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Why a few dozen zip codes dominate political giving

Oh, to live in 10024; or 33480; or 94301. 

Those are the zip codes, among others, that produced the largest amount of “maxed-out” donations to congressional candidates between 2016 and 2020, according to a report by Public Citizen that just landed in my inbox.  

The Well of the Congress” reveals that congressional fundraising has become stratospheric and stove piped at the same time. It shows that “The wealthiest 10% of zip codes provide 67% of ‘maxed out’ contributions to congressional candidates, and the richest 1% of zip codes account for 25%.”  

For those of you living in zip codes where folks are fretting over the price of gas, milk or medicine, “max out” is the legal cap on a donation to a congressional candidate, which, this year, is $2,900. (Of course, where there’s a legal cap, there’s a way around it, but that’s a topic for another column.) 

I’ve attended my fair share of fundraisers in 10024. It’s the Upper West Side of Manhattan, bordered by the Hudson River and Central Park. It features a Grand Canyon of residential buildings on Central Park West, where the floors are so fine you must often remove your shoes to walk on them; and brownstone mansions where the rich and famous have been ensconced since the last Gilded Age. Its residents are primarily white, the median household income is over $109,000 and the median home is valued at over $1 million. 

Public Citizen reveals that eight of the top 10 zip codes giving the most in maxed-out contributions are located in Manhattan. New York, N.Y.! If you can max out here, you can max out anywhere. Unless you live in neighboring Queens. Donors there gave a paltry 82 cents per person in maxed-out donations, compared with $86 across the bridges. 

Then there’s 33480. It’s a golden sliver of beachfront along South Ocean Boulevard in Florida, including the Palm Beach Country Club, The Breakers and Mar-a-Lago. 33480 accounted for nearly $10 million in max-out donations. It has a large concentration of senior citizens, and I have a hunch that many migrated from 10024. (By the way, the zip codes that are home to former President Donald Trump’s Trump Tower building and his Mar-a-Lago ranked 2nd and 5th respectively in total maxed-out contributions.)

94301 is Palo Alto, Calif. Palo Alto’s official website refers to it as the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley” (unlike my beloved Long Island, which is the birthplace of sales at the mall). It hosts a few enterprises you may have heard of, including Hewlett-Packard, Tesla and Stanford University. The website also notes that it “has a highly educated and culturally sophisticated citizenry that is actively engaged in making a difference both locally and globally.” With over $9 million in max-out donors, no kidding.  

One of my favorite zip codes on the list is 49503, in Grand Rapids, Mich. Here, along the quiet Grand River, near the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, the citizenry has produced millions in max-out largesse. By the way, there are 20 residents here named DeVos, who combined to make $2.8 million in maxed-out contributions. One of them, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, is, to put it mildly, unapologetic: “I have decided…to stop taking offense at the suggestions that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican Party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections.”

DeVos isn’t wrong. People donate to candidates in order to promote their ideologies and safeguard their priorities. Fair enough. But when influence is restricted to fewer and fewer American enclaves; when those donations become “investments,” as DeVos says, to protect the already powerful while middle class Americans feel disempowered; when a few dozen zip codes become donor bubbles while the rest of America feels increasingly marginalized, unheard and ignored — that’s when I wonder whether the hedgerows and the visitors’ gates will hold back the resulting fury.    

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.  Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Betsy DeVos Betsy DeVos Donald Trump political donations Public Citizen Steve Israel

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