The Emerging Wealthy White Male Donor Class: A Chicago Case Study

The Emerging Wealthy White Male Donor Class: A Chicago Case Study

(Photo: AP/M. Spencer Green)

Riding on the coattails of the nation’s bursting wealth gap is another crisis of inequality—political inequality, campaign-finance watchdogs warn.

Fueled by unprecedented levels of wealth, rich white men, in particular, have formed an elite political donor class that has gained an outsized influence over policy, reform advocates say. Meanwhile, people of color and women who are less well to do have become disenfranchised from a political process that increasingly kowtows to big donors.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this political power gap starker than in the city of Chicago. A new report from Demos looks at the racial inequality in campaign financing for the 2015 mayoral race between beleaguered incumbent Rahm Emanuel and progressive insurgent Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and details the devastating results for Chicagoans.

Both candidates leaned heavily on big donors, raising more than 92 percent of their campaign funds from contributors who gave more than $1,000 apiece, the report finds. However, Emanuel’s re-election campaign relied far more on a donor base that doesn’t reflect the city’s diversity—wealthy whites who lived in the city’s most affluent areas or didn’t even live in the city. 

(Source: Demos)

While more than 60 percent of Chicagoans are people of color, only 6 percent of Emanuel’s donors were. And while just 15 percent of residents make more than $100,000 a year, 88 percent of Emanuel’s donors earned more than that.  

(Source: Demos)

That base served Emanuel well as his campaign raised nearly $25 million to Garcia’s $7 million, ultimately securing his seat in what became one of the most expensive mayoral races in U.S. history.

Chicago’s skewed donor class mirrors national trends. The country’s wealthiest .01 percent of donors now contribute more than 40 percent of all money to political campaigns. As of this past August, half of the $74 million in large individual donations to ten presidential candidates have come from just 1 percent of U.S. zip codes, according to research by the campaign-finance advocacy group Every Voice. Donors living in the affluent zip codes bordering New York City’s Central Park had given more money than donors from all the 1,200 majority-black zip codes combined.

These wealthy donors have distinctly different policy views than less wealthy non-donors. As the Demos report notes, only one-third of non-donors living in Chicago supported the 2010 Bowles-Simpson austerity measure to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and defense spending. But nearly two-thirds of Chicago political donors supported the plan.

Furthermore, wealthy Chicagoans are far less likely to believe that the government should play a role in guaranteeing strong public education systems, college aid, living wages, and unemployment insurance. For example, only 35 percent of wealthy Chicago residents think that the federal government should spend whatever is necessary to ensure that all children can attend good public schools, compared with 87 percent of the Chicago general public who support that idea.

“The rich are far more supportive of austerity policies,” Sean McElwee, Demos policy analyst and author of the report, tells the Prospect.

“The current path Chicago is following,” McElwee writes, “with cuts to mental health services, infrastructure and public schools, is responsive to the preferences of the donor class, not average Chicagoans.” During Emanuel’s tenure, the city has closed 49 schools—largely in black neighborhoods—and closed half of the mental health clinics in Chicago. Those two prominent policy decisions, which were met with vehement public protest, point to wealthy donors’ outsized influence over the city’s policies.

“I find it difficult to imagine Emanuel making those budget decisions with a donor class that is 94 percent black,” McElwee says.  

Though it’s hard to trace the exact degree of influence enjoyed by Chicago’s donor class, anecdotal evidence highlights close relationships between big donors and Emanuel. For instance, mega-donor businessman Michael Sacks reportedly talks with Emanuel daily, and there are reportedly 1,500 emails between the two men.

So what’s the solution to combating the influence of wealthy donors who push agendas that go against the public will?

Public financing of campaigns, says McElwee. Such a system, which can give candidates access to public funds or match small donations, could boost the voices of smaller donors, who are much likelier to be more diverse and more representative of their communities. New York City has become the standard-bearer for public financing of elections, and evidence has shown that a more diverse population of residents has contributed money and helped elect more diverse candidates to office under the city’s public funding regime.

These types of campaign-finance reforms have gained more and more traction at the state and local levels as voter outrage over the influence of big money has continued to mount. Whether Chicago’s political leaders, who remain comfortably funded by big money, would take up such reforms remains to be seen.