Fundraising off of Catastrophe
by Jecorey Arthur
December 31, 2020
Jecorey | I’ll just start at the beginning. I announced that I was running for Louisville Metro Council at Simmons College of Kentucky, the HBCU that I teach at. I was inspired by the fact that the HBCU should be the center of the Black community, and I wanted to bring people to that school. Little did I know that our local NPR station released a 2,500 plus word hit piece about me, calling into question whether Simmons had contributed to the campaign illegally. In the end, everything was cleared. But this hit piece was kind of a culture shock for me. That was my introduction to the world of campaign finance: getting hit with allegations of criminality.
I wasn't overly energized about raising funds. When I think of money, I think of service. I think of exchange. I think of contracts. If you're going to give me money, you need to get something in return. That is not the case with campaign finance.
When the pandemic hit, we stopped soliciting donations.
I did not ask for a single donation publicly from early March for the rest of the campaign. It felt criminal or tone-deaf to be begging people for money for your campaign when they're living through the nightmare of COVID-19 and all the uncertainties that came along with it. At the time, people were rationing toilet paper and bottled water. We didn't ask for donations.
Then Amaud Aubrey was killed. George Floyd was killed. Breonna Taylor was killed. Everything that I had been talking about in my campaign had already been amplified by COVID-19, and my message was further amplified after these murders. We saw a reflection of how America treats Black people. I became a voice for racial justice in the local movement, and, honestly, I didn't have to ask for money. People heard me talking about these problems and introducing solutions to those problems, and they wanted to get behind what I was doing.
This was the first time I ever dealt with campaign fundraising, but, in a way, it came naturally to me because I believed in producing something for people that I wanted to serve.
We utilized our funds to get community members PPE, and it wasn't some marketing scheme where you got a mask that says 'Vote for Jecorey.' It was just a solid black mask. We raised over $40,000 in a local race. To put that in perspective of another city council race in 2016, there was a three-way race, and the current councilwoman raised over $80,000.
frank | You're one of the first people I've spoken to who has said, I can't believe the audacity of these candidates and institutions, raising hundreds of millions of dollars, continuing to ask people for money. Do you feel like you have a conversation about the ethics of that with other people in politics or with people around you?
Well, I've had that conversation a number of times. It's really criminal when you think about it. Let's say you put together all seven candidates in my race alone, and let's say we raised a quarter-million dollars. In the end, only I won my race. Everyone else just wasted $210,000. You wasted space on that billboard. You wasted these yard signs – yards signs that I am pissed politicians still aren't picking up. Amy McGrath lost to Mitch McConnell and she still has yard signs throughout the West End of Louisville, the blackest area in this region. We got your yard signs everywhere, but you lost your race by like 20 plus points.
Amy McGrath raised over $74 million and only 3% came from inside the state. There is, as you say, the physical residue of that loss: yard signs on your constituents' lawns, but the non-physical component is that all that money came from people who will never have to bear the burden of that loss.
Amy McGrath is a perfect example of what I'm about to say: I don't believe we should give candidates money unless they have a proven track record to back up their platform. When I talk about creating jobs, I have already been doing that through my business and through arts organizing. When I talk about education, I've been to over 120 schools out of the 150 schools in this school district. I have already been doing education work. When I talk about housing, it's rooted in my lived experience. And some of that experience is personal, some of it is professional.
Mitch McConnell said this about Amy McGrath, and some people thought it was funny and some people thought it was kind of sexist, he said, you ran on a platform of being a mother and being a Marine. I was already saying that before McConnell.
You can't talk to me about racial injustice as a white woman who lives far removed from what I'm going through if you have never worked on racial justice or racial injustice. You can't talk to me about how to deal with this pandemic if, at the bare minimum, you have never worked with aging healthcare facilities, worked with healthcare facilities in general. You've never volunteered. You've never spoken up and advocated for them.
She was selling hopes and dreams, and if I have no reason to believe that you are going to make my hopes and dreams come true, I shouldn't give you money. You don't deserve my money. You gotta know what you're paying for. Would you go to a restaurant and give them your money if they had an F health rating? Well, McGrath basically had no rating at all. She had no experience.
Do you think you need to raise that much money to be competitive in congressional and Senate races?
If I had a burger, and instead of being made out of beef, it was made of feces, it does not matter how much money I spend on marketing. It is still going to be a feces burger no matter what. In the case of that race, you had a Democrat with a nothing-burger. Meanwhile, Kentuckians were starving. We didn’t really know what she stood for until the end.
And that raised another question of, do you really care about serving people?
Do you care about this platform? Or are you just running a vanity project?
I mean, she had a decent amount of money left over and I think she made a PAC. Was it ever about the people you're supposed to serve? How much of that money have you pocketed? We have to raise these questions.
How do you begin to change the narrative that raising this much money is a democratic success?
Organizing. That takes us away from the politician, and it takes us to the people.
Organizing is the way that we counter this, and we change this mindset. There are 26 Metro council members in Louisville, Kentucky, and all 26 of them have 26,000 constituents. There are way more of the constituents than politicians representing those constituents. What would happen if all 26,000 of your constituents organized around an issue?
What does that look like to a representative? On average, in my city, you might get hit up a few times a week, maybe dozens of times. But if you get thousands of calls for justice on a specific issue, that level of political engagement is going to cause change. The president at the HBCU I teach at, Dr. Kevin Cosby, says that politicians don't change because they see the light, they change because they feel the heat. And over the summer we thought we felt some heat, but I truly believe if we were organized, that was just preheat. And we were only going to turn it up.
I was impressed with the level of political engagement when these protests were at their peak. People were watching council meetings and disappointed that it took so long. People were engaging in politics when before they never even knew who their city councilperson was. I was so impressed, but you have been living in the city for many decades, and you're just now getting politically engaged in a process that controls your life?
I’m surprised people aren’t rioting more, and over other issues, like poverty.
A lot of people just don't know the numbers. Or, if they do know the numbers, if the people in power know the truth — they just hide it, ignore it, or perpetuate it. What we as the people have to realize is that politicians do what we allow them to do. And if we're not organizing around issues, it's almost like some of those protests happened in vain. It's almost like Breonna Taylor died in vain. It's almost like Dr. Martin Luther King died in vain because we did not have the amount of care that it took to continue fighting.
Of course, it's going to get cold. Of course, it is going to be hard. Of course, there's going to be so many hurdles and obstacles and battles on the way, but we ain't free yet. There's so much left to do. And people were having parades and brunches when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.
I don't think people are serious about freedom. I don't think people are serious about change.
I think we use the word change all the time and people really don't mean it. It just sounds cute.
People aren’t serious, period. I was on Twitter earlier, watching this debate happen because some woman calling the GOP “fuckers”. No serious person could possibly think this mattered.
Yeah. They're unserious.
Yeah. It just feels like some sort of dishonesty that people are contributing to in order to participate in the game that they know is a game.
Yeah. I'm constantly disappointed in some of our adults. It's crazy. I mean, even over the summer, some of these people’s whole lives and whole identity were centered around protesting. A protest is just a tool, but what are you doing now?
Voting is a single tool. Calling your elected official is a single tool. A protest is a tool. We need to look at protests as marketing for an issue, but people began to see the protests as the issue.
It makes me wonder, how long has it been this way? And when will we see some actual uprising and some seriousness in terms of change? Because right now, people aren't serious. It's very disturbing.
I was just on a call earlier about housing. There's this woman who was in charge of an office that they were essentially trying to discredit by saying she doesn't do her job. Their solution was to create other initiatives that basically did her job for her. Well, okay, but she makes over a hundred thousand a year and you help pay for her salary. Instead of calling her and emailing her and pulling up on her and making sure she is doing her job, you're going to try and do her job, halfway? While taking donations from poor people to do it? No. Don't let these people off the hook.
Don't ever let the government off the hook. This is the one single government that we have. Make them work for you. They are supposed to work for us.
That's it. That's the reminder. People just need to go spend one day in like dingy Congress to get rid of this idea that they know better than you. They don't know better than you. They know what you tell them is the truth.
I alluded to this earlier, but I want to really say it plainly: because of our wealth position, our interests end up not really being represented in government. It takes so much work on the back end to get politicians to commit to our needs. The average Black family is worth $1,700. We aren't going to max out on our campaign contribution if we even donate to campaigns.
Of course, it is illegal for favors in exchange for campaign contributions to exist, but they definitely exist. And if you have a group of people who aren't involved in campaign contributions at all, you have to ask, is that why we're not getting our needs met?
The National League of Cities, released an agenda of what they would like to see from Biden and Harris. And the Black Caucus, might as well have not contributed to it at all. It had no value to us, and no reflection of what we're going through.
It makes me wonder, how do we expect politicians to have our interests at heart, when they just catered to their donors?
And on the flip side, how engaged are we? I'm not even in office yet, and I get emails and phone calls every day from some group wanting to talk to me about funding something, or acquiring some building, or getting my support on something. And these are all white groups with interests that have nothing to do with Black people in our city. Politicians need to be held accountable, and we also need to be held accountable. We can't just engage during the election cycle; we have to engage all year around because they are making decisions to impact your life all the time.