Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The increasing influence of outside spending on municipal elections is creating imbalances in leadership. Cities have powerful models to fix that.
In the current contentious U.S. political climate, concern about the influence of wealthy campaign donors on elections is growing. This is also very much an issue in local elections, which appear to be increasingly influenced by outside money.
As new research from the Brennan Center for Justice reveals, that influence is particularly troublesome for populations that have historically been discriminated against. People from these populations become discouraged from running for local offices because they feel they can’t match the resources of wealthy candidates and their campaign donors, who tend to be white men. This is the finding explained in the research brief “A Civil Rights Perspective on Money in Politics,” from the Brennan Center. The report also shows that issues prioritized by minority communities often go unaddressed because even local elections end up serving the interests of wealthy donors
In a 2013 poll from The Washington Post, an overwhelming majority of people of color and persons making less than $50,000 a year said that creating jobs was more important than holding down the federal budget deficit. A majority of white Americans and people making $100,000 or more per year said the opposite. Another survey found that while 78 percent of the public believes the government should make college affordable for everyone who wants to go, only 28 percent of the very wealthy agree. This divide remains once people are asked to consider specific policy proposals. The general public is twice as concerned as wealthy Americans are about guaranteeing a livable minimum wage and unemployment benefits, and more than three times as supportive of maintaining or growing the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Look to North Carolina to see how the outsized influence of outside money can wreck the interests of marginalized local populations. After Charlotte firmed up LGBT protections via a city ordinance, the state legislature passed the notorious HB2 law, stripping the ordinance of its power. As reported in Facing South, a string of corporations pooled resources together to elect and influence the legislators who passed that state law. Even some of the corporations that have criticized HB2 inadvertently funded its passage through their contributions to PACs tied to legislators supporting the bill. Writes Facing South’s Alex Kotch:
At least 36 companies that have come out against HB2 so far have given a combined $10.8 million to those Washington, D.C.-based groups, the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and the Republican Governors Association (RGA), in recent election cycles.
Companies that have criticized HB2 have donated over $4.3 million to the RSLC since the 2010 election cycle. They include Citigroup (nearly $893,000), Pfizer (over $654,000), Google (nearly $312,000), Bank of America (over $239,000), Dow Chemical (nearly $221,000), Facebook (nearly $165,000), and SAS Institute (nearly $152,000). PayPal, which contributed $399 to the RSLC in that period, has announced that it is canceling plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte in protest of the law.
In the 2010 cycle, the RSLC was by far the biggest donor to a North Carolina-based super PAC called Real Jobs N.C., contributing at least $1.25 million. Real Jobs then spent over $1.5 million on 19 North Carolina House and Senate races. Republicans backed by Real Jobs won in 16 of those contests, taking these offices for the first time and ousting incumbent Democrats. Most are still members of the N.C. General Assembly, and 11 of them voted for HB2.
There are ways to mitigate the effect of outside money on the overall campaign system, namely through public financing. Cities and states offer up some of the best public financing solutions, with far more models available and accessible than the federal government has. The Brennan Center offers some examples of these models in another research brief, also released this week by the organization. The brief points to New York City: It has a small donor-matching program that gives candidates six dollars for every dollar donated by a city resident. Donors participating in this program are more racially and economically diverse than those who donate to state-level elections, which doesn’t have a comparable matching system, the Brennan Center found.
Another example can be found in Seattle, where in 2015 voters approved a new program through which the city provides $25 “democracy vouchers” to residents, which they can pledge to the candidates they support. Other local and state campaign systems employ tax credits and block grants to subsidize candidates so that they don’t have to depend on corporations and wealthy donors.
Brennan Center researchers spoke with a diverse set of 20 elected officials across the country who were voted into office through public-financing campaign models—all living evidence of these systems’ efficacy. Here’s Letitia James, from New York City, featured in the Brennan report:
The old saw that “in the voting booth, everyone is equal” is simply not true, especially not in a post-Citizens United world, where certain votes come with checks attached. To level the playing field and allow for a more diverse pool of candidates and issues, campaign systems must mitigate the influence of the wealthy so that all truly have an equal vote and say in policies.