'Walking-Around Money': How Machine Politics Works in America Today

The practice of handing over cash to turn out votes used to be an urban Democratic specialty. Are rural Republicans getting in on the fun?
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Allegations about the relationship between Kent Sorenson (left) and Michele Bachmann -- seen campaigning in 2011 -- show a new campaign-finance worry. (Reuters)

Last month, Rep. Michele Bachmann announced her decision not to seek a fifth term amid an array of ethics charges, one of which is an allegation that she secretly paid Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson for his support during her abortive presidential bid. According to NBC, Bachmann's former chief of staff, Andy Parrish, swore in an affidavit to the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee that Bachmann "knew of and approved" a scheme to funnel $7,500 per month to Sorenson through an allied consulting firm in exchange for his backing, despite Iowa Senate ethics rules barring lawmakers from receiving presidential campaign payments. In his affidavit, Parrish called Bachmann an "outstanding public servant," suggesting he had no axe to grind. Sorenson flatly denies any violation of ethics rules, and says he received money only to cover expenses. While gleeful liberals and dismayed Tea Partiers have mostly overlooked the charge in the wake of her announcement, it may be an important harbinger of future election cycles.

To understand why, you have to start with turn-of-the-century urban machine politics. Early get-out-the-vote (GOTV) systems relied on money changing hands through employment: Party bosses, generally divided by ethnicity, rounded up votes from ethnic neighborhoods in exchange for control over the abundant patronage positions available in rapidly-growing cities. At first the practice was confined to European immigrant populations, but African American voters were gradually included. In Chicago, for instance, blacks were gradually incorporated into the machine by powerbrokers like the late Rep. William Dawson, and were offered municipal positions like the one held by Fraser Robinson III, a pump worker at the city's water plant (and Michelle Obama's father).

Many American cities have a storied tradition of machine politics. But in recent decades, party electioneering has evolved into arrangements whereby candidates and parties pay people small amounts of cash in exchange for GOTV efforts like canvassing. When I represented an inner-city St. Louis state Senate district, I was often approached by operatives proposing such arrangements. That's not strictly illegal, but it creates a lot of untraceable campaign cash, and it's vulnerable to corruption. (Although I declined, I did run afoul of federal campaign-finance law during my 2004 U.S. House race: I approved coordination between two aides and an outside party who created a flier about my opponent's legislative attendance record. I then lied when asked about it, earning me eight months in federal prison for obstruction of justice.) I know people who have disbursed several hundred thousand dollars on Election Day. In some cases, the process is blunter, not to mention illegal: Low-level operatives simply distribute cash in even smaller increments to individual voters.

In St. Louis, local powerbrokers often steered "street money" through a trusted ally or relative -- and, according to scuttlebutt, siphoned off a chunk for themselves. Sometimes a powerbroker will even dole out money to low-level party functionaries himself. In 2004, John Kerry reportedly dropped hundreds of thousands on the street in Philadelphia alone, though ultimately the Republicans' all-volunteer ground game was widely seen as superior -- and Kerry lost.

Compared to the old-style machine politics in which loyal constituencies earned municipal jobs, voting blocs in the new street-money game derive small, ephemeral benefits while local kingpins often pocket substantial gains. In this way, the game merely reflects broader economic trends of stratification.

It's often observed that urban America is in the vanguard of cultural trends from music and language to fashion. Bachmann's alleged payments to Sorenson suggest that in 2012, street money -- like other trends -- belatedly reached the rural Republican heartland. According to Bachmann's former top lieutenant, Republicans simply spiffed up and formalized the arrangements by funneling money through third-party firms.

Democratic street operatives sometimes do things sloppily. They pay people off the books, perhaps through preachers and unvetted cronies of leading political players, who themselves often use unverifiable methods for the grunt work of dropping literature in barbershops or on car windshields in church parking lots. Clergymen sometimes accept contributions to the church or related entities in exchange for offering their pulpit to candidates. Local bigwigs (perhaps a veteran congressman or powerful state legislator) promote allied operatives to well-funded statewide or national campaigns, often implying that if their allies aren't used, they will back a different primary candidate or sit on their hands in a general election. The chief operative's crew of workers takes its pay in cash, but some money often ends up with the powerbroker's pockets -- a sort of "referral fee."

Street operatives or low-level elected officials will often support whoever pays them -- indeed, some will defect from their chosen candidate for a payday. They maintain that they are providing a strategic communication service not unlike that provided by a direct mail or media consultant, arguing that skeptical urban voters are more apt to vote for candidates based on word of mouth than the slick, professionally produced television ads. Republicans like Kent Sorenson, conversely, tend to do things neatly. They consult lawyers (or are lawyers themselves) to ensure that their plots are technically legal. They incorporate as LLCs and get paid via check. As conservative political or religious leaders, they couch their endorsements in the fine cloth of ideology, character, and family. And like the local urban powerbrokers steering the street money game, they can be richly compensated, as the alleged Sorenson payday suggests.

Presented by

Jeffrey Smith

Jeff Smith is assistant professor of politics and advocacy at the New School’s urban-policy graduate program. He served in the Missouri Senate from 2006 to 2009, is a columnist for City and State, and has written for SalonCNN.com, and National Journal.

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