Campaign Fundraising Holds City Hostage

Josh Stephens's picture
I wasn't even in Los Angeles yesterday, and for once I'm glad. Everything from my Facebook feed to the morning headlines told me that traffic on the Westside yesterday afternoon was so awful that only a parade of obscenities accompanied by words like "cluster" and "show" would have sufficed to describe it. Hardened locals were driven nearly to tears behind the wheels of their unmoving cars.  

The president was in town.

This happens every time a president visits, and it doesn't matter which party is in power. The wealthy neighborhoods of the Westside are, understandably, fertile fundraising grounds, whether it's W., Obama, or whomever else is in the White House. So when he visits, the president first does a little business in the city during the day and then, when evening comes, up come the barriers and traffic breaks and the motorcade heads to the hills.  This can last for hours.

Dr. EvilFor what gain, then, does the president tie up a few hundred thousand commuters? ONE. MILLION. DOLLARS.

That's right.  Obama raised $1 million at his dinner last night.  Most of that money is going to the DNC. But just to put it in perspective, that's about 1/500th of the cost of the average presidential campaign these days.

I'm writing mainly to illustrate the absurdities of American campaign finance and not about urbanism per se, but doing so through the perspective of urbanism is as good a method as any.  What we need to realize here is that in the course of following the rules of American campaign finance, President Obama actually cost the city of Los Angeles far more than he reaped. (And obviously Los Angeles is not the only city that bears this burden.) 

Let's set aside the surely staggering cost of security, police, Highway Patrol, bomb squads, etc. (which cities are technically obligate to spend in return for receiving federal funds). Conservatively, if 200,000 Westsiders suffered an average of an extra hour of congestion yesterday afternoon, then according to the Texas Transportation Institute's estimate (pdf) that an hour in L.A. traffic is worth $15 per person, then raising Obama's lousy $1 million cost the citizens of Los Angeles a collective $3 million.   

Of course, the funding streams that feed into commuters' wallets have nothing to do with those that feed into a president's fundraising account.  But, even so, if Obama had stayed home and gotten his $1 million from, say, a federally administered pool of campaign money, then Los Angeles would be $3 million richer and (slightly) less neurotic.

As I said, this piece is more about campaign finance than about urbanism. But if ever you need reason to consider campaign finance reform, all you need to do is imagine all those cars backed up on Wilshire, Sunset, Santa Monica, and the 405 while black limousines speed towards Bel Air.   
Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report ( and former editor of The Planning Report (


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