Democracy Inaction

Mr. Gonz doesn't go to Washington

But the 2000 presidential election taught me something: We don't have to love the players in order to love the game. The post-election drama was every bit as enjoyable as having truly believed in one of those half-wits. I became a politics freak after that--hooked on the frequent, messy collisions.

Four years later, we were still complaining about our leadership, but the process itself had become a drug. CNN and CSPAN replaced other habits. The cynicism remained, but it had been complemented by an addiction to debates and stump speeches, talking-head news shows and political blogs.

I was primed, it would seem, for the conversation that ended up launching me into the most ill-fated of all my first-person-story endeavors.

Gonz talks with supporter and poker pro Clonie Gowen. She's a better poker player than he is a politician.
Mark Graham
Gonz talks with supporter and poker pro Clonie Gowen. She's a better poker player than he is a politician.
Bill Bernstein, above, was abandoned by the Dems; Kris Overstreet, bottom, is a minor player in the world of third-party politics.
top photo Mark Graham
Bill Bernstein, above, was abandoned by the Dems; Kris Overstreet, bottom, is a minor player in the world of third-party politics.

When Dan Michalski, freelance writer about town and good friend, showed up to our weekly poker game we talked about how he ran for U.S. Congress two years before, and whether he'd take another shot in '04. He didn't seem enthused. The '02 campaign sapped him of money and energy. He told stories of the struggle, about how, for a few thousand dollars of his own money, countless hours of campaign time and unknown damage to his psyche, he ran as the Libertarian candidate in District 5 (which includes parts of Dallas, Anderson, Cherokee, Henderson, Kaufman, Van Zandt and Wood counties). He told me about making T-shirts, holding rallies, kissing babies and running a Web site. The site was the gem and came complete with headlines that read: "Candidate briefly believes Afghan earthquake was government cover-up of underground nuclear warfare." It was subtitled: "Fifteen minutes of Internet research convinces him otherwise."

That's Dan.

Still, he was convinced he'd make a dent in the race, even that he might win. "Toward the end there," he said, "I really believed I might steal the election."

He got 0.91 percent of the vote, though he likes to round up to 1 percent. Hensarling took the open seat without breaking much of a sweat. He received 58 percent of the vote, while the sad-sap Democrat, Ron Chapman, got 40 percent. If Michalski was going to run again, he'd have to face off against Hensarling--a moneyed GOPer who was backed by the president in his first congressional campaign and who would be even stronger this time around considering that he was running as the incumbent in a redrawn district that's now 65 percent Republican.

I told him I'd help work on his campaign to ease some of the burden. He had another idea. "Instead," he suggested, "why don't you run?"

"Where the hell is Abilene?" I asked my friends as we road-tripped to Houston for a weekend of booze and poker (anyone see a behavioral pattern developing here?). In between laughing loudly and doubling over from laughing loudly, they told me it was far. Very, very far.

I had the phone pressed against my ear, but I wasn't sure what to say to then-Libertarian state chair David DeLamar. I took Michalski's advice and decided to run on the Libertarian ticket, even though I had no political experience, no money, no staff and no idea what the Libertarians believed. I didn't know that they're the fringe of society, the kind of people, in general, whom you cross the street to avoid. I didn't know that they're staunch individualists who dislike it intensely when "those government boys tell us what to do." I didn't know any of that. Bolstered by ignorance and a healthy sense of self-worth, I made the leap.

It was January, and I hadn't even filed yet, and the state chair was asking me to run in Abilene instead of in District 5 (where half the registered voters live in Dallas, including me). Someone had already expressed interest in running in District 5, but the party had an opening in District 17. I explained I wasn't interested.

"What about San Antonio?" DeLamar asked.

My political career almost crashed before it began. Then I realized that I was about to run for office, so I'd better act like a pol. I told DeLamar that it would behoove them to move "the other guy" somewhere else and let me run in District 5. I told him that I write for a newspaper and I'd get more exposure for my campaign than any Libertarian had gotten in the last 10 years. Largest third party or not, they were still a third party, and they were in Texas, where even the Democrats don't have a chance thanks to the latest redistricting. (The Republicans picked up four House seats in Texas this year. Not even Democrat Martin Frost, an incumbent with a serious political pedigree, could overcome the machinery; he was trounced by Pete Sessions in the 32nd.) I wasn't sure if any of my bluster was true, but I told him all that, anyway, and he listened. A day or two later, DeLamar got back to me and said the party would like me to run in District 5 after all.

It was my first political victory. I was a player.

I ran as a Libertarian not because I agreed with their ideas but because I needed a party (I'm an Independent) just as much as they needed a candidate. To run for Congress as a Republican, Democrat or Independent in Texas, you must gather 500 signatures or pay more than $3,500. I wasn't going to collect signatures, and there was no way I was going to shell out the money. Running as a third-party candidate offered a better solution.
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