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interviews

What State Takeover Looks Like

by Senator Scott Wiener
© Frank

interviews

Crude Accounting

by Stacey Walker
December 17, 2020

This interview with Stacey Walker, Linn County Supervisor, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | Happy to have you back. How was your personal experience in fundraising for your campaign?

Stacey | Happy to be back. County races in Iowa typically aren't the races that you think about when you're talking about campaign finance reform. People running for county office, supervisor, county auditor, county treasurer, county recorder, county sheriff, county attorney, are probably raising well under six figures.

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In my race, I raised under a hundred thousand dollars. I think we were between $60 and $80,000. There have been some anomalies, but typically county races stay below six figures. State house and state senate races, on the other hand, can raise over a million dollars depending on how competitive the seat is. That is largely a function of outside interests pouring money into those campaigns. At the county level, you don't see a whole lot of outside groups eager to spend money in that way.

I imagine the majority of your money came from small donors in small increments?

Absolutely. Over 90 percent was from small individual donors and almost all of my contributions came from individuals inside the state. In fact, most of them came from individuals inside the county. As a matter of policy preference, I would prefer that my funding come from small donors and from local folks. But this came down to the fact that special interests were not concerned in a county supervisors vision for that community. These folks typically want tax laws changed. They want marijuana legalized. They want abortion prohibited. And the folks that make those decisions operate at the state and federal level, so that's where you see the influx of money.

Is there any public financing system or option in Iowa?

There's nothing codified by law. I will tell you that I've had some conversations with a few individuals connected to Senator Bernie Sanders, who are thinking about running in the 2022 cycle for different offices around the state. There is an ongoing conversation about how resources could be pooled between candidates running on similar platforms. It was an idea that was floated.

What would a campaign look like if three candidates shared a field director, or if three candidates shared an office?

What would it look like if our fundraising events were such that several of us could speak to the same group of people at a given time? And if people were to give, those funds either be distributed equally or put to best use where the candidates need them.

This idea of collaboration between like minds doesn't solve the problem of big money in politics, but it can increase access. It could democratize the electoral process for individuals who aren't connected to monied interests, who aren't individually wealthy, whose professional networks don't include millionaires who can write really big checks. It allows everyday people to hitch their wagon to an ideology. Ideology no longer drives elections, which is terribly unfortunate. But, in this case, you can say here's the team, this is what we believe in, we all believe in this, help this ideology win.

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Joni Ernst’s race in Iowa raised over $200 million, the second most expensive Senate race ever. We saw it in Lindsey Graham’s race as well. We see it now in Georgia. What do you make of raising and spending that much money for these seats – especially without a guaranteed outcome, proven in some of these races where the most moneyed candidate didn’t win?

I think there are a lot of lessons. As you mentioned, the Iowa Senate race from this past cycle claimed the number two spot being the second, most expensive Senate race in history. That was second to Jamie Harrison's challenge to Lindsey Graham. The Iowa Senate race cost $218 million in total. The Democrat, Teresa Greenfield, who outraised Joni Ernst, lost, and lost pretty handily.

Lesson number one, which isn't a very popular lesson in the narrative of campaign finance reform, is that it's not always the case that the candidate with the most money wins the race. Usually it is the case, but not always.

Another lesson is that there were several democratic challengers in high profile races around the country that ended with millions left in the bank.

That should make us question: One, is all this money necessary, and two, can candidates effectively spend that much money?

Also, what are you doing with $15 million leftover cash on hand? 

It's at the prerogative of the candidate. Candidates can make contributions to other nonprofits. Candidates can make contributions to other campaigns. We had a Republican challenger to our Republican governor here in Iowa. I knew this guy pretty well. He lost the primary and had a bunch of money in his campaign account. He said it wasn't even a week after he lost the primary when he started getting all these phone calls from Republican leaders in the party who had all these ideas as to how he could invest, if you will, his leftover campaign funds. He intimated that the conversations suggested that if he were to support this cause or this candidate, there may be opportunities for him in the future of the party. This happens often. We've had people caught by the FBI trying to sell future seats to people at a premium. In recent memory, there was a case where Rod Blagojevich tried to sell former Senator Barack Obama's seat to the highest bidder. What happens when you end the campaign and there are millions of dollars still in the bank is an interesting question.

The money raised in the Iowa senate race, or other high profile senate races, came from somewhere. It certainly didn't come from Iowa. I think in Jamie Harrison's race over 90% of the money raised came from outside of the state. These are people who can't actually vote for the person running for office that are having an outsized impact on the electoral outcome. And in this case, the person who raised the most money didn't win. The case in Iowa was similar.

Whose voice actually counts and whose voice actually matters in this modern, corrupted political system that we have created? In too many cases, it's not the constituents of that particular political jurisdiction.

I think a lot about the ethics of fundraising during a time of economic depression and joblessness. The panicked tone from Biden’s campaign team about getting $20 from you, and then the data says, actually yeah those emails worked, many people who couldn’t spare $20 were scared enough to keep donating – it just sits wrong. 

You hit on a lot. Joe Biden would have been just fine if you didn't send him 50 bucks, but you felt compelled to do so because you're reading all of these communications from the campaign that makes it seem like if you don't send 50 bucks, everything's going to go to hell in a handbasket.

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I think it opens the door to a conversation around ethics in campaigning and ethics in fundraising. As an ethical exercise, if it is the case that we have a system right now that allows candidates to raise obscene amounts of money from people who can afford to give it, is there an ethical question about going to people who can't afford to give. There are all sorts of questions you can ask that dovetail from there. Citizens United treats money as political speech. You, like anybody else, have the right to exercise political speech through your contribution, but making it seem like you have to, is, I would say, unethical.

And when you get these emails, it tells you this is how much our campaign has raised, and this how much the other campaign has raised.

It sets up this framework to assess the effectiveness or the future success of a campaign using the metric of funds raised. Again, we're not talking about what these folks believe in. It is purely a crude accounting figure, how much money has this campaign amassed.

That makes politics hard for me to stomach. You divorce people's political platforms and their views from the equation. And now it is, I need to keep giving to this candidate because look how much money they raised, or I need to give more to this candidate because their opponent is raising more money. And that is what the race becomes. That is not a good thing.

I think it's widely recognized that there are deep structural failures in how we do elections. For one, this system of money has an impact on who gets to run for office. I mean the DCCC, the DSCC, and the DGA would likely never support a person running for office who wasn't already connected to monied networks. They wouldn't do it. They have an interest in finding wealthy people who have wealthy friends to recruit them to run for office. And then they place these expectations on these individuals by saying, we're only going to support you if you raise $6 million in your first quarter.

A teacher from a low-income neighborhood, who probably has incredible insights into our education system, is never going to be able to compete with that and is never going to be able to run for office. The musician who has an idea about how we can transform the social fabric of this nation, but is a starving artist, is never going to be able to compete with the developer from Des Moines like Theresa Greenfield who had people backing her who treat electoral contests as investments.

That's essentially what it is. There is this fascinating case study where people who are experts at picking winning stocks are bringing this applied knowledge of analyzing data and trends to politics. When you see a lot of Wall Street investors, maxing out to certain candidates, it's because they believe for whatever reason that these candidates are going to win. And they will give to Republicans and Democrats equally, they are partisan agnostic. They want to give to the person they think is going to win, because they expect something in return.

So we've turned the greatest democratic system in the world into market trading stocks and futures. That's what it's become. That's disheartening. That is why ideology has taken a back seat, and that is why we are seeing the sophistication of corruption in our politics.

Do you think it's possible to return to a federal financing system?

I think progressives who actually want a public campaign finance system are in a catch 22. In order to be effective and win a seat in this system, you need to be able to spend as much money as your opponent. You need to be up on TV as much as they are up on TV. It's not in the interest of the institution to have people who are supporting campaign finance reform. The institution is sort of biased towards those folks who want to preserve it. That is not a new concept.

Right. I mean AOC launched a PAC earlier this year. 

I get it. I get why AOC has a PAC. I understand it. The democratic party, in so many ways, is spending money to move her out of the Democratic party. There is this need to fight fire with fire.

Senator Sanders clearly had Super PACs working in his interests, provided they were working for the common good, but the common good has a way of being distorted over time.

It's tough. What I will say is this, I'm an eternal optimist but not naive. There was a time 30 or 40 years ago when grassroots activists working to reform our criminal legal system were talking about defunding bloated police department budgets.

That wasn't a conversation that just happened this summer. It is something people have been working at for decades. And now, largely because of this confluence of activity over the summer, the human rights movement for Black liberation has gained more traction. We've gotten major cities across America rethinking their police budgets. That is something that most observers of American politics would have told you would never happen just two years ago. I believe in movement politics. I can see a space in a time where movement politics addresses campaign finance reform with the same energy and efficacy as it has addressed many other issues throughout the history of this country. Its time may come, but right now all of the good women and men in politics advocating for it can't be an advocate for this issue inside of the system, unless they win the election. And it takes big money to win, hence the catch-22.

“Money in politics” has become a catch-all. What does it mean to you, what’s most concerning about the confluence of money and politics to you?

The fact that a corporation or an extremely wealthy person can write a check for as much money as they want. I can write a million-dollar check, a $10 million check to a super PAC that is explicitly engaging and influencing an election. The fact that they can do that is very concerning. And they can do this without people knowing who they are. Depending on the type of political entity, their information can be withheld from the public. The PAC can spend money without having to tell people where they got their money from. That seems to be an egregious violation of the spirit of an open democracy, which at some point or another most people in America believed we had and thought was a good idea. It's bad for a number of reasons, but it's scary and it's dangerous because we all know that corporations don't have to exist for the public good. In fact, most corporations don't exist for the public good. They exist explicitly to enrich their stakeholders and shareholders. So if it is the case that these monstrous entities are able to influence democratic elections, then you have to wonder what the long-term impact of that is.

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We have politicians now openly questioning climate science, because the vast majority of corporations buying these politicians have interests that are contrary to saving the environment. We have a bloated criminal legal system, and bloated a prison industrial complex.

It is very easy to draw a connection between corporate agendas, what the politicians say, and what laws are passed. That's scary.

That is the antithesis of a free and open democracy. That is moving us toward oligarchy. I think most sophisticated observers of American politics would tell you we’re probably there. I don't believe that we are at the point of no return, but I do believe we're very close.