I was sitting at my desk, ready to start my new job, when my boss walked into my office and put a monkey carved from wood on my desk. The monkey was holding a phone against its ear. “Congratulations, you are now a phone monkey — start making those telephone calls for money,” she barked cheerfully.
What was my new job? Telemarketer? Cold-call salesman? No, I was a political candidate. Just a few days before, I had launched my political candidacy in the Democratic primary in Arkansas for U.S. Congress. And my boss? She was my campaign consultant.
Four years ago, my campaign ended when I finished third of five candidates in the Democratic primary — but I had fun and learned a lot, especially about the role of money in politics.
I still have that wooden monkey in my office to remind me that candidates for Congress must spend a huge proportion of their time calling folks to ask for money.
During my run, I spent 70 percent to 80 percent of my time on the phone asking people for money. On one day, I made about 90 calls. But my campaign staff was constantly pushing me to make even more. In their view, my phone calls were too long — they wanted me to limit each one to just a couple of minutes. Usually, I would talk for more than 10 minutes, trying to connect personally with the potential donor but eating up precious time that I could have used to call others.
This kind of work is not glamorous and often discouraging. Before becoming a candidate, I had been a Justice Department attorney and chief of staff to a U.S. congressman. When I had those jobs, people returned my phone calls right away. Once I became a candidate, lots of people weren’t so eager to call me back, because they knew I’d be asking for money.
One episode of HBO’s fictional show “The Wire” portrays this campaign reality in a way unforgettable to me. Tommy Carcetti is running for mayor of Baltimore. Carcetti’s campaign manager, Theresa D’Agostino, scolds him to get in a room and make phone calls to raise money.
In response, Carcetti goes into an expletive-laden rant about how much he hates making calls for money and shouts, “I can’t do it anymore! I hate it! I hate it more than anything!” Ultimately, a staffer pushes Carcetti into an almost windowless office to make the calls and D’Agostino tells him he needs to raise $30,000 in the next three hours. “You hit your number or die in this room,” she says as she walks out and locks the door.
I didn’t win my election — but if I had, my experience on Capitol Hill has taught me that my life as a phone monkey would have continued. Anyone who has worked there knows the ubiquitous term “call time.” When I first heard it, I thought of the moment during a church service back in Arkansas when the preacher would call members to the front of the church to rededicate their lives to God. But I quickly learned that in Washington, the term had more to do with the worship of mammon than the worship of God. “Call time” meant the hours that members of Congress set aside to make phone calls for money. There’s always another election.
A Gallup poll last year showed that nearly 8 in 10 Americans support the idea of campaign fundraising limits, even though they don’t view the issue itself as a top priority for Congress.
Recent Supreme Court rulings show, however, that the court views such limits as unconstitutional. Perhaps this is in part because the current court doesn’t have a justice like Sandra Day O’Connor, Earl Warren or Hugo Black who actually has run for elected office and confronted the reality of asking people for money.
Fundraising has many negatives, but I did discover one positive. It measures the amount of hustle in a candidate to build up a network of financial support. As a kid playing basketball, if I worked hard my coach would shout, “Good hustle!” The ability to raise money certainly measures that kind of initiative in a candidate.
To get elected to Congress (and then to get re-elected) under our current laws, one’s skill at raising money has become more important than one’s skill at mastering policy issues, giving a good old stemwinder or having a firm handshake.
Each time I look at the phone monkey, it reminds me of this reality. And it causes me to wonder: Is this the kind of democracy that we really want?
David Boling, vice president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, is writing a book about how it feels to be a first-time candidate. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.