More than fifteen years ago, when I was the president of Ceres, the coalition of environmental groups and investors pushing to make the economy more sustainable, one of my colleagues came to my door and said “Bob, there is a congressman on the phone for you.”
Perhaps it was to support our latest action on climate change? I picked up the phone. “Hello, Congressman.”
“Hello Bob. How have you been?”
“Fine, thanks. What can I do for you?”
“Well, Bob, you have been a good friend”—we barely knew each other—“and I thank you for that. As you know I am running for re-election.”
“Yes,” I said, wondering if he wanted my advice on energy policy.
“Well, you see, campaigns are very expensive, and I was wondering if I could count on you to make a donation of $500 to help me out.”
Poof! – my little idealistic view that he was reaching out to me as an expert disappeared. We talked for a few more minutes and finally I pledged to give him $100. Which I did. And I never heard from him again.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Today I am a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, running to create a sustainable and prosperous economy “with liberty and justice for all.”
In the last few weeks I have received many hundreds of heartfelt messages of encouragement from people around the state and country who share this vision. But now comes the real test. Will those statements of support, which have meant so much to me, translate into a broad base of modest donors who can propel this campaign forward?
Even with masses of volunteers, campaigns are expensive. The leanest operations still need a core professional staff to guide all that volunteer energy. Even in the age of social media, you still need a campaign office, desks, a photocopier, and stacks of flyers, posters, and yard signs. A serious state-wide campaign can easily cost more than $10,000 a week.
So how do candidates get that money?
The most common method is through the “secret money primary” —the competition that all candidates engage in long before the campaign is in public view. They seek out wealthy supporters. Some of those supporters form a finance committee. The members of the finance committee then serve as “bundlers” – people who reach out to their equally wealthy friends on the candidate’s behalf, asking each of them to give $1,000. All of this takes places quietly, in phone calls and private meetings, long before the names of the donors are released by the office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The mathematical logic for taking this approach is compelling. It is much easier to raise $10,000 by getting ten rich people to give $1,000 than to persuade 500 people to give $20. Grassroots campaigns only succeed if they ignite broad and committed support from small donors.
I am grateful to my long-time friends who have reached deep into their pockets to give the maximum amount. I too need to create a finance committee. But everyone in Democratic politics knows that there is a fundamental problem with the current system, which is that it requires candidates to spend a huge percentage their time reaching out and talking to wealthy people. And right from the beginning they need to frame their messages in terms that are acceptable to the elite.
Both of my fellow candidates have assembled finance committees and have already spent months calling donors one by one. They feel obligated to do so because of the crazy and damaging incentives built into our electoral system. Most commentators automatically rank whoever has the most money in the bank as the “lead candidate,” even though we have many examples in which the candidate with most money (remember Jeb Bush?) did not win.
What is especially disturbing about all this is that Massachusetts once briefly had a public financing system. Voters in 1998 endorsed a “clean elections” ballot initiative that provided full public financing of state-wide elections. But the legislature refused to fund it, and in 2003 they repealed the law entirely So for more than a decade, instead of having a clean elections system like Maine, Connecticut, and Arizona, we have continued to force candidates to rely on rich private donors.
In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” Barack Obama wrote eloquently about the corrosive effects of the secret money primary:
“Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means — law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. […]
I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”
I agree with Obama: many wealthy donors hold sincere liberal views. But their concern is often abstract because they are personally shielded from the most harmful sides of our economy – low-paying, poor-quality jobs, the collapsing safety net, unreachable higher education, unaffordable housing. This means that they do not feel urgency for action; they often feel that the system needs to be tweaked rather than fundamentally reformed. This is one of the many ways in which our electoral system shaves the sharper edges off of candidates.
Until we get real public financing of elections, the best way for a grassroots campaign to sustain itself would be to persuade people to provide small but steady support every month, so that the campaign could focus much more on people and much less on dollars. Bernie Sanders could never have achieved the success he managed if it hadn’t been for the many small donations he received.
This is what I now need for my campaign to succeed. If 100 people give $20 a month, this would add significant stability.. If a 1,000 people give $20 a month, then we would rocket forward.
I know it’s hard to make an open-ended commitment like that. Perhaps people will consider giving for a shorter duration—three months, say—and then evaluate whether I still merit their support.
In my campaign for governor, even though I too will need to create a finance campaign and hope to attract a few larger donors, I will never be the person who raises the most money. However, I can become the candidate with the highest number of donors.
That, like so much in our democracy, will depend on you.
If you believe in the values and leadership that I have shown throughout my life, and if you want to advance all the things we dream about – modern transportation systems, better 21st century jobs, greater support for our struggling schools, a rapid transition to renewable energy, and solid and vocal defense of Massachusetts values against attacks from our dangerous president – then I hope you will honor me by contributing your ideas, your time, and the gift of your financial support today.