On July 1, I announced that I was running for Congress in Maryland’s 8th District. And less then three months later, I wrote to my supporters to let them know I was suspending my campaign.
My decision to run for Congress came from a desire, as a black woman, to represent the interests and needs of those whose voices are often absent in political spaces, the same reasons that spurred me to run for — and win — seats on the school board and then the county council (twice) in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest and most diverse counties in the nation. That desire also made my decision to exit the race difficult. I wondered whether ending my campaign would mean that the voices of single moms, immigrants and working-class workers with whom I share common histories and struggles would continue to be ignored in the seats of power.
In some ways, getting out of the race was a decision made for me. During the campaign, it became abundantly clear that the viability of my candidacy wasn’t really about my ideas on how to serve my constituents or my track record of public service. It wasn’t even about the groundswell of grassroots support that my campaign generated. It was about the very thing that Viola Davis spoke of in her incredible acceptance speech as the first black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series: It was about access and opportunity. And in the world of politics, opportunity equals access to big money.
Why don’t we ask the House of Delegates and see how that goes? The problem is that wherever parties are entrenched and using that position to rake in dollars, their most important priority is staying entrenched.
More than ever, money plays a significant and outsized role in electoral politics. Candidates running for office spend the majority of their days and nights raising money — mainly from wealthy donors. At the outset of a congressional campaign, the experience of running for elected office has little to do with engaging the citizens who will actually vote. In fact, the citizens are all but ignored to court a donor class of wealthy individuals and politicos who decide whether to endorse you by monitoring your campaign contributions. For candidates who are people of color, women or who are not of means, you can likely count on one hand the people you know you who have pockets deep enough to truly position you as a contender.
In essence, the ability or inability to raise money doesn’t only influence who wins a race. It determines who gets to run in the first place. Elected leaders and candidates seek funding from a shrinking pool of donors who are making bigger and bigger contributions. This system essentially grants access to a very small population of contributors. Who loses in this scenario? We all do. But women, people of color and average working families have the most at stake. Robust civic participation is one of the most important ways for voters to gain access to the elected officials who make decisions that impact their lives every day.
In Tom Hamburger’s and Matea Gold’s recent Washington Post article, GOP election-law attorney Trevor Potter, who favors stricter campaign finance rules, remarked about the new landscape: “This makes the parties more indebted to a handful of very large donors giving beyond the means — or even the imagination — of most Americans.”
Further, there are organizations that profess to provide resources to candidates who are women and people of color who are disadvantaged in our current political system. The strategy is to recruit candidates and then to provide them with “seed” money, which in turn would assist in attracting donors and other kinds of support. The most well-known of these organizations is Emily’s List. Unfortunately, my experience is that these groups, too, want to see money in the bank before they endorse or give money, especially in races where there is more than one woman running in the primary.
Essentially, our democratic process has been hijacked by a version of democracy that is controlled by big money in politics. And this isn’t the version of democracy that will excite an electorate that is becoming increasingly disinterested in politics.
Before we can have a real discussion about how to empower voters, we need to focus some attention on how we level the playing field. It matters that 50 percent of the members of Congress are millionaires and 71 percent are male and white. The Center for Responsive Politics conducted a study that found that it takes 18 American households to equal the value of a member of Congress’ household.
I’m pulling back the curtain on this system because we all need to consider what role we’re willing to play to improve it. I decided to run because I believe that more people like me need to be active participants in the decision-making process. How do we get there? It is imperative that a national campaign for public financing of campaigns becomes an important legislative fight that we move forward. It is one of the best ways to accomplish a fair, reasonable and objective process for the democracy we seek. We need to elect people who put our interests, concerns and needs on par with the wealthy. We can and must continue to recruit and train more women and people of color to run for office. And most importantly, when they make the brave choice to run, the system must be equitable and ensure that they can run on the merits of their ideas as opposed to the money in their bank accounts. It’s the only way we can create an inclusive democracy that speaks to the needs of all citizens.