Observations on Elected Office

I heard on NPR earlier this week that, for the first time, a majority of those serving in Congress each has a net worth that exceeds $1,000,000. The story surprised me… I would have assumed that such a milestone had long since been reached. A few populists of modest means notwithstanding, politics has always appeared to be a game for those with (considerable) disposable income.

Read the story here:


The U.S. Senate was called “the millionaires’ club” back in the 19th century when only bluebloods blessed with inherited wealth or surnames that opened purses, or perhaps those backed by the robber barons and captains of industry, could aspire to membership. But now it seems that persons who aim for the even lower strata of the political food chain must come armed with bountiful war chests.

Case in point: a while back there was a vacancy on my local town council. Keep in mind that this wasn’t an elected federal position, or even a statewide office. It was one of nine part-time seats on the governing board of a medium sized suburban township, dealing with subjects like trash collection and traffic bottlenecks. Nevertheless, I thought that serving might be interesting; ever since I was an intern on Capitol Hill back in the late 1970s, I’ve found politics appealing, and this seemed to be a way in which to ‘test the waters’ rather unobtrusively.

I must add that I hate fundraising. I’ve always been reluctant to ask for any monetary assistance from family members. I detest negotiating for a car purchase. I try not to loan to, or borrow from, friends. And I hate the expected haggling of domestic estate sales and foreign bazaar merchants. For that reason, I knew that becoming a glad-handing salesman to raise money for a political run would be anathema to me. “But this is just town council,” I thought. “It can’t cost that much for some yard signs, flyers, and ads in the local paper?!” My intention was to finance my run myself. Perhaps a couple of thousand dollars out of my eBay slush fund – along with a lot of shoe leather – would propel me to victory without the need to panhandle?

Boy, was I mistaken.

I sought the advice of two colleagues who have firsthand experience with this sort of thing. One is married to a woman who has run for town council in a neighboring jurisdiction. The other currently serves herself on my town’s council. I found from both that candidates for these positions had spent tens of thousands of dollars, and weren’t even always successful. In the case of the councilwoman in my town, she told me that she had spent more than $30,000 on her initial bid several years back, “and by now I’d probably have to spend more as a non-incumbent trying to win a seat.”

It goes without saying that offices higher than town council are exponentially more expensive. Those amounts were far more than I could afford to self-finance, and the thoughts of begging for funds to raise such loot gave me the willies. Thus came an end to my nascent political career.

It’s sad, though, to know that educated and motivated aspiring (non-career) politicians who want to become involved – the very theoretical nucleus of our democracy – have been essentially priced out of the market.

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