In early January, Representative Steve Israel of Long Island, a well-regarded member of the House Democratic leadership team and a possible successor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, stunned his colleagues by announcing his retirement. Israel, who at 57 is young by congressional standards, recently published his first novel and told the New York Times that he hoped to spend more time writing. But he made no effort to hide what really drove him from a perch many politicians spend their whole career scrambling to reach: the abject misery of raising money. “I don’t think I can spend another day in another call room making another call begging for money,” he confessed.
Any politician who’s being honest will agree. As money has flooded the system, the cost of running a competitive race has soared, forcing lawmakers like Israel to raise ever-larger sums. The mental image of this process, as evoked by Bernie Sanders and other reformers, is of a candidate gliding through lavish Georgetown cocktail parties, swirling a glass of Moët as billionaires and lobbyists slip checks into his pockets. The reality is far more prosaic, even grubby: Because elected officials cannot use public offices for campaign activity, they cram into off-site cubicles like boiler-room stock touts and spend hours each day dialing for dollars. It’s the unglamorous part of politics you don’t see in House of Cards or The West Wing.