I've been handed them in elevators. I've been handed them furtively, like some passed-around note from grade school. I've been handed one – no joke – at a funeral.
This time of year they fly out of suit pockets and purses like business cards: Check-sized mini-envelopes known as "remits," the kind of return envelopes you receive in the mail from the United Way or the Sierra Club or the Boy Scouts. These remits, however, feature Jeffersonian preambles, "People for" and "Citizens to elect." (More palatable messages than, say, "Keep me in power," or "Cash to unseat the current SOB.")
The ritual handover feels like Tammany Hall Northwest-style, as overfed candidates, many dressed like Century 21 agents, palm envelopes and shake hands. Some will pass out a half-dozen at a time, with a smile and a "here!" as if folks will book to a corner downtown and dish 'em out like handbills.
"Seventy-five to 80 percent of fundraising is still done the old-fashioned way," says Northwest political consultant Christian Sinderman, "and that means remits." Sinderman says the formula reverses higher up the ladder, with much of today's presidential and gubernatorial fundraising online.
Thankfully, I'm out of the contributor game, a wee less motivated to stuff dinero in a remit when I'm also forced to schlep to the Coinstar at QFC to cobble nickels for my Cheerios.
Donor withdrawal yields more than a crusted eyelid cracked just enough to spy a pile of collecting remits. The big, ontological questions rear up: Do contribution benders have value? Is there meaning to it all?
On the plus side, the remit handoff is something of a measure-taking exercise illuminating the good, the bad, and the strange in human nature. It's a National Geographic-ish sniffing up, an animal dance of pheromones and adrenaline.
How will the candidate advance? Aggressive, taciturn?
I was once approached by an undertaker-ish candidate who was too awkward or embarrassed to speak. Could this be what Saul Bellow meant by the "great weight of the unspoken?"
He laid the remit in my palm like a blackjack dealer. He stared at me, mute.
I looked down expecting the envelope to read something like, "I am deaf. I am raising money by selling this card."
I wanted to return it with the same deliberative quietness. I didn't. I said, "Thank you for this."
Thank you for this?
Northwest Nice meets state-of-nature fundraising.
Remits are indispensable, or nearly so. A congressional candidate phoned my cell once as I was speeding south on Interstate 5. He asked for money at a time when I still had a little to give. Just mail me one of those delightful remit envelopes, I said. No time, he said, there were just two weeks left before the general election.
The candidate paused.
If you'd like, I can take down your credit-card number, he said. We both erupted in a kind of primal laugh-yawp.
I pulled over at the next exit, impressed by the brashness of an otherwise unbrash candidate, and read him my card number.
"Remit" (an abbreviation for "remittance") has an instructive etymology. It's mostly used to describe the economy of countries like Mexico or El Salvador reliant on money transfers from citizens laboring abroad. More broadly, it's a payment from one party to another for "goods and services."
These "goods and services" aren't printed like a warranty – although it's wise not to clue donors into that.
I figure the ubiquitous remit throws some light on the centrality of money in politics, but not the kind of light that makes the process feel more inclusive or palatable or cleaner.
It's a money storm with a thousand fathers, beginning with James Madison and federalism. (Do we really need to vote for sewer commissioner?) Then there are those populist framers of the Washington State Constitution, so weary of concentrated Eastern power and capital that Washingtonians are still required to vote for a commissioner of public lands and a superintendent of public instruction.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist and sage Joel Connelly likes to quote the late Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh, the former California state treasurer, who famously remarked that, "Money is the mother's milk of politics."
True, and those remits ain't going away. They're the device that helps – how to put this exactly? – pump the milk.
At the same time, Unruh understood money's corrosive impact, particularly the power of special interests on the weak-willed and the soulless. He encapsulated the challenge in all its elbow-and-claw baseness: "If you can't take their money, drink their liquor, [expletive deleted] their women, and then come in here the next day and vote against them, you don't belong here."
Jarring, crude, and real. It also happens to be a resonant description of the remit relationship.