Another election season has come to an end. The public is relieved to be rid of political ads on every commercial break, a mailbox full of cardstock they’ll never read, and strangers knocking at their door and texting them all the time. Campaign staffers, most newly unemployed, are recovering from the 50 to 120-hour work weeks that have defined their lives for the last three to nine months while they were paid meager monthly rates.
Campaigns are often a mishmash of part time jobs, volunteers working dozens of hours per month for free, and a lot of employee misclassification, lack of breaks or leave, insanely long hours that pull pay rate to below minimum wage, and other creative forms of wage theft.
Progress being made by groups like The Campaign Workers Guild — a union specifically created for campaign staff — has an active presence in the region and has created an environment of accountability with some of their allies in Labor and the Democratic Party. Paying your staff less than $15 an hour has ramifications for important endorsements.
Assembly Bill 5, which clearly classifies campaign staff as W2 employees rather than independent contractors, did a lot of heavy lifting too. It is now the law of the land: Campaign work is work. It truly doesn’t matter how special the candidate is (or thinks they are). Their campaign is a workplace — not a hill for everyone to die on or an excuse to mistreat workers.
Despite these progressive wins, many are uninterested in changing the status quo. Every election cycle a chorus of political consultants, endorsing organizations, media figures and other political influencers often criticize those who spend too much campaign money too early — even when it’s on staff. They forget or ignore that spending is often necessary to get people to do the work of campaigning, the political atmosphere encourages low wages and poor working conditions under the guise of “strategy.”
And frankly, from a budget standpoint, it makes sense. Most local races are subject to intense campaign contribution limits. The city of San Diego has a $650 limit for City Council races even though the council districts have more registered voters than most entire cities in the region. Other limits in the region are even lower, and make this problem even worse. How are campaigns supposed to afford voter contact?
Running for Mayor of Chula Vista, which has over 160,000 voters, the candidates are subject to a contribution limit of $360 per individual. Those contributions have to fund all their mail, advertisements, door knocking, community outreach and staffing at a scale large enough to reach at least 100,000 voters — which should add up to a ballpark figure of $250,000. Adding full time staff at industry standard rate to that number increases it by $25,000 or more per person when you add in payroll taxes, workers compensation, and other employment costs. Strategically, it is no surprise many campaigns aren’t hiring and paying staff anywhere near a living wage.
Is it worth it to be a good employer if you know it will cost you your victory? Or, are all our well-intentioned limitations on campaign funding forcing candidates and consultants into a false choice?
An additional side effect is a class of campaign workers who do not reflect the communities they are working in. The cost of living and skyrocketing housing prices trap working people into a cycle of poverty in even the most stable jobs. When you add in the stop and start nature of political work it’s untenable. These are barriers that — like unpaid internships — restrict access to those who are BIPOC, LGBTQ+, AAPI, Native Americans, have criminal legal system records, and are from other marginalized communities.
We know that fundraising is a big barrier for new candidates, and the dynamics of our current system make it harder for diverse candidates to raise enough money to be successful. But regardless of intention, the impact of San Diego’s restrictive contribution limits don’t help even the playing field or guard from public corruption. They actually encourage victory from those who can self-fund or have access to outside money to build the infrastructure necessary to win.
While our region should be proud of the transparency and accountability we have built in for lobbying, curbing corporate political spending, and hindering coordination with PACs and independent expenditures, we need to take a good hard look at the contribution limits and their impacts on economic opportunity and diversity in the political workplace.
While intending to slow the influence of money in San Diego politics — what’s really happening is the exploitation of workers in San Diego politics. And our current political leadership, which often touts support of the labor movement and the dignity of work, can and should make the changes necessary to protect the people who put them in power.
Update: This post has been updated to include the number of registered voters in Chula Vista.