Daredevils at heart

Don Quixote is alive, well and running for Congress.

Now you may not recognize Cervantes’ knight of the tragic countenance in his guise as a college administrator from Riverside County, Calif., just east of Los Angeles, but there he is, lance poised against all he perceives to be injustice and deceit.

His name is Louis Vandenberg. His windmill: the Republican Party.

“For so long, I have been tilting against the Bush windmill. But that windmill is now so creaky and ready to collapse,” writes Vandenberg in an e-mail about his “quixotic” bid for office.

Vandenberg describes the GOP as a “mad parade of ideologues and extremists.” He dismisses his long time local adversary, Rep. Ken Calvert, as a “Republican clich鬦amp;#8221; or “an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks to collect the bill,” quoting Marlon Brando’s description of the assassin played by Martin Sheen in the movie “Apocalypse Now.”

That said, there’s no exaggerating Vandenberg’s tenacious commitment to the political process. In 2000 he ran for Congress as a write-in candidate. He lost.

Vandenberg tried again in 2002 and 2004 as the Democratic opposition to Calvert in California’s newly redistricted 44th District. He lost, and lost again.

While many would flinch from further punishment, especially as the seven-term Calvert scooped 62 percent of the vote in 2004, “Don” Vandenberg, like Quixote, is in love with lost causes. So with a passionate belief in American democracy, and the “pride and confusion” of his family, Vandenberg is once more running for Congress in a race no pundit or prognosticator believes he can actually win.

He won’t be alone. This fall, the 44th won’t be the only district with a long-shot Quixote on the ticket.

As the country spins into the ruckus of the most competitive congressional elections in a decade it is worth noting that while control of the House may be up in the air, the total number of seats rated as “in play” constitute less than five percent of the races to be decided on Nov. 7. In an overwhelming majority of these contests the blessings of incumbency remain undiminished.

Nonetheless, in district after district, some of the most senior and powerful members of the House will face opponents who, though underfunded, understaffed and often completely unheralded in the press, are prepared to risk time, sanity and money on the long odds of unseating them.

It is brave work. With the system streamlined against open competition, opposing a incumbent member is like standing under Niagara Falls trying to push the water back with your hands.

When the numbers come in on Election Day, cling to your life jacket and prepare to be swept away.

But just try telling Ahmad Hassan that the tide is rising.

“I love America. The sky’s the limit,” cheers Hassan, with the relentless, infectious jubilance that has helped buoy him up over weeks of campaigning in Texas’ 18th District.

Hassan, an Egyptian-born real estate developer, is an optimist. When it is pointed out that there are bitter lemons confronting his bid as the Republican candidate for Congress in the Democratic enclave of Houston, an area that last reelected Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) with 89 percent of the vote, Hassan’s optimism morphs into a fabulous political wonder drug: he squeezes lemons but gets Kool-Aid, most of which he appears to be drinking.

“Everywhere people tell me they want to get rid of her,” Hassan says, referring to Jackson Lee.

No Stepford politician groomed to within an inch of his conscience by an entourage of handlers, Hassan vividly savors the most shining freedom granted to an underdog candidate: nothing is off limits if no one is listening. Call it politics unplugged, or democracy with a dash of Tourettes, but Hassan will raise his voice to the powers that be.

Take for instance his attitude toward his home district. While most politicians make a point of accentuating the positives about the area they hope to govern, Hassan employs a more counterintuitive approach. He freely, even cheerfully, criticizes the 18th District.

“It’s a trashy district,” Hassan says. “So many on welfare. People are living the trashy life.”

Hassan is no less blunt when asked to comment on his Democratic rival. While Jackson Lee may be a reckoning presence to many on the Hill, Hassan dismisses her as ineffectual and unreliable, an “actress” going through the motions, and one who “isn’t good enough to play the part of a congresswoman.”

“She can do part-time in Hollywood, not in the Congress,” says Hassan, though he later adds that he has nothing against Jackson Lee personally, and did contact her office on Mother’s Day to wish her well.

Hassan, perhaps not surprisingly, is little kinder to his ostensible political allies. “The Republican Party? I don’t understand their mentality,” he says with exasperation. “I don’t think they know what they’re doing, some of them.”

And this is emphatically the case when the issue of fundraising arises. Hassan has not benefited from the largesse of the National Republican Congressional Committee or any other national Republican organizations in terms of building a campaign war chest.

If only he had a tenth of what Republicans have funneled to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) over the years, Hassan proclaims, he would handily take the 18th District from Jackson Lee.

“I’d make her fly from the earth,” he says, illustrating the truly cosmic scope of a hypothetical Hassan victory.

Asked how much of his own personal wealth has been spent on the trail, Hassan quickly emphasizes that his campaign is about putting up flyers and meeting people door-to-door.

“Oh, I’m not going to spend my own money on this,” says Hassan. “But I do a lot of leg work.”

As does John Rinaldi, an insurgent candidate from southern California who is hoping to pluck a trophy for his party by defeating the Chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, 13-term Rep. Duncan Hunter (R).

“I am Duncan Hunter’s exit strategy,” he touts.

An ex-cop, ordained priest, naval chaplain, graduate student and real estate broker, Rinaldi is the child of Kennedy-era parents who instilled in him the virtues of service. And unlike the 2004 election, when Hunter got 69 percent of the tally, Rinaldi sees “a swirl of mitigating factors that make this race winnable.

“This is our best chance of taking back the Congress in 10 years,” says Rinaldi. Demographic changes, disgust over corruption and the bloody repercussions from the Iraq war all weigh on the minds of local voters, he says. Plus, “I frequently get told that I look like a Republican,” Rinaldi laughs, citing another clincher should the race get tight.

To top it all off, Rinaldi claims that many people he talks to think their congressman is in jail, confusing Hunter with former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R), ex-representative of the nearby 50th District.

“They see Hunter as cut from the same cloth as Cunningham and [Jack] Abramoff,” Rinaldi claims.

When pushed on the fairness of this Hunter/Cunningham comparison, Rinaldi shoots back with a sensational lack of  spin.

“If Hunter’s a smart man, he’s getting his shower  shoes ready for prison,” says Rinaldi, who probably didn’t call Hunter to wish him a happy Father’s Day.

Nothing bedevils the fortunes of a long-shot candidate more than their lack of a fortune. In other words, if cash is the sex of politics, then the Democratic Party isn’t stepping out with Rinaldi.

“At the very least they should be offering basic levels of support to all candidates,” Rinaldi says, feeling sidelined by Washington. He is particularly irked by Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman Rahm Emanuel’s (D-Ill.) strategy of primarily directing resources at a small number of select swing districts.

“We don’t fight the fights and bring the fights in all the districts, and we should,” says Rinaldi.

When Chad Miles explored a congressional run with the leadership of the Michigan Republican Party, the party honchos were up front about what the 35-year-old veteran and college student would face.

“You’re going to be the sacrificial lamb for the 14th District,” Miles remembers with a pained chuckle.

A staunchly Democratic district in metro Detroit, the 14th has been dominated since well before Miles was born by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a 21-term one-man Rushmore of the left. And though Miles professes a moderate strain of conservatism, he admits that being a Republican in this area is “somewhat problematic.”

“That’s been one of the biggest obstacles , that I’m a Republican,” Miles says, admitting to being “a glutton for punishment” for opposing Conyers, who ran a nominal race in 2004 and still walked off with 84 percent of the vote.

While friends and family have been supportive of Miles’ first bid for any elected office, some encouraged him to run as an Independent, or even a Democrat, though Miles felt that neither choice was viable given his strong opposition of abortion rights.

“I’d rather lose honestly than win dishonestly,” explains Miles.

Others have puzzled over his decision to jump in at the top of the ballot. “They ask, ‘Why didn’t you run for dogcatcher?’ ” Miles says.

While there are more Prius hybrids in this part of the Motor City than Republicans, Miles swears that Conyers is beatable: “I think I can win. I couldn’t have done this if I didn’t.”

It is tempting to see these upstarts as the Evel Knievels of congressional politics, trying to pull off a most audacious stunt: running for Congress in the first place.

“I’m keeping democracy going,” says Ahmad Hassan. “I’m running for America.”

That said, Evel Knievel usually made it across the canyon, while these candidates, idealism, are likely to fall well short of the Beltway.