For candidates in hotly contested congressional races like Dana Balter, running for office is a full-time job. And the New York Democrat is taking advantage of a provision that still allows her to get paid.
Balter has taken $3,645 in salary from her campaign so far, according to her quarterly fundraising report filed last week. Thanks to a Federal Election Commission provision that allows candidates to pay themselves using their campaign funds, Balter plans to take a $35,000 salary this year. And she doesn’t think voters will have a problem with that.
“I am not a person who’s in a position to be able to not work and not have salary for a year and a half, which is the length of the campaign,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview. “And I think that’s true of most people in the country.”
“It is, I think, incredibly important for everyday people who don’t have millions of dollars in the bank and can’t afford to stop working for a year and a half or more to be able to run for office,” Balter said.
Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, said that was the goal of the provision, which was adopted in 2002.
“The underlying objective here is to make it possible for ordinary Americans to run for office, the benefit being we would have representatives who better reflect the people who are electing them and not only people with sufficient wealth,” Chlopak said.
Balter, a former college professor, is once again taking on Republican Rep. John Katko in the Syracuse-based 24th District, after unsuccessfully challenging him in 2018. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Lean Republican.
As one of three Republicans running for reelection in districts President Donald Trump lost in 2016, Katko is a top Democratic target. Balter said running in such a highly competitive race involves 12-hour days, juggling several hours of fundraising, meetings, reaching out to voters and holding events, which are now virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Balter said she kept working full-time as a visiting assistant teaching professor at Syracuse University during her 2018 race before she won her primary.
“Looking back, I’m not sure how I survived that, frankly, because being a candidate is like having two full-time jobs in and of itself,” she said. In 2018, Balter earned nearly $12,500 in salary from her campaign in payments beginning in July.
Navigating the rules
This election cycle, Balter drew criticism in her primary for violating FEC rules and accepting salary payments before the primary filing deadline. Balter said it was an “honest mistake,” and she reimbursed those payments.
The FEC not only dictates when a candidate can accept a salary, but how much. A candidate can earn the lesser of two figures: a member of Congress’ salary or his or her earned income “in the year prior to becoming a candidate.”
An FEC spokesperson confirmed that would be the year before a candidate filed his or her statement of candidacy with the FEC. Balter filed in 2019, so her salary would be based off her earned income in 2018.
Balter’s 2019 personal financial disclosure showed her 2018 earned income was $32,556. The “Current Year to Filing” section of the form showed an income of $35,193. Balter said that 2019 disclosure includes two full years of income when it is only supposed to include one full year. So the $35,193 figure is her 2018 income, but the $32,556 is her 2017 income.
“I’m in the process of amending that to change it to one year of income, and then it will line up the way it’s supposed to for a candidate,” Balter said. She said she expected the disclosure to be amended next week.
Balter was not concerned that the amended financial disclosure would be an issue in the campaign.
“It’s a case of over-reporting information rather than under-reporting,” she said.
Balter said she assumed Katko would use the previous FEC violation of earlier salary payments against her in the general election. But she did not think it would be a problem because the mistake was corrected. Katko’s campaign declined to comment.
Even if she faces criticism from Katko, Balter said she is ready to make her case to voters, who have lamented that politicians are out of touch with their struggles.
“One of the reasons why politicians historically have been so out of touch with those things is that they don’t themselves live those experiences,” she said. “The reason we have this rule about candidates being able to draw salary is so that people who live those experiences day to day can run for office. And that’s important for us to get good policy.”