Branden Snyder, left, executive director of Detroit Action and former campaign manager Hodari Brown, right talk dollars and sense.
In 2020, a nonpartisan group tracking money in politics estimated the campaign year would hit $10.8 billion. Accounting for presidential and congressional campaigns, the Center for Responsive Politics reported a final expenditure of $14 billion. Financial backing and investments in political campaigns creates an imbalanced structure where Black and Brown communities are effectively shut out.
Money is the basis for political power in America. Large campaign donations back candidates who may not have the best interest of the people at heart. In communities with Black and Brown residents, elections on local, state and national levels affect them at unprecedented rates. Education, employment, city infrastructure and cost of living in Black and Brown neighborhoods are all affected by who is in office.
Big money is a major contributor in the outcome of elections. Political Action Committees or PACs, rally campaign finances from members of the group and in turn use those funds to support or oppose candidates, legislation and initiatives. Typically representing businesses, labor entities or ideological interests, these 527 organizations are tax-exempt and reserved especially for groups looking to influence an election or take down candidates in federal, state or local public offices.
Legally, PACs are only permitted to give a candidate a certain amount of money, not to exceed $15,000 per year on any national party committee. PACs must also share spending and fundraising amounts with the IRS. However, for Super PACs, there is no limit to the amount they can receive as donations thus making their ability to back a candidate nearly unstoppable. Super PACs are unable to donate directly to candidates or their campaigns as contributors, despite how much money they can pool amongst its investors.
“Money has always had a role in politics. It costs money to run a campaign, it costs money to pay staff and, for some candidates, it costs to be able to pass bills and do the sort of lobbying they need in order to get legislation done,” says Branden Snyder, executive director of Detroit Action, a community-based organization fighting for political power of Black and Brown disenfranchised neighborhoods and residents. “Since 2010 with Citizen United, the Supreme Court ruling, the use of money in campaigns, advertising and a lot of things are really blown up to where organizations now are able to contribute infinite amounts to campaigns using Super PACs.”
The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the case Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission determined it legal for corporations and labor unions to use Super PACs to channel money and to advertise the wins and losses of candidates. The Supreme Court effectively overturned spending guidelines that had been in place for more than 100 years.
Getting a campaign off the ground requires thousands of dollars and hours of manpower. Initially, money is spent on literature, advertising and creation of the candidate’s website. This seed money can come from private investors and friends and family. Should the time come, running low on funds, though common in local elections, will not fare well as the push to rally voters is costly.
“Majority of your funds will go towards grassroots efforts as well as your election day efforts, the get out and vote efforts for election day. You have to budget for that; that’s the biggest thing. If you’re running low on funds at the beginning of your campaign, you won’t have funds for the get out the vote effort which is the most critical part of any campaign,” says Hodari Brown, a former campaign manager for former Democratic Michigan State Senator Bert Johnson as well as serving on former President Barack Obama’s campaign among other notable campaigns.
Though money makes the political world go around, the political stake in communities of color is paramount. Financially, these communities are no match for the big money in politics, yet candidates inherit these cities where its residents suffer the direct blows of strategic political chess. In these communities, access to voting is challenged as voting laws help work against low-income African Americans. Bills have been introduced in Arizona, Texas and Florida calling for stricter rules about identification, voting by mail and the use of drop boxes.
In recent years, African Americans are making the push towards the political arena. From local to national scale campaigns, African Americans in politics are increasing in numbers. Since money is a major factor in elections, some Black candidates are unable to make it to the main show.
“When we look at local races a lot of times, particularly in a lot of Black and Brown communities, the best candidate doesn’t always get out of the primaries. It’s not because they don’t have the issues to talk about or the right messaging. It’s because they don’t have the right funding to get their messaging out there,” says Brown.
As the 2020 presidential race proved, the minority vote, particularly that of the Black community, carried crucial votes causing flips of traditionally red states to democratic blues. Though these communities support candidates at the polls, inner-city and traditionally heavily populated minority communities are left out of the financial arena in politics, leaving neighborhoods underfunded and overcrowded.
Though it is nearly impossible to rally the high amount of funds it would take to compete with PACs and Super PACs, Black and Brown voters have a sense of community that runs deep and is the true essence of the American Dream. Made up of everyday, blue-collar workers, Black neighborhoods in urban areas like Detroit have used their power in numbers to cause major political upsets.
“What we believe in is people-power — being able to, for lack of a better word, build relationships, build community and use that power within the community — the word-of-mouth, that trust and relation, to make change,” says Snyder. “We see that happen when David does best Goliath.”
Despite money’s influence, changes to the system must be made to make politics more inclusive of the diverse communities they represent.
“I think what we need are a lot of structural changes to be able to give people-power a lot more competitive shot,” says Snyder. “In Detroit, one of the things we were trying to get on the charter as a part of Proposal P were local sunshine ordinances which would allow disclosures to come from candidates on campaign donations and campaign spending.”
Money in elections is a bare necessity. PACs and Super PACs lead the way in campaign donations and expenditures. Though financial politics is murky waters, its stronghold on its most vulnerable communities remains constant and virtually unchecked.