The combined wealth of the 115th Congress is $2.43 billion, give or take a few vacation homes. That is a 20 percent increase over the wealth of the 114th Congress, RollCall reports, meaning that congressional wealth is climbing as American wealth inequality grows. This is not to suggest that Congress is uniformly wealthy. There are layers within layers, even inside a throbbing ball of money. As of 2016, twelve lawmakers owned more than half of Congress’s wealth. The bottom 123 members were actually in debt, due mostly to business and campaign debt—and no wonder. The same year, a victorious Senate campaign cost around $10.4 million. Add outside money to that figure, and it increases to a lofty $19.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Political campaigns are luxuries, available mostly to the wealthy. This is not news. But let’s consider more deeply the implications of this state of affairs. With congressional wealth at obscene highs, it’s clearer than ever that riches buy influence. It stands to reason that when the poor are de facto barred from office, inequality ossifies. An entire class lacks the means to represent itself, and must instead rely on inconsistent allies higher up the income ladder. The result is a government that does not meet an important democratic standard. Campaign finance reform is not typically framed as an inequality story, but it is one.
While no law prevents outside donors, for example, from investing in the campaign of a low-income person, the likelihood that they’ll do so is low. The problem is social capital: Low-income people lack it, and so their personal networks do not often contain millionaires with open pocketbooks. “A lot of times the need to fundraise large amounts of money prevents a lot of people who are qualified and who are leaders in that community from running for office because they don’t have networks that include wealthy donors,” said Allie Boldt, a Washington, D.C.-based counsel for the think tank Demos.
One way to rectify this situation is through the redistribution of capital. Socialism, as Elizabeth Bruenig recently articulated it at The Washington Post, is a direct solution to the inequality expressed by the state of campaign finance. But short of a political revolution, there are other measures that can be taken to smooth entry for low-income candidates. From Seattle to Washington, D.C., many states and municipalities are creating new programs designed to diversify the donor class and open wider doors for candidates who represent marginalized communities.
“One reform that’s been really successful around the country is to pass programs that publicly finance elections,” Boldt added. These programs provide public funds to participating candidates. New York City has one such program; the Washington, D.C., city council passed another in 2018, which it modeled on a New York City concept that has existed in various iterations since 2001.
“Basically we see it as an investment in our democracy. We’re making democracy stronger by helping ensure that candidates can run for office even without huge wealthy networks,” said Monica Kamen, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Fair Budget Coalition. Candidates opt into the program, and in return, they agree not to accept campaign contributions above a certain monetary limit, which varies based on the race the candidate intends to enter. A mayoral candidate and a city council candidate, for instance, will abide by different campaign contribution limits. The city will also match political contributions 5 to 1 for a candidate who opts into the program. “So a $5 contribution becomes a $30 contribution,” Kamen explained.
To Kamen and other public financing advocates, such programs offer a way to materially alter the makeup of who donates to candidates. They hope that diversifying donors will have a knock-on effect, and increase the viability of candidates from marginalized backgrounds. “There was a study done in D.C. that said that the overwhelming majority of political donors were white and were men and were not from the district. Those demographics don’t really reflect the demographics of the district, which is mostly people of color, or the economic demographics of the district,” she said. D.C. suffers from steep wealth inequality, which maps along racial lines: According to a 2016 report from the Urban Institute, white households in D.C. boast a net worth 81 times greater than that of the average black household.
Public financing programs aren’t without controversy. During debate on D.C.’s measure, opponents worried that their tax dollars could promote the campaigns of candidates they found objectionable. With open white nationalists running for office in Wisconsin and Illinois, that concern is not far-fetched. But the counter-argument is strong: Public financing, however imperfect, has been shown to increase the democratic participation of marginalized people. In Seattle, where “democracy vouchers” allow residents to donate $100 to the city candidate of their choice, political donations increased significantly in every income bracket under $150,000 per annum, compared to donations in races that did not accept the vouchers. In races that accepted vouchers as a donation, a greater proportion of donors identified as people of color.
According to Demos, 27 states, counties, and cities now implement public financing of some kind. Public financing doesn’t necessarily keep big donors or outside money from influencing a race. But it does make it easier for low-income people to participate in the democratic process by supporting candidates who represent their interests. Candidates who opted into Seattle’s program ran on strong, progressive platforms that supported the city’s $15 minimum wage and brought attention to the city’s housing crisis. Two Latinx candidates eventually won election.
In races for other seats, however, candidates from low-income backgrounds find themselves stymied by other roadblocks. It takes time to run a campaign, and that’s something many low-income people can’t afford. In most states, employees aren’t protected from termination if they take time off work to run for office, and even if they win office, the salary varies wildly from state to state. “Sometimes these positions are part-time as well, and it’s not always feasible for folks who are living paycheck to paycheck to not only get that job as a legislator, but also to campaign,” Boldt explained. The situation is particularly complicated for candidates with children. “For example, people with small children need to provide care for their kids. And in a lot of places, campaign funds can’t be spent on childcare,” she added.
One solution could be a uniform salary for state legislators, pinned to a state’s cost of living, that guarantees a basic living wage without enriching legislators from wealthy backgrounds. Another could be a law protecting employees from retaliation if they choose to run for office. But these measures can only accomplish so much in the absence of broader policy overhauls. Wealth inequality remains the biggest barrier to running for office.
Kerri Harris, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware, works a full-time job as a community organizer in addition to campaigning for office. She has, at various points in her working life, cut grass and fried chicken at a convenience store. She told me that her experiences with financial hardship both motivate and complicate her campaign. “I actually had a look in running last summer. We put out feelers, had a number of meet-and-greets, people were excited about it. But when October came, I had to sit down and really re-evaluate,” she said. “I am a parent and I have responsibilities and I don’t make a lot of money.”
Harris was eventually able to form a dedicated, mostly volunteer team, and launched a primary challenge to Senator Tom Carper in February. “At the same time I’m running this campaign, saying people shouldn’t be struggling, I’m not saying it as if it’s those people. I am those people, and they see it,” she explained. Now her life is a steady sprint: She works, campaigns, and shares parenting responsibilities with the mother of her two children. She attends party fundraisers as a candidate that she cannot afford to attend as an interested member of the community. “We’re going to have a fundraiser at a park and it’s going to be hot dogs and sodas because, while we can’t lose money, I want to make sure that people feel like they’re giving too,” she said. “They don’t have to show up in fancy clothes because I have the same four v-neck sweaters. I have three button-down shirts, one pair of slacks, and two pairs of shoes that I wear to every event.”
Harris, who supports single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage, and universal pre-kindergarten, cited public financing as one way to make campaigns more viable for the working poor. She is particularly intrigued by Montgomery County, Maryland’s program, which prohibits participating candidates from accepting individual donations of more than $150 and and from accepting donations from special interest groups. Programs like this, she believes, will help campaigns like hers—and encourage more working-class people to run for office.
“We told ourselves that we had to check certain boxes,” she said. “Because that’s what society told us. But we make a way out of nothing, we really do, and so we have to realize that we don’t have to cower in the corner anymore and wait for somebody else to solve our problems. We can step up.”