Happy Black History Month!
Happy Black History Month! This is a joyful month to learn about, celebrate, and give thanks for the vast contributions African Americans have made to our country. (And to watch Black Panther. Seriously, if you haven’t yet, go to your nearest theater and watch. We’ll wait.)
At Every Voice, we are celebrating our favorite black leaders who have committed to making democracy work better for everyone and increase participation for all.
One of these leaders is Tish James, the first woman of color ever elected city-wide in New York City. In the role of public advocate, it’s her duty to ensure that all New Yorkers get a fair shake at housing, wages, loans, health care, their environment, and more. She has dedicated her public service to helping the voiceless to use their voice, and the powerless amass their power.
James is very candid about one of the reasons she was able to run for and win the office of public advocate. New York City has a small-donor public financing system that matches small donations up to $175 at a rate of 6-to-1. So as James went door to door in public housing and low-income neighborhoods – talking to her future constituents about their hopes and fears and issues – she could fund her campaign with their $5, $10, or $20 contributions. The New York City campaign finance system allowed James to run against a powerful and well-funded developer – and win.
One way to see more inspiring and accountable black leaders like James is to lower the barriers to participation – including more widespread systems of small-donor public financing like the one that exists in New York City. Access to wealth or wealthy donors is often a deciding factor in who can run for office. And when large donors tend to be old, white, and male, they tend to favor candidates who look like them and support their interests. One result of having to go through these gatekeepers is that our candidates and elected officials are deeply unrepresentative of the country’s population as a whole.
What we need is a wholesale break from our current big money politics. By fundamentally changing who pays for campaigns and how they do it, it opens doors for candidates who are black, women, low-income, and otherwise underrepresented in politics. As James puts it: “no other measure…can move the needle and directly impact and increase the number of women and people of color (in elected office).”
So as we celebrate African American leaders like Tish James, think about how many could not overcome the systemic barriers in their way. Think of how many extraordinary leaders, policy breakthroughs, and better laws we are missing out on when the system is meant to keep white, rich men in power. And then vow to change the underlying rules of the game that require big money for your voice to be heard. We are working at the community, state, and national levels to ensure every voice can be heard in politics – Join us.