Race, Gender, and Money In Politics
Former Ohio Secretary of State candidate Nina Turner opens up about the 'cash ceiling' women, candidates of color face
The significance that money in politics has in the candidacy of women and people of color is perhaps no more evident than in the 2014 campaign of Nina Turner for Ohio Secretary of State.
It’s not often that statewide candidates can garner national headlines the way Turner, a black woman, did during her race. She had been an experienced legislator and a strong voice against voter suppression in one of the nation’s most influential states. Turner had the backing of unions and other groups on the grassroots level, and was even a popular guest on cable news shows.
She seemed poised to trounce her opponent. What he had that she didn’t, though, was money. Lots and lots of it. Republican incumbent Jon Husted beat Turner with a reported 60 percent of the vote. Throughout the race, he raised three times as much money as she did, spending more on media buys than Turner raised throughout her campaign.
Today, Turner is engagement chair for the Ohio Democratic Party. She spoke with Demos to detail her campaign’s fundraising journey and tackled the outsized role that money has in who runs for office, who wins elections and the policies that result.
How would you describe your fundraising journey?
Intense and complicated. I want to start with complicated first. There are some misnomers about African-American candidates. One, the fallacy that we can only win if the district is majority, a person of color. That’s number one. And two, that we don’t need to raise money. And it is the combination of those two things that make us less competitive, should we decide to run for higher offices.
The other part of it is having mentorship when you enter elected office on that level, and having people say to you that, “No matter if you’re running for dogcatcher, you have to raise money. You have to practice that.” It’s training for a marathon, you have to use it. I think African-American candidates don’t necessarily get the benefit of that.
Also complicated in that the person I was running against, he was the former speaker of the House. He was able to leverage relationships that he had long before I got there. So, he started off with hundreds of thousands of dollars, more than I had when I started running.
Now, when you say a strong fundraising base, what does that mean? Is that just people who are excited to give you money?
No, meaning that, because I did not have to raise money to that degree in my past. Being unopposed in 2010, I didn’t need to raise a lot of money. Coming into the Senate in 2008, I was appointed. Before that, I was a Cleveland City councilwoman. So, if you look at my trajectory in terms of dollars needed to compete, I had to build a base as I ran for statewide office. So, building in, getting people accustomed to donating money to me for this type of purpose, a statewide office. I didn’t have 100s or 200 or thousands of people who were already accustomed to donating to me, if that makes sense.
Would you say that was the greatest challenge in fundraising?
That was a part of the challenge. It’s one thing to fundraise, it’s another thing to have to build a base along the way. So, you have to build up this reservoir of people and then at the same time, ask them for money. Yes, that was very, very challenging. And so, I would just say to any candidate of color that, “You have to start off, no matter if you are council trustee, you have to build that fundraising base. You have to get people accustomed to donating to you. So, that if you do decide to run for a higher office, you have a swathe of people who, over the years, have donated to you.” Even though you have to increase that base the higher you go, at least you have a strong foundation to start with.
Do you feel like there’s enough awareness of campaign finance reform as a racial equity issue?
No, I do not. Absolutely not. Between Citizens United and McCutcheon, we will be a plutocracy or an oligarchy if we are not careful. And it’s got to happen in such a way that I think most citizens in this country, most voters, they will not realize that it has happened until it happens. We’re almost there right now. We don’t want to talk about it.
You can dream about running for president, but whether or not you can actually make that a reality, you have to be already a high-wealth individual or be highly connected to even begin to amass the amount of money that it takes to run for president, to run for Federal Senate, to run for the Congress, my goodness, to even run for statewide office.
People of color have to overcome so many more barriers in terms of people seeing our viability; whether or not people believe in our ability to serve, our ability to be able to do this and to make this happen. There are only two African-American women elected, statewide, in the entire United States of America. Think about that. Now, is it okay in the United States of America, in 2015, to only have two African-American women elected to statewide office? No African American woman in the federal Senate. We’re still not up to our numbers, even in the Congress, even though we’re getting better. Is that okay? That should not be okay.
So it seems to me that our democracy is for sale. And we need to wake up and realize that the average everyday Nina Turners of the world may or may not get the opportunity to run. Or let me put it this way: you can run, but how successful you are will depend on the resources you are able to amass to even get your name out there. There’s something sad about that kind of reality.
What is it like for a candidate of color to get access to those networks?
It’s difficult. The first time that I got exposed to high-wealth donors was a trip that I went on with the Ohio Democratic Party. Chris Redfern was the Chair then. I remember distinctly that former Governor Ted Strickland was there, Senator Sherrod Brown was there.
First of all, there were less than five people of color in the room on the donors’ side. I certainly was the only potential statewide candidate in the room that was African-American. And it was eye opening. In other words, I felt like, “You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I don’t think people understand that it’s complicated. You don’t just call up a donor and say, “Hi, my name is Nina Turner. I’m running for Ohio Secretary of State. Will you donate $5,000 to me?” If you are dealing with a donor of that level, $5,000, $10,000, even $2,000, you have to start to build some type of relationship with them first, and that takes time.
For many outside of the political system, the assumption might be that candidates representing a party has financial support from their party. is that not the case?
That’s not the reality. The candidates that are running really pay into the party. It’s not like political parties have millions and millions of dollars in the bank, waiting for candidates to run, particularly those of us who run statewide. It is the other way around. We raise money both for our campaigns, and then we raise money to pay into a fund so that we can have a coordinated campaign. At least, that’s how it works in Ohio.
How much was the average size of your contributions compared to your opponent?
I’m not exactly sure but I think my average contribution before the end of the campaign was around $100, and I had 16,000 individual contributions by the time my campaign was over. That is a big deal. While I didn’t out-raise my opponent—in terms of the individuals that felt touched by my run, there’s some value in that.
I remember a lady saying to me, “Senator, you don’t know who I am, but I donate to you every month. I donate $10 to you every month. I wish I had more, but this is all that I have.” Every month, she would donate $10. That is a big deal and the fact that that’s all that she had, to me that’s like somebody giving me $1,000 or $2,000.
16,000 individual contributions, and about 280 organizations invested in this campaign. When I look back on my campaign, I am very proud of that because I set out to be the grassroots candidate. I wanted to raise more grassroots dollars than anybody running, and I accomplished that. But it takes more people, and it’s a harder goal when you have to raise that way. That means I need more time to touch more people, to be able to find some type of parity with my opponent that had more high-level dollars. It’s a longer way to go.
And why is money so important to a campaign?
Money is important because when you’re attacked, when people try to malign your reputation or distort your reputation, if you don’t have enough money to fight back, that becomes real in the minds of the voters who judge you based on a 30-second commercial.
I saw in the financial disclosures from your race that your opponent spent nearly as much on media as you raised, which gave him tons of resources just saturate the media with the message. That’s important in a race, right?
Yeah. And it’s expensive. Most of the money does not go to staff. Most of your money for that level of campaign goes to media buys, and the more expensive the media market is, the more money you need. Ohio has five, six major media markets. It’s very expensive. You have to be able to have that money. One, to get your message out; and two, if you are attacked, you have to have the money to be able to respond, because if a lie is unchallenged, it becomes the truth in the minds of many voters.
What do you think about a program that matches small contributions with public funds?
I think it would be phenomenal. If we are going to adhere to idea that all men are created equal, and all women are created equal, that equality has to transcend into the elected space. If people of color cannot compete only because they can’t amass and raise the same amount of dollars, we end up with a democracy that is not representative of the people. And that is bad for the United States of America.
Overall, what role would you say money in politics played in your race?
It played a huge role. It was part of the reason why my opponent won. For one, I was running against an incumbent; incumbency is an advantage. But two, he outraised me. God, it must have been four to one. He was able to buy more commercials, he was able to have more media buys, he was able to touch more voters. And then, also, this is something, people don’t think about, but when high-level donors look at whether or not you’re viable, they look at who has invested in you, how much money you have raised already. Money begets money. If people think you’ve got a lot of money or you have the ability to raise a lot money, they are more likely to invest in you than if you don’t have a lot of money in the bank.
Every time we had a reporting period, that is all the paper reporting on how I was being out-fundraised. And then, psychologically, that does something both to the people who are looking to vote for you, but also potential donors. So everything loops back around to the money. We can’t get around the money.
We must level the playing field, if we are to be the true representative democracy that we profess to be. We have to make sure that the elected class represents diversity of ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status that makes us the great country that we are.◼︎
Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. Donovan has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and GQ, among other outlets. He’s currently a Demos Emerging Voices Fellow.