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Think Globally, Run Locally

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The Basic Necessity: Money

About the Author

Caleb Rossiter
Caleb Rossiter is a consultant with the Center for International Policy and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation...

First, last and always there was the money. Politics is marketing, and you can't win market share unless your name and main idea gain the same familiarity as your opponent's. We knew we would need half a million dollars to get enough television spots on prime-time shows to penetrate voters' consciousness. Every citizen can give up to $2,000 to a House candidate in a two-year election cycle, and I spent so much time on the phone trying to get that money that my ears hurt and my soul ached. If you want to serve your country in Congress, you have to dust off your Rolodexes, high school yearbooks, college boards of trustees, family trees and lists of progressive business leaders, and then call all your friends and political allies and ask them to do the same. Then you just start calling, starting with the richest. For as long as you can take it every day, you stand among three people with telephones who are saying over and over again: "I have Caleb Rossiter for United States Congress holding for so-and-so. Can you put me through, please?"

You thank them for taking your call, which for the wealthy ones is among the dozens they might receive from candidates in a day, give a thirty-second pitch about what you share (a school, a cause, a friend) and why you think you can win, ask for $2,000, listen for another minute at most and then pick up the person who's waiting on the next line. You call people back and back and back until they either give this maximum amount, or tell you they've given all they can...and then you ask them for the name of a friend, a spouse, an ex-spouse or an adult child, and start all over again. Chuck Schumer is in the Senate because he made those calls for six years to get the money to go toe to toe with Al D'Amato, whereas I collapsed after six months.

And don't think you can change this through campaign finance reform. There is no reform you can think of--including the most meaningful one of free and equal but limited television and radio time--that professional money-movers and lawyers can't turn into Swiss cheese. When the Center for Responsive Politics reports how much was spent by various interests on campaigns, they're only catching about half of it. Money over the $2,000 limit can be washed through so many channels it would take a Ken Starr-size operation just to get a handle on it in a single race.

Toward the close of the campaign, when I asked one of my "max" donors to ask her spouse to contribute, she said, "Fine, Caleb. But listen: Why ask me for $2,000? Ask me for $100,000, like the others do, and your people can tell my accountant where to send pieces of it." She meant that she would write checks to PACs that wouldn't otherwise give me their $10,000 maximum, to party organizations that wouldn't otherwise run advertisements for me and to unions or issue groups that wouldn't otherwise run an independent campaign for me. Welcome to American Politics 101, where not a word need be said: It's all done with winks and nods. Not looking good in stripes, I didn't go there, but most of the big, close races have this kind of activity going on just below the candidates' radar screens. Both Clinton and Dole were accused by the Federal Election Commission staff of cheating, massively and willfully, on the spending limits for President in 1996, but the FEC despaired of winning the case, which would have taken decades of litigation.

Our fundraising was hampered because my natural allies, whose positions I was aggressively promoting--the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the AFL-CIO and even the arms-control community's PeacePAC--put a burn notice on my back by not contributing. It read: "Don't give to this candidate. He can't beat this incumbent. Focus your money on helping Democrats win back the House, with our target list of close races." The AFL-CIO went a step further, overriding its local labor councils to endorse Houghton. Progressive Democrats I had worked with in Congress, local union leaders and members of PeacePAC's board made substantial individual contributions in time and money to our campaign, but their organizations' refusal to target our race cost us at least half a million dollars.

Progressives should reject this fundraising triage, which is geared simply to winning a Democratic majority. Our policies depend on the election of a larger progressive minority over time, whether or not Democrats are in the majority. With the help of the Institute for Policy Studies, the fifty-two-member Progressive Caucus has started to make progressives relevant again on Capitol Hill, and similar alliances have been started in some state legislatures. These groups would already be power brokers rather than voices of conscience if all the money that progressives have given to Democratic presidential campaigns, the national Democratic Party and candidates earmarked by the DCCC in the past ten years had been given directly to progressive candidates with long-term potential.

I don't think progressives can ever become an elected majority, at least given the current contours of American politics. Most upper-income people and corporations will always resist the populism we represent and will fund candidates of both parties who protect them. Running in a poor, 95 percent white rural district, I saw firsthand the class war in America, which is a fight over resources and opportunity that the rich are winning hands down. They're not stupid, and regardless of any campaign finance reform they'll find a way to influence elections with their money. Progressive changes will come from hard bargaining by a well-organized minority, not from having a working majority.

This is especially true of presidential elections, the real business of the national parties and their corporate-driven soft-money machines. Al Gore or Bill Bradley would rule, as Bill Clinton has, from the corporate middle, where they raise their money. Progressive donors cannot buy influence over the core agenda of the national Democratic Party because its institutional function is not to promote a core agenda but to win the presidency and a majority in both houses. The DCCC is poised to win a House majority in 2000 just as it did in the eighties by backing antiabortion, anti-union conservative Southern Democrats who will guarantee the party only their first vote--to make a Democrat the Speaker.

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