Income inequality rears its ugly head everywhere…
Income inequality is pervasive. It rears its ugly head everywhere. We hear much about income inequality from the likes of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (“Bernie”) and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“AOC”). They mention it every chance they get, citing real-life contexts such as the ability (or more accurately, inability) of working-class people to afford healthcare for their families or to pay for prescription medicines, or even to pay their rent or buy groceries. Those among us who at one time or another have had their water or utilities shut off because they couldn’t pay the bill in full can relate to the Sanders-Ocasio-Cortez contexts. As can those who have had to buy starchy, corn syrup-laden cheap food instead of the pricier, healthier items in order to make the grocery budget stretch further.
Those Sanders-AOC contexts are still playing out today. But the dynamics of income inequality pop up in other, less obvious contexts, such as political campaigns. There is a world of difference between running for a local office from a low-income or working-class area versus a middle-class or affluent area. Political campaigns cost money. Even an excellent candidate, in terms of background, experience, and history, who has a timely, relevant, and well-honed message, has to get the message out to the voters via campaign literature and the like in order to be elected.
Running “clean” helps…
Candidates running for local office in a low-income or working-class area are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Fancy and expensive ($100-+ per person) fundraising events in the district will be sparsely attended and raise very little money (if they make any money at all). On the other hand, having modestly-priced fundraisers ($5-$10) will attract
more people but raise very little money (sometimes barely breaking even with respect to the cost of the food, entertainment, etc.). This forces candidates to raise money from people who live outside the district, which makes him or her vulnerable to charges of not being rooted in the district and of being beholden to out-of-district donors rather than to the district residents, etc.
Ostensibly, running as a “clean,” i.e., publicly-funded, candidate (an option available in only about 15 states, including Arizona) mitigates the situation for people running in low-income or working-class districts.
Teddy Roosevelt sounded the tocsin…
The idea of publicly funded campaigns can be traced back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who in the early 1900s railed against what he perceived as the corrupting impact of Wall Street financiers, railroad barons, and oil tycoons buying political influence by funding political campaigns. Roosevelt made such a racket equating large political donations with corruption that some candidates actually turned down large donations for fear they’d be perceived as being politically for sale-for example, 1908 Republican presidential nominee William Howard Taft refused a $50,000 donation, the equivalent of more than $1 million today.
Congress toyed with the notion of campaign finance reform for decades, but it was not until the passage of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) of 1971 that candidates for federal office had to disclose their donors and set limits on their spending. And FECA for the first time provided public funding of elections for presidential campaigns (funds raised by the candidates were matched by public funds), which reduced the influence of wealthy donors and encouraged transparency regarding campaign funding. For about 20 years, from 1976 to 1996, public financing worked well. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, and their opponents, all used it. In fact, many political observers credit the public funding system with allowing two underdogs-Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1980-to wage successful campaigns for the White House.
Barack Obama is credited (blamed?) with ending, for all practical purposes, public funding of presidential campaigns. In 2008 Obama was the first nominee of either major party to not use public funds for his primary or general campaign. This was basically the death knell for the system. Since 2008, no presidential candidate has used the public financing system.
How public funding works at the local level…
At the state and local levels, there is no uniformity regarding public-funding laws and regulations. Here in Arizona, where I’m based, running “clean” for a state office (AZ House, Senate) does help significantly. To prove they have a basic threshold of support, candidates have to garner 200 $5 contributions from within their district in order to obtain public funding. Once a candidate reaches that threshold, he/she will receive a check from the state-for a state senate race, for example, that check is for approximately $24,000. This frees the candidate to campaign freely (meet with voters, etc.) and not have to spend time fundraising.
But in the city of Tucson, running “clean” for a City Council office does not relieve a candidate from having to fundraise. To show they are viable candidates and have a basic threshold of support, candidates have to garner 200 $10 contributions in order to obtain public funding. But unlike the state system, municipal public funding does not translate to the city issuing a one-time check. Rather, the city pledges to match any funds raised by the candidate. When a candidate raises the 200 $10 contributions ($2,000), his or her campaign receives a check for $4,000, which obviously is not enough to wage a serious campaign. Thus, candidates have to keep raising funds. The time and effort devoted to raising funds compete directly and materially with time and effort that could/should be devoted to meeting with and talking to voters, etc.
And this is where the income inequality aspect kicks in. Candidates running from an affluent area, or even an upper-middle class area, can go back to the same donors several times with an expectation that some (many?) of them will donate again, and they can generate high-dollar donations (in Tucson, up to $500). Candidates from low-income, working-class districts can’t do either. They have to rely on events such as house parties that do not cost much to put on. Because these do not generate large sums of money, there has to be many of them, and since the candidate has to be at these, he/she is taken away from campaigning for substantial chunks of time. Thus, candidates running in low-income, working-class districts often have to work more and harder than their counterparts running in an affluent or upper-middle class area.
To be sure, these dynamics are not fatal, that is, they are not campaign killers. But they do manifest the fact that the phenomenon of income inequality is pervasive, popping up even in politics and even when “clean” elections laws are at play. c/s
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro. All photos in the public domain. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com