The struggle to break into America's political donor class

Alexi McCammond
·4 min read

Freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) became the first person of color to represent his district, but he had to quit his job and live off savings for a year and a half while running for office.

Why it matters: If money is power in politics, people of color barely have a seat at the table. Recent election cycles have produced some of the most diverse candidate fields in history. But those paying for the campaigns have remained demographically unchanged: 9 in 10 donors are wealthy and white.

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What he's saying: "It shouldn't be that you have to be a corporate lawyer or have gone to Harvard Law School and have a network of friends who are willing to donate to you,” Jones told our "Axios Today" podcast. “Or come from money to be able to win a congressional seat in this country.”

Increasing income inequality between Black and white Americans is what's keeping the political donor class mostly white — and that racial wealth gap will take years to close.

  • Brookings researchers found that "the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family," which leaves fewer Black families with so-called disposable income.

  • "Even for those donors who do have disposable income, our campaign finance laws currently allow massive corporations, many of which still reap the benefits of slave labor, to easily offset those donations," D'Seanté Parks, who leads candidate engagement for #VOTEPROCHOICE, told Axios.

Rep. James Clyburn said systemic racism in politics was made worse by the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which allowed more money to flow into politics through corporate, union and other association donations to third-party groups.

  • Citizens United was "the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott." The landmark decision gave outsized power to Big Money, dramatically increasing the size and influence of corporate-funded political groups and boosting their political pull at the expense of individuals, said Clyburn.

  • But House Democrats have passed a sweeping reform bill, known as HR 1, that proposes expanding voting rights and rooting out money's power in politics by imposing stricter rules on lobbying and increasing transparency around donors.

  • "The reason why we don’t see as many Black Americans and others from underrepresented communities in donor networks is the same reason why minority folks are underrepresented in every power structure in this country: institutional racism," Parks added.

  • Between 1980 and 2012, the share of individual donations from minority donors never exceeded 11% in any U.S. House election cycle, according to a 2019 research paper published in the American Political Science Review journal.

  • "It’s not just that these political systems were built exclusively by white wealthy men, but they were built with the intention of preserving those power dynamics across the country," Parks said.

The big picture: Money buys access to votes through advertising, direct mail and voter data. Without it, it's more difficult to exert political power and effectively advocate for your community's interests.

  • The cost of a competitive campaign — plus the traditional low salaries that come with many state-level offices— means that the barrier to entry in the political pipeline is often too high to breach for large shares of minority communities.

  • “It’s a new world that opens up to you when you start donating politically," Lola West, a Black Democratic donor, told the Washington Post. "You get entrée to conversations, to meetings, to activities that are going on."

Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and victory signaled a new era for Black political donors, who saw themselves in his political rise. Research has found that minority candidates for elected office often inspire an increase in people of color contributing during election cycles.

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