Many of the lawmakers walking the gilded halls of Congress are, financially, far better off than the constituents they represent. Millionaires comprise nearly 40 percent of Congress, compared to being just 4 percent of the U.S. population.
This lopsided representation is not just some coincidence.
Rich people have a significant advantage running for office in a political system that relies on private donations. Rich people have rich friends who can donate to their campaign. They have the resources to make sure everything is taken care of in their personal life so that they can focus all their attention on running for office. And they can fund their own campaign and not worry about spending all their time raising money.
“The notion of being able to just write a check for that much to help pay for ads and such ― that would be completely out of my abilities,” said Shawna Roberts, who quit her part-time job at McDonald’s to run as the Democratic candidate in Ohio’s 6th congressional district.
“It’s absurd to imagine people who don’t have deep pockets doing it on their own,” she added. “And yet, it’s one of the things that we have to do if we’re going to have an actual democracy that actually functions instead of what we have right now, which is an oligarchy without the name.”
The 2018 elections saw a surge of first-time candidates running for office. It was the most diverse field in history. But financially, many of these candidates found it tough to make ends meet.
“I had the same pair of dress shoes that I used for canvassing and events, because while appearance is important, I have kids to take care of. I was losing money every month.”
Federal campaign laws allow candidates to give themselves a salary, up to how much they would be paid if they were elected or what they made in the previous year ― whichever amount is lower.
Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform for the Campaign Legal Center, said that most candidates don’t take the salary ― even though some of them probably should. Many candidates are wealthy and don’t need the money, and the ones who aren’t are often reluctant to take a salary because it might not look good politically.
“We want candidates from diverse backgrounds to run for office, and if they need to pay themselves a salary to do so, that’s entirely permissible and the law allows for it,” he said.
Fischer said candidates are also allowed to use campaign funds for child care, but only if the candidate was a stay-at-home parent previously and now has child care expenses that exist only because of the run for office.
Kerri Harris ran a long shot, progressive, grassroots campaign to unseat Sen. Tom Carper in the Delaware Democratic primary. She had just five paid staffers, and said she couldn’t justify “taking for myself when there were people who were working just as hard taking nothing.”
Harris, who has two young children, receives veterans disability benefits. (She served in the Air Force.) But she gave up her other source of income ― organizing work ― when she launched the campaign, because she didn’t want it to be seen as a conflict of interest.
“By summer I was losing about $1,600 a month, which was very painful,” said Harris, whose primary was Sept. 6. “I don’t make a lot of money as it is. ... It was stressful. It was an added stress on top of the stress of campaigning.”
Federal election laws also don’t allow candidates to pay for personal items of clothing. So Harris made do with one pair of dress pants for the campaign ― and the day of her debate against Carper, in late August, her pants suddenly had a hole in them.
“That morning, I was able to afford a blazer,” she recounted. “I called up a campaign supporter and said, ‘Hey, can you hem it?’ So she’s hemming up my jacket and I’m sewing the crotch of my pants before I go onstage. ... I had the same pair of dress shoes that I used for canvassing and the events because while appearance is important, I have kids to take care of. I was losing money every month. I still had to put money into the campaign because there were things that the campaign needed.”
Roberts’ Ohio run began with her local Indivisible chapter, a progressive advocacy group. She and her fellow Democrats decided someone needed to run against the incumbent, Rep. Bill Johnson (R), so that he’d at least have a challenge ― even though the district is heavily Republican.
“You have to say to yourself, ‘Can I afford to not have cash coming in?’ And we were lucky we did,” she said. “There was a couple of weeks there, when I was running, that things were a little tight. But you know, we made it.”
Roberts and her husband ran a beekeeping business, but when the recession hit, people no longer had money to buy items like beeswax candles and honey. Her husband took a job as a commercial truck driver, and she took a part-time job at McDonald’s across the street from her kids’ school (she has five children, ages 14-21) so she could be around for them.
Roberts said she was lucky that she had a little extra money saved up to get them through the campaign. She didn’t take a salary because she simply wasn’t raising enough to do so, and it was more important to pay the bills and expenses for the campaign.
“I’m a terrible fundraiser, and I knew this about myself going in,” she said, noting that she never is able to sell popcorn or magazines when her children need help with school fundraisers.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the national phenomenon from New York who is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, did pay herself a salary ― but only $6,000. Ocasio-Cortez, in many ways, was one of the lucky ones, because she won and will now have a job.
But she reportedly now has less than $7,000 in her bank account, and she told The New York Times that she’s not sure how she’ll be able to afford an apartment in Washington, D.C. ― especially because she won’t be making any money until the new Congress convenes in January.
Ocasio-Cortez was also dinged by a media writer who tweeted a picture of her wearing a suit, saying she really didn’t look all that poor.
In other words, if you look nice, you could look too nice. But if you don’t look nice, you might not look professional enough to seem like you should be elected. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
And, by the way, a friend gave Ocasio-Cortez a subscription to Rent the Runway, meaning that many of her nicer outfits are likely rented.
Even people who have political experience find it hard to raise the money needed to run for office if they don’t come from wealth or have those networks available to them.
“There’s this whole underlying power structure that exists around a candidacy that I didn’t know about — the people who you’ve got to talk to, to let them know you’re running, so they can help you cast a wider net. I needed help navigating that stratosphere,” said Deidre DeJear, who ran as the Democratic nominee for secretary of state in Iowa. She lost in the general election.
“It’s totally like being a first-generation college student,” she added. “You need a village to help you grasp the intricacies of it, the invisible rules. When you don’t have people in your life who’ve done that before, it’s very difficult.”
DeJear felt her lack of personal wealth and connections hurt donors’ perceptions of her chances. When Democratic stalwarts did give to her, they often donated less than they had in previous years to candidates for the same office.
“I had to spend a great deal of time with them, reminding them this race is not different than it was in 2014 ― just because I’m a black woman doesn’t make the race any cheaper than it was in 2014,” she said. “It was a challenge to get funders in the mindset of contributing to a woman who had no polling, no resources, who had never run before.”
Roberts is again working at McDonald’s, since her manager agreed to let her return to her old job. She said she’s sick and tired of hearing about politicians who talk about how they were raised poor ― when they’re now millionaires. Government needs to have more people from lower-income levels, she said.
“My mother didn’t have a lot of money, so I know what it’s like to be raised as a kid without a lot of money. But I also know what it’s like to be trying to raise kids without a lot of money, and it’s a very different perspective,” Roberts said. “Government affects everything you do.”
After the campaign, Harris sent an email to her supporters, asking them to help her pay off her campaign debt. Candidates send these notes out all the time, but Harris was more open and transparent about her need for assistance and the rigged system in place:
But one of the biggest lessons I learned on this campaign was this: the system is absolutely, positively set up for the rich to run for office in America, while the rest of us are expected to follow their lead even if they aren’t representing our best interests.
And that is completely messed up.
Following the campaign, I spent my time continuing to fight for all of the solutions we collectively fought for, but as I was fighting, campaign bills kept rolling in. After working to whittle it down, I’ve managed to retire much of it. But I’m still $14,000 in the red.
Is it any wonder only millionaires run for office? The rest of us can’t afford to.
Harris isn’t sure where she’ll go next. She’s writing a book for Strong Arm Press (whose publisher, Ryan Grim, previously worked at HuffPost), she still receives disability benefits and she occasionally gets an honorarium for speaking events (although she never demands one). She’s also reluctant to take a traditional 9-5 job, since she wants to make sure she continues to help organize and advocate for the positions she ran on.
Harris said she remembers a volunteer coming up to her on the night of her loss, saying that people like her ― and what the Harris campaign represented ― need more than a voice. They need power.
“We built something,” Harris said. “If I quit and run off and say it’s just easier to find another type of paid position, the brokenness she felt that night will be confirmed as opposed to me saying, ‘Look at what we did.’ Even though there are days when where I literally tear up like I don’t know what I’m going to do, and I get worried if I’m making the right decision for my children and stuff, by the end of the day, I’m ready to fight the next morning.”
Molly Redden contributed reporting.