Blagojevich keeping campaign cash to himself

Ryan Keith

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is used to raking in and spending big political dollars. This election season, he’s on the sidelines.

Blagojevich’s campaign this week filed a “non-participation” report with the State Board of Elections. That means he’s not giving out campaign cash to help other candidates or support or oppose policy issues on the ballot.

It also means he doesn’t have to disclose how much money he’s raised or spent this summer and fall until early next year.

The move is rare but not unprecedented. Blagojevich usually files non-participation reports in spring municipal elections but hasn’t before in a general election. Two potential Democratic challengers for governor in 2010 — Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias — also turned in non-participation reports this week.

Blagojevich campaign spokesman Doug Scofield said Wednesday the governor simply is not giving money to other candidates this fall, and that he is following proper regulations.

“I don’t think it represents any change in policy,” Scofield said. “It’s kind of cut-and-dried.”

But a campaign finance expert said it’s an indication that Blagojevich’s unpopularity make fellow politicians want to avoid him.

“It’s an acknowledgment of how weak his position has become,” said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “The worst thing he could do right now for someone running is send them a campaign contribution.”

Candidates this week have been disclosing their fundraising and some spending in reports covering July 1 through Oct. 5. For the final month before the Nov. 4 election, they have to disclose most donations shortly after getting them.

But candidates who aren’t running for office can avoid that if they report spending no more than $500 for or against a candidate or a ballot question.

“If you’re not involved, then there’s not a need to disclose,” said Rupert Borgsmiller of the State Board of Elections.

Candidates who make donations despite the non-participation filing can and have been fined, but that doesn’t happen until well after the election, Borgsmiller acknowledged.

“They know whether they’re participating or not,” Borgsmiller said.

Blagojevich has been one of the Illinois’ most prolific political fundraisers, shattering records as he won the top office in 2002 and re-election in 2006. But that power has slipped as his popularity has plummeted, amid federal investigations into his administration and fighting with state lawmakers.

At the same time, he’s spent more than $2 million in campaign cash on undisclosed legal services in recent years. Candidates are only required to disclose those kinds of expenses twice a year, so that won’t be detailed until January.

But the non-participation report also means he, Madigan and Giannoulias don’t have to provide any early insight on their fundraising until then.

Blagojevich’s sagging sway with voters has made him a hot topic in legislative races this fall, with Republicans trying to tie the governor to Democrat incumbents and challengers who want to keep him at a distance.

One Democrat lawmaker who has feuded with the governor recently dubbed him “kryptonite” and “toxic” politically.

Four years ago, when Blagojevich was in the middle of his first term, he reported his fundraising — even though he made no contributions to other candidates then, either. In 2006, Blagojevich doled out more than $93,000 in donations to political candidates and committees in the days before the election while spending millions to win re-election.

Since Blagojevich last detailed his money totals in July, state lawmakers have approved restrictions on campaign donations aimed at his penchant for taking contributions from people with state contracts.

Redfield said not disclosing now helps the governor avoid questions about taking donations from contractors or posting possibly disappointing fundraising totals.

Scofield said the governor continues to raise and spend money, without providing details. He said he did not know if candidates had asked him for campaign help.

“He’s doing some fundraising, but the bigger event was earlier in the year,” Scofield said, referring to a large fundraiser in late June in Chicago.

Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518.