The New Democrats

More democrats than ever before are refusing corporate PAC money for their campaigns. Here is what it means for the future of the party.

Photo by Kathryn Rose Fisher

Archived from July 5th, 2018

It’s a warm Tuesday afternoon in New Jersey’s 3rd District. Teachers, dental assistants, nurses and others gather in a firehouse in Mount Laurel, waiting to hear Andy Kim speak. Ten dollars gets you in the door, along with some snacks, an iced tea, and a chance to meet the candidate. For Andy Kim, the Democratic candidate of NJ-3, these public events and meet-and-greets are a frequent occurrence.

A lifelong resident of the district, Andy Kim would describe himself as a working father and a public servant who focuses on families and communities. Formerly serving under President Obama in the National Security Council, Kim is the son of immigrants, a mother who survived starvation after the Korean War, and a father who survived polio before they made it to America. His father became a renowned scientist, his mother a nurse, and Kim now raises two baby boys in New Jersey’s third district. He is the picture of the American Dream.

Kim’s opponent is the current congressman of NJ-3, Tom MacArthur. An ex-CEO and businessman, MacArthur shifted to politics, first as a mayor and then in US Congress. MacArthur is known for authoring the amendment reviving Trumpcare, as well as being the only congressman from New Jersey to vote for the Tax Repeal last year. He has also been courting far-right Republicans as well as President Trump, who hosted a fundraiser at his Bedminster golf club that gave $800,000 to MacArthur’s reelection campaign.

While Andy Kim speaks at the firehouse in Mount Laurel, MacArthur also holds an event on the same day. Joined by Speaker Paul Ryan at an undisclosed location, tickets run up to $10,000 per person. The minimum payment is $1,000 per plate.

This David and Goliath race in NJ-3 illustrates the current discord in our political system — wealth and big money vs. the people. In 2016, money in politics and campaign finance reform was a huge topic that infiltrated the political sphere and debate stages. Democrats clashed between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — one candidate who was criticized for appearing too ‘cozy’ with big donors, the other who managed to finance a campaign largely off small donations. On the right, Republicans elected Donald Trump — a man who claimed to be an outsider and non-establishment.

A focus group conducted by Priorities USA polled voters who previously voted for Obama that switched to Trump. Money in politics, among similar concerns, was the defining issue that triggered their vote against Hillary and for Trump. When asked what they believed the Democratic Party stood for, they answered “the one percent”, “the status quo”, or “They’re for the party. Themselves and the party.”

In order to regain lost voters, excite independents, and to earn the integrity and trust with the party, Democrats will have to reconstruct and rebrand the party platform as well as its politics.

Just last week, the 28-year-old political newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the ten-term congressman, Joe Crowley, in New York’s 14th District. Ocasio-Cortez had made it part of her platform to refuse money from special interest groups and corporate PACs, and to work on introducing progressive changes in Washington. Many cite this win as a forewarning to the Democratic Party. “This should be a warning for incumbents at every level,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant, “We have an angry electorate nationally that is both angry at Democrats and angry at Republicans.”

Having served under both Democrat and Republican Administrations, Andy Kim, the NJ-3 candidate, is critical about the current hyper-partisanship and tribalism in this country. But he is also aware of the influence that money in politics has, as well as the way it speaks to constituents.

“This was one of my very first decisions on the campaign trail,” Kim said, on his decision to not accept money from corporate PACs, “It’s a way in which I’m going to be on the side of the people in this district, my home district. I want to be the most accountable, accessible and transparent member of Congress that there is in the country. The corporate PAC side of things is so important in terms of changing our politics.”

In this election cycle, more than 100 candidates have refused to take corporate PAC money. And it’s proving to be effective. Other big-name Democrats already in elected office have also recently sworn off corporate PACs, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker.

Some have criticized Democratic candidates’ refusal to take corporate PACs as being a stunt, citing that donations from corporate PACs make up a small portion of the fundraising from some larger democratic candidates. But the influence of money, even coming from the regulated PACs with spending limits, cannot be denied in our politics.

By taking money from certain special interests and courting high-profile Republicans for fundraising purposes, NJ-3 Congressman Tom MacArthur, Andy Kim’s opponent, has put his constituents in NJ-3 in harms way with his legislation. While taking tens of thousands of pharmaceutical PAC money and purchases of stocks in drug companies, MacArthur’s Trumpcare amendment would strip many of his constituents from their health insurance and take away the protections of those suffering from preexisting conditions.

MacArthur’s vote for the Tax Reform bill would also cripple New Jersey residents by limiting the ability of taxpayers to deduct state income while exploding the deficit and giving tax cuts to the wealthy.

“I don’t think he has a real connection or allegiance to us,” Andy Kim said of MacArthur, “Whereas he does with pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies. It shows how being close to corporate money and special interests is fundamentally affecting what he’s doing, his priorities in Congress. It shows the influence that he has.”

Can Democratic candidates and elected officials regain the trust in their constituents by embracing ‘better politics’, even if it means refusing money from corporate PACs? In order to answer the cynicism and anger among constituents, candidates need to show voters that they can be trusted.

“It is absolutely critical that we try to restore trust from the American people in their government,” Kim says, “We need leaders who have integrity, someone who will be on their side, someone who is going to go to Washington and get the job done. That’s the fundamental thing people are going to be looking for this November.”