In 15 years as Illinois attorney general, Lisa Madigan has been a thorn in the side of utilities throughout the state.
She’s battled Commonwealth Edison and parent Exelon at numerous times, not always (or even often) winning, but shining a light on how those clout-heavy companies convince state lawmakers to hike electricity rates for various reasons.
Arguably her finest hour on utility issues has come more recently. Her office nearly single-handedly demonstrated how Peoples Gas’ massive gas-main replacement program is driving up heating bills to an alarming degree, at the least raising public consciousness about a train wreck in the making.
So it’s interesting, now that Madigan is retiring, that utilities are back in the game of contributing heavily to candidates running to succeed her after 15 years on the sidelines.
When Madigan, then a state senator, first ran for attorney general in 2002, she did take utility contributions. But as an incumbent in three successful re-election campaigns she refused donations from the utilities, Chief of Staff Ann Spillane said.
Madigan’s office just was too frequently embroiled in litigation—in court or before the Illinois Commerce Commission—with the Exelons of the world to take their campaign cash, Spillane explained.
Attorney general candidates to whom utilities are contributing heavily on the Democratic side include state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who has the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party. The top fundraiser of the group, he’s garnered more than $37,000 in contributions from ComEd, Exelon Generation (which owns Illinois’ nuclear plants), and Peoples Gas.
Taking in nearly as much from utilities are Jesse Ruiz, chairman of the Chicago Park District and former vice chairman of the Chicago Board of Education, and Nancy Rotering, mayor of Highland Park. They’ve each received maximum contributions of $11,100 from ComEd, Exelon Generation and Peoples.
And Erika Harold, Miss America in 2003 and an attorney, is vying for the Republican nomination. She, too, has received maximum utility contributions.
Why did the utilities choose these candidates, and what do the companies hope to get for their money?
“Peoples Gas has an interest in seeing that quality candidates get elected to public office in Illinois,” a spokeswoman emailed. “We have never tied any contribution to any purpose or request and would never do so.”
“Exelon Generation, similar to its peers in the energy industry, supports candidates from both parties who it believes will support sound energy policy in the state,” a spokeswoman emailed.
“As business leaders who serve nearly 4 million customers and employ more than 6,000 Illinois residents, we are actively engaged in civic organizations and are supportive of political leaders who share our focus on creating a strong energy future for Illinois,” a ComEd spokeswoman said. “The company makes decisions about contributions as the requests are made.”
That last statement was at odds with Rotering’s recollection. “No one was as surprised as I was to get a call from (ComEd) to say they were contributing to my campaign,” she said in an interview.
Rotering joined with Madigan in a lawsuit seven years ago against the utility that resulted in an agreement to invest tens of millions more in upgrades to improve reliability in Northeast Illinois, she said.
“I have a strong record that shows I don’t do favors for donors,” she said.
But she’s not returning the contributions, saying candidates need money to get their message out, especially in a statewide campaign and with so many others running.
“If you think about the cost of running statewide, (the utility donations) are de minimus,” she said.
Asked whether refunding the donations might differentiate her more effectively than traditional paid media, she said, “I hear what you’re saying.”
Ruiz, who served on ComEd’s board for many years, pledges to be independent.
“Before her first election, the attorney general accepted campaign contributions from a number of utility companies,” Ruiz said in an emailed statement. “Since then, she has earned a reputation as a fierce advocate and champion for Illinois ratepayers, and she has stood up fearlessly against every anti-consumer initiative. I will fight just as hard for Illinois consumers—and if someone thinks they can buy influence through a donation to my campaign,they’re going to be bitterly disappointed.”
He promises not to “back down when the utility companies try to pass unfair rate hikes that hinder Illinois businesses and harm Illinois consumers.”
A representative of Raoul’s campaign didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.
Looming, of course, as the potential heavyweight on the Democratic side is former Gov. Pat Quinn, who’s forged a reputation as a battler against utilities in three decades in Illinois public life and who vetoed ComEd’s signature “smart grid” bill. That bill, enacted over Quinn’s veto by lawmakers in both parties, has resulted in regular ComEd delivery rate hikes but also has produced improved reliability performance.
Quinn hasn’t received a single utility contribution in his bid for attorney general. But he did accept contributions from the industry as governor.