Democrats are preaching about inequality in 2020 from a pulpit of privilege.
A key theme of the 2020 primary so far is how to level the economic playing field for all Americans and how to directly address racial inequality.
The latest messenger is Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who launched his minivan-propelled campaign in Iowa after a meandering solo road trip he undertook to get out of a post-midterm funk after he fell just short in a long-shot Senate bid.
That a father of three young children can embark on a weeks-long unpaid sojourn is evidence of a confidence in both a support network that allows him to “sometimes” raise the kids and a level of financial comfort most Americans would envy.
He’s no billionaire, but he doesn’t have to draw a paycheck.
According to financial disclosures, O’Rourke has interests in commercial real estate, a 2012 gift from his mother, that earn him hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and a stake in a technology company he founded in El Paso in the ’90s. Along with his wife, who has a trust fund, he’s worth between $3.5 and $16 million, according to an in-depth analysis done by the Texas Tribune in October 2018.
A request for comment from the O’Rourke campaign was not immediately returned.
There’s nothing to say a wealthy person can’t run on a populist message. Trump did it successfully even though he’s a billionaire. But he was selling his wealth as evidence of his success and as a badge for people to envy. None of the rich Democrats talking about an unequal capitalist society are bragging about how much money they have.
Quite the contrary. O’Rourke has done well in the the capitalist system, which on Friday he described as currently racist. How to fix it? More capitalism, he said.
“I think the only way to meet some of these historic challenges, is to be able to use this engine of capitalism,” he said in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. “It won’t be government intervention or policy alone that makes it possible. Now having said that, it is clearly an imperfect, unfair, unjust, and racist capitalist economy.”
Other contenders have their own ways of addressing the disconnect.
John Hickenlooper did not want to be labeled a capitalist during a recent interview on MSNBC because he said he doesn’t believe in labels. But before he was governor of Colorado and mayor of Denver, he was a successful small business owner and started several brewpubs. He did well in the the capitalist economy, but he said he was more interested in making community and revitalizing downtown Denver.
“I don’t look at myself with a label,” Hickenlooper said. “And I certainly think that small business is part of the solution. I think right now, the way capitalism is working in the United States, it’s not doing what it once did. It’s really not providing security and opportunity for the middle class and for poor people.”
In Iowa, O’Rourke borrowed the idea of “baby bonds” from another Democratic aspirant, Sen. Cory Booker, who has pushed them as a way to undo some of the racial inequality in the country. Each child would be given a nest egg, but children with less from their families would get more for their nest egg as they grow up.
Booker likes to point out he’s the only candidate in the field who lives in an inner city, Newark, where he was once mayor. He launched his campaign there, standing in front of a chain link fence and a beat up car instead of a fancy banner.
But that doesn’t mean Booker hasn’t done well for himself. He’s made hundreds of thousands of dollars on books and in speaking fees. He’s not rich in a Donald Trump way, but he’s certainly comfortable compared to the average American.
Sen. Bernie Sanders has made even more on books than Booker in recent years. According to financial disclosure forms filed by senators, in addition to his Senate salary, Sanders made nearly $900,000 in 2017 from book royalties and an advance against earnings and more than $850,000 in 2016 from book royalties.
In the years before his first campaign for President, Sanders was not pulling in that type of income, according to the reports. That hasn’t helped him release ten years of his tax returns as he promised 18 days ago on CNN he would do “soon.”
“It will come out very soon and it will not be any great shock,” Sanders said in March on the Breakfast Club radio show. “I don’t have any investments in Russia. There is not a Sanders tower in Moscow that we’re working on. Nothing in Saudi Arabia. It’ll be mostly a Senate salary and I wrote a book, made some money on the book, you’ll see that there. Believe me, we ain’t Trump.”
He’s not Elizabeth Warren either. The consumer advocate and Massachusetts senator who wants to tax the super wealthy is worth between $2.6 million and $8.4 million, according to a disclosure with the Federal Election Commission.
She’s set a standard ahead of Sanders and others in releasing her ten years of tax returns. The adjusted gross income of both her and her husband, Harvard professor Bruce Mann, was $913,442 in 2017, squarely in the 1%.
We’ll learn a lot more about the field of Democrats as they file disclosure forms and many likely follow Warren’s lead to release their tax returns, even as President Donald Trump does not.