War and Peace

You've come home from work--late as usual. Dinner is done; your wife is frustrated; the kids are out of control. It's time to get them to bed, but they haven't even been fed. The phone rings and you pick up, hoping for a pause in the disaster. Although the prospect of a pushy telemarketer seems oddly quieting, what you hear instead is downright disturbing.

The caller identifies himself as John WorldPeace, and you're thinking hell, another charity solicitation. Then the voice says he is running for governor of Texas as a Democrat. You try to interrupt but realize it's an automated message. You start to hang up, but don't, drawn in by his Texas twang and the venom he suddenly spews.

"The Texas Democratic Party is in peril because 60 members of its executive committee have endorsed 'Don' Tony Sanchez as its gubernatorial candidate four months before the primary. This is the same Don Sanchez who laundered $25 million in drug money through his Tesoro Savings and Loan and then cost the taxpayers $139 million to clean up the mess after he sent Tesoro into bankruptcy." Talk about defamatory. "This is the same drug-using, Mafia-friendly, Vietnam-era draft dodger and Republican turncoat Tony Sanchez who gave Bush $350,000." Talk about your quick kill. "It is time to cut the Sanchez cancer from the Democratic Executive Committee...It is time to send the likes of Don Tony Sanchez to jail, not to the governor's office...God save the Democratic Party in Texas. Vote for WorldPeace."

Yeah, more like WorldWar.

You have just had your first exposure to the scorched-earth gubernatorial campaign of John WorldPeace, father of four, trial lawyer, spiritual seeker. Although the Sanchez campaign brands John WorldPeace "a crackpot" and his messages "fraudulent, misleading and complete lies," it should not mistake the man's resolve. But how can a candidate with no money, no name recognition, no party backing and no political experience have a chance of winning a contested statewide primary? John WorldPeace, who lives in Houston, is banking on two tactics that seem oddly incompatible: autodialed messages intended to savage his opposition and a funky name intended to convince voters to visualize WorldPeace--at least for governor.

Texas politics has certainly had its anomalies, those unorthodox few who have defied the odds and become serious candidates. There was convicted perjurer Don Yarbrough, who claimed that God told him to run and who became a Texas Supreme Court Justice because voters confused him with famed Senator Ralph Yarborough. There was unpopular Dallas Judge Charlie Ben Howell, who had a habit of suing his opponents and whose perennial candidacy finally numbed voters into electing him into office. And in more recent times, there was Victor Morales, the everyman candidate for U.S. Senate who captured the Democratic nomination by running a no-frills campaign out of his pickup truck.

Enter John WorldPeace (the lawyer formerly known as Kenneth Edward Wolter), whose name smacks of a publicity stunt, but was legally changed 14 years ago, he says, after much spiritual soul searching. "I determined that if I changed my name to WorldPeace, that when people said or read or heard my name, they would have to think about world peace for just a second, and that would increase peace on the planet."

World peace, however, is the last thing WorldPeace thinks about when he enters the courtroom. "I am extremely tenacious and aggressive and irritating," he says. "I am not a pacifist. I am willing to get down in the dirt and fight."

He did some legal work for Houston businessman Dan Kerr, who owns OneNet, one of the largest automated phone dialers in the country. Kerr has done "political dialing" for many successful candidates--Kay Bailey Hutchison, Phil Gramm, Jeb Bush--but mostly during "get out the vote" drives in the waning days of a campaign. Never has a campaign been run solely on autodialing until Kerr persuaded WorldPeace to run for governor.

"I told him, 'With a name like WorldPeace, people are not going to forget you,'" Kerr says. "I suggested the governor's race because Texans like to elect ordinary people--not career politicians--as their governor." And this political season would be anything but usual. "George Bush moved to Washington and took all the heavy hitters with him. And the Democrats have been in shambles for 10 years."

With Kerr as his campaign manager, WorldPeace signed off on an unconventional race, one that would rely extensively on Kerr's sophisticated autodialing technology. "All political consultants believe that the only way to get elected statewide is to build your name ID by spending millions on radio and TV buys," Kerr says. "But I can call the entire state of Texas [5 to 7 million phones] every two weeks to get our message out."

Approximately half the prerecorded calls are answered by machine, and a high percentage of those answered in person result in hang-ups. "Even if they do hang up, the message is structured so they first hear my name and what I am running for," WorldPeace says. Since announcing his candidacy on his Web site in January, he has made 15 million "connects" with Texas households, incorporating nearly 30 blistering messages, which can be immediately changed to respond to the shifting political scene.

"Our strategy was to get his name out there," Kerr says. "And to take out any competitors in the primary by disabling them so heavily they become a walking shell."

Yet there is also the possibility of backlash by going for the jugular even before the January filing deadline. "It's the ultimate irony, a bomb-thrower named WorldPeace," says former Dallas County Democratic Party Chairman Ken Molberg. "In Democratic circles, they don't speak about him much, and when they do, it's not favorable."

The Tony Sanchez campaign refuses to even acknowledge that WorldPeace is a legitimate candidate, dismissing his phone harangues against Sanchez as "so misleading they are laughable." Sanchez communications director Michelle Kucero maintains that her boss was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Tesoro Savings and Loan collapse by three governmental agencies years ago.

But that's just the kind of denial that WorldPeace will incorporate into his next prerecorded message to slam Sanchez at the rate of 200,000 calls a day. "If we are hitting an opponent correctly--hitting them hard--there is no way for them to respond to the dialers," Kerr says. "Traditional media take too long, and by then we have anticipated what their response will be and changed our message."

WorldPeace believes autodialing levels the playing field, enabling him to compete with Sanchez and his millions of dollars. It can also be irritating, and unless you put a face with the voice, it's far too impersonal to get a good sense of the candidate.

At 53, WorldPeace, who calls himself a "Blue Dog Democrat," knows he eventually will have to step out from behind his dialers. He feels confident the positive parts of his message--peace loving, drug-free, justice for all, regular guy--will prevail. "When people see my name on the ballot, they will not be able to resist," he says. "I mean, psychologically, who can vote against WorldPeace?"