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In defense of being a perennial candidate


Since I have run for public office five times in nine years and lost by a wide margin each time, I am what is known in the trade as a “perennial candidate”. That is not a flattering term. It seems that I am someone whose ego outstrips his capabilities. I have completely lost touch with reality if I think I can win an election for U.S. Senate or President of the United States. I am thought to be either a fool or a madman.

Actually, that may be overstating the case. No, if I run for high office against extremely long odds, I do not necessarily expect to win the election. I am therefore not deluding myself. I am running for reasons other than winning the election. I am sane.

Living in Minnesota, I had a chance to meet the archetypal “perennial candidate”: Harold Stassen. Stassen, as we know, ran for President many times with little chance of winning after his career as a presidential prospect peaked in 1948. People laughed at him. But actually his accomplishments were greater than those of most Presidents. Stassen had one big dream: the United Nations. He was one of a handful of persons most responsible for creating that organization. We respect signers of the Declaration of Independence or of the U.S. Constitution. We should also respect Harold Stassen, signer of the UN Charter. Stassen repeatedly ran for office because, he said, he continued to have something to say.

There was another man whom I would not have met had he not run for office past his political prime. He was former U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy. I met McCarthy in 1982 when he came back to Minnesota to run in the DFL primary for the Senate. McCarthy lost the primary to Mark Dayton but, thanks to a common interest in the shorter-workweek issue, I became his friend. I respect McCarthy even though he was a “perennial candidate”. It was part of his character to run for office against long odds and champion unpopular causes. I admire Eugene McCarthy for that.

Well-intentioned people sometimes advise me to run for a more realistic office. Since the office of dog catcher does not exist, how about state representative, City Council, or the Park Board? How about running as a Democrat or Republican rather than as a third-party candidate? Rather than being a Don Quixote tilting at impossible challenges, I might then actually win something. I know a woman who was a perennial candidate who kept losing until she ran for the office of Ramsey County Conservation District commissioner and then started winning elections. Why not follow her example?

One reason is that I hate sitting through long meetings. I might not want to win the election if I ran for a more “realistic” office. I might then feel morally committed to serving out my term. Holding public office does have its disadvantages. You have to pay attention to the boring details of public administration and endure sometimes senseless criticism from constituents without necessarily having the power to accomplish what you wanted to do.

If I imagine myself being elected, for instance, to the U.S. Senate, I would be one of one hundred Senators a majority of whom would be needed to pass a bill. Then we would need a majority of those in the House of Representatives to send a bill passed by both houses to the President, and we would need the President’s signature for the bill to become law. It’s not that I alone would have much power.

Also, if I were a Democrat or a Republican serving in Congress, I would be part of a system corrupted by special-interest influence. I would need lots of money for my re-election campaign and, to raise this money, I would effectively have to sell my vote to the people who funded my campaign. Since it is mainly powerful interest groups who fund political candidates, I would have to be a defender of the status quo if I wanted to win elections. What if I ran to be an agent of change - someone who would challenge this corrupt system? Probably I wouldn’t win.

So that’s why winning elections is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Sure, I would have immediate access to power. I would earn a salary much larger than what I had before. After holding public office, I could make a killing as a lobbyist. My financial worries would be a thing of the past. But I am idealist who is against that sort of thing. I want to improve society, not milk it. In today’s political environment, there's a contradiction between being an idealist and winning elections.

When I ran for President in 2003, a journalist in Pittsburgh wrote of me: “Some goof with too much money and time to waste is seeking the Democrats’ nomination for president in 2004. Not Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, John Kerry ..... Try Bill McGaughey of Minneapolis. Never heard of him? Too bad. According to his nifty packet of campaign literature, which somehow found its way to Pittsburgh, he’s overqualified ... McGaughey’s photo looks OK. No antennae are visible. If you’d like to join his presidential crusade, he’ll be marching in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, today.”

I suppose from the standpoint of a newspaper political writer, it’s irritating to have someone run for office without a serious chance of winning. Journalists cover candidates because one of them might win and become part of the government. Does that make me a “goof”? Am I wasting the reporter’s time in running for office? That’s up to him or her to answer; but I would say that there is a serious side to my electoral venture. Let me try to explain.

We start with the premise that our politics is broken. Americans are demoralized as their leaders routinely betray the public interest. The options for someone wanting to challenge that system are limited. Most become armchair critics of the system who sit back and complain. They are effectively immobilized. It’s just not worth the effort to swim against the current, most people think.

Rather than becoming cynical or passive-aggressive, I prefer to act. Whatever the outcome, one gains a sense of self-respect by taking the initiative. I believe that each citizen of the United States has at least one way to act effectively: to speak from personal belief or experience in endeavoring to tell the truth. To tell a personal story is powerful. It may not have an immediate effect but, if enough people begin saying what they believe to be the truth, public opinion will change. That is the root cause of political change.

I believe, therefore, that the most important change takes place out here, among the people, rather than in government. We change public opinion more by being among the public than by holding elective office. So, if it is real change that we want (and not just changes in the holders of offices), the best opportunity comes when we are talking with people and sharing our respective points of view. That’s what candidates do in campaigns. That's why the process of campaigning is itself contributing to the process of change even if a candidate does not win the election.

Now, of course, people can speak out effectively without running for elective office. But running for office gives someone a platform. It puts the candidates in a role that others can understand. The candidate is supposed to be talking about issues affecting the larger society. And because there is always a chance that he or she might win, people take those conversations more seriously. Political candidates assume an instant identity that makes it legitimate for them to be talking about the larger questions. A further advantage is that the election has a distinct cutoff point after which candidates can return to their previous lives. They can run for office and then do other things. The burdens of campaigning can suddenly be dropped.

Thus, when I become a political candidate, I assume a clear set of tasks. My purposes are clear. I try to get as many votes as I can during the period of campaigning. I can pace myself and use strategy. It becomes like a game. Games are fun and so is campaigning for public office. I become immersed in the experience and am part of my community. The experience can be exhausting; but isn’t that what life is supposed to be? Winning isn’t everything.

There is another reason that I run for public office. I am a writer. I like to develop ideas. Part of this process involves putting the ideas on paper. However, the process is incomplete unless others read what the writer has written and provide useful feedback. Elections to public office create such a mechanism for feedback to be received. As poets need poetry readings to present their works to a real audience, so people with political and social ideas need election campaigns to communicate their views to people on various subjects. It fulfills the writing process.

Win or lose, political candidates know where they stand once the voters have spoken. Where else would one find such feedback? Gradually, the writer-candidate changes his views to become more realistic. The candidate becomes familiar with attitudes among the public and has a better sense of what people will accept. Losing campaigns provide that lesson as well as winning ones. As a person of ideas, one becomes less isolated in one’s views.

I would have to say, however, that over the years I have become less interested in the ideas and more interested in the experience. There is a unique story to tell in each campaign. I have come to realize that I have a strong interest in story telling. If I run a political campaign by myself, I know all the details of the campaign. From recollections of the experience, I can craft a story. I become an observant artist as well as a participant in the campaign.

When I ran for President in the Louisiana Democratic primary, the story was about visiting a new state and seeing the sights. I wrote a book, “On the Ballot in Louisiana”, which was a kind of travelogue about the places I visited. The campaign required driving all over the state to visit newspaper offices. I was a tourist with a license to talk with busy newspaper editors. Today, I remember pre-Katrina Louisiana as an almost magical place where I once was.

When, for instance, the 9th ward went under water I could relate personally to that part of New Orleans that was across the canal. I could remember following a hand-drawn map sketched by the editor of the St. Bernard Voice showing me what streets to take from Arabi to my next appointment on the other side of downtown. (It cut my drive time by at least half.) I remember the afternoon traffic while crossing the river on St. Claude street, which then becomes Rampart street, near where I parked for the Mardi Gras parade.

When I recently ran for Congress in Minnesota’s 5th district and then for Mayor of Minneapolis, the experiences were different. There was a single newspaper with political dominance and I was already familiar with the terrain. Here the story had to do with particular challenges: How might my Congressional campaign take advantage of the Republican National Convention? In the mayor’s race, how would my role as a landlord activist relate to my candidacy? Would Ranked Choice Voting have a impact on the election?

In the two local campaigns, I also interacted more with the other candidates. There were alliances and fronts of opposition. As always, there was the problem of attracting media coverage. The streets and neighborhoods where I visited store keepers or distributed literature assumed a certain personality as cities and towns had done in the Louisiana campaign.

Unlike most other political candidates, I followed up each campaign by writing a story while the events were fresh in my mind. I tried to put as much personal detail as I could into the story so readers would have an immediate sense of the campaign. To date, I have told the stories of two campaigns are told in published books (later put on the Internet) and another two campaigns have stories on websites used by the campaign itself. There is a book-length manuscript for each campaign.

Now I understand that if I am running for public office to create stories, political reporters would have a right to become angry. I would not be a “serious” candidate, who had a real chance of winning, but a “goof off” who was doing this for his own amusement. Being mocked would then come with the territory. That is the price of admission to this game.

But there again, my prospective critics may be overstating their case. As I said, I run for public office to bring about change. I want to be an active rather than passive citizen in the face of government abuse. When I talk to voters during the campaign or when people read my written account of the campaign, I provide political communication that conceivably might affect public opinion.

I would love to have others doing the same thing, whether they are “perennial” or merely occasional candidates. If we had many people speaking out on subjects of community interest, it would create a culture of open expression. It would give still others the courage also to speak their mind. We sorely need a culture of open political expression, with people fearlessly speaking their mind, if only to encourage the timid ones among us to take courage from that act. Then large numbers of voters will appear at the voting booths to cast their ballots. Once the feeling of hopelessness is dispelled, Americans can take back their government.

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