News & Politics

First Rule of Elections: It’s All About Money

If you’re thinking of running for public office, you’d better learn to love fundraising

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Longtime Village Voice political reporter Ross Barkan announced his candidacy for state senate in south Brooklyn’s 22nd district on October 3. As his campaign proceeds, Barkan will be reporting for the Voice on his experience navigating the New York state election process.

Publication of these articles by the Voice do not imply our endorsement of Barkan’s campaign, or for that matter of the New York state election process.

It started to happen at a party last month. People were clustered in the small living room, laughing and munching on meaty nachos, sipping beer, and, as always, checking their phones. I was sitting on a folding chair, my eyes wandering.

I was thinking about money.

If the twelve people in the room each kicked in $50 by next week, I’d be a quarter of the way to my arbitrary fundraising goal.… If I could pull $100 from those two bros talking about the Yankees’ starting pitching… If I could convince the host to tell ten of her closest friends to chip in $10 by midnight…

People have asked me, as a journalist, what it’s like to be a first-time candidate for office. How are you? What do you do, exactly? Do you really enjoy it?

I’m great. I do a lot. And yes — mostly.

But what I’ve found is how little the people covering politics — including me (until now) — comprehend how much money rules your universe once you’re in a campaign. To most journalists, politics is something like performance art, with set pieces and hammy actors and gestures toward what is actually going on behind the curtain. A campaign stages a walking tour or a candidate gives a speech or an endorsement email arrives; the reporter dutifully consumes each little prop, and goes about his or her day, unaware of the reality churning below.

Hint: If you don’t see a candidate out on the sidewalk or chatting up seniors, they’re probably somewhere trying to raise money.

Money pays for staff, campaign mail, a website, and a lot of other things. It’s also about showing outsiders how serious you are. Until we find a better system, fundraising levels are how candidates will be judged.

Campaign finance reform can sound elitist, at least when it’s bandied about by good government groups and that type of politician you know — usually a well-coifed goo-goo from the Upper East or West Side of Manhattan. Some on the left will rank it below bread-and-butter economic issues or social concerns. It’s not always top-tier.

When you’re living in a system that prizes money above all else and creates such perverse incentives in the people trying to get elected, you start to see it differently. It becomes the pressing issue. It’s not so much about whether a single donation will influence you. Journalists overrate how much one $100 or $1,000 check in a sea of money can swing anything. They’re too quick to cry out “quid pro quo!” anytime any two events are tangentially related by cash.

What they should focus on instead is where the big money is and why politicians act the way they do. It’s not about any one developer, lobbyist, or heavyweight donor. It’s about the crush of money — where it is and how you seek it.

I am running as a pro-tenant, anti–real estate lobby candidate in New York City. There will be at least one PAC that may support me (Tenants PAC), so that’s one financial incentive to be the way I am. Yet this one PAC is significantly outgunned by the millions of dollars the Real Estate Board of New York, the chief advocacy arm of the real estate industry, will spend in each election cycle.

Were I not such a new and unlikely candidate — say, if I were a Democrat who had been viewed as a rising star for a while and decided to take the plunge — it would be easier for me to be much nicer to developers. That’s where the money is, after all, and that’s how you can get $5,000-a-pop donations without trying too hard. One hour schmoozing a millionaire can be worth weeks of pressing friends, neighbors, and fellow activists to kick in cash, bit by bit.

I’ve been fortunate so far. I’ve avoided dreaded “call time.” Anodyne-seeming enough, call time refers to sitting in a room somewhere and calling people to ask for money. A lot of money. Hours upon hours, dialing friends, relatives, vague acquaintances, and the big donors (“whales”) who are used to this kind of dance and enjoy the cajoling. Some politicians actually relish call time. Most put it off as long as they can.

When you’re a candidate, you’ll find yourself monetizing people and things when you don’t want to, refreshing the donation site ActBlue, adding sums in your head toward fundraising goals that can seem mythic.

Before announcing this campaign, I had written approvingly of the city’s public financing system, which matches small donations within the district six to one. If I gave a City Council candidate in my neighborhood $20, that would turn into $120 with public matching funds.

While critics of this process say it wastes public money on campaigns and creates onerous burdens for first-time candidates to hire a good financial compliance person — the Campaign Finance Board will fine you heavily for running afoul of their regulations — it is clearly preferable to what we have at the state level.

As a candidate for the state senate, I don’t have access to matching funds. There is no public finance system. A $500 check goes a lot further than $50, even for candidates who pursue a small-donor strategy. This gives state incumbents a titanic advantage, as many lawmakers sit on war chests in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, amassed over years of wringing big checks out of people who want to defend the status quo.

So when people ask if I’m worried about going up against a Democratic political machine — I’m a registered Democrat who has not been shy about excoriating party leaders in my writing — my answer is always no. I simply think about money. I’m raising it now, and doing well for a first-time candidate, but the mountain I have to climb is far different than the one insurgent candidates facing off against stodgy machines encountered a generation ago. The game has changed.

When I announced my campaign in early October, I shocked a lot of people by telling almost no one. In politics one is supposed to “lay the groundwork” in advance, but I did little of this — no exploratory committee, no feeling out donors, no fundraising madly for an announcement yet to come. Instead of planning months for a kickoff fundraiser, I spent two weeks (at most) doing it. I just said I was running and away I went.

What this has meant, in essence, has been doing everything on the fly. Planning a good fundraiser should take more than two weeks. Donors should be primed and ready, at least if you’re doing it the conventional way.

It means forgoing a significant host committee, which is the secret of any successful fundraiser — get a few people of means to bundle the cash you need to make the night financially successful. Maybe half of what you need is earned at the door. Again, all of this is about planning and knowing the right people.

I’ve lamented that the general admission ticket to my fundraiser was $75, because that was prohibitively expensive for many people I know. If there were a matching funds system or a limit on how much candidates could spend, the barrier to entry for a two-hour open bar would be a lot lower. Maybe it wouldn’t exist at all.

Ideally, I wouldn’t have to raise money at all. My energy would be channeled into meeting people, dreaming up policy, and giving rousing speeches. I like speechifying, I like talking, I like flesh-pressing.

I’ll have to learn to like money.

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