SPRINGFIELD — The marathon of campaign fundraisers proved so taxing that some dark-suited lobbyists ditched the fancy loafers for walking shoes.
They scurried from bars to banquet rooms, slapping on name tags and shaking a few hands. Most important, though, was "the give" — the moment when lobbyists delivered white envelopes containing campaign contributions. Some dropped their tributes into piles on a table. The savvier ones chose the convenience of paying ahead of time.
The frenzy of fundraising unfolded March 5, driven by state lawmakers' pressing need for campaign cash, the fear of being voted out of office and restrictions on when they're allowed to raise money.
The confluence meant more than 20 events were held, making it perhaps the busiest single day of campaign fundraising all year in state politics.
The dynamic offered a peek at how behind-the-scenes Springfield really works. All told, politicians hoped to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, largely from lobbyists, unions and organizations that do business with state government or want a piece of legislation passed or blocked.
Democratic and Republican fundraisers overlapped, packed in so tightly that some lobbyists constructed computer spreadsheets to keep track of them.
"I referred to this as Super Tuesday," said Richard Guidice, a former Chicago lawmaker and longtime lobbyist whose clients range from road builders to horse racing tracks to the movie industry. "We're seeing a whole bunch of folks all at one time."
Why so many fundraisers on that Monday? Redistricting following the 2010 census means every lawmaker is running this year, and many are trying to win over voters in new territory. Some legislators' campaign funds could benefit from a cash infusion before the March 20 primary election.
A state law banned fundraisers in Springfield on last week's session days. But the session didn't start until Tuesday, so holding a Monday fundraiser was legal. Mix in the regular annual events already on tap, and the number of fundraisers ballooned.
Changes in the rules over the years sought to eliminate the coziness between contributions and legislative actions. Battered by 1990s scandals that included a lobbyist brazenly handing political checks to lawmakers just outside the doors of the Illinois House chambers, Springfield politicians and lobbyists took steps to rein in when and where contributions can be made. For many years, lobbyists complained they had to attend a breakfast fundraiser for a lawmaker in the morning and then had to watch that same lawmaker vote on the contributor's issue in a committee hearing that afternoon.
Among the political class, however, the view is there's not that much difference between making a campaign contribution on a session day or an off day.
"I don't know that the appearance is any better," said Randy Witter, a former speaker of the Illinois Third House, a lobbyist organization. "I think people are going to draw their conclusions and say, 'Well, you've got a bunch of lobbyists running around handing out money.'"
Illinois is one of 29 states that place restrictions on giving and receiving campaign contributions during a legislative session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But most of those states put the bans in place from the moment a session convenes at the beginning of the year until the time it adjourns, said Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow with the Denver-based group. Fourteen of the states, including California, Iowa and Wisconsin, specifically ban contributions only from lobbyists during the full length of the session, she said.
"In general, the point is to prevent a conflict of interest that a legislator might face when voting on a policy issue and at the same time receiving campaign contributions," Bowser said.
Kent Redfield, a campaign finance expert from the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Illinois should consider a ban on fundraising in Springfield from the time session is gaveled in until it is gaveled out for the summer. The same idea should apply to fall sessions, he said.
"Other states have a bright line, zero tolerance. You can't be half pregnant," Redfield said. "And then there's Illinois, which has kind of a gray area. It sends a mixed message, and it becomes almost a distinction without a difference."
Holding fundraisers on Mondays, like last week, is a widely used end run around the session-day ban in Illinois. With many weeks of session now starting on Tuesdays, Springfield politicians have turned to inviting lobbyists, supporters and special interests to political fundraisers conveniently scheduled for when they arrive the evening before the legislature convenes.
It's why House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, usually holds his showcase fundraiser at a yacht club on Lake Springfield on a Monday each spring. Same goes for the other three legislative leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, who held one of the better attended fundraisers March 5 for the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee.
The invitations to that event showed the stakes. A contributor could buy one ticket for $250, but $10,000 boosted a contributor to the "Spring Fever Level," a package that included 15 tickets, placement on signs at the event and special recognition. Giving was made easy: Boxes could be marked for personal, corporate or political action committee checks, and four different types of credit cards were accepted.
Focused on raising money for the November general election, Radogno said politicians are under pressure to "maximize every election cycle," particularly with the more frequent quarterly reporting laws that give opponents a better look at each other's finances.
"The campaign season's in full swing now. So people are trying to stockpile money," Radogno said. "No one knows what they're going to be dealing with in the fall. So they want to be ready."
Another event took advantage of the 300-mile distance between two lawmakers' districts, one bordering Lake Michigan and the other along the Ohio River. The "Meet in the Middle" event was hosted by a firefighters association on behalf of Democratic Sens. Kwame Raoul of Chicago and Gary Forby of southern Illinois. Those who went got to scoop barbecue onto a bun.
"When you're a legislator, you never quit campaigning," said Forby, who represents political swing territory and frequently spends more than $1 million per race to keep his roughly $78,000-a-year job in the Senate. "You never quit raising money. It just takes a lot of money. It seems like every year it takes more money."