LINCOLN PARK — A group of five philanthropic women are trying to rein in the influence of money on local elections, starting in Chicago.
The group behind RunClean.org chose Chicago's 2nd Ward to launch their program and four of the six candidates have jumped on board.
Those four candidates have agreed to a fundraising limit.
In exchange, RunClean has provided a website laying out each candidate's background, resume and views on a dozen relevant issues in the race in the form of a voters' guide.
The group has also sent out a mailer detailing the four candidates' platforms.
"This race should not simply be about who can send out the most mailings and most robocalls," said Cornell Wilson III, a candidate who has taken RunClean's pledge.
Although none of the five board members running the organization has any affiliation to the ward or lives in it, the group says the 2nd provided a unique opportunity.
The ward maps has no incumbent and has undergone a significant redistricting that now drags the 2nd through portions of 11 neighborhoods.
“We wanted to find a local race, a small manageable race without an incumbent, because an incumbent will always change the dynamics," said RunClean founder Phyllis Mandler.
Mandler, a 66-year-old social worker, views the initial campaign as a sort of experiment and hopes to scale the idea into races nationwide.
"This is a pilot, but we believe providing a mechanism for people to run less expensively is one of the roots to reducing money in politics," she said.
In Chicago, where candidates have been known to spend upward of $1 million in aldermanic races, money is usually paramount.
Candidates flood mailboxes with fliers, and some even run TV ads.
"I came to the conclusion that campaign finance is the root of a lot of things I care about," Mandler said.
Mandler began discussions with friends that eventually lead to RunClean five years ago at a weaving class.
The nonprofit, self-funded organization made things official in December when it hosted all six candidates from the ward to meet and discuss ideas of how the idea could work.
The summit took place in a RunClean board member Brenda Sumberg's apartment on Dec. 7.
RunClean was not set on limiting contributions, it also considered asking candidates to limit their campaign literature or any other mechanism to make running for office less reliant on cash.
The four candidates who joined on eventually decided to limit contributions from December through the election to $125,000.
Those candidates are Bita Buenrostro, Steve Niketopoulos, Stacey Pfingsten and Cornell Wilson.
Any funds raised before they signed the pledge did not count against the limit.
"We are looking for public servants," Mandler said. "We are not trying to give jobs to people. If you are trying to find the public servant who is going to represent you best, you just need certain information."
Niketopoulos said he was proud to be on the ground floor of RunClean.org and said he hopes the idea spreads to other wards in the next election.
"There are so many campaigns being run by people who just love their neighborhood and communities who are raising money from blue collar workers," Niketopoulos said. "It's hard for them to get a foothold when there's a campaign that has $400,000 to $500,000."
Alyx Pattison and Brian Hopkins chose not to take the RunClean.org pledge.
Because of the late pledge date falling in the middle of the campaign process, Pattison said limiting fundraising at that point would have been impossible.
"I legitimately think what they are doing is fantastic, but I think it's a real problem in timing particularly in our campaign," Pattison said.
Pattison said the campaign had already signed campaign employees to contracts, hired consultants and had planned on fundraising between January and the election to pay for her campaign.
"I would have had to fire people," she said. "I was involved in contracts with those people so I think that would have been wrong."
Pattison said the size of the 2nd Ward was another reason why RunClean.org was not viable for her campaign.
"This ward has so many logistical challenges in communication with residents, even with money," she said. "You can't knock on doors inside the John Hancock building."
Mandler admitted the start date of the pledge was not ideal, but she said the group wanted to get their first race under their belts.
"While ideally we would have come in early, we had to start some place and we have learned so much from this," she said. "In the next election cycle, we will have tons of things in place."
RunClean.org is completely funded by the group's five board members, who each pitched in $5,000 of their personal money.
In the future the group plans to host debates for their candidates along with supporting them through the website and mailers.
Mandler said they also hope to become a registered nonprofit and apply for grants to help build their cause.
"The first time I met with them we talked such big ideas and so many different ways on how to make this really effective," Niketopoulos said. "Win or lose, I'm going to support them."
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