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Letters from Special-Interest Groups
My decision, early in the campaign, to focus on a small set of issues related to the economy caused problems later on. I, as a candidate for public office, thought I had a right to choose my own message for voters. Abortion and gun control, for instance, were not important to me. Why not simply refuse to take a position on those questions? The problem is that there are certain politically active groups that do care a lot about the social and cultural issues. They have large memberships and a mechanism for communicating the candidates’ views to their members. If the commercial newspapers refuse to cover political campaigns, those organizations may offer the only cost-effective way to communicate with large numbers of voters.
Of course, the groups have an agenda. They typically send questionnaires to candidates for Congress and other offices asking how they would vote on certain questions. The candidate has a good idea what is “the right answer”. The idea is that the organization will evaluate responses from the different candidates and then endorse someone whose views closely match its agenda. If a candidate agrees with that agenda, there is no problem. Just answer the questions honestly. If the candidate does not agree or has no knowledge of the issue, the options are: (1) Give an honest answer and lose the endorsement. (2) Lie about it, anticipating what the organization wants, and give them the desired response and perhaps gain the endorsement. (3) Refuse to respond to the questionnaire.
The truth is that most such issues have clearly etched constituencies within the Democratic or Republican parties. A third-party candidate would likely not receive their endorsement, if only because that candidate is not likely to win. So why prostitute myself as a candidate and try to fudge answers in a way to make myself pleasing to those groups? It would be both morally and tactically a poor move. So that was my position.
Wishing to give as little offense as possible, I typically would write a polite letter to the organization explaining that my campaign focused on economic issues and I did not have a position on the questions asked. For groups concerned with abortion, I might add that I believed that abortion was an issue that properly belonged to state legislatures, not to Congress. I would cross that bridge if I ever came to it.
I had to soften my position when it came to organizations, such as the League of Women Voters or to commercial newspapers, which asked a broad range of questions not directed at any position. I would come across as arrogant if I refused to answer questions other than pertaining to those few issues which I had decided belonged to my campaign. Also, in candidate debates, I could not refuse to answer questions posed by the moderator. I was therefore not in control of my campaign agenda. But that’s life. It’s the price of free publicity. It took me a while to come to grips with that fact.
The letters arrive
The first organization out of the gate was Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a pro-life group. I followed my policy of sending a polite letter that passed on answering the question. There was no further correspondence. I assume that the group’s endorsement went to the Republican candidate. A national pro-life group, National Right to Life Committee, sent me a letter a week later. I again wrote a polite, noncommittal letter. My campaign literature said I had only two issues in the campaign; and, for the time being, I was sticking to that position.
Now came a more difficult challenge. The Minnesota League of Women Voters had a questionnaire requesting biographical information and answers to ten policy questions. The answers would go into its Voter Guide that would go into Target Stores and other places throughout the 5th district. The biographical section posed no problems. The policy questions, however, strayed from my self-chosen agenda. There were questions, for instance, on the Iraq war, on rebuilding infrastructure, aid to education, home foreclosures, etc. There were also questions that played into what I had to say. In the end, I answered all the questions. Already I was compromising.
Another questionnaire that had to be answered was for the Star Tribune Voters Guide. By far, this would be the most important communication link with 5th District voters. The Star Tribune newspaper has hundreds of thousands of subscribers in the district and an online version that reaches many more. In 45 words or less, I was asked for a background statement giving information about myself. Then I could submit an essay in 100 words or less about an issue of importance to me if I were elected. So far, so good. Then, I could list up to ten organizations or persons who endorsed my candidacy. This would require some thought.
Finally, I needed to upload a photo of myself. I had such a photo. It was taken on July 15th at an office building located at 1660 South Highway 100 in St. Louis Park when Independence Party members posed for video statements in a website feature called “Faces of the IP”. One of the volunteers, I had recently grown a beard. This was to be my campaign image.
All this material, then, was submitted to the Star Tribune electronically. The deadline for submissions was August 18th.
The endorsements, again, posed potential problems. Only one organization, the Independence Party of Minnesota, was endorsing my candidacy - and that depended on whether the 5th district officers’ vote to “support” me was, in fact, an endorsement.
I wanted some high-profile endorsements with an edge. At the top of the list was Dean Zimmermann, the former Minneapolis City Council member. He was popular among Greens and his former constituents in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. The fact that he had served a prison term would allow me to make a statement about our system of justice as practiced by the Bush administration. Another possible endorser was a man serving a lengthy sentence for murder in the Stillwater state prison. I was convinced that he was innocent of the murder and had even published a newspaper article to that effect. But here I was taking a needless risk; I was persuaded not to request that man’s endorsement of my campaign.
Therefore, besides the Independence Party, I approached eight individuals for permission to list them as endorsers of my candidacy and received the permission. Two were landlord friends: Frank Trisko and Howard Gangestad. Three were tenants or former tenants including caretakers of my buildings: Alan Morrison, Ed Eubanks, and Joan Washington. Alan was my former brother-in-law. One endorser was a friend from the Independence Party: “Red” Nelson. One was a former store owner who had been persecuted by the city: “Uncle Bill” Sanigular. One was a national political figure, a presidential candidate, who was a friend of many years: Brian P. Moore.
The ninth prospective endorser was a joke. I listed among my endorsements: “Paris Hilton (pending)” The reason for including her was that I had recently published a letter to the editor in the Star Tribune praising Hilton for her video in response to John McCain’s charge that Barack Obama, like Paris Hilton, was only a celebrity. I posted a message to her blog requesting the endorsement and, of course, had no response. Nevertheless, Hilton’s name on the list was semi-legitimate and might have been included among my endorsers if the Star Tribune editors had a sense of humor. They did not. But I had a link to Paris Hilton’s video on my campaign website - a lighthearted touch.
I also approached Dean Zimmermann for an endorsement. He decided not to give one. He did, however, draft a statement making some comments which I posted on my website. It read: "Bill McGaughey understands that most of our problems are linked to a few central questions. I'm particularly happy to see him focus on the issue of declining oil supplies and our need to restructure our economy to keep our prosperity which means not using fossil fuels as an energy source."
In the next week, other requests came in from organizations to answer questions. The Gun Owners of America, headquartered in Springfield Virginia, wanted me to commit to the right to bear arms. I wrote back that this was not my issue. Another organization, A.B.A.T.E. of Minnesota, Inc. had some questions of interest to bikers. Again, I demurred in giving a reply. Next there was a questionnaire from the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. They received the same answer.
The Minnesota Disability Law Center had some questions for me. Brazenly, I wrote in response: “Please forgive me if I do not return your questionnaire. As I am positioned to win a small percentage of the total votes, it might be better for you if your organization endorsed the likely winner.” The American Institute of Architects also had questions for me to answer. So did the National Association of Letter Carriers. The Minnesota Credit Union Network had a candidate survey. And so it went with a series of organizations, ending with the National Taxpayers Union. I resisted all efforts to commit myself to this type of issue and I was telling them so. In the process, I was alienating more and more groups. A better strategy might have been not to respond at all.
Project Vote Smart was a special case. Evidently, a group of respected, high-profile politicians including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford (and George McGovern, Barry Goldwater, Michael Dukakis and Bill Frenzel) had all gotten together and decided that political candidates needed to disclose their positions on every conceivable issue of interest to voters.
This organization was sending political candidates such as me a “comprehensive test” which it called the “Political Courage Test.” It would “measure your answer to one central question: ‘Are you willing to tell citizens your position on the issues you will most likely face on their behalf?’” What could I say? That I was trying to conceal as much as possible from the voters in order to deceive and cheat them? That I was a coward afraid of telling the voters much?
Project Vote Smart seemed designed to defeat the central purpose of my campaign. I was running for Congress to put certain issues before the voters - economic issues, primarily. The problem with contemporary elections, in my view, was that voters were being asked to make decisions on so many different issues that they were distracted from what should have been their main focus. They were becoming paralyzed by all the choices.
My goodness, we were embroiled in at least two foreign wars, the price of gasoline had risen to $4.00 a gallon, we were living off cheap imported products with borrowed money, the housing market was collapsing, people were losing their jobs. And I needed to declare a position on gay marriage? I needed to tell the voters how I felt about decreasing interest rates on Stafford Loans? And I lacked “political courage” if I did not declare a position? I wrote back to Project Vote Smart that I would not be responding to their questions.
Later in the campaign, I relented. A woman from Project Vote Smart telephoned me to ask how the survey was coming. She assured me that I need not answer every question. They would appreciate whatever I chose to reveal. So I did go through the entire survey and answered everything off the top of my head. It’s not that scores of journalists would be picking through my answers to see what I said. No, as the 5th district Congressional candidate in Minnesota least likely to win, the fruits of my judgment would likely sit in some unvisited file throughout the campaign period and beyond. It put this matter to rest.
A survey I couldn’t refuse
One group really got under my skin. Starting in late September, I began receiving email messages titled “an invitation from voters in your district”. The same email was coming in two or three times each day from different people. This email requested that I answer five questions related to Global Warming, Renewable Energy, Nuclear Power, Transportation, and Fuel Efficiency. For each question, I needed to indicate whether I supported the concept, opposed it, or was undecided. Then I could explain my position in a statement of up to 500 characters for each question. The answers needed to be submitted online to candidanswers.org.
In this case, I probably supported the positions that this organization favored. However, it irritated me that exactly the same question came in day after day, forcing me to pay attention to these repetitious emails. I was being spammed. One day, when I was in a foul mood, I sent replies to more than a dozen of the people who had sent me this email: “I am having trouble logging into your site. Who or what is NRDC? You can read my positions in full at website http://www.newindependenceparty.org. Answers to questions:
Please stop bombarding me with emails.”
The last sentence offended a woman in south Minneapolis whose name I will not mention here. She wrote: “I would respectfully point out that I have sent a single email to you - I don't understand how that counts as "bombarding". I would think you would care about voters' concerns and would welcome input rather than asking voters to stop "bombarding you with emails!" NRDC is an organization that cares about the environment; it's not the organization that's important to me, a voter in your district, but the environmental issues.”
I then pointed out that I had received at least twenty of the same message in the last week. She replied: “That means 20 voters in your district feel strongly enough about the environment to contact you! I think you should listen to us! You certainly should not complain to any single voter simply because 19 other voters feel the same way!” I then replied: “While I agree with the objectives of your organization, I am troubled by the personal disrespect you and others show for me in spamming me with the same message. Ms. -- , please vote for someone else if you feel so inclined.”
That really set her off. She wrote: “This is NOT disrespect and is NOT spam! I am appalled at your reaction! This is an organization which contacts voters who care about the environment and encourages them to contact their representatives! We only send the same message because WE ALL BELIEVE IN IT!!! If anyone has been disrespected, it is ME, who wrote you a PERSONAL message alongside the one the organization wrote (did you bother to read it?!?!?!?!?!!) and who clearly cares enough to continue writing to you regarding this!!! My reason to send you the original message was to raise awareness of my support of the environment, to bring this awareness to you, and hope to raise your support of the environment as well! Are voters in the US no longer allowed to voice their support of issues? I think you are missing the point here: I WANT YOU TO WORK TO PROTECT THE ENVIRONMENT. If you read my personal message - at the end of the original so-called "spam" - it states that this is my number-one voting issue! PLEASE CONSIDER THAT I AM NOT ALONE IN MY CONCERN. Just because we all send the same message doesn't make it meaningless: it means that we actually ALL AGREE ON IT!!! AND YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO IT AND US ALL THE MORE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I copied this message and sent it to the sponsoring organization, NRDC, with this request: “Please call off your attack dogs. When I wrote people asking them to stop sending me messages, I kept hearing from your members, notably a Ms. --, telling me that I should be grateful for receiving dozens of the same message.” A spokesman for this organization wrote: “ The only way to stop the emails from coming to your box is to log in to the website and answer the questions there. I have resubmitted the log in instructions, username, and password to this email address. You can choose to answer with or without explanation ... I hope you take the time to answer the survey.”
I surrendered. I answered NRDC’s online survey.
Let me say that I also had my own agenda with respect to some of the “special-interest” organizations. Their solicitations were therefore not entirely unwelcome. I had thought that I might make a contribution to the policy discussion by presenting my own proposals to deal with certain problems. I was interested in learning whether organizations in the same area agreed; or, at least, I was interested in obtaining feedback from interested parties.
The health-care field was one such area. An organization called Research!America sent me a questionnaire titled “2008 Your Candidates - Your Health.” I answered all the questions and included a copy of my own health-care proposal. Nothing ever came of this inquiry.
I also received a survey form from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) chapter for Minnesota and the Dakotas. Immigration was becoming a top interest of mine. Therefore, when a representative of this organization called me about the survey, I used this occasion to discuss my proposal. The woman on the line seemed interested and referred me to several other persons. Ultimately, this contact was unfruitful but it did come as close to achieving the purpose of my campaign as any other. I will have more to say about immigration later.
An overture to labor
Finally, there was an interest-group that did not contact me (except for one of its members). That was organized labor. The main issue in my campaign as I conceived it at the outset was to promote a discussion of trade policy. I was a committed opponent of NAFTA, who had written a book on the subject and now had a unique proposal to deal with the problem of outsourced jobs. One would think that the labor movement would be interested. It was interested, perhaps, but not enough to help me in my efforts.
I mailed letters to perhaps fifty union locals or district organizations in the Twin Cities announcing that I was a candidate for Congress who wanted to discuss trade policy. The note read: “ I realize that your union and many of its members may be committed to the DFL party and to the candidacy of Keith Ellison. I am not asking for your endorsement or support. On the other hand, I do think that an election campaign is a good occasion for discussing questions of social and economic policy. It’s time that we try a new approach. I have developed proposals for dealing both with the issue of illegal immigration and the outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries abroad. You can find them at http://www.newindependenceparty.org/immigration.html and at http://www.shorterworkweek.com/trade1.html. I would ask if you would consider holding a discussion of questions such as these, hopefully involving all the candidates for Congress in the 5th Congressional district. Thanks.”
There was no response. Therefore, on August 18th, I phoned as many of the locals on the list as I could reach. Some people, such as the president of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers in Lakeville, were quite friendly and talked with me at some length. So was a representative of the Metro Transit bus drivers, ATU Local 1005. He remembered me from the days when I was employed at the transit agency. Also, I should say, Bill McCarthy, head of the central labor council in Minneapolis, was approachable and open to discussion. For the most part, however, I had the sense that labor was strongly committed to Keith Ellison’s reelection and my candidacy with another party was not to be encouraged. The editor of the labor newspaper in Minneapolis and political director of the state AFL-CIO even told me so.
I have to admit that I could probably have done something more through organized labor but that would have taken persistence. I dropped the ball. The trade conference that I had previously tried to organize had gone nowhere. Now this outreach to Twin Cities labor was repeating the experience. It seemed that organized labor was joined to the DFL party at the hip. There was the attitude that the Independence Party people were spoilers. Though I was not trying to peel support away from Ellison, my approach to labor must have had that appearance.
Another factor might have been at work: Keith Ellison’s campaign manager was Larry Weiss. I knew him well. Larry was the long-time head of Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition, which he had turned into an umbrella group for organizations supporting “fair trade” - i.e., opposed to free trade. Many of those organizations were union locals. I was an individual member of the group. Therefore, Larry Weiss had a close personal relationship with many of the people I was calling. Now that he was Ellison’s campaign manager, they would certainly not have wanted to offend either Ellison or Weiss. I was out in the cold.
Being of a suspicious mind, I saw a pattern in the fact that two of the Twin Cities’ top trade-policy people had abandoned trade issues for DFL electoral politics. Mark Ritchie, the founder of the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy, had been elected Minnesota’s Secretary of State. Larry Weiss of the Fair Trade Coalition was Keith Ellison’s campaign manager. I wished that both of them were still working in the trade area. They were both able people.
My mind went back to John MacArthur’s book, “The Selling of Free Trade”. This book was about how President Bill Clinton had made a deal with Wall Street interests to back NAFTA in exchange for big campaign donations to Democratic candidates. Now those politically savvy Democrats, Mark Ritchie and Larry Weiss, must have realized what a political loser trade policy was. The Republicans were staunchly in favor of free trade and the national Democratic party, which might have been opposed, had sold out to moneyed interests.
There might be some nibbling at the margins of the consensus in support of free trade but nothing substantial. The critics of free trade - me being one of them - would always lose. Ritchie and Weiss had moved on. They had thrown in their lot with the Democratic party.
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