Money is not a measure of a candidate, but it is a measure of a campaign.
Our political campaigns exist in a dark dystopia that would delight a lot of people if there were zombies and glittering vampires. Instead, we have Trump, Citizens United, dark money, and influence for the wealthy at the expense of the 90% of the rest of us. In this wasteland, a candidate has two choices, not dissimilar to those seeking to survive their post-apocalyptic wonderland:
Overwhelm the monsters with your own strength and cunning, or
Die. Dead. Hard.
In political terms, “not dying” means: raise enough money so you have a chance to win. “Enough” is a squirrelly term, of course, but here’s why a candidate for a major office needs to raise money:
- field (identify voters and get them to vote)
- event planning
- phone banking & door-knocking
- volunteer wrangling
- message development & dissemenation
- polls (the electoral equivalent of headlights on a car driving at night)
- media (ads, mailers, etc)
The purpose of these activities is simple: Get known to the voters and get them to vote for you. People, by and large, either vote for someone they know or someone whose commercials persuade them (which, too frequently, means they vote against the person the most effective negative ads target). How much you need to spend, and on what, depends on the race, the candidate’s name-recognition, level of opposition, etc.
But even in a small race like Multnomah Education Service District, Stephen Marc Beaudoin raised and spent $22,000 in 2015 to win the Position 6 Director seat. That spending got him 55% of the vote; it let him do the job of winning his election.
And if a person can’t do what is necessary to win an election, they have no business being in the race. If I’m going to run a half-marathon, I don’t spend the weeks previous sitting on my butt, drinking beer and eating junk food. Even if my goal is nothing more than to finish in a decent time, I have to do some training. If my goal is to win the damn race, however, I have to do a lot more. The same is true of many serious ventures in life: parenthood, job hunting, moving to a new city, going to college, retirement, travel. Casually slouching off into these challenges with no preparation, no willingness to do the hard work necessary to succeed, is a waste of time.
Why do we treat political campaigns differently?
Portland is the 24th largest city in the country. We face daunting challenges. We have a city government that will be looking at its fourth mayor since Vera Katz left office at the end of 2004. In addition to city government, we have county, state, federal and Metro governments to contend with – and, to a degree, the governments of cities, towns and counties that surround us. We have an unruly populace dissatisfied with the status quo, not to mention increasingly frightened for the future.
But we’re willing to turn over the most important local elected position to someone with no experience and not even capable of doing that part of the job that is necessary to do to get elected: raise money? How does make any sense? Don’t we want the best qualified people to run for office and serve us in office?
I’ve never heard anyone say, “Man that Steph Curry. What a baller! The 49ers should sign him for quarterback.” That would be dumb. He doesn’t have the skillset or the experience to play quarterback in the NFL. No one has ever called me up to offer me a job as their media spokesperson; I’m good with words, but only if I get to sit at a keyboard with my music on and the chance to edit, edit, edit.
Elected office is no different. Every office has certain requirements that make some people more suited to the office than others. Back to me: I could probably be an excellent staffer for an elected official, but I’d suck in office; I’m too thin-skinned, and I’m terrible at speaking extemporaneously. But you know what? I could pony up fifty bucks, fill out some paperwork, and then be considered a Candidate for Portland Mayor.
That makes no sense to me. I’m a good citizen, a vet, a parent and grandparent; I am involved in several efforts to help people in difficult circumstances. I know a lot about the issues confronting our city, have been impacted by these, and know many people around the city. In short, my qualifications are exactly what the majority of Mayoral candidates are claiming, and I say: I am not qualified to be Portland’s Mayor.
Remember: To get elected, you have to get people to vote for you, and that means voters have to know you exist and know what you stand for. And guess what? That costs money! Unless you can get hundreds of volunteers to work non-stop for months, overcoming the paid campaigns, you ain’t gonna win.
And you shouldn’t.
The job is what the job is: get elected. In the May primary, the goal is 50% of the votes plus one. Do that, and you’re the next mayor. Otherwise, the goal is to finish in the top two so you can be in the general election run-off. And how do you get fifty-percent-plus-one? You run a campaign that informs and engages the electorage and then gets them to submit their ballot with your name selected for Mayor.
The job is what the job is: get elected. And, as I said up top, money isn’t the measure of the candidate, but it is a measure of a campaign. In this mayoral race, there are two campaigns that measure up as serious: Wheeler (whom I support) and Bailey (whom I consider a friend). No other campaign is even close to the level of fundraising necessary to have the slightest chance of winning.
David Schor is very smart, has a lot of good ideas, understands a lot about how government works, and has raised $600. He’s also loaned his campaign $1,500, so he’s in the hole.
Sean Davis is passionate, funny, a committed activist, and has raised almost $1,900.
Most of the others running have raised zero.
Sarah Iannarone has raised $22,000; again, far short of what’s needed to be a serious candidate. Most of that money, $17,500, has come from just seven individuals, including $2,500 from Nancy Hales and $7,500 between a married couple. When she launched her campaign back in January, she said she hoped to raise $100,000 in two weeks. Since February 18th, she’s raised a few thousand. She’s probably a terrific person and a fine citizen; she’s not a serious candidate, however much a few people want to try to convince people she is.
The job is not “being a good citizen” or a “committed activist” or “smart person who understands how things work”. The job is “candidate for mayor of the country’s 24th largest city”. It’s like the preliminary rounds of the Final Four Tournament, only rather than winning five basketball games to get to the Big Game, the point is to do whatever it takes to get voters to cast their ballot for you.
If you can’t win an election, if you can’t run a campaign that has a chance to win that election, you are not qualified for the office. Running a winnable campaign is not the only qualification, of course, as our last three one-and-dones have shown us: they ran winning campaigns but lacked other essentials once in office. But running a campaign that has a real chance to win demonstrates you understand the nature of a job and have risen to the challenge of being successful at that job.
I’m all for opening politics to as many people as possible. I’d love to see Portland find new and creative ways to engage citizens in the decision-making process. I’d like to see less power in the hands of insiders, wealthy elites, and others. Hell, I’d love voter-owned elections and same-day registration and an end to primaries (instant runoff voting) and even a real third party on the left in Oregon. I have no desire to bar access to political power.
But I want a competent person in charge at City Hall. We haven’t managed that for a while, but we’re still willing to consider as “serious” people with no discernable track record for the job? Who would hire someone for their business in that way? That’s not democracy; that’s make-believe.
It’s time we got serious.