"It’s not whether you win or lose," goes the old saw, "it’s how you play the game." But can you really conduct a good campaign – one marked by fairness, honesty, and the valuing of people over the price of their votes – and still win office? IC intern Chris Davis reports on four who tried, winning victories both moral and electoral.
While the country debates the merits of legislated political reform and proposals to legislate limits on everything from terms to financial donations, we sought out four precedent-setters who took it upon themselves to provide alternatives to mudslinging. Two of them are currently in office after unseating incumbents in 1990. The other two, both significant underdogs, conceded victory to opponents who outspent them by as much as 300 percent but won only by margins narrow enough to keep vote counters working until sunrise. The experiences of these four individuals suggest a code of conduct for candidates interested in reconstituting our political process.
The amassing of huge campaign war chests has been criticized for contributing to diminishing the role of people in a campaign, so all four candidates voluntarily placed limits on campaign donations. In some cases donations from political action committees (PACs) were refused. Time spent fundraising with lobbyists or PACs, they reason, is time away from voters and supporters. Once acquired, much of this money is poured into TV advertising: eighty percent of the money spent during political campaigns goes to the creation of the thirty-second sound bites that barrage TV viewers (and voters) before elections.
Refusing to reduce political discourse to manipulative ads, our standard-setters embraced debate-intensive campaigns. That meant challenging opponents to maintain an ongoing discussion throughout the election season on essential concerns, rather than harping on the non-issues that dominate ad campaigns.
Speaking to anyone who would listen, all four of our subjects wore out shoes and ears in their efforts to reach as many people as possible. It’s exhausting, as they all will testify – but the pay-off is an electorate that sits up and notices that someone actually cares what they think.
What were the results of their extraordinary efforts? In each case voter participation was far above national averages. Pollsters and forecasters were stymied in their attempts to predict a winner. Races were so tight and competition so fierce that newspaper headlines called some of the campaigns deadlocked up to the day before elections.
For the two who won, there was the satisfaction of unseating an incumbent. And for the two who lost, there was the more subtle victory of setting a precedent and suggesting to people that it is not unreasonable to expect a little more from those who represent us.
But the most significant conclusion to be drawn is that a reformed, ethically conscious politics involves more people in the process. Engagement happens when a politician ceases to be a figure on the TV screen and shows up at the neighborhood pot-luck. And when slanderous attacks are met with stepped-up public appearances and speaking engagements instead of malicious counter-attacks, people find real material on which to base their judgement. The process of empowerment is time-consuming, but the strategies employed by these and other like-minded politicians suggest viable options in an arena often perceived as hopeless.
Lawton Chiles, Governor of Florida * Chiles first began to build his populist reputation in 1970 when he walked from the panhandle to the Florida Keys during his campaign for the Senate. Dubbed "Walkin’ Lawton," Chiles vacated his seat in the Senate citing burnout, but he returned to politics to challenge former Governor Bob Martinez in 1990. While Martinez counted on three visits by President Bush, one from former President Reagan, and a TV ad featuring Barbara Bush to marshall support, Chiles relied on a wellspring of volunteers and a commitment to limit campaign donations to $100. Consequently his support came from literally thousands of donations received while he once again toured the state in his cowboy boots and madras shirt. Labeled "the truth squad," Chiles’ supporters helped him overcome the $10.6 million campaign mounted by Martinez’s more narrow base of support.
Throughout the race Chiles avoided negative advertising, relying on tireless campaigning and persistent challenges to his opponent to schedule more debates. The strategy won him support from a population audibly wary of yet another malicious campaign.
Since taking office Chiles has followed up on his commitment to legislate campaign reform. Last spring Florida passed the nation’s strictest limits on state campaign donations, limiting them to $500 per election cycle. The law also provides for the establishment of a public fund to support state-wide elections.
Dr. Helen Caldicott * Dr. Caldicott is a former member of the Harvard Faculty of Pediatrics who left medicine to speak out for nuclear disarmament, economic conversion, and preserving the environment. She recently ran for a seat in the Australian Parliament, finishing 675 votes short of a victory. Recently she spoke with IN CONTEXT volunteer Cecile Andrews about grass-roots politics and the notion of empowerment:
I think people are hungry for change. They know that the two-party system – in both the United States and Australia – is one political party with two right wings. No party represents the wishes and the needs of ordinary people. They also know that the environment is dreadfully threatened. People feel desperate because no one seems to represent them.
Drawing on her experience as a candidate in Australia, Caldicott talked about her vision of reclaiming the purpose of political campaigning:
When I stood up last year and said I’m going to run for Parliament, there was tremendous hope. I only campaigned for three weeks, but there were hundreds of people working with me. On polling day we had 600 volunteers working the booths.
I’m advocating people run for Congress now. They must run old-fashioned campaigns where they get out and speak to people in public meetings and engage in face-to-face discussions. There should be arguments where people learn from each other.
There is a need for a second American Revolution. One way to do that is to take over the Congress with people who refuse corporate funding, representing no one except their electorate – that’s true democracy!
Senator Paul Wellstone, Minnesota * Wellstone was a political science professor at Carleton College when he directed Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaign in Minnesota in 1988. In winning his Senatorial seat in 1990, Wellstone overcame a long and vitriolic ad campaign during which his incumbent opponent spent more than $7 million.
When Wellstone began the race in the spring of 1989 – early enough to assemble an extensive network of volunteers, most of them under the age of 35 – he disavowed much of the mainstream campaign procedure. Although he was virtually coerced by his staff to fundraise with the national committee’s major supporters in Washington, Wellstone preferred to rely on local supporters concerned with local issues. He was more interested in being Minnesota’s man in DC than the Democrats’ man in Minnesota, and he shunned big Democratic supporters with no connection to his home state and its concerns.
Tight budgets, together with Wellstone’s flat refusal to sling mud at his opponent, demanded innovative advertising. Wellstone’s spots were humorous and creative, continuously referring to his quirky personality and accentuating his homespun approach to politics.
The same ingenuity also marked Wellstone’s publicity campaign. Too short on money to pay for billboards during the final days before the election, staffers fanned out along the Twin Cities’ major overpasses and bridges to hang temporary banners and wave to drivers. The message of these madly waving people – who moved from bridge to bridge throughout rush-hour, weathering the early morning cold – was not lost on commuters, who saw this as yet another successful strategy to get more people involved.
In the end Wellstone overcame the odds and the experts and triumphed over the highly favored incumbent. Even the national Democratic Party had paid him little attention until it became evident he had a chance to win.
Patricia Malberg * Malberg – a longtime IN CONTEXT reader – ran for US Congress in California’s district 14, a predominantly Republican area that stretches from Stockton to Oregon. Although she was derided as a liberal in ads incessantly run by her opponent (who outspent her 3 to 1), she finished only 2% behind him, taking 49% of the vote. She too placed limitations on donations and accepted money only from a limited number of PACs, including teachers’ and women’s groups. In a long discussion that touched on fundraising, empowerment, and populism, she voiced a belief in an optimistic future where the true benefits of political process are returned to those whom it is intended to serve:
I decided I didn’t want to spend my time fundraising. Too much policy is made in DC without regard to its impact at home, and I wanted to get to know my constituents. So much energy is spent raising money that little time is devoted to learning the issues. The money will come if you’re a credible, honest, hardworking candidate, and if the need is there. In our case, people really did feel the need.
Were I to go to DC, I would know the people supported me. I approach them even if I am taking an unpopular position. They are willing to hear me out, rather than immediately dismiss my view as one which was bought. I gained credibility with people who really have good ideas. If you spend time with people who are facing problems on a day to day basis, you realize they think about solutions. When they see a chance to divulge the things they’ve come up with, they take it – and it makes you feel very strong. Our legislators could be great teachers and advocates for wonderful changes.
Asked how this kind of reformist politics empowers individuals, Malberg offered a number of her own experiences as evidence that her policies engaged not only the people directly involved in her campaign, but those unable to participate daily:
There’s not a person who was involved in my campaign who isn’t paying very close attention to what is happening in Congress right now. Many of the people who took a leadership role in my campaign – I had no paid staff – are currently still involved in politics although they didn’t even think about it before. We gave them tools, and that’s a real key. When you take the time to teach people how to do phoning or walk a neighborhood, you create a whole cadre of trained people who will do it again for other candidates they believe in.
People are willing to talk about politics, and they are willing to drop some of the barriers that get in the way, like party affiliations. We brought all parties together on this campaign. I had across-the-board support, because what we were talking about had nothing to do with parties. It was our hometown and our economy. People on the sidelines still participated because they got beyond those party barriers. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or anything else is really of little importance these days. The big parties are all feeding from the same money pot, and it means there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two.
How will these kinds of changes become more widespread, perhaps even institutionalized? Malberg has some concrete suggestions:
I don’t know if mechanical solutions are really going to do it. Instead I think that people of good spirit and energy are going to have to get out and show that it can be done. That will shift how people get into Congress. Also, redistricting needs to be taken out of the hands of the Legislature, which is trying to create districts that will make them permanent members.
Information is also a key, so I favor free TV debate time or talk shows. I like open discussions – it’s rewarding for everybody. I talked to the most unusual groups, anybody that would have me, so that my point of view could be presented and I could hear theirs. It’s a two-way conversation, and it’s very difficult to do when you have the 30-second spot that mostly denigrates the opposition.
Our other key to success was remaining positive. When the negatives hit, you have to respond. But those who are really committed to you find it disappointing if you respond in a negative way, because one of the reasons they get so excited about a campaign like this is that it is so positive.
Finally, Malberg – whose loss at the polls was in so many ways a victory – provides us with a new definition of political success:
You don’t go into these things with the idea that you’re going to win. That is not the full story. The full story is how you do it, the process and the kinds of people you involve. It’s an exciting thing to get so close. Of course you want to win, but there’s winning and winning. One kind is winning by numbers, and the other is by keeping your principles sound.