This essay, by former congressional candidate Paul Perry, is in response to The Intercept’s recent reporting on the role of fundraising in the 2018 election cycle.
The first door I knocked on as a congressional candidate was a gut check.
Geraldine was a soft-spoken, middle-aged white woman suffering from cancer. She lived by herself in a modest rancher just a few miles from where I went to high school in the Philadelphia suburbs. Geraldine was worried about Republican schemes to upend Obamacare since she depended on it to stay alive and get her medications. I’ll never forget the way her face lit up, just enough, when I told her I’d fight for affordable, universal health care if elected to represent her.
A few months later, as I put my pen to the final paperwork necessary to end my campaign, I thought about Geraldine. I wondered who would fight for her, if she’d be OK, and if I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I left in part because the money game rules every part of the process. It shapes the types of candidates, even progressives like myself, into becoming the types of politicians we should be fighting against. The time spent courting donors disconnects you from voters by design. The process itself de facto disqualifies millions of Americans — based on wealth, connections, economic class — from realistically seeking elected office to represent their communities. I came to realize that no matter how good my intentions were, getting elected wouldn’t fix that broader problem gnawing away at our democracy.
I was running in what can now only be described as the messiest congressional race of the 2018 cycle — Pennsylvania’s 7th District. A jungle primary with a half-dozen contenders for the Democratic nomination, the sitting congressperson has just announced he won’t run for re-election, sexual harassment scandals have played a major role in upending the previous top contenders, and the district (one of the most gerrymandered in the country) will very likely be redrawn before the primaries just a few months away.
On paper, I was an ideal candidate for the Democrats. Born and raised in the district, a successful career in education and nonprofit work, Ivy League graduate, young, Black, with gay parents and therefore, a compelling family story. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn’t take an interest in me until they started to have doubts about the other top candidates: two white men who had already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and a white woman who would loan her campaign $170,000. I also started raising significant money, putting me on their radar. Besides a polite if not cautionary phone call with one of their Northeast operatives, the first official communication I received from them was this:
In other words: We don’t give a shit who you are, young man. Just show us the money. In two short weeks at the very outset of my campaign, they directed me to raise $200,000. I failed their first Rolodex test, but pressed on into the third quarter nonetheless. As the campaign dragged on and their sense of the weakness of the field and my campaign gathering strength, my finance director started getting more calls from their finance people. They wanted weekly numbers, down to the number of hours I had spent on the phone with donors each week, how much money I had raised on a weekly and daily basis, and even average contribution estimates. I went back and forth with my team about how much to play ball with them considering they weren’t doing much for us.
As the campaign picked up steam, the DCCC invited me to attend a fundraiser for Rep. Dwight Evans from the nearby 2nd District. The representative was immensely generous and ushered me around the room introducing me to folks (literally sharing donors with me). He encouraged me to keep my head down and stay tough. People like me stand on the shoulders of giants like him. I cannot imagine what trials and tribulations he has been through as a Black politician during the past few decades and now as the only Black member of his state’s congressional delegation.
Now, this is a hard thing — writing about people who were nothing but kind to me, as is the case with Evans. Nevertheless, I still felt herded like cattle at that party. I worked the room, swatting away consultants looking for contracts, absorbing cheap shots from white-haired trial lawyers who scoffed at my youthful candidacy, always seeking out the fattest wallets in the room. The DCCC was tossing me softballs and seeing how far I could hit them. As I drove back to Philadelphia that night, I reflected on what a bizarre rite of passage I had just been through. How would functions like that make me a better legislator for people like Geraldine? It wouldn’t.
At another point during the campaign, I was invited to meet with former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. He had visited my high school back in 2003, and I had asked him a tough question about education policy that he had embedded in his education stump speech. When I got to his office, he immediately showed me his poorly named memoir, “A Nation of Wusses.” Our interaction from years back was on Page 108. He let me leave with a copy of the book, but not before we talked shop. I now had another tough ask for him: his support for my newly launched congressional campaign. Things had come full circle as the young kid who challenged the governor was now an adult running for Congress.
Rendell had already publicly endorsed another candidate in the race. He encouraged me to drop out and run for state House or Senate. I told him I had no plans to do so and was just getting started. Then I told him my strategy for victory. He believed my argument and offered some help. We sat there as he made a few calls to influencers on my behalf and rapidly rifled off names of people I should reach out to for donations. His secretary pulled together a donor list and sent it over to my team. Rendell invited me to meet a top Obama bundler, Tony Welters, a few nights later at a restaurant in South Philly. He would set up a brief introduction for 10 minutes before their meal.
I showed up at Serpico on South Street a few days later to find Rendell and two older African-American men tucked into a booth in a mostly empty room with dark wood décor. Rendell waved me over to sit down next to the man across from him and I shook all of their hands. He introduced me and noted that Welters is a top executive for a major health care company and a top fundraiser for Obama. The three men then began to grill me on my stance on fracking.
I’m against it, I told them, especially the pipeline they were trying to run past schools and homes in my district. Rendell boasted about how he had personally brought fracking to Pennsylvania. Welters shared how frustrated he is by Democrats who are “doctrinaire” on the issue. He wished they’d open up to fracking. (Welters, I learned later, is involved in the fracking industry.)
Sensing that I was not about to let up, they moved on. (“That’s exactly right,” Rendell told The Intercept when asked for comment on the conversation.) Rendell asked me if I’ve been to Israel. I said I have not. The bundler immediately chimed in, “Well, we need to get you over there because it would make it a helluva lot easier to raise money for you.” Rendell followed up with, “Call my office and we’ll get you set up for a trip over there.” I remained silent. Welters brought the conversation to a close by saying that he would gladly host a house party for me. Rendell had previously indicated that such a party would likely bring in $100,000 to $200,000, at least. I offered some polite goodbyes and alighted out of the restaurant, stunned and gleeful. After dozens of calls to the bundler, the party never materialized before I left the race.
On reflection, I realized that I was only a pawn in a larger play for influence. Rendell had publicly endorsed one candidate in the race, told a second candidate he would support him once he won the primary, and told me that he’d support my campaign by connecting me with donors. I was astounded by the unabashedly noncommittal plays for power. I was ashamed of myself for going along with it seeking an advantage. I felt myself leaning, hedging, and contorting to fit the mold my elders and those with more money, resources, and experience were asking me to do to gain their favor.
I want to be clear that I felt and deeply appreciated the support I got from everyone who gave time, money, mentorship, and other resources that were generously offered to me during my short-lived campaign. One of the great joys of running for office is that you basically put out a call to everyone you know and quickly find out how many people truly love and support you despite all the stupid things you’ve done in your life. That said, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough for me to potentially win and just be another healthy cog in a fundamentally sick system. I’d rather challenge and have some hard conversations with those perpetuating that system — one that is dangerous for our democracy. I’d rather step away and find ways to transform that system, which is what I chose to do.
As a candidate, there was no escaping the endless drumbeat of the pressure to raise funds.
At all levels, examples abound. The Democratic state representative on the county committee set up to endorse a primary candidate, who blatantly stated, “Money is money. We need a candidate who has or can raise a lot of it so we can win.” The county party chair who wouldn’t return my calls and emails presumably because they had already backed the wealthiest Democrat in the race. The well-known “progressive” interest groups who withheld their endorsements despite my (and others’) strong alignment with their causes because they were “waiting on the numbers” and wanted to assess “viability.” At every juncture, the message was clear: “Show us the money.” Few other indicators of candidate strength existed at all.
As an educator, I have come to believe that most of our problems are problems of learning. How and what we learn, and from whom, are the processes by which we come to understand and shape the world around us. All that I’ve just shared with you, each and every moment, taken together, are examples of how we train our leaders in this country. This should horrify all of us. It should spur us to action to rid our politics of this money-drenched culture. When we let wealth and connections drive who gets elected in the country, we get the dismal politics we now awake to every morning. As with everything in a true democracy, it’s on us to fix this. I still believe we can if we have the will to fight. Our friends, families, and neighbors — the Geraldines around the corner from us, praying they get to keep their health care — they are counting on us.
Editor’s note: Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, interviewed by an Intercept reporter as part of the fact-checking process for this essay, said that in general Perry is right that “fundraising sucks” and that sometimes donors make demands that can make a politician uncomfortable. “Sometimes I would leave a meeting and want to throw up,” Rendell said.
But the men he had introduced Perry to, he said, were not trying to curry favor. “Paul misread that meeting very much,” he said. “They are both guys who want to encourage young guys to get in politics and both don’t need a thing; they don’t need the help of another congressman. Both, being African-American, they naturally want to see more African-Americans involved. I thought Paul would make a good impression on them — and in fact he did.”
Rendell said that Perry, in the meeting, hadn’t compromised his values and stood firm against their arguments in favor of fracking. “I never thought he was the type to drop out, and he should have communicated back with me that he was having trouble getting in touch with Tony, because Tony was sincere, and I’ve known Tony for almost 20 years and he’s not a bullshitter. Some people bullshit and say, ‘I’ll have a party for you,’ and they never mean it. And as far as him compromising his values during the meeting? He didn’t do that. I mean, he may have felt he was, but I didn’t get the sense he was. He stood up on the issue of fracking; we tried to explain to him that fracking is a bridge, that natural gas is 50 percent less polluting than coal for electricity, and it was a great bridge to the time when renewables can totally take over production of electricity. But that wasn’t until 2040, 2045 at the earliest,” said Rendell.
“And it also is good economic development for Pennsylvania. But interestingly, in his district where he was running, being against fracking is probably the politically sounder position. I don’t think he compromised, I don’t think he has anything to feel bad about. The only thing he didn’t do is stick with it.”
Perry is right that fundraising can be stomach-turning, Rendell said.
“Look, fundraising sucks. Almost anybody who runs for office who has any scruples at all will tell you that it sucks, but it is a necessary part of the business, and if you believe in yourself and believe that you can do good, and that good will help people and improve their quality of life, you do it because you want to, you do it because it’s necessary to get in a position to effectuate the change you want to effectuate. So I don’t have any sympathy for Paul. He knew going in that money was going to play a big part. He couldn’t communicate his message, he couldn’t tell people about himself and tell people about his ideas without the money to communicate,” he said.
“That’s our business today and hopefully someday it will change. Until then, he’s got to know what the rules are and determine whether you want to play by the rules. If you don’t, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. That doesn’t mean you’re a quitter or anything like that. I had that talk with him before I set up the dinner, I said, ‘You think you can raise the money? You know how difficult it is raising money?’ And he said, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ to all of it.”
Rendell said he was disappointed that Perry was speaking out of school, noting that the reporter he was speaking to didn’t need to tell his editor every time he thought they were being a dope. “Look, we all bite our lips to get ahead in our designated fields,” he said. “It’s part of the business of getting elected in this country; it’s scummy and it should be changed, but until it is, play by the rules.”
Perry had a real chance to win the race, Rendell said. “If Paul had come to me early before I endorsed the other candidate, I probably would have endorsed him or would have stayed out of it. As it turned out, when the other candidate dropped out, if Paul was still in the race and had raised money, he might’ve been in a position to win,” he said.
“Paul is a dynamite young man,” Rendell said. “He just gave up too soon. And ironically, one candidate in the Democratic primary who I thought stood in his way had all sorts of problems with sexual harassment. And he hasn’t officially dropped out but has no real chance to win. So it would’ve been a wide open field for Paul. And, by the way, not only did the leading Democrat drop out because of sexual harassment, but the incumbent Congressman Meehan dropped out. So he would have had a shot.”
“Paul’s an unusually talented young guy, and he also told me he had other sources of leads to raise money. I thought that he could have a shot, particularly because he would have been the most progressive of the Democrats in the race. I think in the primary of ’18, progressives are going to be 50, 55, 60 percent of the vote. So I think he just dropped out too soon.”
Rendell recalled that in the 1990s, he had appeared at public event with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and then-Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to endorse their plan for campaign finance reform.
“The Philadelphia Daily News the next day, or two days later, had an editorial that said, ‘Having Mayor Rendell endorse campaign finance reform is like having Alibaba come out against thievery.’ Well, I didn’t apologize. The rules were you have to raise money. I turned out to be a terrific money-raiser. But not because I gave away the store, but because I worked at it and I knew what I wanted to do in office and I knew I could change things. And I knew I had to raise money, so I taught myself to become a good fundraiser. Sometimes I would leave a meeting and want to throw up. But I knew that was the way the system works. So I’m disappointed in Paul. Again, not disappointed enough that two years from now if he wants to run again, I wouldn’t listen to him and try to help him.”