Oddball candidates in '06 attempt mission impossible

Brad Blanton describes himself as “white trash with a Ph.D.” Next year, Blanton hopes, he’ll be a white-trash member of Congress.

Brad Blanton describes himself as “white trash with a Ph.D.” Next year, Blanton hopes, he’ll be a white-trash member of Congress.

Blanton is a psychotherapist and author who is looking to defeat House Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) in November. Blanton’s campaign slogan is “We need a doctor in the House,” even though there are more than a few already in the lower chamber.

But Blanton is serious. He plans to mortgage his house and add $100,000 to his campaign. He said he raised $30,000 and pledged to raise $1 million by September.

Of course, he’s a long way from that million-dollar mark. At the end of 2005, Blanton had $463 on hand. Cantor had $554,471.

In 2004, Blanton, an Independent Green Party candidate, got enough signatures to be on the ballot and received 24 percent of the vote. This time around, he says, he’ll get the other 26 percent. “I’ll get Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

“Cantor doesn’t think I’m a threat, which makes me more appealing,” said Blanton, who has written several books on the importance of honesty.

Blanton is one of hundreds of average citizens who are running for Congress this year — just like truck driver Joe LaBonte, working-mom Alexa Lewis and Wal-Mart assistant manager Steven Gavi.

In most every election, nontraditional candidates who will never make the nightly news, debate or be recognized will nevertheless run in an uphill race to change representation in Washington. They are the embodiment of the pursuit of the American dream, a dream that will not be realized without millions of dollars, endorsements and media attention.

Incumbents have a clear advantage in the political process. In the 2004 election, only three incumbent House members lost outside of redistricted Texas and only one incumbent senator was defeated. Typically, challengers without the official support of Democratic or Republican leadership do not stand a chance.

They may not be whom we normally see on the ballot, but as Lewis said, “I’m not unique in terms of what most Americans are.”

Lewis, a 30-year-old Democrat running against fourth-term Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), said she “reached a point, personally, that I got fed up and decided to take on the biggest challenge yet — running against Wu.”

She didn’t want to “have to explain why soldiers have to die to my son when I don’t understand it myself.”

While she conceded that her campaign funding is going “a little slow,” Lewis said she has received some “good verbal support” and is learning campaign finances. She is not listed on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) website and has not disclosed any contributions. Wu had $522,943 on hand at the end of 2005.

Wu spokeswoman Jillian Schoene, apparently with a straight face, said, “Congressman Wu takes every opponent seriously.”

Many candidates do not have websites or phone numbers. Contacting them can be difficult, if not impossible. Some of their websites are text only; others feature pictures of them with celebrities or doing everyday things, such as cleaning the swimming pool or learning self-defense moves.

Utah truck driver LaBonte, a candidate running against fifth-term Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), is hoping to raise several million dollars for his “heart and soul” campaign. However, he has no cash on hand.

LaBonte, who will launch his campaign in April, said he will decorate his truck and trailer with his campaign messages and enlist other trucks to do the same. He has started a website and will hold debates throughout Utah. He listens to 10 hours a day of National Public Radio or C-SPAN to stay abreast on the political issues.

“My tractor-trailer will be wrapped, and I’ve got literature and a sound system going up and down the street,” said LaBonte, who said he attended the “college of life.”

In 2002, he decided to run for the Senate after finishing Ethics of the New Millennium by the Dalai Lama, which he picked up at a truck stop’s book bin. He said the book showed him that “we have a responsibility to each other.” He also started the Being Human Party, which promotes world peace through political, spiritual and ethical initiatives.

LaBonte said he wrote a letter to the Dalai Lama expounding on the Being Human Party’s platform. A spokesman for the Dalai Lama’s replied that the Dalai Lama “may need to join the party.”

“It’s a David and Goliath bang,” LaBonte said. “Anything is possible.”

Another candidate running against Hatch, Roger Price of the Personal Choice Party, said that he has refused campaign contributions because he doesn’t want to be “holding to anyone,” though he said he would accept a contribution if someone “honestly” offers him one.

Price said he’s “about liberty.” The government isn’t working for the people, it is working for the privileged, according to Price, who bags groceries at a local supermarket for extra cash. Price has not raised any campaign funds. Hatch, on the other hand, had $2.1 million at his disposal.

Texas swimming-pool contractor Roger Owen (D) said, “I haven’t raised a penny” and “I don’t want their [special interests’] endorsements.”

Owen is running against Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas), who had $214,086 on hand at the end of last year. He said he has dipped into his savings to contribute $3,140 to his campaign, adding that the people of the district “need to make up their minds” and contribute to his campaign.

Owen defeated Duane Shaw in a nail-biter Democratic primary this week, winning by 1,282 votes. Owen stressed that a more diverse representation is needed in Washington. His opponent, Gohmert, is an attorney, a profession for which Owen has little respect.

“In the Bible, lawyers are mentioned only three times, [but] Jesus was in the construction business,” the contractor said, laughing.

Gohmert said he is “looking forward to a good campaign that highlights issues that are important to East Texans.” Most of the challengers aren’t shy about accepting contributions, although they say they are strictly adhering to their ideals that financial interests can no longer drive the agenda.

“It’s important to have candidates in a race instead of having a candidate run unopposed,” said Anthony Eksterowicz, a professor of political science at James Madison University. “Even if you have a weak candidate that isn’t going to make it, it’s better” to have someone. He said challengers give people the incentive to vote and become part of the political process.

Larry Kissell (D), a social-studies teacher and former textile worker from North Carolina’s 8th District, had enough. He could not explain to his high school students why “we de facto say we accept what’s going on.”

Kissell, running against forth-term Rep. Robin Hayes (R), said he raised $20,000 in the fourth quarter and will begin seriously campaigning this spring. His “retired” campaign mascot is CAFTA, a pygmy goat named after the Central America Free Trade Agreement, which Hayes voted for after promising the largely textile-driven district that he would vote against it.

“Keep the Kiss in Kissell: Keep it simple, stupid” is the slogan for the campaign, which has enlisted volunteers and established a website. Kissell’s war chest had $3,654, while Hayes had $733,837 at the end of 2005.

Kissell told his classes that he would get to Washington with his “good looks and witty remarks.” If that is his ticket, the teenagers joked, he won’t get out of the county.

In 2000, 26-year-old rancher Adam Putnam (R) was elected to Florida’s 12th District seat. He was sworn in as the youngest member to ever be elected to the House. In this case, however, the race was for an open seat. Putnam was unopposed in the primary, and he had served in the Florida state Legislature since he was 22. At the end of 2000, according to FEC reports, Putnam had raised more than $1 million.

Before the election, the local press harped on Putnam’s age. Daniel Ruth of The Tampa Tribune wrote, “I wouldn’t know whether to vote for this guy — or burp him.” Nevertheless, Putnam pulled through.

If Putnam could do it, maybe recent college graduate Bryan Barton has a chance. He’s challenging Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) to represent what he calls “largest congressional district of college students.”

Barton, who turns 26 in April, was suspended from the University of California San Diego for a “beef with the student government” and distributing his “Student Jobs Guide,” he said.

He laughed saying that he has raised “almost one one-hundredth of the half a million Susan Davis has,” but he has plans to raise more. Barton is relying on interns to help with his campaign but does not have the funding, experience or the open seat that Putnam had. His campaign mascot is a pot-belly pig, to “signify government waste.”

The FEC reported that Davis had $518,756 cash on hand at the end of 2005 and Barton was not listed.

“I’m going to do events politicians don’t do,” Barton said. “My chance is less than 100 to 1, and I’m going to do events that piss people off, events that attract media attention.”

Barton refused to detail what the events might be but said that “with today’s technology and media, campaigns can be run with a lot less money.”

Davis, meanwhile, said something bland that you’d expect from a successful politician: “I welcome anyone into the race and look forward to the opportunity to discuss the issues that are of concern to San Diego and the nation.”

Other notable candidates include constitutionalist Brian Lee Merrill, a blue-collar worker and ex-stock-car driver running against South Carolina Rep. Henry Brown (R); Paul Daghlian (R), an ex-gas-station manager, running for the seat held by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.); and folk singer “Red Gabe” Ross of the Green Party, challenging Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). Of those candidates, only Otterbein has reported any campaign money, with $335 cash on hand.

A campaign-tracking website, www.politics1.com, lists most 2006 candidates and their professions.

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