It’s now safe to pick up your phones and read your emails. That’s right, I won’t be calling to ask you to donate to my congressional campaign. As I announced on Tuesday, I’ll be leaving Congress at the end of this term — sentimental about many things, but liberated from a fund-raising regime that’s never been more dangerous to our democracy. In the days after my first election to Congress, in 2000, I attended several orientation sessions in Washington, eager to absorb the lessons of history. I wanted to learn what Congressman Abraham Lincoln had learned, to hear the wisdom of predecessors like John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Joseph Gurney Cannon. The romance was crushed by lesson No. 1: Get re-elected. A fund-raising consultant advised that if I didn’t raise at least $10,000 a week (in pre-Citizens United dollars), I wouldn’t be back.
The money race began, and I attended political action committee fund-raisers, which are like panhandling with hors d’oeuvres. There were hours of “call time” — huddled in a cubicle, dialing donors. Sometimes double dialing and triple dialing. Whispering sweet nothings and other small talk into the phone in hopes of receiving large somethings. I’d sit next to an assistant who collated “call sheets” with donor’s names, contribution histories and other useful information. (“How’s Sheila? Your wife. Oh, Shelly? Sorry.”)
Since then, I’ve spent roughly 4,200 hours in call time, attended more than 1,600 fund-raisers just for my own campaign and raised nearly $20 million in increments of $1,000, $2,500 and $5,000 per election cycle. And things have only become worse in the five years since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which ignited an explosion of money in politics by ruling that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in elections.
I saw the consequences firsthand.