I want to be your Philadelphia councilperson, but I don’t have $500,000 to run the race. Why? Because I have a full-time job, student loan debt, and a handful of responsibilities that keep me from spending my time on the phone begging rich people for money. I spend the rest of my time fighting in the streets of Philadelphia for income equality, police reform, corporate-to-public responsibility, and equal opportunity. You would think that with that kind of resume that I would be considered a prime candidate for public office. I am smart, entrepreneurial, ambitious, eloquent, have a good sense of justice, and an educated understanding of local to global socio-economic politics that affect the everyday citizen up to the city and country. So why can’t I have a shot at public representation?
One of the local public radio programs here in Philadelphia is called Radio Times. Without going into too much detail it is essentially a call-in commentary and analysis program on culturally relevant topics. Recently, the show was about the local city council elections taking place shortly here in Philadelphia. I emailed in and expressed my desire to run for public office but also had to convey my disdain for a “democratic process” that prioritizes money over values. My email was read on air and one of the guests—a political pundit—responded with resignation. “That’s the way it goes,” he said. “You gotta have the money.”
I will never have the money, guaranteed. Even if I had a group of donors lined up outside my office I would not take those meetings. I would not take their money. I would not whore out my values so that I could have money for radio spots that are ignored and ubiquitous yard signs that are so numerous that they probably need their own landfill by now. Politics is not about ideas anymore. It’s not about progress. It’s not about people. It’s about power. It’s a popularity contest of who can suck the most rich dick and walk away winking just slyly enough that the aristocrats know that you’ll be coming back for more. Hell, you even have to pay to be on the ballot! How is this fair? How are regular normal people who are invested in their communities and give their lives to the public good supposed to compete in a system designed to further empower the powerful and debilitate the not-as-well-funded… on purpose(!)?
As I mentioned above, I have lots of experience working with local leaders, citizens, and organizations for the public good. I have studied my ass off in my free time to understand complex ideas such as collateral debt obligations and their relation to municipal bonds; I have spent enough time knocking on the doors of West, North, and South Philly to know that all most folks want is clean streets, opportunity, and an end to racial profiling; I can see clearly that megacorporations like Comcast make ungodly profits but can’t keep the promises that they made to their poorer more vulnerable neighbors; and I can see the broken dreams of Philadelphia children who are funneled into prison because our representatives don’t have the audacity to fight Harrisburg tooth and nail for fair funding for our schools. I know my city politics. What I don’t know is how our electoral process could be considered democratic. If anything Philly’s “democratic process” is more just a store. If you walk in with enough money then you can just buy the store. That’s America, right?
If you are reading this then you are probably inclined toward reading more progressive literature. Therefore, I probably don’t need to spend too much time on the history of this country and how it was built on the backs of the working, poor, enslaved, and oppressed for the benefits of a richer whiter aristocracy. However, it needs to be pointed out in the starkest terms just how convoluted and ironic this so-called “democratic process” still is. In a country where money is speech, poverty is silence. You cannot tell me that a vast majority of Philadelphians—a quarter of whom live in poverty—have the same values as the money men who control the tone, rhetoric, and content of election campaigns. No, nothing is free and election wins cost you your soul as well as the money.
I had a friend who ran for a US Congressional seat in 2012. He worked hard, put in his time, knocked on his doors, and got his signatures. However, the Congresswoman whom he was challenging—Allison Schwartz—was one of the well-funded Democratic Elite. Before I go on let me clarify upfront that I know every single person who knocked on doors and got signatures for my friend. All of them are honest hardworking people and none of them are frauds. Nevertheless, the Congresswoman threatened my friend with a court battle over his signatures. Though she had no evidence of any wrongdoing she still thought that she could take the signatures to court and get him thrown off the ballot because she had an army of lawyers at her disposal. My friend was just a Jenkintown resident trying to make a difference. He didn’t have vultures on retainer. Furthermore, she threatened that if he lost the case that she would stick him with the court costs. Again, there was no evidence of wrongdoing but she threatened him with lawyers, money, and court fees if he did not withdraw. In the end, she forced his hand with the green in hers. How is playing on someone’s financial straights not blackmail? And it was perfectly legal blackmail. That’s politics: whoever has the gold makes the rules and no matter how hard you try they will crush you under their mountain of gold if you challenge them.
So, what can be done?
Since I started talking about this subject publicly I have had a few friends reach out to me telling me that not only would it be possible for me to run but that I could even raise the money with 21st century tools like kickstarter. I value folks believing in me and my ideas enough to encourage me, but I am more concerned with the system then my personal ambitions. What about the next generation? What happens when online micro-contributions become a trend and rich people just start funneling their money there instead of to SuperPACs? Large contributions will still come with stipulations and expectations. A virtual blow job is no less pornography.
I want to live in a true democracy. I want to live and run for government posts in a world that prioritizes and values ideas over campaign contributions. Public representatives should be elected based on their ideas and merits, not how well they can raise money. Therefore, I propose that all elections be publicly funded. The amount of money that a candidate gets to spend on their campaign should be directly tied to the amount of signatures that candidate and their organization accumulates. If Jane Schmo gets 10,000 signatures of everyday working people who want her to represent them, then she should have the same equal opportunity as the Ed Rendells or Michael Nutters. Additionally, you can’t tell me that if the city went to the radio stations, local TV affiliates, and newspapers that a deal couldn’t be worked out where each candidate that acquires a certain amount of signatures has equal space to make their case to voters on certain days in certain ways. That’s what the media is supposed to be there for in the first place. That’s why the First Amendment is the first amendment because media is supposed to be a check on power, not it’s digital hand. There are alternatives, but I don’t know how an everyday person can compete in a race that is fixed when you’re competing against a doped up rival until the system itself is changed.
Only when everyday citizens have an equal shot at replacing the economic and political elite can any election be deemed democratic. Otherwise, the election season is nothing more than a game of Risk for the rich and powerful. Why do you think they call it a “war chest?”
Until that glorious day when candidates are elected on their merit and not their money I have a suggestion… Write in #Swetman4Council and let’s show ‘em some people power.