Political candidates are known for a lot of things — schmoozing wealthy donors, kissing babies, even lying. Most of the time, candidates volunteer their time to earn your vote. But what if they got paid instead?

This question recently resurfaced when news broke that Rep. Yadira Caraveo, who is running for Colorado’s 8th Congressional District as a Democrat, has been drawing a salary of nearly $40,000 from her campaign funds. 

For the record, this is completely legal, and she’s not the first on either side of the aisle to do it. It’s also arguably more transparent and ethical than her Republican opponent’s earlier campaign strategy of paying thousands in consulting fees to a family member or claiming mileage reimbursement in the tens of thousands.

But Caraveo wasn’t shy. As with some before her, she took a direct and open salary for her work as a candidate on the campaign. In justification, she claims that most people can’t afford to not work for months or years on end while running a high-level campaign. 

She drew criticism for the uncommon move, except Caraveo is right. Most people can’t afford to run for office, and it’s a problem that does need to be addressed. 

Today’s Congress boasts a disproportionate number of wealthy Americans, namely because they can afford to run for and serve in office. This creates a disparity in representation, greatly skewing policies away from the plight of the average voter. But if we want a more representative government, you’ve got to start by reining in the money.

For illustration, one needn’t look any further than Colorado’s two millionaire gubernatorial candidates. In an embarrassing low, the two spent part of an early debate sparring over who had the lower-end car with more mileage, all in an effort to seem more relatable. 

Meanwhile, no actually relatable candidate held a shot against either in their respective primaries, precisely because each could pump endless cash into their unrelatable campaigns. It sure puts a kink in the whole democracy thing.

As a former candidate for the U.S. Senate, I understand Caraveo’s struggle firsthand. I spent several years saving pennies before filing to run, yet still had to work almost full-time while campaigning to pay the bills. 

Meanwhile, my most prominent opponents were extremely wealthy on their own. This meant that the roughly 30 or more hours a week I spent teaching and researching at the university, they spent with their campaign staff dialing for more dollars and further raising their profiles. 

This is an obvious and immediate setback, especially as politicos and press like to define success early on almost solely by money. In the end, the system as-is effectively serves as a coronation of the rich.

The problem is that using campaign funds to pay yourself a salary as a candidate carries with it an ick factor, despite that candidates at high levels can easily put in over 80 to 100 hours of work per week.

It can also take away from the hard-earned and much-needed cash for the campaign. This creates a no-win situation that most candidates face: Either sacrifice your personal finances, don’t run at all or run with one hand tied behind your back. 

Ultimately, the best answer is campaign reform, however this is unlikely to occur anytime soon. In which case, the best bet is to normalize candidate salaries — with a few caveats, of course. 

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For example, if a well-off candidate draws a salary, voters should be offended. Similarly, if your average-wealth candidate draws a reasonable salary, but is paying themselves more than they pay their staff — as is the case with Caraveo — that should be a red flag in and of itself. No candidate is superior to those who work for them. 

In the end, candidates always show you who they are when they run for office. We’d all be wise to believe them.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio

Trish Zornio

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Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado. Trish can be found on Twitter @trish_zornio