By Robert Moore
(Washington, 15 September) The Second Congressional District cuts a swath about 275 miles long and 180 miles wide through the deepest, most rural counties of Mississippi.
Here, the median household income is $15,500, and nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.
When the district's representative, Bennie Thompson, raises money for re-election, he usually goes elsewhere. Few in the district can afford to give $1,000, the maximum allowable under federal law.
Thompson raised $229,774 as of June, according to Federal Election Commission data analyzed by the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Most of it came from outside his congressional district.
Thompson's plight is not unique. Black legislators and candidates across the country face similar fund-raising challenges. Experts say the financial challenges faced by black candidates point out the need for campaign finance reforms. But the challenges facing minority politicians have been largely forgotten where this heavily debated public policy issue is concerned.
An examination of hundreds of financial disclosure records, and interviews with politicians, political scientists, voters and others from minority communities around the country leads to stark findings:
Under growing public pressure, the nation's political leaders have embraced campaign finance reforms, ranging from strict limits on contributions to raising the limits and demanding more disclosure about those who give. The pressure is mounting for good reason. Fund-raising scandals that surfaced after the 1996 elections continue to plague Vice President Al Gore. This year, Gore and Bush are expected to spend at least a combined $200 million in the money race for the White House. When contributions from the political parties, political action committees and lesser-known advocacy groups are totaled along with spending by the candidates, the 2000 congressional elections are likely to surpass the record $2.7 billion spent in 1996.
Driving many out of the race
For black officeholders, challengers and voters, changing the way political money is raised might, in fact, be the most critical issue of modern day politics. Some experts predict that the average House race in this election will cost $5 million, effectively driving many black candidates out of the race for political office.
"The implications are vast for most African American candidates," said Hillary Shelton, the NAACP's Washington lobbyist and a longtime observer of national politics. "Most (black candidates) don't get the big contributions from major corporations and the wealthy individuals. That perfectly illustrates why we need reform, and why reform has to take into account the impact on minority candidates."
Little research on contributions from minorities
To begin to understand the effects of campaign finance reforms on black voters and candidates, one must understand the place of predominantly poor and minority communities in the political fund-raising landscape.
Simply put, the role those communities play is minor. People of color have been -- and continue to be -- largely absent as factors in campaign giving. Except for the landmark 1996 study, "The Color of Money," by the Washington-based nonprofit group Public Campaign, there has been little research on the trends in campaign contributions from minority communities.
Public Campaign documented what has been known intuitively for years. "A disproportionately small amount of the money that fuels federal elections comes from people of color. In fact, the disparities are shocking . . . our system of privately financed elections is profoundly unrepresentative and anti-democratic," the widely cited report found. "Over and over, in city after city we found that the vast majority of contributions came from areas that are primarily white and wealthy. . . .�
"The Color of Money" paints a portrait of the people who give and, by extension, those who do not and are therefore shut out of the political process. "
Our analysis of campaign and census data shows that the disparities pointed out by Public Campaign continue to exist. For example, the ZIP code 30327 gave the largest amount to black candidates so far in the 2000 election. That ZIP code lies in the monied suburbs north of Atlanta and is home to workers at numerous high-tech, white-collar and international businesses that have relocated from Atlanta's urban center. Planned communities, many with million-dollar homes, are peppered throughout hundreds of acres of untouched open space.
Donors here made 62 contributions for a total of $50,650. Blacks make up only 1 percent of the population in the area.
A review of black candidates' financial disclosure forms shows that few are capable of funding their own campaigns.
Most are only slightly better off than their constituents. For example, on her financial report to the FEC, Rep. Eva M. Clayton, who represents a mostly rural district in eastern and north-central North Carolina, listed assets between $65,000 and $150,000, hardly enough to finance a campaign for Congress.
Most black candidates say that in the absences of party and PAC backing they have to rely on small contributions and grassroots support � mainly churches � to get out the vote.
"The fact is that you just have to raise enough money to get your message out. That is a successful campaign," said Gretchen Hitches, a spokeswoman for Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.
"As it is, a candidate that has wealth, or has access to wealth, has a tremendous advantage," said Norman Hill, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a Washington-based non-profit civil rights and labor support organization. "Generally speaking, that candidate is not a minority candidate. We have to encourage reforms, or at least encourage discussion about reforms that are in the interest of fairness for all candidates and voters."
Both parties say that while they spread financial support for candidates based on innumerable factors, race is not one of them. They say that such matters as how competitive the race is, how politically attractive the candidate is, and how much money the party has to spend more often determine who gets financial support, and how much.
"Our goal is to find and support challengers regardless of race and ethnicity," said Erik Smith, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's fund-raising arm for House and Senate races.
Added Marit Babin, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee: "We didn't go out to recruit these candidates because of their race or ethnic background. We don't support these candidates financially [on the basis] of their race or the race of their opponents.�
Robert Moore is a senior associate at the Center for Public Integrity. He wrote this as part of the National Newspaper Publishers Association Northstar Investigative Reporting Project. E-mail him
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