Brenda Siegel: Stomach-turning money in politics

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Each time the fundraising reports come in for the presidential candidates, all I can think is how much could be done for people who are suffering with that money. I think about how much affordable housing, how much healthcare, how many resources we could put into recovery. Just the 100 plus million that the top five candidates brought in this quarter could build many homes, could implement many climate solutions, could purchase and distribute Narcan and Fentanyl testing strips.

In fact, I feel sick to my stomach as I read the boasting, reporting, analyzing of the very thing that needs to change in our political system. There certainly is an amount you need to win a race and then there is an amount that you try to obtain just so the press talks about how you have more than everyone else. We can end this practice. This isn't just about ending Citizens United. It is also about moving to a public finance system. The people giving $5, $3, $25, they don't have it to give, yet they do. Those small donations do add up and this does give the people more power; it is better than the alternative in the system that we have. However, we need to change that system. Candidates can and should push a full breadth approach to getting money out of politics, while they have this platform.

Another rarely talked about phenomenon is how non profits tend to brace for presidential election years because their fundraising takes a huge hit. They prepare for a low fundraising year as each of us trip over ourselves to set up recurring donations to candidates so that they can say that they have more than the other candidates. I am not saying that we shouldn't donate. We should. We have to as long as this is the system, if we want our candidate to win. We need to support our issue based organizations who are on the ground fighting for change every day as well though. Part of that is donating to these organizations too. Part of it is fearlessly calling out the system for what it is and fighting to change it to a system that works for all of us.

Money in politics also plays deeply into who is allowed to hold power. With a good public finance system, each candidate has equal funds making it possible for leadership to be more broad and diverse. Candidates also are off the phones and talking to people; even just in that, the people have more power. Suddenly, running is not dependent on economic status and the race becomes about the best vision, about ideas and who is the best at delivering that vision. It no longer is about who has access to money. Any time candidates work within a system that inherently keeps people out and aren't speaking out about it, it means that they are comfortable with the system because it is benefiting them.

In 2016, in the presidential cycle, a total of $1.5 billion was brought in by candidates, and $643 million by PACS (political action committees supporting candidates). The 2020 election cycle so far has resulted in $394.5 million brought in by candidates and $59.6 million from PACS, and we still have more than a year to go before this election cycle ends. Meanwhile, there are people in this country who cannot feed their children, whose homes will not be heated this winter, who can't afford the healthcare they need to survive, and so much more. While egregious amounts of money are dumped into presidential campaigns, people still live on the streets with no way out.

Again, this is the system that we live in. If we want our candidate to win, we have to donate. However, I challenge every presidential candidate to call out the absurdity of a system that asks people to donate obscene amounts of money, take it away from issues that need it, and inherently support unbalanced influence from those with the most. It isn't enough to not take big money. It isn't enough to talk about ending Citizens United. You have to talk about public financing. You have to talk about the inherent inequity of these races. You have to talk about how this very system keeps many people out. I don't fault our candidates for raising money, they have to. However, I do fault them for not talking about how unacceptable this practice is.

Each of us should feel a lot of discomfort when we hear those numbers and then walk down the street in any town in the United States and see the suffering in our communities. Campaign finance reform, state by state and across the nation, must be our priority.

Brenda Siegel is a former Democratic candidate for governor, founder and director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, vice chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She is an anti-poverty activist and single mom from Newfane. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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