform option Evanston should adopt and working toward making that a reality, email Bobby Burns at BobbyJBurns@gmail.com or Ibie Hart at IHart@commoncause.org
Here are some other voices from the meeting ... and you can watch all the speakers' remarks and learn more about Matching Funds vs. Vouchers in the video.
State Senator Daniel Biss ...
"Look at the people who are able to run, look at this city with its racial diversity, and its dramatic economic diversity, and look who feels able to run. And now don't just think about what that means for the skin color and geographic home base and economic background of the person who happens to wind up being mayor, but think about what that means for communities across Evanston to who feels like the system is likely to represent them, who is likely to participate, and then track that to how voter turnout happens in Evanston.
Compare voter turnout in the sixth and seventh wards to the fifth ward in Evanston. This is a system that has a consistent way of lifting up the voices of some and depresses the voices of others and that people respond rationally to that by walking away and saying, 'Hey, I guess the system isn't for me. That's what we've to to fix, and Evanston, I believe, is the perfect place to fix it.
If Evanston takes bold action, I believe it will change who in the city is heard, who in the city is no longer ignored, and that will change who participates and who turns out, and what our governments look like and what our governments do, and I'm convinced if we do that we will spread this movement from municipality to municipality and that's how we will fundamentally transform this cancerous system of money in politics that has been so, so vicious at pushing people who are most in need of representation out of the system and silencing their voices. Public financing is about a willingness to invest in a democracy that works."
State Rep. Litesa Wallace ...
"I am currently a State Rep. I got into the political system by volunteering, and I was appointed the first time and replaced my predecessor in that general election. If that hadn't been the route for me, I probably would not be standing before you as a state representative and as a former candidate for lieutenant governor. There's no way I would have had the money to do that because in addition to being a policy maker, I'm a single mom, and the wage disparities that exist for women, for women of color, and for mothers, is very real. And those wage disparities impact the wealth gap. And the wealth gap impacts whether or not you have $100,000, or even a thousand dollars, laying around to be the seed money for a campaign for public office. You can lead the way to open up a system to people who have been left out. Money impacts policy ... not just politics."
Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Evanston resident ...
"Dawn Clark Netsche passed the first public financing bill in 1983. And Governor Thompson in his veto message said, 'This is an idea whose time has not yet come.' This is an idea that's past due, folks. And we cannot wait for Springfield to give us the answer. We have to start from the bottom up. We have to start building a movement that is municipality, municipality, county to county, region to region. And why not start right here."
"What are you willing to give up to build a more equitable and inclusive and engaged community? What are you willing to give up to build a community that truly reflects our values community where all voices should be heard and invited to participate?"
David Melton, senior advisor, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform...
"Public financing is not going to solve all our problems. It will not guarantee victory in every election. It will not guarantee that people do not come in and use their resources and disproportionately spend more money than the other candidates, but what it does do is give average candidates the opportunity to get their message out and run a viable campaign."
"People object that public financing is too expensive. Yes, campaigns are expensive. We spend billions and billions of dollars a year on campaigns. However, we have to put it in context. It's about the same amount of money that we spend on Halloween. We can afford Halloween. We have it every year. We can also afford democracy."