Why Poor People Don’t Run for Federal Office

by Yana Ludwig
July 1, 2019

I’m running for US Senate as someone who regularly experiences economic insecurity. Here’s a little of how that has been so far.

A few months ago, one of my housemates said to me, “You do the Millennial hustle better than any Millennial I know.” What she was referring to is my multiple part-time jobs and freelancing gigs that comprise my part of keeping the mortgage paid and the lights on.

It was funny and kinda flattering (I’m too old to actually be a Millennial, but I often find that they are the folks I most easily connect with). But her teaching me that phrase brought part of her generation’s struggle into sharper focus: the painful reality I experience around not having work and economic stability is so common for her age mates that they’ve coined a term for it. Ufdah.

There’s pain in this reality. The constant hustle takes its toll, some months there isn’t enough and we have to do that horrible juggling act (pay insurance or get car fixed? delay the dentist for another couple months or skip getting new groceries and eat pantry dregs?). If it wasn’t for the Affordable Care Act, I’d be one of the millions of people who live in fear of waking up in the morning will illness rising and nowhere to go; as is, the co-pay and deductible still discourages “good” choices sometimes.

I’m running for office because of that economic insecurity, and because climate disruption is a real and rising reality for all of us, but especially people of color and poor people everywhere. I’m running now because there is urgency to both, and because the rise of fascism needs people to stand in its way as powerfully as possible. And for some reason I woke up in February with the notion in my head that maybe I could stand up more formally and actually run for office.

So I’m doing this thing, and I’m committed to seeing it through, whether that means it is over in 14 months, 17 months or 8 years. And I was in no way “financially ready” for this.

In fact, I almost didn’t run because of money. One of the first things I learned when I started talking to folks who know more than I do about elections is that candidates can’t pull any kind of salary from their campaign coffers until after the primary filing date closes: in my case, because I’m in a state with a late primary, that means June 6 of 2020. So running means adding to my hustle a nearly full time additional job. That pays nothing. For a year. When I’m already struggling.

But it gets worse. Once you can pull a salary, you are limited to either what you made last year, or what the office you are running for pays, whichever is less. Think that through for a second. That means that someone who makes the big bucks can pull a salary equivalent to $174K (current US Senator salary), and I can pull a salary equivalent of less than $25K, for the same work. It’s blatantly classist and it is hard to believe there wasn’t intentional favoring of rich people to be able to run for office.

My next inquiry was, “Can I crowdfund to help keep my bills paid while I run?” And the answer was, “Nope. Any help people give you because you are running counts as a campaign contribution and is subject to these restrictions.” So that modern desperation go-to isn’t even available. (I can’t even publish this article on my own blog because it is on patreon and will be interpreted as an “ask”.)

My response to learning these things was first despair (CAN I do this? How does anyone do this?!?) then analysis (THIS is why we are so under-represented! I’m seeing the mechanism laid bare!) to deeper commitment (Godammit, someone has to do this. Let’s go!)

But I’m dragging other people along. The financial stress in my life was already there and it is shared stress with my family and community-mates. I’m going through waves of feeling anxious and guilty for this choice, which was, after all, my choice first and foremost. And the more I show up as a candidate, the less I’m available to help get that mortgage paid. 

I’m also harboring deep fears that this is going to compromise my health. I have chronic Lyme disease, which is held in check by daily doses of herbs and being the party pooper who heads for bet at 8:30 most nights. It’s a precarious balance, and falling off that cliff can mean weeks or even months of increased pain and exhaustion. Plus not being able to work for a while, which just leads to more stress and anxiety as the bills pile up and my partner has to double down on his own already exhausting work life.

Then there is the “birds of a feather” phenomenon: I don’t hang out with millionaires, which makes fundraising for anything a challenge. And I don’t have millions of my own money to throw in to my own campaign. An independent candidate in the last Wyoming US Senate race joked in an interview that his wife had agreed to let him spend $1M on his campaign… but he’d do more if she wasn’t paying attention. Isn’t that sexist and cute? And casually unaware of his own privilege?

Reading that article left me feeling the old shame of being a capitalist system failure. I comfort myself with the story that I’ve always been more oriented toward service than a big paycheck, but the reality is that even if I had tried to play that game in earnest, only a handful of people ever “make it” if they don’t start out in a family with a lot of wealth.

So the crux of the “why” is that the deck is stacked against us, both in general and within the minutiae of campaign finance law. My family is going to go through the squeezebox of economic stress over the next year and a half in the hope that I can win a seat at the table and be part of changing the mess that is our electoral system, and win or lose, being a role model for not accepting the hand we’ve been dealt. 

I want public financing. I want Citizens United dead and gone. I want corporate power blunted so that people with a real commitment to the working class and poor can actually stand a chance in our electoral system. And the deeper I get into the stressful, anything-but-justice-based process of running for a federal office, the more fierce that commitment gets. 

Yana Ludwig is the author of Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption, and is a candidate for United States Senate. She is a founder of Solidarity Collective in Laramie, Wyoming. 

Photo credit: https://www.yana4wyo.com/platform

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s