SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — In a repeat of a 2018 race that was decided by 2,058 votes, every dollar counts. And with less than four months to go before Election Day, Democrat Betsy Dirksen Londrigan holds a sizable lead in campaign cash.
National political analysts expect the fight for Illinois’ 13th Congressional District to become one of the most hotly-contested federal elections in the country this fall. Dirsken Londrigan’s $2.2 million war chest gives her nearly $400,000 more cash-on-hand than the campaign fund of four-term incumbent Republican Congressman Rodney Davis, which currently sits at $1.8 million, according to campaign finance records filed with the Federal Election Commission.
In a district of well-informed, hard-working, middle class voters — many of them farmers, state government workers, or union laborers — candidates carefully craft their policies and tailor their messages with tales of their own personal struggles, and often seek to put distance between themselves and any perceived association with an elite insider class who wields power for personal privilege or self-preservation rather than for public good.
While Dirksen Londrigan’s camp prefers to highlight the size of her campaign account to show the strength of her support, the donors themselves, many of them corporate lobbyists, lawyers and consultants for high-powered, well-connected firms, dilute the authenticity of her populist pledge to refuse any funding from corporate political action committees, or PACs.
“I refuse to be beholden to Big Pharma, insurance, or any corporation for that matter,” Dirksen Londrigan wrote in a June 2019 op-ed in the State Journal-Register. “That’s why I am proud to announce that I won’t be taking corporate PAC money in this campaign or in Congress. Refusing corporate PAC money is an important step toward fighting the corruption in Washington,” she wrote.
The pledge provided her a chance to distinguish herself from a four-term Republican incumbent who has raised $792,100 from corporate PACs so far this cycle, and $3.4 million total since he first took office in 2013.
End Citizens United, a campaign finance reform group that seeks to limit the influence of corporate money in politics, recruited Dirksen Londrigan to sign the pledge not to take campaign contributions from corporate PACs.
“She’s drawn a line that other politicians haven’t drawn,” ECU spokesman Adam Bozzi said while acknowledging that other trade associations or political action committees could include a mix of corporate and individual donors. “The purpose of a corporate PAC is to buy access and influence to advance the bottom line of a corporation.”
The reform group seeks to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Citizens’ United vs FEC in order to implement a campaign finance system reflects that corporations are not people and money does not equal speech, Bozzi says. But a closer examination of Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign disclosures reveals her pledge did not prevent her from taking campaign cash from those whose job it is to buy political access and influence for the purpose of advancing a corporation’s bottom line.
Since launching her bid for Congress, Dirksen Londrigan has accepted at least $82,930 in campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists, including some who have represented pharmaceutical companies, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, gambling companies, red light camera companies, suburban municipal governments, telecommunications giant AT&T and utility company ComEd.
She’s taken far more from corporate executives, many of whom are also regular donors to Democratic causes.
The donations from ComEd and AT&T lobbyists in particular came under scrutiny after ComEd agreed to pay a $200 million fine to avoid federal bribery charges last Friday, and federal agents delivered a subpoena to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office searching for documents related to AT&T and its lobbying practices.
Carly Atchison, a spokewoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, asked, “Will Betsy give back the thousands of dollars the corrupt Magidan cronies donated to her campaign? Or will she hold onto the dirty dollars and keep hiding in silence?”
None of the former ComEd lobbyists linked to Madigan’s organization been charged with a crime. Federal charging documents described a bribery scheme in which ComEd paid Madigan’s political allies or associates as lobbyists or vendor subcontractors. Lobbyist registration forms filed with the Secretary of State show a number of Madigan’s former associates have represented ComEd at different times in recent years.
It remains unclear which of Madigan’s former associates are under federal scrutiny. For example, Tom Cullen ended his stint lobbying for ComEd in 2007, two years prior to when the feds say the scheme began. Cullen would later register as a lobbyist for AT&T; subpoenas filed with Madigan’s office show federal investigators are looking into AT&T’s lobbying practices as well.
Heather Wier Vaught was registered as a ComEd lobbyist in 2019, but her time there came well after the statehouse passed legislation that benefited ComEd in 2017. Other former Madigan associates Will Cousineau, Mike McClain and Michael Alvarez also lobbied for ComEd.
Together, the group donated a combined total of $9,350 to Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign.
Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign showed that it had donated McClain’s $550 contribution to Sista Girls and Friends, a Decatur-based nonprofit that helps to mentor and empower young women, but has not answered for the remaining $8,800 in campaign contributions from former ComEd lobbyists linked to the corruption probe.
Congressman Rodney Davis called the connections “ironic,” and sought to cut his challenger off from access to Speaker Madigan’s many political organizations, which combine to comprise one of the most prolific, successful state-level fundraising operations in the nation.
“I’m not worried about just calling on people to return money,” Davis said. “But when you sign a joint fundraising agreement with Speaker Madigan at the same time he’s being listed in subpoenas on a plea agreement that’s costing ComEd $200 million in fines because of corrupt behavior, you ought to know better if you want to be a member of Congress that that’s not the right thing to do.”
“Davis is trying to distract from his multi-billion dollar handout to corporations in the 2017 Republican Tax Scam after taking massive campaign donations from corporate PACs,” Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign spokesman Jacob Plotnick said in an emailed statement. He did not answer questions asking whether or not she planned to wash her hands of the contributions from former ComEd lobbyists linked to the ongoing corruption investigation.
During the 2020 election cycle, the political action committee for ComEd’s parent company pumped $528,750 into the campaign coffers of incumbents in both major parties, splitting roughly 57 to 43 percent in favor of GOP members. But according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the $15,000 in contributions to Davis registers as the power company’s single largest contribution to any member of Congress.
Federal campaign finance records show Congressman Rodney Davis has accepted $45,000 in campaign contributions from Exelon’s corporate PAC since 2012.
The 2020 rematch includes many of the same themes from their close contest in 2018, with Davis aligning himself with most of President Donald Trump’s policies, and Dirksen Londrigan hammering the Republican for his positions on health care and campaign finance reform.
“While Congressman Davis puts politics and his allegiance to his big pharma funders first,” Dirksen Londrigan said, “I am refusing corporate PAC money and am committed to fighting for quality, affordable health care and lower prescription drug costs for Central Illinois families.”
While she may not take campaign cash directly from pharmaceutical companies or their political action committees, their lobbyists helped organize and host two recent fundraisers for her campaign.
Corporate lobbyist Amy Souders, who lobbies for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, hosted a December fundraiser for Dirksen Londrigan, and solicited contributions for her campaign through the online Democratic fundraising conduit ‘Act Blue.’
Platinum Advisors DC, a corporate lobbying firm with clients like pharmaceutical company Allergan, AT&T, and pharmacy benefit manager CVS Caremark, hosted a Washington, D.C., fundraiser for Dirksen Londrigan in June. Campaign finance reports show that one of the event hosts, Mona Mohib, works for McGuire Woods Consulting, LLC, a corporate lobbying firm founded by Dirsken Londrigan’s husband, Tom Londrigan.
Lobbyists and lawyers at her husband’s firm have contributed at least $29,748 to Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign.
“The difference there is the lobbyist is a person,” Bozzi said. “They might donate to a candidate for any number of reasons. There’s no ambiguity on the reason why corporate PACs are donating.”
Family business connections have already become a subject of discussion on the campaign trail.
When a McDonald’s franchise owned by Davis’ father and brother took out more than $1 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, Dirksen Londrigan hammered him for voting against measures to require greater transparency over how Coronavirus relief funds were distributed. While she said she preferred to leave his family out of the conversation, she implied that the loans, which were distributed by local banks, went to people with political connections.
“What I’ve heard from small business owners is a frustration [over] who got the loans — large corporations who got the loans, or well connected people got the loans — which is why we need transparency,” she said at the time.
Some of the large corporations or well connected people who got the loans were her husband’s own lobbying clients, according to records released by the Small Business Administration. Londrigan’s lobbying clients took out at least $27.35 million in federal loans through the PPP program, records show.
“Transparency is really important, because we all deserve to know how our tax dollars were spent,” she said. “We deserve to know who received them, how they spent them when they got them.”
On its website, McGuire Woods instructed its clients how to qualify for the funds, and how to ensure they don’t have to pay the loan back.
Dirksen Londrigan reported $284,278 in household income so far this year, all of it coming from her husband’s salary at his corporate lobbying firm. It represents pharmaceutical clients like Horizon Pharma, which raised the price on an arthritis drug 11 times in seven years, reaching a price point of $2,979 for a 60-pill bottle.
Another one of his pharmaceutical clients, Kaleo, was flagged in a recent Senate subcommittee report on the increasing prices of opioid overdose reversal drugs. The report found Kaleo contracted with pharmacy benefit managers to hike its prices from $575 per unit up to $4,100 — a spike of more than 600%.
Londrigan’s campaign declined to comment on how she would handle any real or perceived conflicts of interest that could arise in Congress if she is ever in a position to vote on matters that pertain to her husband’s lobbying portfolio.
Dirksen Londrigan’s campaign says that despite her close ties to pharmaceutical lobbyists, if elected, she would use her position in Congress to lower the cost of prescription drug prices, and to end or limit the impact of corporate money in politics.
“That’s the other distinction,” Bozzi said. “Rodney Davis is the leader of the opposition to those reforms.”
Davis argued and voted against H.R. 1, a Democratic proposal that promoted significant changes to campaign finance laws.