Analysis Politics

On Funding, Candidates of Color Face an Uphill Battle Before They Even Start

Shyamala Ramakrishna

As Tuesday’s primaries showed, a few candidates might ascend in a system stacked against them, but many more are left behind. Underserved populations lose when financial barriers limit their choices at the ballot, because the people who represent their priorities are effectively shut out of the political process.

“Can you afford not to work for so many months?” a friend of Gina Ortiz Jones asked her as Jones weighed a run for Congress last year. Jones knew her Filipina American community likely would not be able to help her raise millions for a primary.

Now a Democratic candidate in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, Jones will face her Democratic challenger Rick Treviño in a May 22 runoff election, and Republican incumbent Will Hurd if she makes it to the general election.

Jones exemplifies the critical impediment to a more diverse slate of viable candidates at the local, state, and national level: money. Communities of color accumulate far less wealth overall than do their white counterparts. As a result, candidates of color often struggle to stay above water in the costly world of political campaigns. Even when candidates are themselves financially secure, voters of color—often their most reliable supporters—are less able on average to donate to political campaigns, especially at the levels these campaigns need to spend.

Media outlets are often quick to note an imminent “wave” of diverse candidates. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, the number of Black women running for office has “grown steadily.” A majority of newcomers in Congress in 2016 were women of color. But that coverage overlooks this crucial fact: It is harder to win when you are not well-connected, wealthy, and, well, white. At the same time, “communities that are not represented have the most to lose,” Jones told Rewire.News. As Tuesday’s primaries showed, a few candidates might ascend in a system stacked against them, but many more are left behind. Underserved populations lose when financial barriers limit their choices at the ballot, because the people who represent their priorities are effectively shut out of the political process.

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Most Americans agree that money has too much influence in politics. Back-door election spending—in which candidates exploit lax regulations to raise uncapped funds for their campaigns—is on the rise, especially after the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision unleashed floods of untraceable special-interest money to candidates and campaigns. This funding influx has made elections prohibitively expensive, and winning more tightly bound to fundraising.

Today, a run for office has become largely the province of the rich. The average winning U.S. Senate candidate in 2016 spent $10.4 million campaigning, and the average winning U.S. House candidate spent $1.3 million. A third of the money raised by both presidential candidates in 2016 came from people in the United States with a net worth between $300,000 and $1 million. Even in smaller races, white male donors can afford to give much more to their candidates of choice, and they mostly give to other white men. For a candidate of color passed over by these well-heeled benefactors, raising the same basic funds to run ads, hold events, and hire staff can be exhausting—maybe impossible.

“It is a sacrifice,” Deb Haaland, a Democrat vying in New Mexico to be the first Native American woman elected to Congress, told Rewire.News. “You end up spending a lot of your own money; you’re driving your own car.” Early in her political organizing career, Haaland, a single mother, brought her then-young daughter along with her to canvassing and phone-banking sessions. Back then, they often lived on food stamps and sometimes had to put groceries back while standing at the register.

Long histories of unequal access to housing, education, and jobs have created a racial-economic hierarchy in politics, compounded by generational racial gaps in wealth and inheritance. This puts, on average, greater financial strain on non-white candidates because they have fewer resources. And it means trying to leverage a network of willing donors, which non-white candidates correctly assume will be more difficult for them.

It also leads to scrutiny of their finances to which other candidates might not be subject: When Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ financial disclosure report revealed a personal debt in the six figures, she countered the fallout by discussing it openly. Her statement pointed to the structural barriers she faced even to pay bills, let alone run a political campaign as a Black woman.

As Quentin James of the Collective PAC, which funds and trains Black candidates, explained, people of color “face an uphill battle” before they even start. Citing Tishaura Jones, a St. Louis mayoral candidate and single mother who juggled campaign- and child care-related expenses, he underlined the disproportionate burden of this task on women of color. (Men of color make up 3 percent of political candidates in the country, and women of color just 1 percent.) Jones lost to a candidate who out-spent her by a factor of five.

For candidates who do try to energize their non-white voter bases, parties hesitate to marshal resources toward their campaigns. It is bleakly unsurprising that the Republican Party would court and cater to its wealthy base, and that its candidates and elected officials are overwhelmingly white. But the Democratic Party, too, is periodically under fire for its weak outreach to candidates of color, even as contests increasingly hinge on the turnout of Black voters. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) told the New Republic last year that she saw an “implied distrust of communities of color” in the party’s spending strategy. “We cannot vest any resources with you, but when we need you, you should be ready to be deployed.”

But that choice might emerge as an epic miscalculation, resulting in feelings of apathy among marginalized citizens. The funding arms race pulls parties toward affluent white people, pushes voters of color away from the polls, and toughens the barriers between people of color and politics.

Survey data suggests voters of color would now rather stay home at the midterms than turn out for a candidate about whom they feel lukewarm. The poorest people of color largely preferred “no one” for president in 2016. Meanwhile, their interests are not taken into account: A 2008 long-form analysis concluded that “the preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.”

Behind the research lies a basic question: Why should constituents of color care about diversity on the ballot? The concept might seem intuitive; racial “minorities” now make up more than 50 percent of the country’s young children. Diversity is a hip buzzword of late, however awkwardly wielded. We watched media outlets and commentators all but consecrate the Black women of Alabama for stopping Roy Moore, exhorting left-leaning voters to “thank Black women.” The Collective PAC’s website highlights the dismal ratio of Black officeholders to Black Americans as the reason for its existence. But what do communities stand to benefit from a distribution more in line with the population?

Haaland said her own community’s priorities are unique: “I went to Standing Rock,” she said, “and I divested the party’s funds from Wells Fargo”—a major lender to the Dakota Access Pipeline project. “People without the resources to get into politics,” mused Jones, “very likely have the exact life experiences that make them most representative” of the people they would govern.

As a child, Jones was reliant on reduced-price school lunches. She was raised by a single mother, lived in subsidized housing, and needed an ROTC scholarship to pay for college. She thinks those experiences uniquely position her to understand what reforms low-income populations need—even that they make her more representative of the people she would serve. Stated priorities in her agenda include guaranteeing reproductive health care services for women in poor and rural neighborhoods, protecting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, and funding universal pre-K.

Beyond personal narratives, the data demonstrates that both candidates and constituents of color have different priorities from those of most donors. Asked in a 2013 survey what would best help them achieve the American dream, wealthy and white respondents chiefly named lower taxes as their priority, and respondents of color named an affordable college education. Most white people said they believe “blacks and other minorities receive equal treatment as whites in the criminal justice system,” compared to 26 percent of people of color.

A 2014 study determined that Black and Latino legislators better address the concerns of their respective groups than do non-legislators of color. When the donor class comes first, non-white constituents’ concerns fall to the wayside: Another recent study concluded, “dependency on outside contributions decreases [House] members’ responsiveness to their districts.” For anyone concerned with policies far away from the donor class’s agenda—like increasing the minimum wage, expanding health-care coverage, or stopping deportations—representation matters.

Bridging the divide would take long, hard work. The racial wealth gap is a mammoth task to take on, even for a politician who genuinely cares about reducing it. And electing that politician in the first place may first require lowering financial barriers to public office, or changing campaign finance laws. A New York congressional candidate’s recent effort to approve the use of campaign money for her child-care expenses reflects a growing desire to level the playing field—Black women candidates would benefit especially from that measure.

However, Citizens United appears to be carved in stone for now, and corporate backers of all ideologies, like the Koch brothers or hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, can stage takeovers by parachuting millions into a state- or local-level race. Many progressive strategists have moved within a system they know is unfair, but feel powerless to dismantle for the time being.

Affiliation-based organizations, like the Collective PAC, the Asian American Action Fund, and the Latino Victory Fund, organize nationally to pool networks and dollars for their candidates to compete with deep-pocketed donors. They typically rely on small contributions, though some are also funded by other big-money backers, and have backed contenders like Gina Ortiz Jones and Tishaura Jones.

But these groups face inherent challenges. Small contributions are making up a smaller and smaller proportion of the fundraising pie, and less than 10 percent of voters have ever contributed to candidates for any office.

“I wish we had large corporate backers,” said James. But raising big-donor money in 2018 to offset a fundamental problem of inequality will do little to widen the door for future candidates who can’t pay their way. He still hopes for a future where super PACs and independent spending committees loosen their vise-grip on politics, but for now, “unfortunately, we have to use the tools we’ve been given.”

If 2018 does indeed spawn a new generation of diverse, justice-minded politicians, we should press them for structural changes. Publicly-financed elections compel candidates to rely on their voters, not just on donor networks. Some states and jurisdictions have tried and succeeded: When Arizona and New York City instituted systems of public financing, racial diversity among candidates shot up. Ninety percent of participating candidates in New York City said they were more likely to look to their constituents for financial support. “Without public financing, I would not have been a viable candidate,” said Gary A. Winfield, a state senator from Connecticut, in a Brennan Center survey.

And even with the option of a democratized funding program, voters would benefit from transparency in the form of stricter disclosure laws. If candidates can receive unlimited money from vaguely-named “dark money” nonprofits, like Newt Gingrich’s Renewing American Leadership or the Democratic Governors’ Association-linked America Works, voters should know which large donors or companies are attempting to sway them with advertisements. New Mexico and California have recently passed disclosure regulations to this effect.

Still, in many states, lawmakers actively protect wealthy special interests. This is predictable: If a seat at the table costs millions, those at the table have real motives to avoid discussing the racial wealth gap. If voters and watchdogs lose sight of money’s role in politics, other reform efforts will continue to sputter.

Finance reports show Jones indeed out-raised her opponents in the Democratic primary. But it doesn’t end with her: When “good people say they can’t step up because they don’t have the resources,” she said, “something is fundamentally wrong.”

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