There’s a Late Byzantine feel to America these days: corrupt leaders stealing what they can, infrastructure crumbling, people dying in the (flooded) street, distant losing wars far away, governmental torture, waste, fraud, internecine disputes among the leadership.
When the levee broke, any illusion one might have of even minimal competence in this administration washed away with it. I lead a privileged life, not least because I have tenure in a law school, which gives me both the time and the obligation to think about how we can organize our society so we live better. But it doesn’t take that luxury to understand just how badly the United States has been abused by the people currently in power. How, I keep wondering, can I most effectively stand up for decency, for a government that makes lives better, that protects the weak, children, the elderly, that stands for something better than torture and cutting taxes on multi-millionaires today so that we can incur more debts that inevitably will become taxes borne by my children tomorrow?
I live far from the centers of power. How then to respond to this mess in Washington from out here in the hinterland? I think it’s primarily a function of temperament. Some people will dream or plot revolution; some will join cults. Many will say it’s hopeless and cultivate their gardens. Others will turn to drink. And some others will do something a little more productive. Me, I’m a pretty moderate and bourgeois guy at heart. The system hasn’t been bad to me, and while I see warts in it, I also see virtue. I especially like American ideals of freedom and justice, of a government of laws, of protection of liberty (and yes, thus of property), of a mutual commitment to live and let live so that each can engage in his or her own pursuit of happiness. It’s our leadership’s colossal failure to live up to those ideals, to be even half of what we could be, to instead be such a lead weight on the nation, that gets me so steamed. I’m not your cultist or revolutionary. I don’t have a green thumb. And I can’t really hold my liquor all that well. That leaves electronic pamphleteering and organizing.
I’m aware that one of the biggest reasons we’re in such a pickle is that we have serious problems with our electoral system. It’s not just that money talks much louder than it should; nor is it simply that most of the major electronic media outlets are owned by radical right-wingers. Several are transparently managed in a politically biased manner which relies on a combination of lies, distraction. and suppression of inconvenient people and facts. Combine all that with the terrible voting system and, perhaps worst of all, serious systematic gerrymandering and you get the Congress we have: a body in which the large majority of members are elected for life, or nearly so, at least so long as they truckle properly to the sources of re-election cash.
But if you persist in caring, and you won’t drown your sorrows in a bottle, nor host clandestine meetings, politics is the only game in town.
The great Saul Alinsky instructed us that if you want to change something you start where you are. Where I am is Florida’s 18th Congressional District–the district once represented by the late great Claude Pepper. And indeed, the situation is especially dire here in Florida. (And I don’t just mean the voting machine problem.) Although we are the classic 50/50 state when it comes to the voting public, we are anything but a 50/50 state in either our congressional delegation or in the state house. No, the district lines are artfully done, and ensure a substantial Republican majority in the statehouse and in Congress (only the US Senate delegation is 50/50 — can’t gerrymander that!). Plus, the Democratic Party in Florida is not as aggressive as it could be: it frequently doesn’t even field a candidate against entrenched incumbents in safe seats.
Under Florida law, if no one files to run against incumbents, they are declared the winner when the filing period closes. That of course means they are free to raise money and campaign for other candidates, and also can save a fortune in election expenses. Not fielding even a sacrificial lamb weakens the rest of the Democratic ticket. Our local incumbent ran unopposed in 1998, and in fact hasn’t had a really serious opponent since 1992.
So I began researching what it takes to run for Congress, just because it would be nice to know, in case I ever ran into a likely candidate.
The short answer as to what is needed — besides, perhaps, taking leave of your senses — is that it takes either about $9,000 to pay the filing fees, or about 5,000 signatures on petitions from voters in this district (1% of 250,000 registered voters = 2,500 times the double you need to make sure enough of the signatures are valid).1 What that gets you here in Florida’s 18th congressional district, is the chance to run in a district that starts in Key West, a long drive south, and runs in a little strip right through my neighborhood in Coral Gables, continuing on to points north of me. Republicans outnumber Democrats among registered voters by about 2:1. Cuban-Americans, traditionally a seriously Republican constituency, predominate politically. Even though we have more than 100,000 social security recipients, even though our Congressperson couldn’t bring herself to criticize Bush’s plans to gut Social Security, this district is not likely to make anyone’s top-ten list of likely Democratic pickups. Indeed, if it’s not on the top-ten list of safe Republican seats, it must surely be close to it.
To ice the cake, incumbent Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has about $1.3 million in campaign cash on hand according to the most recent report that I could find online. She is also reputed to be the Representative most favored by the Church of Scientology, an endorsement that presumably ensures a national fund-raising base and a cadre of very highly motivated campaign operatives.
In the last election, one Samuel Martin Sheldon (this one?) ran as the Democratic candidate. He raised $11,883, spent $11,882. (I wonder what happened to that last dollar?) He got 35% of the vote. Ileana raised $876,886 and spent $859,083, leaving her $1.5 million on hand at the time (wonder what she’s done with that $200,000 since then?).
I read that the Democratic establishment wants to make it a race in every congressional district. I think that’s a good idea, a great idea, a necessary idea. I volunteer to help the right candidate. I wonder, though, who if anyone is planning to run? Are the local and national Democratic political establishments working to find a credible candidate to take on the job of sacrificial lamb? What sort of resources the DCCC. and the DNC are offering to bring to the table if we had a good candidate? Howard Dean, are you listening?
Not that we’re going to win — but maybe we could make her spend it all this time.
1. There is an alternate, less expensive, procedure by which you file to be a write-in candidate. Florida has a really bizarre rule that votes for write-in candidates will be ignored unless the candidate has filed by the same deadline as a regular candidate. Write-in candidates who file don’t get on the ballot, but they get votes for them recorded. The major consequence of having a write-in candidate file to run is that it prevents an otherwise unopposed candidate from being declared the winner without the formality of an election. But since the otherwise unopposed candidate is still the only name on the ballot, the election remains little more than a formality.