People say powerful corporations are the problem.
People say money in politics is the problem.
People say the corrupt two-party system is the problem.
People say Beltway lobbyists are the problem.
Yeah? So what? What are you going to do about it?
Write about it on your blog?
Sign an online petition?
Call your member of Congress?
Write a letter to the editor?
Read The Nation magazine?
Watch C-Span? (Sam Smith, in his classic book Why Bother?, wrote that “we view C-Span to remember what democracy was about.”)
Name your representatives in your state’s legislature—House and Senate. Don’t know their names? Join the club. In my snap survey of friends, relatives and even political junkies, more than 70 percent couldn’t name both. I’m sure that holds true for Michigan, the United Auto Workers state that last year passed a so-called “right to work” unionbusting law. Watch out for similar legislation coming to a state near you.
According to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, about 33 percent of all state legislative-district elections in 2012 had only one candidate per seat in the race—and Winger says it’s likely that the vast majority of those candidates were incumbents running unopposed. Many of those races can be won with a mere 3,000 to 5,000 votes or so, depending on the year. And yet we sit back, read The Nation, write letters to the editor, sign online petitions and watch C-Span. There is another way.
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Gershon Cohen is a debate coach at Haines High School in Haines, Alaska. Cohen is also an activist. In 2006, he led a successful campaign to pass a ballot initiative that regulates and taxes the cruise line industry. He’s now encouraging his fellow Alaskan citizens to run for office to defend the Alaska Constitution—which he says was drafted to acknowledge that only natural human beings have inalienable rights and that those rights should not be transferred to artificial persons, aka corporations.
Nine years ago, Cohen was impressed by a debater from the rival Sitka High School. The debater’s name was Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. Cohen lives in one of those districts where the incumbent member of the Alaska House of Representatives was running unopposed. The eight-year incumbent, Bill Thomas, a Native Alaskan Republican, was co-chair of the powerful House Finance Committee. Thomas voted in 2011 to give the oil industry a $2 billion tax break. Cohen was not at all pleased with that and started searching for someone to challenge Thomas.
A week before the June 1 filing deadline, Kreiss-Tomkins—who was one credit short of graduating from Yale University with a degree in political science—took calls from Cohen and the state Democratic Party on the same day asking him to run. As Kreiss-Tomkins puts it, he did his political due diligence. On the day of the deadline, he filed papers announcing his candidacy, and flew home to Sitka soon after to begin campaigning.
Unlike most of his generation, the 24-year-old Kreiss-Tomkins has a keen interest in politics. Or, as he says: “Politics is essential to determining the kind of world you live in.” He knew he was a young white kid facing a powerful older veteran legislator who was also a Native Alaskan (Tlingit), in a district with a heavy Native population outside the major cities. And he knew that getting around Alaska was different from getting around New England or New York. Alaska House District 34 is bigger than the state of New Jersey. And you can’t get around by automobile. It was going to be either plane or ferry.
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Kreiss-Tomkins was the clear underdog. But one thing he had going in his favor was energy. He is a mountain climber and a long-distance runner. And on his campaign website, he wrote that he deeply believes “in the value of a tenacious work ethic.” And so off he went.
Of the 17,875 residents in the district, about half are in Kreiss-Tomkins’s native Sitka, another 2,500 are in Haines, and the remainder are in the eleven or so villages spread throughout the district. The idea was to meet most of the voters in the district face to face. Door to door.
Don’t run around telling people what you think. Ask them what they think. Tell them that you want to be their servant in Juneau. Here’s my card. Here’s my cellphone number. Call me. If you have to leave a message, I’ll call you back within twenty-four hours.
First stop, Angoon, which is overwhelmingly Tlingit. “I had never been to Angoon in my life,” Kreiss-Tomkins says. “I get off the float plane and sit down on the dock, take some Ritz crackers and peanut butter out of my backpack. I didn’t know a soul in Angoon. I didn’t have a place to stay. I had some clothes in my backpack. I had a little bit of cash and a bunch of business cards. I walked into the village and starting knocking on doors.”
There are two businesses in Angoon, the gas station and the trading post, Kreiss-Tomkins says. Gas is $6 a gallon (compared with $4.50 a gallon in Sitka) and milk is $9 a gallon (versus $5.29 in Sitka).
“I cared about the issues the people of Angoon faced,” Kreiss-Tomkins says. “It’s a community struggling with its own survival—cost of energy, cost of groceries, social ills.”
“Showing that you care is important,” he adds. “Even though I’m white and 23 years old, it didn’t matter. Showing that you care is a transcendent quality.”
And that’s the way the campaign went. Spend three or four days in each village. Knock on every door. Crash on people’s couches—mostly people you don’t know. Then you do. Never stay in a hotel. Never eat in a restaurant. And don’t worry about the food.
The quality of the food improved dramatically from the Ritz crackers and peanut butter, yogurt and bananas on those first days in Angoon. The residents of District 34 made sure Kreiss-Tomkins got his fill of halibut and salmon.
“I ate more quality king salmon during this campaign than most restaurant critics in New York eat in their lifetimes,” Kreiss-Tomkins says.
From village to village—from Hoonah to Hydaburg to Metlakatla—he went. In Hydaburg, the elders said to him, “We haven’t had a candidate here in twenty-two years.” Even though the majority of voters in the district lived in Sitka and Haines, Kreiss-Tomkins knew that if he ignored the villages, he didn’t have a chance. So he hit every door in almost every village. He doubled back and covered many villages again. In Sitka and Haines, he knocked on most doors—ignoring those voters he knew he had no chance with.
He also did what most campaigns do. He organized volunteers. He put up a Facebook page and a website. He raised and spent money. Kreiss-Tomkins spent $73,019 on the campaign—compared with Thomas’s $117,579.
“Our campaign had more donors than any other state House campaign in Alaska,” he says. “We had north of 500 contributors. And per capita, we had one of the lowest averages per donation—something like $85 per donation.”
He sent out letters to the voters in his district.
“To represent, I believe you need to know who you’re representing,” he wrote in one. “That means spending time in communities, knocking on doors, building relationships, listening and learning. There aren’t any shortcuts to spending time in the place that you represent.”
And he pounded his opponent for voting for that $2 billion tax break for the oil industry—a hot-button issue in oil-rich Alaska. The tax break was killed last year in the state Senate, but a smaller tax cut for the industry is expected to pass this spring.
“There was the process. The process was: I put in the time, I showed I care,” Kreiss-Tomkins says. “That was important. But we also ran our campaign on an issue endemic to Alaska—oil taxes. State government is entirely dependent on oil royalties. And the question is: What percentage of the money that comes from that oil patch is retained by the state, and what percentage goes to BP, Exxon and ConocoPhillips? Our governor, and most but not all of the Republicans in the Legislature, supported a tax cut that would shift $2 billion from the state to BP, Exxon and ConocoPhillips.”
But it wasn’t the issues that hurt Thomas so much as it was the perception that Kreiss-Tomkins cared more. In what many believe to be one of the biggest upsets in Alaskan legislative history, Kreiss-Tomkins defeated Thomas by thirty-two votes, 4,130 to 4,098. And though he ran as a Democrat, Kreiss-Tomkins doesn’t believe that party affiliation was a determining factor.
“The kind of campaign I ran was so personal, the party label didn’t make that much of a difference,” he says. “Alaska politics aren’t highly partisan relative to other states. There is a strong sense of community across the state. You know the candidate as a person, not necessarily as a Democrat or a Republican.” Kreiss-Tomkins adds that he could have run and won as an independent.
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So let’s say you want nothing to do with the corrupt two-party system. In many states, getting on the ballot for the state legislature as an independent requires very few signatures. Richard Winger of Ballot Access News says that in the majority of states, it takes signatures from less than 1 percent of a district’s registered voters for an independent to get on the ballot—not a heavy lift.
True, running as an independent is easier in some states. More than a dozen states, for example, have straight-ticket voting. This allows voters to select the party’s entire ticket without bothering to look at down-ballot races that might include independents. In some states, a large proportion of voters choose the straight party ticket and leave without even seeing the candidates’ names. (Activists in Rhode Island think they have a good chance to get rid of straight-ticket voting in their state this year. According to MasterLever.org, a petition-gathering website that opposes straight-ticket mechanisms on voting machines, “The best academic evidence indicates that when voters use the master lever their true preferences for candidates and parties are not realized.”)
Winger says that in 2012, there were 5,984 regularly scheduled state Senate and House races. About 2,000 of those were in districts where the candidates ran unopposed.
Let’s say your district has 17,000 registered voters. And let’s say that 6,000 people come out to vote. That means you need 3,001 votes to win it. If you register 500 people to vote, many of them will vote for you—because you brought them into the political system. Let’s say 300 of those newly registered voters vote for you. And then let’s say you get another 500 out of the 11,000 who are already registered but wouldn’t have voted to vote for you. You’re at 800. Now you need to get 2,201 out of the 6,000 who will vote. Even in right-wing districts, 2,201 votes is a manageable goal. Especially if you’re running as an independent.
This is not to say that if you run, you will win, or even that you’ll get close. Kreiss-Tomkins was a special person in a special district. He was well known in Sitka, as was his mom, Connie Kreiss, a doctor with the Indian Health Service. And Kreiss-Tomkins put a lot of time and energy into meeting people and understanding their needs.
But Cohen, Winger and Kreiss-Tomkins himself all believe that his efforts (and success) can be replicated throughout the country. Clearly, just repeating the words “Citizens United” and “corporate power” and “money in politics” over and over again is not going to get us where we need to be. We have to challenge for power. That means, as Kreiss-Tomkins puts it, “spending time in communities, knocking on doors, building relationships, listening and learning.” Face to face, person to person, showing voters you care.