What a Difference a Digit Makes 

The No. 1 rule of American politics

Thursday, Jan 8 2004

What most irks me about George W. Bush is how deeply his administration polarizes the public. The president’s policies make him so easy to demonize that American politics nowadays rarely transcends a simple-minded division between Bush lovers and Bush haters.

But now comes a bracing reminder from the country’s leading campaign-finance-reform group that the dysfunction of American democracy runs much deeper than whoever may be the transitory occupant of the White House. Republican or Democrat, it’s still mostly about the greenies — the dollars.

Take a long slow look at the new report jointly issued by Public Campaign, the William C. Velasquez Institute and the Fannie Lou Hamer project, and it will become starkly evident that we are still wallowing in a form of de facto political apartheid.

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Ninety percent of money contributed by individuals to federal campaigns and parties (of contributions more than $200) in the 2000 and 2002 elections came from majority non-Latino white ZIP codes, yet nearly one out of three Americans is a person of color. There are nearly 300 million Americans, but only about one-fourth of 1 percent of them made a contribution of $200 or more in the last national election cycle.

“Our report illustrates clearly what most people already intuitively know,” says Public Campaign’s senior analyst Micah Sifry. “In America, a rich man and a poor man are equally free to make a $200 contribution. It’s just that the rich are disproportionately overrepresented in the political system and the poor are underrepresented.”

Los Angeles, celebrated often in these pages for its diversity and its Democratic tilt, is hardly an exception to this rule of American politics. The metro area produced a whopping $101 million in political contributions during the 2000 and 2002 election cycles. And a full two-thirds of L.A. money went to Democrats. But anyone who concludes that this means the poor and disadvantaged are somehow better represented is really living in la-la land — unless you believe that entertainment lawyers and movie producers are the new proletariat.

Click onto the report at www.colorof money.org and get a full whiff of the inequality.

Nearly 85 percent of the L.A.-area contributions came from predominantly non-Latino white ZIP codes. (This makes us only marginally different from either New York or Chicago, which produced about 93 percent of their contributions from majority-white neighborhoods.) Only 16.5 percent of local money came from neighborhoods with a predominance of residents living below the official poverty line. Almost two-thirds came from barrios like Brentwood and Beverly Hills that had an unusually high number of incomes above $100,000 a year.


No need to look further than the difference one digit makes. The good citizens in Beverly Hills 90210, a ZIP code that is 85 percent non-Hispanic white and in which only 6 percent of the residents claim to be living below the poverty level, ponied up more than $8 million in individual federal campaign contributions during the past two cycles — 70 percent going to Democrats.

Journey a half-hour south and east to Compton, ZIP code 90220, and find that, with a white population of less than 5 percent and an overall population twice the size of the Beverly Hills neighborhood one digit away, its residents contributed a grand total of only $13,887
during the same two election cycles. Ninety percent of those Compton contributions went to Democrats.

But that’s a deceiving figure. Just what kind of clout can the minority neighborhoods of Compton wield in the system or even within the Democratic Party compared to, say, Westside donors? The per capita contribution of the people of Beverly Hills 90210 is about $466. The residents of Compton 90220 clock in at about 60 cents per head. Or, if you prefer, the political voice of Beverly Hills — measured in campaign cash — is about 750 times more powerful than that of Compton. By the way, these two local ZIP codes are not the worst-case examples. Some Westside pockets around Century City buy into the system even more aggressively than Beverly Hills, while in some South-Central neighborhoods, the per capita contribution dips to about one thin dime per head.

Only a handful of states have begun to emerge from this cesspool of big-donor politics by enacting clean-money election reforms — essentially, public financing of state and local elections. Hardscrabble Arizona has surpassed California by switching over to a clean-money system and substantially opening up and broadening the political process.

Some California activists have been struggling to get our own clean-money initiative enacted. After initially pushing a ballot initiative, they are now wisely contemplating a route through the Legislature. Putting a fair-elections measure on the state ballot might be the surest way to coalesce the moneyed opposition and have the whole thing backfire. So any progress in our state is destined to be slow going. And while presidential elections already depend on a certain amount of public financing, there seems to be no end in sight to the unequal access purchased through individual donations.

The rise of Internet campaigns that garner large amounts of smaller donations — now best embodied in the Howard Dean operation — offer at least some theoretical leveling of the field. That’s at least until someone does a racial and class background of these Web donors, which — I fear — will not produce a profile terribly different from that of overall political donors.

Unless and until we can take big money out of politics, our democracy will continue to be polluted. On the morrow of this November’s election, no matter who takes the White House, the No. 1 rule of American politics will still be in charge. We, indeed, do have two parties with one major difference. One ably represents Rolls-Royce owners. The other is more beholden to aficionados of Lexus and Saab.

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