Big Money Runs Illinois. Can Small-Donor-Backed Daniel Biss Change That?

A small-dollar candidate in Illinois has racked up $1 million so far. How far can he go?

In this Feb. 27, 2013 photo, Illinois state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, speaks to reporters on pension legislation during a news conference outside the House chambers at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. On Wednesday, March 20, 2013, the Illinois Senate has rejected Senate President John Cullerton's proposal overhauling teacher pensions. Earlier in the day senators rejected a total overhaul sponsored by Biss. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Illinois state Sen. Daniel Biss, a Democrat, speaks to reporters during a news conference outside the House chambers at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield in 2013.

Photo: Seth Perlman/AP

The race for Illinois governor is expected to be one of the most expensive statewide races in U.S. history — with some anticipating as much as $300 million in spending.

On the Democratic side, J.B. Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, has spent $21 million of his own money in a bid to win the nomination for his party. The Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner has dropped $50 million of his own money into his campaign.

Democratic state Sen. Daniel Biss doesn’t have a lot of money. And as a mathematics professor who went into politics when he was elected to the state legislature in 2011, Biss isn’t from a long-time political family, like rival Chris Kennedy.

But what he does have is conviction that his organizing approach to the race can not only overcome this mountain of money, but change the way Illinois does politics.

Biss is running a small, donor-backed campaign that has made him the third-largest fundraiser in the crowded contest, raising $1 million in the second quarter of 2017 — putting him behind Rauner and Pritzker.

Should he succeed, Biss is promising a broad agenda that seeks to reform both Illinois’s political and economic system.

For instance, he is campaigning to change the way campaigns are funded in Illinois. He’s proposing the creation of a public financing program that would open up funding for candidate who achieve a certain number of small donors and promise to cap individual donations at $500. That’s not just an empty campaign pledge — it’s something Biss has already had some success in moving. In May, the state Senate passed his small donor match bill.

Biss is also proposing that Illinois establish a single-payer health care system. Under this system, a single public health insurance plan would cover all Illinois residents, who would be able to get health care regardless of ability to pay. Pritzker has countered with a proposal for a public option, which Biss considers a half-measure.

In an interview with The Intercept, Biss pitched the benefits of the single-payer system and the other ideas of his campaign.

“We spend a tremendous amount of money in the health insurance industry. … That money, if repurposed, would be very, very useful in creating investments in job creation across the state,” he said, arguing that the savings produced by a more efficient government-run system would free up dollars to tackle infrastructure and other pressing needs.

One thing that sets Biss apart from his rivals in the race is his willingness to criticize his own political party. He has targeted Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan — a long-time fixture of Democratic politics who rarely faces criticism from his own party — as playing a role in the state’s dysfunction.

He is also a firm believer in making it easier for third parties to compete in the political system. Earlier this year, he introduced a ranked-choice voting bill that would allow voters to rank candidates on their ballot instead of simply selecting one.

“The system we have makes it very hard for those who are not inside the Democratic and Republican parties to be credible participants in our political process,” Biss told The Intercept. “We’ve got a third of a billion people who live in America — the idea that they’re personally represented by one of two giant coalitions is I think pretty hard to imagine.”

But before Biss can make public financing a reality, establish health care as a right of everyone in Illinois, or open up the political process with ranked-choice voting, he has to win a race that includes a pair of candidates able to pump tens of millions of dollars of their own money into the contest. And, in an additional challenge for Biss, it includes another staunch progressive in the race, Ameya Pawar.

“If people are looking for the richest candidate, that’s not me. I’m not a billionaire, I’m not a millionaire, I live a middle-class life. And I’m not going to be able to put in the kind of money that J.B. Pritzker has put in, or Chris Kennedy has put in, or certainly the Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner has put in,” he admitted. “Although I have given myself $25, so that’s a start.”

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