Many large newspapers and media conglomerates have eccentric billionaire owners who engage in partisan political activity. The news website you’re reading right now is no exception. In order to inform readers about the role of money in politics, the eccentric owner of wedgelive.com set out to *become the money in politics.* This is his story.
In the closing weeks of the 2017 city election, I tracked the activities of a big business PAC pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into our local democratic system. Last week, in an attempt to understand the mechanics of our campaign finance system, I started my own PAC called the Club for Taxpayer Justice and Not Carol.
Why should PACs be strictly the domain of pasty downtown business types? What’s stopping regular people from starting their own PACs? With two-and-a-half years until the next city election, I set out to demystify this process, and raise some money for a good cause.
Whether you’re a candidate or a committee, this guide can help you start your own local politics money machine.
Getting Started: Your Journey to Wielding Influence in Local Politics
Find a cause you care about. Something to justify the time and effort of running your own PAC. If you have been recently harassed by a world-class terrible person who is also an elected official, choose that as your cause.
Find an associate you trust with your life, who is willing to participate in this scheme as your Treasurer. They will do math and file reports. But remember: all glory goes to you, the Committee Chair.
- This trusted associate should allow you to use their mailing address on campaign finance documents. This provides a degree of separation between you, the Committee Chair, and the danger that’s sure to come knocking now that you have entered the world of influence wielding.
- My trusted associate happens to have a highly secure downtown address. This means that street parking at our PAC headquarters is incredibly inconvenient; that’s good because one thing all my political enemies have in common is an inability to overcome not being able to park right out front.
- Another benefit of a downtown address is that it gives the impression your group is made up of a powerful cast of pasty downtown business creeps. This fact alone could intimidate your opponents into dropping out of the race before it begins.
- If you don’t have a trusted associate: use your own address or a PO Box (costs around $150 annually).
Choose an organization name. Consider how this choice affects future decisions about social media user names and the website address.
- In our case, going with a name that starts with “The Club…” allowed us to 1) sound like an influential group of pasty downtown business creeps and 2) purchase a very cheap dot club domain (notcarol.club was only $1.55).
Your first big decision: Will your PAC have a website and social media accounts? Or do you prefer to creep in the shadows — like those business dudes in 2017 who wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on badly photoshopped mailers pretending to be from a progressive group? If you don’t need a website you can skip any instructions related to that.
Choose and reserve a website address and social media handles.
Create your campaign website. You want your website to be ready prior to announcing the PAC to the public. The initial buzz from the launch should drive people to a fully functioning website that can accept donations and email/volunteer signups. (Note: you will implement your donation page later — after acquiring a bank account.)
- Scour the internet for compelling, free stock images to add visual interest to your website. For example, on the “Host a Fundraiser” page we picked a photo of happy women under a cloud of confetti (this conveys the message that proximity to beautiful people depends on you joining the fight to restore integrity to the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation).
- It’s vital to integrate an email signup and a donation page on your website. Unless you are actually a group of self-financing downtown business creeps.
- We used a self-hosted WordPress to build the website. WordPress hosting is widely available from many providers. There are lots of plugins that make it relatively simple and free to implement the email list signup and donation features (in our case that was MailChimp and Stripe).
- Warning: if you choose WordPress.com (instead of self-hosting) you will have to pay quite a bit more for the ability to use plugins and certain themes. I recommend avoiding this unnecessary expense out of fiduciary responsibility to your donors.
Apply for an Employer Identification Number with the IRS. You can do this online and receive your EIN instantly. An EIN allows you to open a bank account to hold your campaign war chest. During the application process indicate that you are a political organization.
- Note: Having an “Employer Identification Number” does not require you to take on employees or pay a salary to your Treasurer (no matter what he tells you).
Open your bank account. Take a completed Hennepin County registration form to the bank of your choice, along with your EIN documentation received from the IRS. Choose a bank or credit union with free small business checking.
- Having a bank account allows you to 1) deposit donor checks, 2) open an account with a credit card payment processor to accept online donations, and 3) wield political influence by writing checks of your own.
File your registration form with Hennepin County.
- Among other things, the form asks for a phone number. I recommend using a free Google phone number. This makes it easy to dodge the inevitable angry phone calls about how hard it is to find parking at your PAC’s headquarters.
Sign up with a payment processor (like Stripe) and implement donations on your website. (DonorBox is a free, easy plugin that works with Stripe — and makes it possible to accept monthly and quarterly recurring donations.)
You’re ready to launch. You’ve kept your secret for long enough. When the time feels right, blast the announcement to the world by email, social media, or robo-text.
Watch the money roll in. Hold some high dollar fundraisers. Take pride in having started your own PAC without the assistance of a team of downtown business creeps. You are now a Political Committee Chair, a wielder of political influence.
Definitions: Campaign Committee vs. Political Committee vs. Political Fund
If you’re running for office as a candidate, then you’ll need to register a “principal campaign committee.”
If you’re not a candidate, but forming a group that will spend money influencing elections, you’ll need to register as a “political committee.”
There are also what’s called “political funds” formed by organizations funding political activity in addition to whatever their pre-existing function is. In Minneapolis, “political funds” are often created by organizations like unions and law firms.