It's an obvious paradox of contemporary politics: every candidate wants to portray himself as a "man of the people," but the arms-race of media spending is making independent wealth seem more and more like a prerequisite for serious campaigning.
Here in Chicago, the leading mayoral candidates have made public their income tax returns in recent weeks, and the revelations have showed just how much money is sloshing around among them. And candidates have been leveraging their finances -- and their opponents' -- for political gain.
The most prominent example this week has been Carol Moseley Braun, who drew attention to herself by brashly refusing to release her tax returns, then meekly turning them over after a browbeating from the media. Her reluctance to show the documents was understandable once we saw them: she took a massive $200,000 business loss in 2008, and made only $15,000 total in the year 2009, most of which came from pensions.
Braun was cagey with reporters when they pressed her on details of her finances Wednesday. "Some of you may work for the Tribune or the Sun-Times. Last time I looked, the Tribune was in bankruptcy. We did fine," Moseley Braun said, according to FOX Chicago.
While Braun evaded questions on her finances, another candidate proudly owned up to his fiscal struggles.
"I will be the poorest candidate. I want to announce that today," said Miguel del Valle, City Clerk and mayoral candidate, the Chicago Tribune reports. "I will be the poorest candidate with the most to offer."
Del Valle's not exactly coming off the welfare line -- his city job pulls in a six-figure salary. It seems that he was referring more to his campaign coffers than his personal accounts; he has raised a relatively paltry $150,000 for his campaign to date. Even Dr. Patricia Watkins, a candidate who has flown almost entirely under the media radar, has raised considerably more: a spokeswoman for her campaign says she has pulled in over $535,000 thus far, and spent $180,000.
But del Valle also took aim at a rival mayoral candidate for going after the cash in his professional life: "What does it say when a Gery Chico can make millions and millions of dollars off of clients that go to him because of his influence and inside politicking with city government?" del Valle asked.
The clerk is referring to Mr. Chico's career as a lawyer at Chico and Nunes, where he earned millions of dollars in the past few years lobbying City Hall. As for the "influence and inside politicking": Chico is a former Chief of Staff and longtime ally of Mayor Richard M. Daley.
The Chico campaign brushed off del Valle's attack, saying the comments "are inaccurate and seem out of character for Miguel."
But Chico did tout one pretty sizable number: $2.5 million, the amount of campaign cash the Chico people claim to have raised thus far.
That figure looks impressive, of course, until you compare it with the big dog, Rahm Emanuel. Greg Hinz of Crain's Chicago Business speculates that Rahm has raised perhaps up to $10 million, and the Chicago News Cooperative reports that he has already spent almost $1.7 million on television ads.
No other candidate has released an ad on broadcast television. Dr. Watkins, the only other candidate on TV, bought a spot on cable this past week, for which she spent a little over $50,000.
Emanuel's personal finances are also at issue, though. His own tax returns show that he made millions of dollars in the last five years, from a lucrative Wall Street investment-banking career and a stint heading the troubled Freddie Mac mortgage company, among other sources.
But if the other candidates want the public to hear about that, they might have to take out some ads. And that requires -- you guessed it -- money.