Socioeconomic Obstacles to Being a Candidate

As we noted in the first installment of this series, there are barriers for some candidates because of objections from voters to their ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or gender. There also are other obstacles to new candidates — such as how to get through primaries and elections with limited funds, large geographic areas to cover, and family obligations.

Erika Bailey-Johnson

My district is part of seven counties. My largest city is Bagley, of 1200 people. So door knocking is its own unique experience. 

Alicia Gibson

Alicia Gibson ran for Minneapolis City Council’s Ward 10 in 2021, “which has really evolved to something more akin to running for a legislative seat. The person who won the seat — I came in second — raised $150,000 and had been involved in political organizing for seven years. I was proud of the way I jumped in as a very independent candidate. By the end, I think we raised $50,000. I taught myself how to do all of the things that are part of a modern-day campaign, like build a website, do all of the social media, door-knock. 

It was hard to run as a 45-year-old and as a mother. “In my race, there were a number of women who ran, but the thing that becomes difficult is running as a mother.” Women who have caretaking responsibilities to other people are sometimes considered less desirable by voters who are concerned about their family obligations.

“I also was considered old. I am 45. Ageism occurs for women at a much quicker rate than it occurs for men. Being Japanese-American, I truly believe in relationships that are multi-generational, and the value that elders bring to conversations, especially mothers and women who have caretaken. How are we making space for older women to also be leaders and providing examples to young people who are leaders right now but also need role models for their development and their growth?”

Moderator De’Vonna Pittman

Some people won’t run because there is not enough money in it, they don’t have the time to do it. They need their full time jobs to be able to survive. In the past, we have seen a lot of white men who have access to money and status and resources, run and hold these office for decades. What is your thinking around how socio-economic status keeps people out of these spaces, prevents people from running, and also keeps folks in these offices year after year?

Susan Pha

“We just had a conversation about compensation for city council members. It is very, very low — only $11,000 for a part-time job. One of my fights for upping the salary is not just as compensation, but truly [the low payment] is a gate to keep certain people out. It really is — it is a way to eliminate and discriminate against people of certain economic classes to not run for office. As I sit around the table with my council members, I admit that I am privileged. I am a small business owner who has financial stability to be able to be on the council to run for office. A lot of people who live in our city don’t have that privilege — they are not at the table representing all the people who struggle every day, who live through that experience. 

No one is going to give up their full-time compensation to be on a part-time council that takes up all your time. They choose their family and they choose putting food on the table. That means their voices are missing at the decision-making tables. It is saying that power and decision-making belongs to only a few who can afford it. 

Some people say, “if you cannot take care of your home and be stable enough financially to do this for free, or low-cost, you [are not qualified to make these decisions]. That is not how it works, not when not when you are making decisions for thousands of people who come from all economic classes, all backgrounds. Policy does not work that way.”

Pha, 45, is currently pregnant with her fifth child. “I know I am capable of raising a baby, raising a family, because we are super women — we do everything. We have done that for many years. But some voters do not feel confident that a woman coming into the legislature, who is going to be a new mom again, might not be able to juggle the way men would if their wife was pregnant. I think we get judged differently, which is unfair. I think women have proven through many decades and centuries that we can get things done.”

Clare Oumou Verbeten 

I say, screw that. Nobody asks men how they are going to juggle parenthood and being in office. They also need to take care of their kids. The double standards are infuriating. The state legislature is also considered part time, and it is a huge barrier for people to be able to run for office. I am fortunate — my employer is supportive. I will be able to serve in the legislature and keep a job. But it is hard for people to figure out that balance and be in session for those many months, right? Being compensated $40,000 for the year is not enough for me to pay my bills, my mortgage, and my second mortgage — student loans, which is literally the same price as my mortgage. So I have to have another job.

When we talk about having that true democracy and having our government reflect our communities, we should also have people there who are young, who are starting families, who are mothers. There is such an absence of that community in the legislature. I think the pay is one of the biggest barriers to that.

Brion Curran

“The political system is set up for folks who can afford to walk into office and not worry about money. That is not the average person. That is not the average Minnesotan by any means. For me personally, that was one of the first issues I had to think about when I decided to run for office. I got so stuck in thinking about if it was going to work, that I just decided to run anyway. 

“This is one of the biggest ways our system is flawed. Until more folks like us who don’t have strong finances are better represented, it is just going to continue this cycle.

There is a good possibility I am going to need to quit my job when I am elected. Thankfully, they are supportive, but those are big decisions that I will have to make with my family. I will lose money if I quit my job and do legislating full time. I will need supplemental income because I am a paycheck-to-paycheck person, too. I know what that is like. I also think that makes us better legislators. 

I can’t speak to parenting, but I think we need to stop seeing that as a hindrance and see it as strengths in that we are able to really step it up and get everything around us done. We all have full lives with different responsibilities. Socioeconomic status is a tough part of being a first-time candidate — that slap in the face realization that you are going to be making some major tradeoffs, but for the greater good, and that is what we’re here for. 

Leigh Finke 

I am a person who rents and is a single parent 50 percent of the time. I got into the race when I was working in nonprofit activism, which is not a particularly well-paid field. I have had to leave that job after winning the primary. This situation — running as a person who is middle class, not by much, but has a lot of privilege in the world, and then is raising two kids and currently doesn’t have a job — is extremely, extremely difficult. 

I love what I am doing. I am so grateful for this opportunity. I am putting everything I can into it. But I also am putting up barriers to defend what is important to me, such as not taking my kids door-knocking with me. I think that will make me a better representative, keeping my kids healthy and putting up a good barrier between them and the campaign work. 

Nadia Mohamed 

A year before finishing college studies at the age of 22, I decided to run for office. It wasn’t an easy decision, but Black woman are now realizing it is time, right? We are not waiting for anybody else. 

I became the youngest elected city council member in the city, as well as the first Black woman elected into this seat, the first Muslim woman elected into the seat, the first Somali American elected into the seat. Representation absolutely matters and looking like the people that you are serving absolutely matters. For a while I was the only person of color, and the only renter, and the only person who experienced low-income housing. Now we have another woman of color who has joined. The conversation is no longer just one-sided. It is multiple stories being told — and those stories are becoming part of the decision making.

When I was running, I had no income, I was still living with my mom. I did not know anything about fundraising and campaign financing. I felt like running for office is for rich people. People who are well-established in their careers. People told me, ‘You just have to fundraise.’ But the catch with that is you have to know people who have money to donate. Realistically, in America, we are surrounded mostly by people who are within our social economic income, within our tax bracket. What really helped me was being connected to somebody who previously ran for the council. My incumbent was very helpful in making those connections for me and vouching for me — saying you should endorse, you should give her money. 

One of the other things that stops people from running is where they are at in their career. Again, when I was running, I had not graduated yet from college. I was trying to figure out a full-time job. I was trying to figure out how to make income, because the income they pay us at the City Council isn’t that much. It is not a livable income. You have to have a hustle on the side.

When you are well-established, with a senior position, you are a director already in your regular job, that is easier to do compared to entering the workforce at entry level. That is one of the barriers that stops young people from running, especially young people of color.

Sharon Brooks Green

We get paid $600 a month on the school board. It is literally gas money. But when I started on the board, I did not have a job. I was going through a major life change. In my marital status, my living arrangement. I had to choose. I decided to be sane-minded and serve. My personal life was in shambles. I forgot that you need money to run a campaign, I was so intent on giving the best of myself to these children, for policy and government, that having money was the second thought. I have moved three times this year. But as a candidate, I am able to deal with the realities of raising money. That has been fairly successful. But I chose to be the queen of my own socio situation. I am now a Family and Community Liaison for literacy, trying to increase our children’s reading scores, and I am raising money every day. 

Maria Isa

You are talking to a surviving artist and type one diabetic that has fought for health care so that I could be the mom that I am and give birth to a child in this system, a black and brown girl.

My grandmother came from Puerto Rico and her dream as an eight-year-old little girl was trying to get an education. She had no shoes, but she would still walk through those camps in the mountains to get to the school to be able to get a job. Money has always been an issue. It isn’t going to fall from anywhere. You have got to go to it.

I have to make about 200 phone calls today and knock on about 100 doors to make sure that I have what it takes financially to get through this campaign.

It is also being aware — dot your i’s, cross your t’s — and as women and as women of color, you have that hawk eye looking at you to make sure that every dollar and dime that you spend is going to where it is stated. 

If I can throw a concert at First Avenue, and it is sold out, and 1500 people are in there, I am going to tell those 1500 people to give me $1. Because that is $1,500 that we are going to need for signs and stickers or T shirts, so people can get motivated and knock on these doors.

We don’t come from a silver spoon. We come from making it happen.

Laverne McCartney Knighton  

When I ran for Minnesota Senate in 2020, I did not know what it was going to take to run. I felt like the wherewithal to run was there in me, and I would need to jump in with someone who was going to know how to help raise the money that was needed. I think those who hesitate to run for various reasons really don’t know the power they have, because I certainly didn’t know the power that I had — that I would be receiving support from all across the country, which was just a mind blower to me. 2020 was a pivotal year for all of us, and everybody was rising up to the best of their ability. But I think those who have been in office for umpteen years — who don’t give a thought about stepping aside and allowing new and fresh and young people to rise up and be a part of the political process — are doing a disservice to this country. 

Financially, I think people who have tried it have the responsibility now to help those who may be thinking and who may have the grit and passion to run. We have a responsibility to step in and help them in whatever way we can to build their arsenal and to build their ability to make an impact. 

Related Stories

Edie Barrett

I am in district 12A, which is maybe not quite as rural as Erica’s, but it goes all the way from the South Dakota border into part of Stearns county and then down to Swift off to Stevens and Pope. I am very surprised how the topic of reproductive justice has lit people up. It is bringing people out of the woodwork, particularly women. I think it is becoming a motivating factor to get out the vote and get people involved in this very specific issue.

Upcoming question: How is reproductive justice impacting this election?

If you appreciate what we are doing to center women’s voices, please offer a tax deductible donation to support future conversations.