In Diverse D.C., A Small Group of Wealthy White Donors Wield Outsized Influence

Release Date: 
June 23, 2016

The D.C. donor class doesn’t represent the diversity of Washington D.C.’s population, a new Demos report finds. In Washington D.C.’s 2014 mayoral election, large donors (those who gave more than $1,000) accounted for 67 percent of all money raised by the three candidates in 2014.

In D.C.’s White Donor Class: Outsized Influence in a Diverse City, Demos Policy Analyst Sean McElwee uncovers that these large donors were overwhelmingly white, male and wealthy. The small donor pool made up of people giving $50 or less accounted for less than 2 percent, by contrast, is much more diverse, with more women, people of color, and working- and middle-class donors.

“Of course donors are much more likely to support policies that reflect their interests,” said McElwee. “In a city as demographically and economically diverse as Washington, D.C, it is deeply problematic that this small group of people has a much louder voice to shape the city’s policy outcomes.”

Key Findings:

  • The donor class does not represent the diversity of Washington D.C.’s population. While 37 percent of D.C.’s population is white, 62 percent of mayoral donors and 67 percent of City Council donors are white.

  • The rich are disproportionately represented in the donor class. Only a quarter of D.C.’s adult population makes more than $100,000, but 59 percent of Council donors and 61 percent of mayoral donors do.

  • The pool of donors who make small donations is more representative than the pool of those who make large donations. Women make up about half of those giving less than $50 to mayoral and Council races, but only 31 percent of those giving more than $1,000. People of color make up 47 percent of mayoral donors giving less than $25, but 31 percent of those giving more than $1,000.

  • The small donor pool contains more income diversity as well. Those making $100,000 or more comprise 44 percent of donors giving $25 or less to mayoral candidates, but 72
    percent of those giving $1,000 or more.

  • Mayoral candidates relied heavily on big donors, raising less than 7 percent of their total funds from donors giving less than $100, and 67 percent from donors giving more than
    $1,000.

  • A system of public financing would increase the diversity of D.C.’s donor class, leading to more responsive policymaking.

The economic policies that have been enacted over the past two years have largely benefited high earners. For example, rather than using growing revenues to address chronic poverty and unemployment, the city has decided to implement a series of tax cuts, large shares of which go to high earners.

The Citizens Fair Elections Program Amendment Act of 2015, which proposes a small-donor matching and grant program, would address this problem. With the bill, qualifying contributions of $100 or less would be matched 5:1. Another requirement for participating candidates is that they must participate in one public debate during the primary and two debates during the general election. The bill also creates a new Citizens Fair Election Oversight Office within the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, taking away the authority of the Office of Campaign Finance currently under the D.C. Board of Elections.

“While D.C. has done much in recent years to benefit low-income people, students and workers, the city still spends large amounts of money to the benefit of wealthy interests,” Delvone Michael, ED of DC Working Families. “If we truly want to empower DC working families and enact policies that support their wellbeing, DC must implement a robust public financing system that would encourage politicians to collect contributions from the more diverse small donor pool.”