It is well known that I have been a recent candidate for Congress. Well okay, it is actually only well-known to a small percentage of voters who in a recent primary cast their ballots for me as a means of reaffirming the first three words of the United States Constitution.
During the campaign, I was asked whether I was serious or whether I was just trying to make a point. I responded truthfully that I was quite serious. Mine was "a serious campaign and I was a serious candidate notwithstanding the few resources a person of modest means could bring to a political campaign. Indeed, some of my helpers thought that the most serious point of my candidacy was an effort to reaffirm that in the American democracy, one does not need to be affluent to be of service to your neighbor in public office.
The campaign truly was a wholly volunteer, non-consultant-citizen-candidate effort with my running as an independent, accepting no political action committee funds, and declining any corporate expenditure -- including especially so-called "independent" expenditures permitted by the opinion in Citizens United. Having set those parameters, the financing of the entire effort came either out of my own household savings or the generosity of a few friends who have come to expect the toll that accompanies my quixotic idealism. The point of the campaign really was to test whether a citizen of average means, but of sincere and dedicated interest in matters of public concern, could compete against an incumbent with over $1.5 million at her beck and call, significantly, but not entirely, supplied by the lobby firms on K Street in Washington.
Short answer: No.
In one sense, the answer was foreordained by the unaffordability of even the incidental funds needed to be on the ballot or to have a 250 word statement included in the official sample ballot materials. While some of these costs can be avoided with additional petition signatures, these expenditures are too rich for the average soul. Together the cost for ballot access and the short official position paper amounted to $7000. There are very few people in the district I was running from who could find that sum and still meet the family mortgage, tuition, and health expenditures.
Purchased media is by far the most expensive element of the campaign. The 30-second radio ad running once a day for a month consumed roughly $8000. For $2000 more, we were able to put up a few posters and lawn signs.
Before running, I had the impression that a significant number of voluntary associations on their own initiative and by tradition held debates and forums. I was mistaken. In my California district, the one formal debate was arranged by a small, but highly responsible and civic motivated newspaper that had previously been an ad paper and one of the local colleges. The forum was excellently conducted with difficult questions put to all of the candidates in a fair manner, but unless one was one of the 200 or so in attendance or a member of the Rotary club or Lion's Clubs -- venues always on the lookout for luncheon speakers, the chances of being heard were quite small.
The news media was not to blame, with one kind senior political writer even declaring me to be one of the "most learned" individuals ever to seek the congressional office. Just remembering John Quincy Adams had returned to the Congress after his presidency was enough to refute the generosity of that characterization, but a little hyperbole goes a long way to cheer one's spirit. Even these flattering stories, however, recognized the reality and predicted quite accurately, that without the resources available to the incumbent. I was not likely to be seeing Washington anytime soon except as a tourist.
No regrets and still "not for sale."
As difficult as it is to approach a stranger asking for a signature to be placed upon a ballot, it is worth the effort.
Not everyone is encouraging. Indeed, the sources of discouragement are many, including to mention just a few: the hypersensitivity of a pastor who thought it was a violation of church and state to stand across the street from his meeting hall answering questions and handing out pamphlets; various commercial establishments seemingly unfamiliar with free speech on adjacent public sidewalks -- (I'm talking to you Ralph's food store), or those who just utilized me as a convenient target to express their frustration with the lack of productivity of the current Congress.
Yet for every three off-putting citizens, there were seven, who shook my hand warmly, agreed that both political parties have let us down, and thanked me for taking the time from family and work to encourage greater equality of income; a family sensitive immigration reform; as well as addressing environmental and other issues of importance.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the campaign was the opportunity campaign itself turned out to have to make someone's life better. This side benefit was unanticipated, and in many of our busy lives, the opportunities to do small things of assistance for our neighbors can be easily missed. Those in need, especially those who likely were our neighbors when things were going well, are quite naturally embarrassed by their misfortune and they do their best to keep out of sight. One common technique was to sleep in the back of a car, moving it just often enough to keep it from being detected in a shopping center parking garage. One person doing this had been a relatively accomplished videographer and filmmaker until the financial collapse in the last year of the Bush administration. His business gone, his house was foreclosed, and illness divided his family. Today, my help in the help of several in my campaign, he is closer to family and received some necessary medical care. He wants and badly needs some up-to-date career training, but it's harder to find than you think. He is not alone. Homelessness and hunger and poverty are sometimes thought only to be the problems of the marginal or developing countries. They are not.
There are churches and nonprofits and goodhearted people trying to help, but given the magnitude of the financial dislocation that has occurred since late 2007, the available public aid resources and private, not-for-profit supplements are generally not enough. Shelters are typically only available in inclement weather; emergency food monies scarcely feed the children, and until the president's health reform becomes fully operational, the medical care available in emergency rooms necessarily leaves some very extraordinarily painful conditions untreated. For many, congresses, delay and enacting even basic Social Security benefits.
The monies I raised for the campaign were not enough for my voice to be heard by very many, but the Federal Election Commission disclosure rules did permit the donation of campaign monies that are "leftover" (a term you might think euphemistic in my campaign, but frankly, I just couldn't see spending more money on lawn signs when people needed to eat) to a bona fide charity. It wasn't much more than a few thousand dollars, but even that modest amount bit has changed several lives for the better.
Can a Congress that accomplished virtually nothing other than the raising of millions of dollars to perpetuate themselves in office say the same? Can "we the people" afford such lack of productivity without long-term damage done to the body politic?
Again, the short answer is: No.
Too many young people; indeed, too many neighbors of all ages told me with a certain amount of prideful disgust that they were not registered to vote. This cannot be our answer or we will have forfeited that which sustains a constitutional republic that needs every bit of leadership it can muster to meet the challenges to law, domestic civil order, and international peace that are at work in the world.
In my next column, I will keep the promise I made in an earlier writing to suggest a number of structural changes that can be accomplished without constitutional amendment in order to increase the accountability and effectiveness of the Congress that did so little, the president who would do much more, but without some exotic legal gymnastics may, and probably does, lack the constitutional authority to clearly get it accomplished.