Buying Elections, Local Style

If you weren’t concerned about the burgeoning swamp that is the so-called “campaign finance system” in the U.S. before, here’s a figure that should interest you: $600,000.

Doesn’t sound like so much?  Wait till you hear the context.

The $600,000 is the campaign spending estimate we heard about for the aldermanic race between incumbent John Pope and challenger Susan Sadlowski Garza, daughter of  famed Steelworkers local leader Ed Sadlowski, in Chicago’s 10th ward, on the far Southeast Side.  After last week’s runoff, Garza leads by 30 votes, out of 12,000 cast, pending a recount.

$600,000 still doesn’t sound like a lot?  You haven’t been on the Southeast Side lately.

Two generations ago, the 10th ward, wedged between Lake Michigan, Lake Calumet, the Indiana border and expressways on the west, housed Chicago’s steel industry – and its workers.  Big mills dotted the Michigan lakeshore.  The workers, of every ethnic hue, toiled 24-7 over the blast furnaces, turning out the steel that made our autos, rails, trucks, and more.

Many, if not most, were union members, like Susan’s dad.

Now the 10th is a hulk.  All its mills have closed.  They’re either vacant buildings or vacant lots. Its residents are poor, its population has crashed.  The alderman from this area has to cope with a lot.  A campaign is, or should be, cheap in the 10th ward.

Yet outside interests – many of them corporate and shadowy – jumped right into the Pope-Garza race.  And Pope’s warchest alone, not counting his allies’ dollars, was $345,000.

It’s this type of outside spending and outside corporate influence, that entitles you and me to justly ask ‘Who’s buying  elections?’ and ‘What are they getting for the money?’

Take the Pope-Garza race and multiply it by thousands of state and local elections nationwide: Millions of dollars in an off-off year election for two constitutional amendments targeting the chief justice of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court; Hundreds of thousands in

secret corporate cash to oust a circuit judge in the county that includes Missouri’s state capital because that judge had the temerity to rule against company interests; And, of course, other aldermanic races, mayors’ races and city council races. 

Pope made the top 10 list in Chicago aldermanic spenders.  The #1 campaign chest in those races was $8.04 million.  It belonged to the city’s most-powerful alderman, Ed Burke. He was virtually unopposed for a fourth term.  Again, who gave and what are they getting?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent $23 million to get re-elected in that same runoff – more than six times as much as challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

And last year’s U.S. Senate race in North Carolina cost $100 million, combined, with unpopular GOP State House Speaker Thomas Tillis and his corporate allies outspending, and ousting incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D). 

This is the campaign cash flood that workers and their allies face nationwide, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court and its infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling.  That 5-4 decision lets corporations hide behind dummy “charitable organizations” and other dodges and give millions, if not billions, of dollars in cash to favored candidates and causes.

It also produces tsunamis like the 10th Ward tilt and buys state lawmakers who can vote out anti-worker proposals, in Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. 

What can workers do about such floods of corporate campaign spending?  Well, we sure can’t beat it.  Even in congressional elections – a higher level – corporations and their lobbies outraise and outspend unions by 12 or 13 or 16 to one, and that’s just what’s disclosed.  The answer, until we can change this corrupt system, is shoe leather.

The politicians “are marinated in money” says Steelworkers President Leo Gerard. 

“Marinade” produces everything from so-called right to work laws in states to selling off Indiana’s toll road to congressional approval of fast-track and trade pacts that provide bonanzas for the already rich corporate class while giving workers the shaft.

“But we can have our feet beat their money,” Gerard says.

We don’t know who will win that 10th ward race on Chicago’s Southeast Side, but Sadlowski-Garza’s candidacy proves the point, even in an area such as hers: Our feet can beat their money.  That happened in other Chicago aldermanic runoffs, too, but not in the Emanuel-Garcia tilt, where unions split.

That last result is relevant, too.  Regardless of who we think is best for workers, we must get out there, now and all the time.  That’s the only way, right now, until we get public financing or a constitutional amendment limiting the contributions to all races, federal, state and local, to beat the enormous tide of corporate campaign cash.