Money matters

T.A. Barnhart

Money in politics is confounding. On one hand, you have Sanders supporters decrying the money Clinton raises – and then, without pause for breath, bragging about the tens of millions Sanders has raised. The difference, of course, is perspective: our money is good, their money is bad.

Meh. That’s just politics. The real problem with money, of course, is when it harms an election or influences governance. Money is not speech, nor is it policy. It’s just money, a big-ass tool that can pummel other tools into useless junk – stuff like speech, ideas, democracy. But any tool has its uses, and it’s up to the person wielding the tool to use it productively or not.

Or, in terms of politics, for the public good rather than personal or narrow partisan gain.

Money isn’t the major issue in the Portland mayoral race, but it is a factor, and sometimes a distraction. Let’s take a look at that money and how it’s being used.

As of Wednesday afternoon, March 9, here’s what the candidates have raised and what they have on-hand. (I’m only including those who showed up to the all-candidates debate at Revolution Hall a week ago.)


(Wheeler and Bailey’s totals include 2015 and 2016; the others just 2016. Deborah Harris has no account on ORESTAR.)

Three candidates have raised $20,000-plus; one has cleared over $1,000, and one has himself in the hole. Two have raised and spent nothing, and Harris has yet to appear on ORESTAR. (At this point in the campaign, candidates have 30 days to report contributions and expenditures.) In terms of fundraising and spending, it’s not even close. But Wheeler got a big jump on his opponents, starting his campaign at the of last summer (and sending out private messages well before that, no doubt). Bailey was not able to officially announce until this year (because of his position at the county) and Iannarone has only been in the race less than two months.

The others aren’t even trying to raise “serious” money, if they are trying to raise any at all. Yet fundraising has been used as a criteria for being allowed to participate in several debates and forums. In the case of the recent environmental debate, the “buy-in” was only $5,000, but even that was far more than all but the top three were able to show.

This, say the excluded candidates and their supporters, isn’t fair. Sean Davis, at the Revolution Hall forum, complained that he was running for mayor, not playing poker. Is this complaint legit? Or is money a reasonable criterion for judging the seriousness or viability of a campaign?

To the latter, I say, Yes. Here is why.

But first, a proviso based on my belief in democracy: money is not a qualification for office. I doubt there’s a single person in the city, including those who have raised a lot of money, who believe that. We need look no further than Jeb Bush and his $150 million wasted – set on fire, as Rachel Maddow is fond of putting it – to see how little mere money means to most of the American electorate. (Trump’s supporters point to his words far more than his wealth for why they back him.)

(And a further proviso: I am a solid supporter of Ted Wheeler. But this reflects my feelings on money, the current campaign finance environment, and the realities of political campaigning.)

Money does matter in an election. We, the people, have made this so. We blame the politicians and the lobbyists and the Koch Brothers et al, but we’re the ones to blame. Most of the electorate are disengaged from politics, but a lot of them still vote. So ads are used to reach them, and, sad to say, the most effective ads are negative ads. The tens of millions raised and spent each election cycle gets spent on campaign staffs, polling, consultants, and media, not to formulate good policy but to get the attention of enough voters to win. The default mode of American politics is money. Until more citizens get off their asses and start engaging themselves, this will remain true.

Even “voter-owned elections” is about money, not participation. So let’s start with this hard truth before throwing blame at “them”. We are at fault, not the people with the money.

As liberals/progressives, moderates, and even most conservatives believe, money is not speech. Money is not a right. Money is not truth. Money is a thing, a tool. We humans created money to use: to buy stuff, to protect ourselves, to hire others to work, to sell our labor, and so on. Money is a thing we humans developed, and we use it for just about every aspect of our lives.

And let’s be honest about that: Most of us are cool with the role of money in our lives, as long as we have enough. The less we have, or the more our adversaries have (and use against us), the less sanguine we are about money’s role in our lives. But win the Powerball and I bet anger dissipates fast. Heck, if you find $5 under the sofa, and you are probably giddy with joy.

Money is not a right or a qualification to hold office. It’s a tool, not dissimilar to smarts or ability. Forrest Gump had a good heart, but I don’t think a lot of us would vote for him to be represent us in government. His skillset was a combination of kindness, tenacity and blind luck. Not really useful in elected office. Serving in office requires a combination of education, experience, knowledge, talents, etc, that not everyone has.

I don’t. I’m smart; I’m creative; I can do certain things well that people admire. But I would suck as a politician; I am not a person who should serve in elected office, regardless of my passion, commitment to my community, or other fine traits. I’m an excellent citizen (I think) but I’d only embarrass myself running for public office.

And I’d raise very little money. Why? Because anyone looking at me would realize I have no business being an elected official. They’d check my track record, and they’d see a novice who might be smart, have a good grasp of the issues, and has given a lot of time and energy to causes he believes in; but they’d also see someone with a thin skin, no record of organizing that a campaign requires, and little else to commend me as a candidate to whom their money should be given.

Even rich people don’t want to throw their money away on a losing candidate. I’d be embarrassed to ask. So unless I can organize a hell of a grassroots, all-volunteer campaign, using “guerilla” marketing techniques, I’ve lost my campaign before I begin. Money is not a qualification, but it’s a damn good indicator. And here’s why:

To win a city-wide election, you have to get the most votes. Pretty simple. In the May primary, we can expect about a turnout of 40-45%; it may be higher because of the Democratic primary (in 2008, it was 60%, but in 2012 only 42%). Hales and Smith advanced in the 2012 primary with 50,220 (37.2%) and 44,394 (33%) votes respectively. In 2016, to win outright in May, a candidate will probably need about 65,000 votes.

That’s the bottom line. To get there, here’s what else a candidate has to do:

Get their message to voters. Hell, first they have to get their name to voters: “name recognition” is the critical first step.

Build their brand. A political campaign is a struggle between competing messages. The candidate that convinces more voters of his or her message has the best chance of winning.

Respond to attacks. If an opponent starts getting traction by “attacking” you, you have to respond. Silence is not an option. Silence is surrender.

Mobilize volunteers. Campaigns may hire staffers galore, but they all depend on volunteers in the end. Phone banking and door-knocking is done by community members, not those on the payroll.

Get out the vote. GOTV. In Oregon, we have a 21-day window to vote. That means once ballots start arriving in mailboxes in late April, the campaigns have a single mission: get as many voters as possible to check the box for their candidate and then turn in their ballot on time.

All of these tasks cost money. Yes, a candidate can do all of these things with volunteers and spend no money, but they won’t get very far in any of these mandatory tasks. Just getting into the Voters’ Pamphlet in Multnomah County costs $300 for those running for local office. A single flyer that gets to enough doors to matter will costs thousands. A website costs money. Want to be on radio? TV? $$$$. And GOTV can’t be done on the cheap. Or at the last minute.

So the question: The ads haven’t started, and we’re six weeks away from ballots dropping, so why has Wheeler already spent so much money? Let’s have a look at ORESTAR again (remembering that at this point in the campaign, there’s a 30-day window to report contributions and expenditures).

He’s paying for people. His political consultant group, Hilltop Public Solutions, led by Jake Weigler: $64,000. Staff are paid through ADP, Inc, not directly: that’s $88,804 (as listed on ORESTAR).

He’s paying for information, various research and polling firms: $108,590 to a variety of firms including Leading Edge Public Affairs, Lake Research Partners, and others.

He’s paying for services: the $88k to ADP, Inc, includes their servicing his payroll. C&E, which processes contributions and expenditures, $10,646. Insurance. Rent. Office supplies. Campaign events. Miscellaneous costs, not unlike running a small business.

He’s paying for printing. $6,115 to Morel Ink, and that number will grow soon, I’m sure. A lot.

TV and radio ads? They’re probably in production, and those expenditures will appear in time.

Now let’s be clear: None of this is necessary to run a campaign. None of this guarantees a win. None of this proves either electability or competence in office. But this is how campaigns are run in the United States these days. Sure, it’s conceivable to run a campaign on a shoestring budget with nothing but volunteers, but it’s damn hard. And knowing that your opponent is going to raise and spend money leaves a candidate two choices:

Be “pure” and get steamrolled.

Raise enough to get the job done.

Railing against “money in politics” is useful if you’re organizing for “Amend Now” or running for Congress or the Oregon Leg to change campaign finance laws. Otherwise, it’s a feel-good exercise that has no practical application in a campaign. That’s not to say raising tons of money is something we should accept with a defeatist shrug. It is to say: this is complicated. But here’s the simplified view:

A major campaign, like Portland mayor, cannot be won on the cheap. Basic logistics – staff, media, etc – cost money. And without doing certain things, things that cost money, a campaign won’t reach the voters, and won’t get enough voters to select them. Raising and spending money effectively – enough to win without selling your soul to the highest bidders – is a tricky proposition. Raising “winning” money opens a candidate to charges of selling his or her soul to the highest bidder. But raising little or no money means certain defeat.

That’s life in modern American politics. If Wheeler’s $400k is pure poison to you, fine; I look at $0 and see a candidate who is not serious about winning. And why, with the precious time we have to hear from, talk to, and learn about candidates, do I want to waste my time on someone who is not serious about winning? Their job as candidate is to win. If they can’t do that job effectively, I doubt they could do the job of holding office.

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