By: Tom Prigg
The cost to run for Congress is high, but perhaps not as high as the cost on Americans. Your member of Congress likely doesn’t enjoy asking for money, but he or she probably spends more time doing that than anything else. Tom Prigg, a candidate for Congress is Pennsylvania’s 12th district explores the heavy price paid for expensive campaigns.
I am a big Hunter Thompson fan, but “Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone” is a particular favorite, which (perhaps fitting for my current situation), was a collection of his Rolling Stone articles sharing his thoughts and experiences along his ‘72 campaign trail. It wasn’t simply the prose of “Fear and Loathing” that caught me, but how the story has held true over time and across genres. It’s that type of writing that taps into something deeper than a simple stenography of history; the story is really about a general principle of life that we can all relate to. His style of writing was so unique a new word was invented to describe it: gonzo journalism. This column is a homage to him and those writings.
As much as I would love to be viewed as being in the same company as Hunter Thompson, I’m not. I’m Tom Prigg and I’m Nobody running for congress in Pennsylvania’s District 12.
I’ve never been in politics and I don’t fit your prototypical politician, and from my perspective, that’s a good thing. What I am is a father of three, a neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University and an Army veteran. I served in the 82nd Airborne and 1/508 in Panama. I worked mostly as a sniper and M60 machine gunner. Not only am I a veteran, but my father was in Vietnam, and my daughter just returned from combat in the Middle East. It’s become a family tradition. I’ve also done a lot of odd things in my life that has shaped my perspectives on life. I’ve climbed ice, rock and mountains on three continents. I’ve even climbed icebergs in the Atlantic ocean. I currently do stunts for movies and television as a hobby.
People are sick and tired of “politicians”, and why shouldn’t they be? Our current array of politicians seem to be some sick love-child spawn between a Pol Pot dictator and Clarence the Clown.
Back in March, Pennsylvania’s state senator, Scott Wagner, stated that global-warming is due to the Earth getting closer to the sun and the Earth’s growing population size.
Wagner said, “We have more people, you know, humans have warm bodies. So is heat coming off?”
After his comments went viral eliciting a collective mockery from the Internet, Wagner’s campaign manager, Jason High, came to his defense. “He’s not running to be the top scientist in the state,” High said. “He’s running for governor.”
Sure, this could be a fair point. We don’t need a scientist to govern, but we definitely don’t need a person with the intellect of a seven-year-old to govern either. Giving a man like Wagner the governorship is like putting a drunken, blind captain at the helm of a ship. Only this time we’ll all go down with the iceberg. It would be easy to blow this all off and simply go on with our lives if Wagner was an aberration of stupidity, but he’s not.
It’s no wonder people are sick of the common politician, but then again, politics aren’t for the regular guy or gal either. It’s for the privileged. As a close friend and mentor said about my ambitions four years ago, “Tom, you aren’t wealthy. You don’t know wealthy people. You don’t know powerful people. No one is going to vote for you.”
My friend wasn’t being cruel, and he doesn’t think lowly of me. He was simply stating the unfortunate facts. Politics are typically reserved for the affluent, those who can afford big, initial expenses to assemble a campaign team. People who don’t need to work and can spend the majority of their time attending meetings and making the right connections. Someone who can afford to attend the fancy dinner (read: $$$) fundraisers, or even the multitude of not-so-fancy, but still costly events. It’s a full-time job, and for someone who already has a full-time job, it can seem like an impossible task. That’s what took me so long to run. I had to break down the money problem to figure out how a Nobody like me could make the same impacts as those affluent Somebodies at various stages of the campaign.
It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that money was everything in politics. Every meeting I’ve attended, I was always asked this one question, “How much money can you raise?” It’s a fair question, because running a campaign is very expensive. Business cards, palm cards, door hangers, yard signs, web site, server space, graphic design, printing, gas, etc…
This doesn’t include paying people’s wages. Fortunately for me, my team is made up of passionate people who want the same changes that I’m running on. They’re not just ordinary Joes either. Of my seven team members, there are two PhDs, a human rights and immigration lawyer, an MBA in finance, a former Union Vice President, a cyber security specialist and a campaign manager who once managed a bio-medical facility. I have five female team members and three “token” males (joking), myself included.
Despite it being somewhat reasonable that money in politics is a necessary evil, that evil has grown to apocalyptic proportions. For a campaign to be taken seriously, it has to raise at least one hundred thousand dollars early on. No one wants to endorse a campaign that can’t raise money, yet no big donors want to donate to a campaign without endorsements. The proverbial chicken or the egg. The entire strength of a campaign is measured in dollar signs. It doesn’t matter what your message is, how it’s received, or how the candidate can communicate. It’s really about, “How much money can you raise?”
A former congressman told me, “I spent eight to twelve months on the phone in my first month before I even began running.” On average, a congressional candidate, and later an actual congressperson, will spend 30-70% of their time calling people for donation.
I have to admit that I question this accepted philosophy of measuring a campaign strength only on the dollar amounts raised. This, of course, would be the McNamara fallacy. This is the logical fallacy of making a decision based on a single quantitative measure. Former Secretary of State, Robert McNamara, attributed the progress of the Vietnam war simply by body counts, thus ignoring all other factors. I can’t help but wonder if money in politics isn’t similar.
It’s not always the case that more money leads to big wins. It sure didn’t help Jeb Bush in 2016. But he’s mostly the exception, and brought with him his own familial baggage.
As a general rule, money wins. A POLITICO analysis of campaign finance filings found, “The 100 biggest campaign donors gave $323 million in 2014 — almost as much as the $356 million given by the estimated 4.75 million people who gave $200 or less.” Worse yet, the New York Times reported that less than four hundred families donated ½ of the total 2016 presidential campaign donations. Essentially, out of six hundred million people, less than four hundred share half the influence of an election outcome. That’s 0.0000004% of the population choosing our leaders.
This problem of Money in Politics isn’t simply a problem for the candidate. A 2014 Princeton study found that the likelihood of congress passing an issue into law that is heavily supported by the public has the same likelihood as something absolutely not supported. Meaning, congress doesn’t care what you care about.
In fact, the Princeton study found public opinion had no significant influence on government policy whatsoever. But, this study gets worse. The wealthy elite has an enormous influence on lawmaking. For the affluent, the more desirable a particular issue maybe, the more likely it is to pass. The least desirable, the least likely. This is how a Democracy is supposed to work for the American public, but it doesn’t. It only works that way for the banks, corporations and the top wealthiest percent.
Here’s a video to break down the study’s results.
This is why the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision was so important. Corporations and the super-rich can put their money on the politicians that will legislate in their favor. Basically, buying the very people whose job it is to regulate them. Sure, money has always been in politics. James Madison felt the power of Democracy should be in the hands of the wealthy. He said during the Constitutional debates, “They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” It’s been a systemic problem from the beginning, but now it’s on unprecedented levels.
Big money doesn’t just buy politicians for favorable policy making, it’s also used as a weapon to fund challenger’s races that run against an undesirable politician.
Let me explain. Let’s say I’m against exorbitant corporate tax loops, which I am. And let’s say I’m gaining momentum and people are really listening. Now I’m a threat. To block me, a corporate Super PAC may fund my opponent in the primary so they can beat me regardless of the fact that a majority of the people love my message. Folks, this is the problem. The very fabric of our Democracy should lie with the desires of the American people, but it doesn’t.
In a weird twist of fate, this was a tactic recently taken by the Koch Brothers back in March. The Koch Brothers were upset that the Republican proposed bill didn’t totally annihilate Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
From Politico: “Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners, the Koch network’s big budget grass-roots activism and advertising groups, are teaming up to create a “seven-figure” reserve fund to support lawmakers who buck President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan on the health care vote, as the threat of primaries looms over some opponents of the bill.”
This is why every single person asks me, “How much money can you raise?” This is why my longtime mentor, who is basically a father figure to me, tells me not to run because, “You’re not wealthy. You don’t know wealthy people. You don’t know powerful people. No one will vote for you.”
For me, just an ordinary guy, to compete in my district I need at least two million dollars. That’s because my opponent, Keith Rothfus, can raise millions more. He’s a former corporate lawyer, and a Tea-party Republican backed with Koch Brothers’ money and a lot of super PACS. He doesn’t lift a finger to help anyone in our district, and he’s literally ranked as one of the worst congresspeople in Washington. But what he does well is pull in money for other Republican races. He’s a money guy for the party and that’s why they love him.
In 2012, the Republicans threw more money at the District 12 race than any other congressional race in the country, and he’s won his last two elections by twenty-points. They won’t go down without a fight this time, either.
If taking on one of Washington’s favorite money guys wasn’t enough, I have our district to contend with. District 12 is one of the most gerrymandered in the country. Add on the two-point above average unemployment rate, and that it’s a coal mining country in Appalachia, and the district begins to sound like it’s straight out of the Hunger Games.
You may be asking yourself now, “Why would I want to support this guy Tom Prigg? He’s going to be trounced.” The reason is why I shared my odd background about climbing icebergs, doing movie stunts, and just simply going out and accomplishing things that seem unlikely for most ordinary people. I have a habit of doing whatever it is I set my mind to.
I see this David and Goliath story the same way.
Before Keith Rothfus, there was a congressman named John Murtha. He was a Vietnam veteran and held the congressional seat for thirty-six years; it took his passing for his seat to open. Our district is made up of the second highest concentration of veterans in any other district in the country. Rothfus capitalized on these two facts. In 2010, he began volunteering for veteran’s organizations and sitting on boards to pander for their votes. The veterans have become his staple constituents of volunteers and voter support. This is something I can take away. Fortunately for me, he’s a lazy, unproductive congressman (by performance measures, not my opinion).
Also in my favor is the Internet. It’s become an equalizer against big money. What big money buys is exposure. Television commercials, ads, yard signs, functions, etc. Exposure brings support and, more importantly, more money. It leverages the average voice to an intercom level over all other opponents. When this tool is used properly, we can utilize all those attributes usually reserved for big money.
I’ll do my part. I will raise the money to compete. I’ll keep fighting. This article is one of those ways. Please keep these issues in mind the next time you enter the voting booth. Together we can win.
Tom Prigg is a military veteran and neuroscientist. He is also a candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 12th District. Tom’s hoping to build a healthier economy more capable of supporting improvements in education and equal rights. Besides being an Army veteran, he’s climbed icebergs in the Atlantic Ocean, Half Dome in Yosemite and other rocks, ice and mountains on 3 continents. You can find him on Twitter @tomprigg2018