Politics & Government

For Elisabeth Jensen, running for Congress meant dialing for dollars 30 hours a week

Elisabeth Jensen is steadfast on her more liberal platform, championing the Affordable Care Act and raising minimum wage.
Elisabeth Jensen is steadfast on her more liberal platform, championing the Affordable Care Act and raising minimum wage. Herald-Leader

Here's what it's like to run for Congress: You sit in a small room for at least 30 hours a week and you stare out the window at a parking lot while calling hundreds of people to ask for money.

When there is a spare afternoon, you can knock on doors to meet voters or deliver a policy speech at a luncheon. But the small room with the phones always impatiently waits.

"If there is one message I would want to get across, it's that it's not glamorous," recounted Elisabeth Jensen, 50, a Democrat who this year unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, to represent Central Kentucky's 6th Congressional District.

"I was surprised when I traveled to Washington and met with the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and some members of Congress, and the only thing people asked me was, 'How much money can you raise? Where are you gonna get your money?'" Jensen said.

"There were no questions about my positions, no questions about my experience, no questions about why do you want to do this. The only thing was — it was like a script, word for word, everyone I talked to — 'How much money can you raise and how are you gonna do it?'"

Jensen plans to take Barr on again in 2016, despite being outspent $3-to-$1 this time and losing by 20 points. She sat down last week with the Herald-Leader at the office of the academic nonprofit that she co-founded in 2002, The Race For Education, to offer a candid look at life on the so-called "campaign trail."

More than anything, she said, the trail was a chair from which she dialed for dollars.

"Call time starts at 9:30 in the morning," she said. "One person dials and hands me the phone if they get somebody, along with a sheet that has the biography so I know who I'm talking to. I introduce myself, talk about the campaign and make the ask. If they say 'Yes,' then I hand the phone to someone else so they can take down the credit card information. And then the first person hands me another phone with the next call."

Although the DCCC never put much money behind Jensen's candidacy — it focused instead on protecting incumbent Democrats, then lost a dozen House seats overall — it insisted that she send in weekly spreadsheets so it could track how many numbers she dialed. When she put down the phones because her son was ill and briefly had to be hospitalized, "they said, 'Well, you lost eight hours of call time this week, when are you gonna make that time up?'" she recalled.

Money is crucial because it pays for the 30-second television commercials where so many Americans learn about political candidates. Nationally, $1.7 billion went into political TV advertising during this two-year election cycle, according to the Wesleyan Media Project in Middletown, Conn.

Even then, not everyone gets the message. In the weeks before the Nov. 4 election, despite Jensen and Barr having raised $3.4 million between them, she still met people who were unaware of either candidate's existence or the fact that they shortly would be called upon to elect their U.S. representative. Ultimately, 53 percent of the district's 512,845 registered voters didn't cast a ballot in the race.

There's not much you can tell voters in half a minute, Jensen said. A typical ad gave her enough time to speak fewer than 75 words, including the legally required disclaimer: "I'm Elisabeth Jensen, and I approve this message."

"It's disappointing," she said. "The average person doesn't read the newspaper. Very few people are going to sit through a debate. They pay attention to the commercials they see on TV. That's where they get their information. We had a strong case to fire Andy Barr based on what he has been doing for the banks, for the payday lenders, rather than for families. But you can't explain a CLO (collateralized loan obligation) to someone in 30 seconds."

Secluded with donors

Candidates tethered to a call sheet of potential donors spend too little time interacting with people who don't have money, Jensen said.

Only 0.21 percent of the American population — about 666,000 people out of 310 million — gave a political donation of $200 or more during this election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Fewer than 25,000 Americans were the sort of big donors who gave $10,000 or more; it's likely they got a lot of calls.

Members of Congress can be just as cloistered with their financial backers. The political parties set up "call centers" near the Capitol where — between committee hearings and floor votes — lawmakers commonly are expected to spend four hours a day chatting up contributors. That doesn't count in-person fundraising events with lobbyists and industry groups that bring in tens of thousands of dollars over steak dinners or rounds of golf.

For example, the cost to attend Barr's 41st birthday party at a Washington bourbon bar in July — a fundraiser — was $500 per person. Another Kentucky congressman, Ed Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, charged people $1,500 each in August to spend a weekend with him at The Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel's poolside cabana was reserved for Whitfield's celebration.

Jensen said she was struck by how politicians can be out of touch with working-class Americans while touring rural Wolfe County with a local Democratic Party power broker.

"He said 'Come back in October and we'll walk all these streets and go up in the hollers and you can introduce yourself. And if people tell you they will vote for you, then they will vote for you. They will not lie to you standing at their door. But if you don't go up and ask them, then they won't vote,'" Jensen said.

"I had my campaign manager there, and he said, 'Well, wouldn't it be much more effective to just do a very targeted direct-mail piece?' And we looked at (the local official), and he said, 'With all due respect, sir, these people can't read.'

"You don't think about that, that there is a big segment of our population that cannot read. So how can we bring any kind of jobs in there? How could they fill out a job application? What are we doing about this? There is a huge disconnect between this population without marketable skills and the kind of jobs available in the 21st century. That needs to be addressed. But you don't see that discussed."

'An ethical issue'

Another flaw in the system, Jensen said: Politicians who constantly have their hand out for money are tempted to offer favors in return, even if it's just a sympathetic ear when a big contributor wants a tax break sponsored or a regulation repealed. There were some deep-pocketed people on her call sheet, Jensen said, whom she decided not to approach because the conversations would have been uncomfortable.

"I knew about what their interests are, and I knew they were different from my own perspective, so ... " Jensen said, her voice trailing off. "It's an ethical issue. We can't be taking that much money from people with a financial interest in what government does and realistically think that it's not going to affect the decision-making process."

Jensen said she likes the idea of public campaign financing, using tax dollars to lessen the influence of wealthy donors and let politicians spend more time among their constituents. Roughly two dozen state and local governments offer public financing for candidates, as does the federal government for presidential contenders.

However, congressional races are not part of that trend. Given Republican control of the incoming 114th Congress, they probably won't be anytime soon. Traditionally, the GOP opposes public campaign financing as "welfare for politicians." And recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have eliminated several campaign-finance restrictions, allowing a flood of private, and often anonymous, money into electoral politics.

Even Jensen, who was overwhelmed by Barr's fund-raising, acknowledges that she had the advantage of well-off relatives and friends, including many in the region's Thoroughbred horse industry, where she once worked. Realistically, most Kentuckians never could run for Congress, she said.

"I raised close to a million dollars this election cycle," Jensen said. "There's just a handful of Democrats in this state who could raise that kind of money.

"There was a time in this country when only white, land-owning men got to vote, and they controlled who got elected and what got done, what legislation got passed. It kind of feels like even after the civil-rights movement, making sure women can vote, making sure African-Americans can vote, we've come full circle and we're back to elections being decided and legislation being dictated by people who can spend a lot of money."

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