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Campaign Finance Laws Put Black Incumbents At Risk by Spencer Overton


When the Congressional Black Caucus met this weekend for its annual legislative conference, the buzz focused on a trend that threatens the future of CBC members and the voters they represent.

The recent losses of black Reps. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) illustrate the vulnerability of all CBC incumbents to savvy challengers who tap into the right financial interests.

Hilliard and McKinney supporters who blame an overly aggressive pro-Israeli lobby are mistaken. The true threat stems from a campaign finance system that allows wealthier interests to exert much greater influence over politics than poorer citizens. Large numbers of blacks reside in all of the districts represented by CBC members. The average resident in almost all of these districts earns less than most Americans and is less able to make large financial contributions to politicians.

In the past the disadvantages that the campaign finance system posed to communities without resources benefited many black incumbents. Simply by virtue of incumbency, black officials generally collected enough money from labor political action committees and a few others outside of their districts to fend off underfunded challengers. The Democratic primary success of Artur Davis over Hilliard and Denise Majette over McKinney shows that black challengers are beginning to attract large contributions. Indeed, for every four $1,000 contributions Davis received from individuals, Hilliard received just over one. Davis and Majette's victories provide both inspiration and a roadmap to an array of ambitious black challengers in the 2004 primaries.

Some view this as a positive development, arguing that it creates more competitive races in districts with large black populations and forces black incumbents to be more responsive to their constituents. But in anticipation of well-financed 2004 challengers, many black incumbents will likely defend their seats by spending more time chasing special-interest dollars and less time faithfully representing their constituents.

Large contributions necessary for successful campaigns will not come from the less wealthy, black residents of the CBC districts, but from wealthier interests outside of the districts. The net worth for white households is eight times greater than that of black households. Not surprisingly, most large political contributions come from white men with household incomes of more than $100,000. In a survey of political contributors sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, 95 percent of respondents identified themselves as white, and less than 1 percent identified themselves as people of color.

Hilliard's district follows this pattern. For every $5 earned by the average American household, the typical household in Hilliard's district earns less than $3. As a result, Hilliard and Davis collected a great majority of their contributions from sources outside of their district.

The average House Member raised about $661,000 through the most recent Federal Election Commission reporting period, and the average CBC member raised about $379,000. In contrast, Hilliard raised nearly $800,000 for his primary, and Davis raised $1.3 million. More than 92 percent of the $1,000 individual contributions given to Hilliard and more than 94 percent of the contributions given to Davis came from individuals outside of their district.

Although the household incomes in McKinney's district match the national average, both McKinney and her opponent relied heavily on large out-of-district contributions. McKinney raised $700,000 and Majette raised $1.3 million, much of it from out-of-district contributors who harbored opposing views on Middle East policy. McKinney's loss in a district with higher household incomes than almost any other CBC district sends an important message: No CBC district is immune from the influence of large out-of-district contributions.

The provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that increase contribution limits from $1,000 to $2,000 in the 2004 election cycle exacerbate this problem rather than solve it. Black incumbents and challengers who faithfully represent poorer interests will be at an even greater disadvantage against opponents who are willing to act and vote in ways that attract $2,000 gifts from wealthier communities.

A group of black grassroots activists, represented by the National Voting Rights Institute, has mounted a court challenge to the legislation's provisions. The group argues that larger contributions will dilute citizen influence over representatives and will encourage candidates to pander to wealthy out-of-district interests.

In addition to banning large contributions, we can enjoy both competitive elections and first-class representation for all Americans by taking two steps. First, the Supreme Court should uphold a recent judicial decision that allows for reasonable limits on spending by political candidates, effectively capping the demand for political contributions.

Second, Congress should pass public financing legislation, thereby shifting the supply of money and freeing politicians to focus on voters rather than large contributors.

The Hilliard and McKinney races serve as a wake-up call to members of the Congressional Black Caucus. As long as contributors rather than voters determine the viability of candidates, wealthier Americans will command the attention of all elected officials. Most blacks, however, will be relegated to minimal influence over even their own Representatives.


Spencer Overton is a law professor at The George Washington University and a board member of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, which works to reframe campaign finance reform as a civil rights issue. Spencer Overton can be reached via e-mail at Saoverton@aol.com.

A version of this article was originally published in the September 12, 2002 issue of Roll Call.


Spencer Overton

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

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