In his quest for the Democratic nomination for governor, Ben Jealous raised more than $2 million. Nearly half of his roughly 20,000 donors had addresses in California, Maryland or New York. But several dozen donors listed addresses outside the United States.
Judy Rust was one of those donors. She has lived in Belgium on and off since 1989, when she moved there from California for a full-time job as an opera singer. She has also lived in Russia and Spain and spent time in India. And in June, she gave $27 to Jealous’s campaign based on an endorsement by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I'm from Burlington, Vermont, and I'm a big fan of Bernie Sanders,” she said. “Basically every now and then Bernie suggests, you know, let's support this candidate or that candidate, and when it's really convincing, then I give a little bit of support.”
Federal law generally prohibits foreign nationals from contributing to American politicians’ campaigns. But Rust is a U.S. citizen, meaning she can give to political campaigns regardless of where she lives or whether she intends to move back to the United States.
Rust gives regularly to progressive candidates. Federal Election Commission data show that this year she’s given to Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
“If somebody is capable of making big change in America, I support them,” she said. “I think it's really, really, really important to get people of conscience in office wherever, because it affects everybody."
In the months leading up to the primary, Jealous raised between $1,000 and $2,000 from donors like Rust who listed international addresses. In the context of his campaign as a whole, that’s a tiny amount — less than 1 percent of the money he raised before the primary.
But it’s a lot more than most gubernatorial candidates get from Americans abroad. Records collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics show an almost negligible amount of donations to candidates for governor in 2016 by donors who gave foreign addresses as their primary residences.
Campaign spokeswoman Jerusalem Demsas attributed the international support to Jealous’s activism work prior to running for governor.
“As president of the NAACP, a lot of his work, you know, sent him places outside of the country, and even when it didn't, it received international recognition,” she said.
Gov. Larry Hogan, who Jealous is trying to unseat, does not appear to have received any campaign donations from outside the country over the last four years.
But Jealous is not the only gubernatorial candidate getting support from outside the U.S.’s borders this year. Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, another progressive Democrat, received nearly $3,000 from overseas during the first six months of this year.
Longtime London resident Mounzer Nasr, who gave $50 to the Jealous campaign in January, also gave $200 in July to Democrat Abdul El-Sayed, who later lost his bid to be his party’s gubernatorial nominee in the Michigan primary.
Nasr said he considers himself part of a global movement that aims to elect progressive candidates at all levels of government in the United States, from the White House to the city council.
“You think about local elections coming up, governors and congressmen, etc., but down the road there's going to be a federal election, presidential election,” he said. “Governors and local representatives of all kinds can help affect the outcome of those elections."
A sense of civic duty led Bruce Murray, who lives in Vienna, Austria, to give $200 to the Jealous campaign and make several other donations to progressive candidates around the country. Murray has been the director of the University of Illinois’s exchange program in Austria since 1992, returning to the U.S. for several weeks each summer. His only tie to Maryland is that he’s a U.S. citizen, he said, but that's enough.
“The reputation that the United States had as the leading democracy in the world, that image is becoming more and more tarnished,” Murray said. “And for that reason, people like I am who are living abroad, I think, feel an increasing motivation to do all we can to help to strengthen that image of the U.S. as a vibrant living democracy, one that really cares for the rule of law and one that is a very good partner in the world."
Our Revolution, the political group that formed from Sanders’ former presidential campaign, has branches in nine countries, where it engages with Americans like Murray, Nasr and Rust who want to support progressive policies back home.
Though spokeswoman Diane May said the group doesn’t track donations to candidates, she said they have noticed an increase in enthusiasm at their international chapters.
“It doesn't surprise me that Americans living abroad would contribute to progressive candidates," May said. "The things that progressive candidates talk about, in terms of free college tuition, Medicare for all, a livable minimum wage — in the U.S. that'd be $15 an hour — are things that other countries already have and are doing and do well, and I think Americans that live abroad are probably the best people to be the judge of these candidates because they've experienced these systems.”
That’s an experience that Rust said she wants to explain to American voters. She said she may even return to the U.S. to volunteer on a campaign in the next election.