“How many were wearing aluminum foil hats and Mickey Mouse ears?” my husband, a veteran political reporter, wondered.
“Maybe only a couple,” I joked about the candidates at a forum that had lasted until nearly 11pm.
Primary election campaigns like the one to be decided in Maryland on June 24 do indeed bring out all kinds. Barriers are low and stakes high. Fees are low; you can run for governor for only $100. You have to run as a Republican or a Democrat to get your name on a Primary ballot. But if you can swallow that, nobody is going to say you can’t. The gatekeepers are off duty. Paperwork is minimal unless you’re raising a lot of money. Outside the big high-office, televised debates, you’ll have your say with plenty of time, place and listeners. Best of all, somebody is sure to win. It might well be you. Stranger things have happened.
Still, to run for office, you’ve got to have something driving — even obsessing — you. Campaigning is all about putting yourself out in front of people. All but the most reclusive candidates — and there are some — are out among us, knocking on doors, waving signs on busy roads, visiting churches, showing up at festivals, speaking at forums, answering questions, inviting detractors, enduring ridicule. It’s like making your life a YouTube feed.
At the least, campaigning makes huge demands on a candidate’s time. Most likely it’s going to take money, too, and practicing the odd art of asking people to give you theirs. Certainly it requires inuring yourself to rejection, for many of the people you ask for their money and their vote are sure to say no, during the campaign or on election day.
To open yourself to all that, you’ve got to want something very much. Or believe something very deeply.
Richard Ben Cramer, a Chesapeake Bay author who died last year, wrote a political classic called What It Takes that examined motivations of a crop of White House hopefuls. Ego may be the driver, pushing you to believe you’re not just the right person for the job but the only person. Ambition is another driver. Election brings you power. Win and you’re part of a government telling us what we can and cannot do — which has the downside of backlash. But that’s a sting you’re unlikely to feel until it’s time to campaign all over again.
Meanwhile, you get to enjoy perks. Once politicians get elected, they take themselves pretty seriously, building monumental work environments and giving themselves titles and privileges, often including fancy license plates and convenient parking places. And you can be pretty sure you won’t lose your job until the next election.
Ego and ambition are very good drivers for candidates, at least in some measure, because campaigning is an act of faith in yourself. Governing requires other skills, including listening to people, knowing how government works, digesting vast quantities of information, remembering what you’ve learned, devoting hours to meetings, working with people, adjusting your balance on the scale of compromise and conviction and many others.
Most of those forces are driving first-time candidate Matthew Pugh, a Bay Weekly contributor in years past.
“Maryland is a great state,” he told me, “but sadly, its greatness has been diminished by the irresponsible policies of the current administration; they’ve crippled our economy with more than 40 new taxes, and their spending is out of control — and no one is being held accountable. I’m running for Central Committee because I’d like to help restore responsible Republican leadership in Maryland. I decided I could no longer sit on the sidelines.”
Pugh is running for a starter office, Anne Arundel County Republican State Central Committeeman in District 33. Only Republicans will see his name on the ballot. The job is unsalaried. But eight candidates are running for three seats. No matter how good a job Pugh does campaigning, loss is a possibility. Driven by conviction, he’s putting himself on the line to make government work.
Pugh and all the others whose names we find on our ballots — and in this week’s Bay Weekly pages — are citizen heroes. Win or lose, they’re trying to make government work. It would be a shame if we didn’t keep up our end of the bargain by going out to vote.