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Golden Age for the Millionaire Politician

Political races in Illinois focus attention on the enormous cost of running for office.

J.B. Pritzker has spent the past seven months dialing up leading Democrats and asking them to contribute to his congressional campaign. It's a laborious and often humbling trial for any political candidate, but Mr. Pritzker might be uniquely burdened.

His family's net worth: about $6 billion.

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Although Pritzker's bankroll is unusual for a politician, it's becoming less of a novelty. To date, he is one of four multimillionaires who have announced candidacies for state or federal offices in Illinois, and there are at least three more wealthy people considering bids here. Most of them, like Pritzker, say they're prepared to write personal checks if need be.

As the cost of running for office continues to climb, and campaign-finance scandals and tales of political influence-peddling across America show no sign of abating, some observers conclude that conditions have never been better for candidates of means.

It's unclear, however, whether voters will embrace these people as the incorruptible public servants they claim to be, or reject them as plutocrats out of touch with the workaday lives of most Americans. At stake, some say, is the tenor of American democracy.

"The stigma of wealth is not what it once was," says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. "It may be due in part to the alternative - raising money from special interest groups. If people pay their own way into the political arena, voters know they aren't beholden to a collection of groups who financed their political ambitions."

Ironically, Mr. Penny adds, more wealthy candidates may be choosing to enter politics because a number of lavish spenders, from Ross Perot to Michael Huffington, have failed recently - reassuring voters that offices can't be bought outright.

In some ways, the proliferation of wealthy candidates reflects the escalating costs of running for office. By most estimates, the minimum cost of a successful campaign for US Senate is about $10 million, and most House candidates must raise about $500,000 to survive the primary alone.

"The first question for any politician now is whether they have the resources to get their message to voters," says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former congressional candidate.

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A stilted government

Some reformers argue that a government composed of rich people is inherently stilted, and that the entrance of more wealthy candidates is a further sign that the current system of campaign financing needs an overhaul.

"There are two ways to run for public office," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Washington-based reform group Public Campaigns. "Either candidates have personal wealth, or they're beholden to special interests. Both routes are fundamentally antidemocratic and perpetuate a political system in which wealth is represented and not the voices of real people."

These days, she adds, it's becoming rare for either party to actively recruit candidates who lack considerable personal resources.

"We're looking at a subtle but clear plutocratic drift in all levels of government toward the wealthy and their interests," she says.

Although the percentage of candidates contributing to their own campaigns hasn't changed much in recent years, the sums involved have grown considerably.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, personal spending on Senate races rose from $13 million in 1986 to $64 million in 1994. In the most recent elections, 93 congressional candidates and 54 would-be senators spent more than $100,000 in personal funds.

For Pritzker, whose father founded the Hyatt hotel chain, his family's fortune has had a mixed effect on fund-raising efforts. Some donors are attracted to his candidacy, he says, because they know he can always dip into his bank account in a pinch, and because his wealth provides some insulation from self-serving donors. Other potential contributors, he says, spurn him for the same reasons.

Personal money

Pritzker also acknowledges that the existence of his personal fortune has not hindered his quest to be taken seriously. To date, the former Capitol Hill staffer and political novice has raised $243,000 - more than any other contender for the suburban Chicago seat held by retiring Democrat Sidney Yates.

Voters in Illinois have witnessed a recent parade of money-related political scandals. An ongoing federal investigation has revealed widespread corruption among Chicago aldermen, and last week, Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar testified in a trial involving dealings between his administration and a computer company that contributed generously to his last campaign. Illinois is one of the few states that does not impose limits on contributions to candidates for state offices.

Although public skepticism about the role of money in politics has reached a high point, observers say, it's unclear that wealthy candidates here or elsewhere will benefit from it.

"There's no doubt that there's a public backlash against the way campaign money is raised," Pritzker says, "but I don't think the only alternative is to elect people with money."

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