Democracy Inaction

It is 7 p.m. on November 2, and the polls have just closed in Texas, but there is already calamity. CNN and NBC and the rest are busy telling us what a mess the presidential election is going to be. The poll numbers that scroll across the television screen at a frenetic pace add to the chaos rather than clearing up the confusion. Already John Kerry has "stolen" New Jersey (even though it was a "blue state" in recent presidential elections). Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, a key "battleground," is leaning in the senator's favor. This is the language used by politicians and journos alike--full of disquieting jargon.

"Settle in, folks," Tom Brokaw says with a distinctive, slurred speech pattern. "This could be a very long night."

I'm more nervous than I've been in a long while, and my stomach is threatening to jettison its contents. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance, but that really doesn't have anything to do with my increased anxiety. A victory for either Kerry or George Bush won't make me dance with joy or fly into a rage. For the second consecutive presidential election, I was among a small contingent of voters who saw little merit in either candidate. Once again, I cast a protest vote. (In 2000, I voted for my father. This year, I voted for Arizona Senator John McCain.)

In 2000, the effect of my disillusionment began and ended with bitching about the political process. Along with a group of 20-something, politically savvy friends, we talked about how, more often than not, we couldn't find one candidate to mesh with most of our ideas--a candidate who was both fiscally conservative and socially progressive, who would cut taxes but who wouldn't lock non-violent drug offenders away for life. That sort of thing. In the end, for us, there was always a compromise when casting our votes.

This time around, I was similarly embittered, though it manifested itself in a far different way. This time I decided to run for U.S. Congress in District 5. Apart from being president of my college fraternity and vice president of the university's student government, I've never held elective office. But, I figured, I won both of those elections, so maybe I was born to be a politician after all.

Naturally, it wasn't going to be that easy. I was pitted against a strong, conservative Republican incumbent, Jeb Hensarling, in a heavily conservative, Republican district. Plus, both Hensarling and Democratic challenger Bill Bernstein had the advantage of running as major-party candidates. I ran as a Libertarian, which means two things: First, I raised precious little money, which made campaigning that much harder. Second, people think Libertarians are insane, and voters have this odd predilection for supporting the mentally stable. Despite that, I decided to run because I thought it was important to have my issues heard.

Plus, there was the added incentive of getting a story out of it.

Since declaring my candidacy in January, it's been a long, hard race. At first, I was hoping to utilize my Z-list notoriety as a Dallas Observer columnist and catapult to victory. (If Laura Miller can be mayor, why couldn't I be a congressman?) Then, after finding out that Libertarians average just 2 percent of the vote nationally, I began shooting for a more realistic goal--somewhere in the ballpark of 2 percent to 5 percent. That's what I was hoping for, anyway, and that's why I'm so nervous now. I don't want to look like a bigger fool and get 1 percent of the vote or less.

The early returns are coming in, and they don't look so hot. CNN.com reports that with 2 percent of the 281 precincts in District 5 reporting, I have 1,741 votes, or 1 percent of what's been tallied. They've already called the race in Hensarling's favor.

Brokaw was right; it's going to be a long night. How did I get myself into this?

In November 2000, I was a newly minted 23-year-old columnist for the Observer with only casual interest in politics. The economy was stable, and I had money to burn. We drank a lot back then. My pals were a crew of like-minded college grads in our early to mid-20s--educated, middle-class and disaffected. At happy hour, or sitting around at someone's apartment, we talked about politics. But it was always about what was wrong--about how the politicians were all fools cut from the same ratty cloth, unwilling to say anything new or real. We disdained their partisan hackery and longed for a day when we wouldn't settle for a candidate.

"I'd been exposed to stodgy politicians before, lifeless and soulless creatures who look at you in the same way a buzzard eyes fresh roadkill." That's what my buddy Joe Pappalardo, a founding father of our little cabal, wrote back then for the Observer ("The Party Party," December 21, 2000). And that's how we felt.

But it was more than that. We were tired of compromising on a candidate. We wondered why we fell between the cracks of the political parties, why we couldn't find someone who thought that being fiscally conservative, strong against terror and yet socially progressive was a good idea. We listened to various pols pander to "the youth vote" without actually assuming any of our positions. It was frustrating.

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.

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.

In Texas, third parties can qualify everyone together on a state level. To do so, in the previous election cycle one Libertarian had to draw either 5 percent of the vote in any statewide race or 2 percent of the vote in the race for governor. It's a nice loophole, one I figured I would exploit. (I also bought books on this, including Running for Congress and Congress for Dummies. Seriously.)

There was a snag, though. For the first time in 15 years, the Libertarians didn't meet those qualifications. The only recourse was to comply with the stipulations of another, tougher state law that dictated they must get more than 45,000 petition signatures during a 75-day window in order to get the party on the ballot. The Green Party faced a similar hurdle two years before and exhausted all its money and manpower trying to meet the goal. It failed, and the party was essentially wiped out in Texas.

I asked a Libertarian Party official what it would take to get it done. She said it would require many volunteers, which they didn't have, and a lot of money, maybe as much as $150,000, which they also didn't have. It sounded grim.

That's why I was surprised when the Libertarians delivered some 80,000 signatures to the secretary of state in Austin, thereby placing 30 U.S. congressional candidates on the Texas ballot, more than either the Dems or the Republicans. It was an unexpected coup, and it momentarily made me feel good about the party with which I had casually affiliated myself.

That didn't last.

It was oppressively hot when I rolled into College Station for the two-day Libertarian state convention. My buddy Chris agreed to drive over from Austin and lend support. The Hilton, where the convention was being held, upgraded my room and gave me a suite (balcony, bar, large bathroom) overlooking the pool. It was good times--until the convention started and I realized that I'd sold my soul for a pool view and some small bottles of vodka.

At the ice breaker/happy hour the first night, Chris and I sat and stared: Old women with scraggly, salt-colored hair ate unidentifiable hors d'oeuvres while men in bad suits (male alternative uniform: sandals and T-shirts with pit stains) talked about the evils of government intrusion. There were some people who looked relatively normal, but mostly it was a party of Napoleon Dynamite-types munching on tater tots and trying in vain to fit in. Later, during the convention, the same people held workshops titled "Annexation: Texas Style" and "Katie Get Your Gun." They sold bumper stickers that read "Guns didn't make America unsafe, Congress did" and "Don't trust a government that doesn't trust you."

Chris, when he wasn't screaming about John Kerry being a "dangerous shit-bird," struck up a conversation with one of them. His name was Kris Overstreet, and he could have been John Malkovich's doppelganger--bald head, pasty white skin, an ample gut. He had on a fanny pack, and he was sweating so much through his white shirt that everyone at the party could see his nipples. He also writes porn comic books, information he divulged to Chris within five minutes of meeting him.

Overstreet is a hard-core Libertarian. He ran for vice chair of the state party and lost. But he also ran for vice convention chair and won, and served as the platform chair, too. He represents one division of Libertarians--policy wonks with serious knowledge about procedure and party issues but questionable interpersonal skills. On the second day of the convention, when the delegates gathered for platform debate, Overstreet delivered this message: "I've stepped on a lot of toes over the past five years, and I've been called a number of names by a number of people in this room, none of them nice. But I've never been called a slacker. I took Polk County from dormant to an active part of our party with three or four members."

The other faction within the party, smaller but more powerful, is controlled by people like Geoff Neale, who has held a number of titles within the party. He came off as bright and shrewd, as if he knew he was surrounded by a bunch of mental patients and, with a little effort, could manipulate them like a real-life Nurse Ratched. I asked him about whether the Libertarian Party was handicapped because it had too many oddjobs and not enough real politicians who could put a professional face on the effort.

"It's like fishing with a net," Neale said while smoking a cigar, every word slipping out of his mouth accompanied by a puff of heavy smoke. "You try to find the big fish, but most of the time you find small fish, and you want to throw them back. We're down a third in membership from 2000. If we're keeping with the paradigm of fish as life, we'd like to get our numbers up, but unfortunately we keep getting some who swim into the net even though we don't want them to. It's a fact of life."

It was the most interesting statement I'd heard at the entire convention, and I was beginning to think that maybe the Libertarians weren't so stunted after all. Then I overheard Neale saying something to one of the conventioneers: "Whites have a tradition of politics. Not Russians or Chinese...they're still living with the mind-set that the tallest blade of grass gets cut first."

It underscored a central point: Just when you think the Libertarians are human, they peel back their shirts, open an access panel and reveal malfunctioning circuitry. It happened time and again at the convention. During the platform debate, they had some good discussions about issues that the Republicans or Democrats would never bring out in similar settings, like supporting gay marriage. I thought it was a great idea until they tried to make it part of the platform and it was met with opposition--but not because the delegates were against it. Most, to their credit, were in favor of it. They just didn't think that they should have to make it part of the platform, because they believed it to be self-evident that the government should stay out of our bedrooms. Every salient thought and good idea they had was crushed by scatterbrained rebuttals. It reminded me of a piece I'd read in The Onion headlined "Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department":

CHEYENNE, WY--After attempting to contain a living-room blaze started by a cigarette, card-carrying Libertarian Trent Jacobs reluctantly called the Cheyenne Fire Department Monday. "Although the community would do better to rely on an efficient, free-market fire-fighting service, the fact is that expensive, unnecessary public fire departments do exist," Jacobs said. "Also, my house was burning down."

Over two-plus days in College Station, they got next to nothing done. The loudest applause was saved for an unidentified delegate who began his speech by calling the U.S. government a "foreign power" and continued with this: "The U.S. government created D.C. and put its government there. Laws that are created in D.C. shouldn't affect us here in the great state of Texas."

With that, a great cry went up, and people patted him on the back.

It was too much for my pal Chris and me to take. We ended up drinking heavily, seeking solace in the bottom of large plastic cups of beer at some hick bar called the Dixie Chicken. While vapid A&M sorority girls and fraternity clowns sat all around us, Chris and I worked on campaign slogans while trying to figure out a way to put distance between me and the Libertarian Party.

There were good and bad parts to holding strategy meetings while drunk. The campaign slogans we came up with safely fit into the bad category: "I'm John Gonzalez, and liberty is a friend of mine"; "Common Sense Government--It's Common Sense"; and "My Bladder Has Diabetes" (written down after my 18th beer-induced trip to the bathroom).

The best idea we came up with was slapping a "New" in front of the Libertarians in an effort to assuage voter fears about my temporary political affiliation. By adding the "New," it suggested that I was helping to remake the Libertarian Party. It's an old political ploy, but it worked well for Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, so I stole the idea.

When the Libertarian Party heard about it, though, they were less than thrilled. I received a phone call from party flack Wes Benedict not long after. He wanted to ask me a few questions about my position on various issues in order to make sure I wasn't "a Communist." I wondered if the party would try to dunk me in a river to see if I'd float, too.

His questions, word for word: 1) Do you think taxes are too high? 2) Do you think women should be allowed to own guns? 3) Would you support John Kerry having anal sex with George Bush?

At first I felt bad for Benedict, because he clearly drew the short straw in having to call me. But then I remembered the party had given me no money and no support, so I hung up on him after I yelled about the ridiculous anal sex question. That was in July. It was the last time I took a phone call from the party.

I went it alone--a completely grassroots campaign with little money (I raised less than $5,000) and a support staff that was, well, less than adequate. My two main strategists--Chris and Pappalardo--live in Austin and D.C., respectively; the majority of their help came via e-mail or on the phone. And Michalski never bothered to show up on time for the meetings. Plus, like me, they're all a little strange. At one point during the campaign, Chris told me that I should advocate "an all-robot military," and Michalski was pushing for me to become the "pro poker candidate." I would have fired all of them if they weren't working for free.

Instead of running a campaign like Hensarling's--complete with lawn signs and advertisements in The Dallas Morning News and a real staff with good ideas--I made do with what I had. I forced my friends to go door to door with me, and I used the little money I raised for campaign business cards and T-shirts. The cards were great, except for the fact that the first printing had a picture of the Chilean flag on them. The Chilean flag, for those who don't know, looks remarkably similar to the Texas state flag. That little error cost the campaign a good amount of money (not to mention respect), so I had to come up with other ideas to market myself.

The first brainstorm occurred while I was in the drive-through at Arby's. I was about to pay with a $10 bill when I wondered how many times that piece of currency had changed hands. That was the genesis of my guerrilla campaign. I began writing "Gonz for Congress: A Contributor to the Economy" on all my money in an effort to circulate my name on the cheap. And in addition to handing out the new, correct campaign cards to just about everyone I met on the street, I also left them in random public places: in the checkout line at the supermarket, on the counter of my bank, on soda machines, wherever people would stumble upon them.

The second idea was to make the most of the Internet. In July, the staff helped me launch www.johngonzalez4congress.com. It was a masterstroke--a place where I blogged about myriad, touchy issues (gay marriage, stem cell research, etc.) while couching everything in humor. I got a good amount of feedback. My favorite came from George Whitfield, who sent this e-mail in August:

Hi John,

I went to your Web site as a result of the reference to your campaign in the Dallas Observer. You have a fine sense of humor and are a good writer. I also checked out the Web site of Frank Gonzalez, the Libertarian candidate in the 21st District of Florida. But after reading your positions on the issues of foreign policy, troops in Iraq and pre-emptive strikes as a "New Libertarian," I sent a check to Frank and this email to you.


George Whitfield

There's a scene in Primary Colors where the character based on James Carville talks about politics in the South. "This is the South," he says. "How do we know who our daddy is? 'Cause our mama told us so."

In a congressional campaign where nearly half of the more than 650,000 people living in District 5 reside in Dallas County, The Dallas Morning News editorial board has incredible influence. How do we know who our daddy is? Because those duplicitous half-asses over at the Morning News have a monopoly on the daily newspapering market...and they tell us so.

The majority of my campaigning, I worried, had little effect. I was doing low-impact stuff--appearances at area high schools and colleges, VFWs and Albertsons, all trying to solicit votes. Hard to win an election that way. So I swallowed hard and smiled pretty when I met with the editorial board in late August.

There were three editorial board members in attendance, including boss lady/dervish Keven Willey. They sat on one side of a large conference table. On the other side, seated to my immediate right, were the other two congressional candidates, Hensarling and Bernstein. Before we began, there was some small talk, and it looked like everything might run smoothly until I pulled a tape recorder from the inside of my suit jacket and asked if it would be all right if I recorded the interview. I thought Willey might go into cardiac arrest. "Great," she said, "we're going to have our editorial board meeting showing up in the Dallas Observer."

It got more uncomfortable from there. Hensarling was asked what separated him from me and Bernstein. He looked at me for a second and laughed: "Well, he's not wearing a tie." It made me want to attack him. Which I did. I spent the next hour or so detailing how Congressman Hensarling had taken political action committee money from just about every big insurance and big drug company in America. I thought my arguments were articulate and well-reasoned. Before I was finished, Willey rudely cut me off and said, "OK, we get it," and moved on to another question. It hurt me inside; I sent her an e-mail thereafter telling her as much.

Not surprisingly, Hensarling picked up the DMN endorsement. Meanwhile, the bastards all but lampooned my candidacy. But I don't think I got the worst of it. No one expected the Libertarian candidate, who's also a rival newspaper columnist, to be treated justly by the DMN. But what about Bernstein? He was running as a major-party candidate, and he was every bit as eloquent and personable as you'd want in a candidate. But the DMN brushed him aside, too.

In some respects, I think Bernstein had a rougher go of it during the campaign. He's a fine man, and he truly believed what he was saying. But because he was running against a Republican incumbent in a Republican district, he was abandoned by his party. They gave him little support and less money. By his own account, the people on his staff worked hard, but there were only 10 to 20 of them--not nearly enough for a congressional campaign. Worse yet, he raised somewhere in the $20,000 to $30,000 range; conventional wisdom says you need something closer to $1 million to win a congressional election. The Democrats aren't stupid. They saw all those things--a red district, an incumbent, no money--and they sacrificed Bernstein. Welcome to Texas politics, where even the Democrats are third-party candidates.

"You have to look at it from the party's perspective," Bernstein says. "If you're going to put money into a campaign, it makes sense to put it into the Frost-Sessions race or a race they think they can win. Now I don't agree with them, and I think it's a real tragedy about politics that money wins elections instead of people. I still think anything can happen in my race. Look at the Red Sox. No one gave them a chance, and they came back from the dead to win the World Series."

On one hand, I thought Bernstein was delusional and told him so. The reality of the race, even back in August, was that the two of us were going to get swallowed whole and, if we were lucky, burped out at a later date. On the flip side, every politician is a self-preservationist/egotist. We don't want to stop fighting, because the more votes we get, the less pathetic we look.

I had looked pathetic long enough. I decided to employ every possible trick to court more votes. I cut my hair and bought a new suit. I put an American flag pin on my lapel and tried to act respectable (that is, I stopped screaming wildly at people). I even wore a tie. I went on NBC 5 and answered questions the way pols always have--by trumpeting myself and lambasting the incumbent. (The TV gig went well until the end, when I made a joke about myself and used the homeless as the unfortunate punch line.) I did everything I could to play the part, albeit like a B-movie actor.

With little left to do before the election, I threw a party. Actually, my two biggest backers, Dawn and Nick Rizos, threw a party at Stratos Greek restaurant on Northwest Highway. It was a grand affair, complete with T-shirts and "Gonz for Congress" stickers and more food and drink than any of us could have consumed. The 30 or so people who showed up had a good time, and more than one of them remarked about my metamorphosis from an irreverent, sneakers-and-jeans sports reporter to a cleaner-cut, quasi-All-American candidate.

It was strange, really. At the beginning, I got into the race because I was disenchanted. I wasn't going to conform; I was going to lash out like a whip. By the end, when I realized it wasn't working, I listened to my handlers and changed my image. I felt like Robert Redford from the last scenes in The Candidate, where he looks around and wonders how he went from speaking his mind to doing anything for one more vote.

The difference, of course, is that Redford's character wins his election.

It is now after midnight. No word yet on who our next president will be, but 100 percent of the precincts have reported in from District 5. A few hours ago, while Brokaw was blathering, I was convinced that I'd go down as one of the biggest failures in Texas political history. But as more of the Dallas precincts reported in (where I concentrated my campaign efforts), something changed and I began to compile more votes. By 9 p.m., I had more than double what Michalski got in 2002 (though, it should be noted in fairness, far more people voted this time). By 11 p.m., I had eclipsed the 5,000-vote mark--a number I never thought I'd reach. The final tally:

Hensarling (R) 148,617--64 percent

Bernstein (D) 75,809--33 percent

Gonzalez (L) 6,101--3 percent

(Note: Fox and NBC rounded me down to 2 percent; CNN and ABC rounded up to 3 percent. Like Michalski, I also now advocate rounding up.)

In the 32 congressional races in Texas, 24 Libertarians faced both a Democrat and a Republican. Only three of those managed to get more than 5,000 votes and/or 3 percent of their district or better, and I was one of them--the cream of an especially sour crop.

It's odd. For almost a year, I spent most of my free time working on the campaign or complaining about working on the campaign. But now that it's over, I miss the rush that only politics can afford.

"You should run for office now," my mother suggested when we talked on the phone after the final numbers came in.

"But Mom, I just ran for office."

"No, no," she explained, "you should join a party. You know, and run for real."

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