Who Should Run for Office?

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With all the talk surrounding money in politics, little attention has been paid to how this issue limits the candidate pool. Essentially, we are seeing now more than ever the devastating results of money in politics in the form of limiting the ability of potential candidates to afford running for office. There have been many reports on how expensive elections have become, but few have touched on how a lack of income during the campaign can cause many well-meaning Americans to see running for political office as something outside of their means. When we talk about public financing of elections, we should talk about making incomes for candidates more accessible, and removing the stigma.

By stigma, I mean the overwhelming emphasis on citizens getting into politics for financial gain. While this is true for some officeholders, it is surely not the case for the majority of politicians, particularly at the state and local level. In fact, many local politicians do not have any opportunities for financial gain once they become an alderman, mayor, or even state legislator. Some are even paid so little they need to retain a full-time job while serving. However, for many candidates , running for office — and being a candidate is a full time job — means the difference between financial security and financial straits for the greater part of a year.

This reality severely limits the diversity of public servants at every level. In order to run for political office, one must have at least one of the following:

  • a lot of savings
  • a spouse with a good job
  • willingness and ability to live very frugally.

Racial minorities in America have been and continue to be disenfranchised and discouraged from participating in our political processes, and further have not had the ability to accumulate wealth as has the white segment. The need for financial security while running for office, combined with economic disparities in this country, mean that rich white guys constitute a much greater proportion of our legislatures than of our population. In Congress,  just 20% of members are women, and almost 78% of politicians are White, while only 61% of Americans are White. These numbers do not reflect the diversity of this country, and this is despite federal legislation allowing candidates for Congress or the Presidency to pay themselves a salary from their campaign.

Now, compound this issue with the fact that financial disclosures are a common part of the process when running for more prominent elected offices. In the same way that a lack of funds can virtually disqualify potential candidates from being able to afford to campaign, an excess of debt threatens threatens to have the same effect. Stacey Abrams is a candidate for Georgia’s governorship, and she also is part of the 80% of Americans who are in debt. While her platform of policies and credentials should be the focus of voters and the media, the state is instead being swept into the particulars of her financial situation.

Abrams is a first generation college graduate, a provider for two households, and a Black woman. The latter is included to highlight the especially tense financial situation of Black women (who on average make $0.63 for every $1 a man makes) and their households (the average wealth of a White household is $142,000, compared to just $11,000 for Black households, and $13,700 for Latino/a households). The convergence of these realities for Abrams, and millions of other citizens like her, serves as further proof of the affect America’s wealth disparity has on the makeup of elected officials in this country. Just as with citizens not being able to afford to campaign while unpaid for a number of months, citizens will be discouraged to throw their hat in the ring if their financial status is harkened on more than their policy preferences.

A lot of people who might make good members of Congress cannot run simply due to financial hardships, or the stigma we attach to debt. While there is policy in place at the federal level to address this, the local and state elections need to be reformed, as they are arguably the breeding ground for larger political aspirations. The other option, unfortunately, is to continue to make many political offices more available for the wealthy, like myself.

 

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