At last count, nearly $1.3 million in campaign donations and loans separate former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran and Lake County Judge Elizabeth Rochford, two candidates vying for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court.
The largest contribution to Rochford’s campaign war chest comes from Gov. JB Pritzker’s campaign committee, and she’s backed by an outside political action fund that’s spent $1.5 million on TV ads. Curran’s top financial supporters, meanwhile, have included donors who oppose abortion rights and his own money. He’s also received backing from outside political organizations, including with TV ads.
“This game wasn’t invented yesterday,” Curran said of his opponent’s donors. “They are giving money because they want something.”
Despite exchanging accusations to the contrary, both Curran and Rochford say they’ll still be able to maintain their impartiality on the state’s high court despite the campaign donations that will help get one of them there.
The state’s top court is currently made up of three Republicans and four Democrats. Whoever is elected on Nov. 8 will fill the vacancy left when former Chief Justice Robert Thomas retired. His position representing the 2nd District had been filled by Liam Brennan, who now is running in the 3rd District.
Curran, a Republican who works as a private attorney and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate against Dick Durbin in 2020, said he may have fewer donations compared to Rochford, the Democrat candidate, but his came from supporters who do not expect anything in return other than good government.
Rochford said she is not involved in anyway with soliciting or managing campaign donations as a candidate. She said decisions she has made during her long career on the bench prove she can rule on matters in an impartial way based on the facts and the law “independent of other influences.”
Since July 1, Curran’s campaign has raised about $181,500 in donations of at least $1,000, far less than Rochford’s $1.47 million, according to campaign contribution reports filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections. Smaller donations given since July 1 do not have to be reported until the next quarterly report is due in mid-November.
Curran’s total includes $100,000 in loans from his family, reports show. He said the move raised the amount he could legally receive from any one donor. His biggest donations include $15,000 from Manufacturers Political Action Committee; $10,000 from Mike and Jackie Winn, $10,000 from Fidelity Group president and CEO John Alan Sfire and $10,000 from Alexander Pissios, the former president and CEO of CineSpace Chicago Film Studios.
Mike Winn, who died in November 2021, was the president and chief executive officer of Hollister Inc. In a Legatus article – he was a member of the Catholic organization – Mike Winn is quoted saying that “the general culture” is the traditional family’s biggest enemy and Jackie Winn talks about the family’s involvement in the “pro-life movement together.”
The Citizens for Judicial Fairness PAC, which ran ads opposing Curran in the primary, has purchased TV ads backing Curran and tying Rochford to former House Speaker Mike Madigan. The Firewall Project, based in Washington DC, has raised about $585,000 and identified Curran as one of the campaigns it plans to back.
The biggest donor to Rochford’s campaign was Gov. JB Pritzker’s campaign committee, which donated $500,000, a review of campaign contribution filings shows.
Her other big donors include AFSCME Illinois Council No 31 PAC, the union that represents most state workers, with $60,000; the Lake County Federation of Teachers’ Committee on Political Education with $30,000; United Auto Workers Illinois PAC with $25,000 and Illinois Federation of Teachers’ Committee on Political Education with $25,000. Personal PAC, an abortion-rights political action committee, also donated $51,740 in voter calls.
She also received $55,000 from Power Rogers LLP, a personal injury law firm, and its employees, filings show. And the All for Justice PAC, which has received $3 million in donations so far this quarter, many from law firms and unions, has spent $1.5 million on TV ads this quarter, some of which back Rochford.
Curran said people make such donations because “they want something in exchange.” He contrasted Rochford’s biggest donors – trial lawyers, labor unions and abortion-rights groups – with his donors who he described as mostly private citizens.
They support him, he said, because they believe in him and trust he will rule fairly, based on the law and not his personal beliefs or to serve special interest groups.
“Look at her donors, they are not Joe and Cindy Smith from Gurnee,” Curran said. “They all have a profession that she is able to help by being on the bench. … They know she will be a good soldier … Myself, I’m calling balls and strikes, and I’m not just going to sit there and not review things.”
Rochford said the high-dollar donations would not sway her rulings in the courtroom. She said she is committed to remaining impartial and maintaining her integrity, and applying the rule of law in each decision, as she has done throughout her years as a judge.
“I do have the endorsements of certain groups that have taken a strong position in regard to choice and abortion issues, but those endorsements do not commit me to an outcome,” Rochford said. “Those endorsements mean those groups have confidence in my ability to hear the facts and evidence and apply the rule of law and reach appropriate outcomes, and they can have confidence in me.”
Rochford, who has served as a Lake County judge for the past decade and rated “highly recommended” by the Illinois State Bar Association, said in her years as a judge she has “always demonstrated independence and impartiality.”
To waver from that would “be a threat to democracy,” she said.
“I’m so proud to have this job of a judge,” Rochford said. “The reason people support me is because they know my commitment to integrity of the law as opposed to ruling for one group or another. It is hard for people to understand part of the training as a judge is separating yourself from conscious and unconscious bias when you have a matter in front of you.”
Rochford’s campaign last week released its first TV ad, which took aim at Curran’s lack of experience as a judge and his anti-abortion views. Curran’s campaign is set to release an ad later this week designed to introduce Curran to voters, campaign spokeswoman Linda Prestia said.
As a Catholic, Curran said he does not deny his personal stance against abortion. However, he said, whatever decisions he makes as a judge will always be based in “natural law and not on my religion.”
“I am pro-life, but the law of the land in Illinois is abortion is legal and there is nothing I can do about that,” he said.
The law is changed by the legislators, not Illinois Supreme Court judges, and as a judge, he would always follow the law as it is written regardless of his personal beliefs, he said.
Rochford was critical of Curran’s lack of judicial experience telling the Northwest Herald, “if you had never been a judge, then serving on the Illinois Supreme Court would be ambitious.”
Serving as a judge is not required by law to be elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, Curran said. He pointed to his decades of experience as a defense attorney, prosecutor and special prosecutor, as well as the elected Lake County sheriff and coroner.
“People say, ‘We know Mark.’ They have known me for a long time. They know what I stand for and why I have a following,” Curran said.