Money in Politics is a Local Problem, Too

By Roosevelt Institute |

Large donors dominate our politics even at the local level, but communities have the power to overcome them.

Last summer, I interned for mayoral candidate Gary Holder-Winfield in New Haven, CT. New Haven is not a small town. While it’s 130,660 residents pale in comparison to New York’s 8,405,837, it is a major city in Connecticut. In New Haven, which is primarily Democratic, the real race for mayor was in the primary. In a local election with seven candidates, there are not going to be seven radically different perspectives.  Most of the candidates generally held the same values, to the point that the race was decided more on the likability of the candidates then the content of their platforms.

In trying to differentiate Gary Holder-Winfield from the field, we got in touch with voters directly. I saw him work a full day at his job and then come in to the campaign office and knock on doors for hours until after dark on weekdays, and then walk all day knocking on doors on the weekends, rain or shine. I saw him write his personal phone number on literature to give out to his community.

I also saw Holder-Winfield forced to drop out because of lack of money. He had agreed to fund his campaign through the Democracy Fund, which restricts the amount of campaign expenditures allowed, limits individual contributions to $370, and prohibits any PAC or business from donating all together. In return, the Democracy Fund matches donations up to $125,000 and provides a $19,000 grant for the primary and general elections. Ultimately, all of the candidates that ran in the mayoral election with the Democracy Fund were defeated. While the new mayor of New Haven, Toni Harp, is extremely qualified and will do well as New Haven’s next mayor, I am disappointed that the process of getting there required raising more than half a million dollars.  

Despite Holder-Winfield dropping out of the race, I was not yet completely disheartened.  But when I went to work on aldermanic campaigns, I realized that money was the largest barrier to entry in politics today. Aldermen in New Haven are the equivalent of city councilmen. They each represent particular neighborhoods in New Haven, making their concerns and constituents hyper-local. Some sitting members on the Board of Aldermen in New Haven have been there for decades without a serious challenge, in part because local interest groups have backed them financially.

By helping to run the campaigns of aldermanic candidates who wanted to run free of these local interests and maintain a campaign on very few funds, I learned what an uphill battle it was to get money out of politics even at such a local level. We backed five candidates; only one was elected. It’s sobering when paying for lawn signs is out of a campaign’s budget. It’s disheartening to see a second candidate  I worked for drop out because of funding. It’s devastating that a group of dedicated volunteers can spend weeks systematically knocking on doors and hours on phone calls with potential voters, only to have the incumbent pay for enough canvassers in the week leading up to election day to pull off the votes to win.

That summer, it became very clear to me that democracy came with a high price. This is not a call to action for my congressman or senator to advocate for campaign finance reform; I am too realistic for that request. My call to action is for people who care about their communities. Some people may not vote because they feel like their votes do not matter, and it’s easy to understand why in heavily partisan national elections. However, the closest aldermanic race was won by 81 votes. Local elections are where our votes matter most, and where we are least aware of where power lies.

Money in politics has permeated the governance of local issues, so we need to start identifying the drivers of local politics. In New Haven, politics are centered on the effects of Yale University as an anchor institution. Aldermanic races are shaped by the influence of the unions partnered with Yale. We need to impress the importance of local elections and analyze the drivers of these local communities. We must identify who holds power, economically and socially in these communities, and harness that power. Locally, there is still a chance for the voices of voters over large donors.

Eugenia Kim is the Rethinking Communities Intern at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, and a member of the Rethinking Communities Brain Trust.

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