Neighborhood Leaders versus Big Money

By William Street, Jr.

One important goal of the Clackamas County Democrats’ Neighborhood Leader Program is to mitigate the influence of money in politics. The program intends to achieve this objective by substituting one-on-one, face-to-face contacts established over a number of years for money that buys ads and attempts to educate and inform or misinform voters.

By establishing a neighborhood leader for every 40 Democratic voters in a neighborhood, the neighborhood leaders become a sustainable and permanent army of advocates for social justice and democracy.

Today the effectiveness of this program is amazing. Voters living in areas with a neighborhood leader have significantly higher voter turnout and elect more progressive candidates than voters in areas without a neighborhood leader. The Neighborhood Leader Program is a major reason that Clackamas County is now a much more progressive place than it was five years ago.

But this program will have to double and ultimately triple in size before it can make the claim that it has surpassed money as the key political influence in the county. This was made clear at a question and answer session with Representative Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, at the monthly meeting of the Clackamas County Democratic Central Committee.

The representative was asked if there was a connection between his voting record and his donations from big pharma and other corporate elites. His predictable response was essentially, “of course not.” If this is true, it makes him unique among members of Congress. A recent study by the Roosevelt Institute identified clear connections between donations and Congressional votes. They concluded:

“Our results indicate that for every $100,000 that Democratic representatives received from finance, the odds they would break with their party increased by 13.9 percent. To put that into perspective, consider that … Democratic representatives who voted in favor of finance often received $200,000–$300,000 from that sector—enough to tempt even saints. That … also implies that contributions to the Democrats from finance look more than a little like the U.S. income distribution, with an average (mean) much higher than the median. Or in plain terms, financial houses tend to give much more money to some members of the party than they do to others.” (See the original article.)

The Roosevelt Study goes on to test key factors that influenced Democrats who voted for Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation only to later vote to weaken it. Once again they found that contributions were important as well as the future political interests of specific members of Congress.

Representatives leaving the House were almost three times more likely to break with their party and side with the banks rather than other Democrats. We also found that more conservative representatives, as measured on a rating scale that ran from 0 to 100 for the 113th Congress, were 9 percent more likely to side with the banks for each percentage point more conservative their ideology was. (Rep. Schrader voted to weaken Dodd-Frank legislation in three of the five cases reported by the Roosevelt Institute)

For those wishing to make the argument that this proves that both parties are identical, they must first explain that:

“Democrats are much more willing to vote against the banks. But it is also true that the more money representatives garner from finance, the less likely they are to vote against them.”

That money trumps ideology is not news. Likewise that the larger the Congressional margin of victory is, the more likely that the Democratic member of Congress will vote against the interest of the financial sector.

This poses a challenge for the Neighborhood Leader Program. Not only must we create winning margins, we must do so to a large enough scale that our candidates take office knowing that they can and in fact are expected to challenge those who seek to profit at the expense of the public and especially those in greatest need. A group FDR labeled as “economic royalists.”

To join our efforts to reduce the influence of money in politics by talking to your Democratic neighbors twice a year, click on the Neighborhood Leader button on this page.

Bill Street is the Neighborhood Leader Coordinator for the Democratic Party of Clackamas County.