Wealthy whites' unequal voice in Miami: Another case for public financing systems

A relatively small contingent of wealthy, white male donors make up a powerful majority of Miami's donor class

Published September 18, 2016 5:00PM (EDT)

Downtown Miami (Getty/franckreporter)
Downtown Miami (Getty/franckreporter)

Our city governments make decisions that affect us most, yet we know very little about the ways that money influences them. In a previous post I explored new evidence that people of color are not well represented by their councils. One possible reason is the overwhelmingly white municipal donor classes. My previous research explored Chicago and Washington, D.C., both incredibly diverse cities with incredibly white donor classes. My newest research exploring both Miami-Dade County and Miami City reveals a similar pattern. Donors are whiter, more likely to be men, richer and more conservative than the the general population. However, I find that the small donor pool is far more diverse, which suggests that public financing could increase diversity in the donor pool.

Why Cities?

While cities make many decisions about education, crime policy and zoning that profoundly affect our lives, there is very little research exploring the demographics of donors (particularly at the municipal level).

Much of this is due to data limitations; campaign finance disclosures don’t require donors to divulge their race. Because of low turnout in municipal elections and low salience (most voters don’t know much about them), it’s possible that money can be even more potent at the municipal level. Indeed, in many instances, local politicians barely disguise their pay-to-play schemes. In D.C., Patrick Madden finds that “one-fifth of Council members’ campaign contributions analyzed by WAMU came from firms seeking their approval for city contracts.” Former Councilmember Michael A. Brown pleaded guilty to corruption charges after “accepting payments from undercover agents he thought were businessmen seeking D.C. government contracting preferences (see my D.C. report for a lengthier discussion of pay-to-play in D.C.).

Previous research reveals important details about money in politics at the city level. An early study of Atlanta and St. Louis municipal elections finds that these elections draw heavily from suburban and out-of-state contributors. Some research has found that municipal-level political activities, including campaign contributions, from public sector unions lead to more beneficial policy for union members. Other work has examined the incumbency advantage in fundraising (it is powerful); the effect of Illinois’s modest campaign finance reform on Chicago’s 2011 election (minimal); and whether a tighter election leads to more contributions (it does).

Political scientist Brian Adams, a leading scholar of municipal campaign finance, finds that even at the local level, money plays an important role. "My research shows that even at the local level you need to hit a donor threshold to run for office," he told Salon. While candidates don't draw exclusively from one interest group, this doesn't mean they're drawing money from the general public.

Adams tells me, "local candidates tend to rely on a diverse coalition of mostly wealthy interests." His research with sociologist Ping Ren on Asian-American campaign contribution activity at the municipal level suggests that Asian-Americans generally make up the same share of donors as they do of the general population and that Asian candidates often relied on co-ethnic donors. But their study is the only one (that I’m aware of) to examine the demographics of donors at the municipal level, and they only explored one group.

This is because donors don’t disclose their race or gender. Working in coordination with leading political scientists Brian Schaffner and Jesse Rhodes at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Demos solves that problem by using Catalist to generate demographic information about donors. Catalist’s race and ideology predictions have been independently validated, and used in peer-reviewed political science articles in leading journals (the gender predictions come directly from the voter file).

Both Miami-Dade And Miami City Don’t Have Representative Donor Classes

In my new report on Miami-Dade, I find that the small-donor pool (those giving less than $100) is relatively equal, with women making up 51 percent of mayoral small donors and 41 percent of county commissioner small donors. However, the large-donor pools are overwhelmingly male. Only 34 percent of mayoral donors giving more than $1,000 and 31 percent of commissioner donors giving more than $1,000 are women.

While only 20 percent of Miami-Dade adults make an income over $100,000, these affluent residents make up more than half of all mayoral donors. County commissioner races were slightly more class diverse, with 39 percent of donors earning over $100,000. Whites make up 20 percent of Miami-Dade’s population, but more than half of donors contributing more than $1,000 to mayoral or commissioner candidates are white.


The small-donor pool in Miami City’s 2013 election was racially diverse and representative of the general population. However, donors giving more than $1,000 were more than 60 percent white, even though whites make up only 16 percent of Miami’s population. Of the largest donors, 75 percent were male and 65 percent had a family income greater than $100,000. While a fifth of Miami City adults earned more than $100,000 a year, 63 percent of donors giving more than $1,000 did.


My report also finds that development interests are powerful in Miami-Dade. Development interests account for one-third of political contributions between 2012 and 2016. They have been at the center of many key battles, such as the Miami Marlins' expensive (and rarely attended) stadium, which taxpayers will shell out billions for. The Miami Worldcenter, a $1.7 billion project, received $88 million in tax abatements. As climate change pushes developers further away from the shores, developers will look to gentrify traditionally black and Latino neighborhoods, raising further concerns about the wealthy, white, heavily pro-development donor class. 

Public Financing Presents a Possible Solution

There are many important things that need to be done to increase representation at the local level. Simply ensuring that local elections coincide with national elections could bolster turnout and thereby representation. Reducing barriers to registration and turnout would also improve local registration. In a pioneering study, leading scholars of local turnout Jessica Trounstine and Zoltan Hajnal find that “the more people who turn out to vote, the more local governments are likely to spend their money on welfare, public housing, and other redistributive programs.” Mobilizing and organizing citizens to engage with local politicians could also improve representation. In addition, as journalist Simon Davis-Cohen notes, conservatives have often fought to strip localities of power when that power is used to create progressive outcomes. My report suggests that Miami-Dade’s donor class is more conservative than the general population.


Because the small-donor pool is more diverse than the large-donor pool, a system of public financing could lead to a more diverse, representative donor pool. In Miami-Dade, there is a current ballot initiative to create a public financing system. The system would match small contributions (between $5 and $100) from county residents to any mayoral candidate or Board of County Commissioners candidate who qualifies by receiving small donations from 1,500 or 400 individuals, respectively. The contributions would be matched by six times the amount donated, giving officials incentives to take contributions from a more diverse pool of smaller donors. As Alex Kotch reports, the initiative has faced some resistance from officials, who did not reach a quorum for a meeting where they would vote to start counting petitions so that the initiative could be placed on the ballot. The commissioners later voted, 9-0, to begin counting the petition signatures, so the initiative may appear on the ballot. Public financing has recently won big victories in Maine and Seattle.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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