Occasionally someone will sugget that I might consider running for office, not knowing my sad history with electoral politics. That being said, running for office has been good experience for writing about politics.
And honestly, even getting involved in a small way in an election campaign (you don’t have to run yourself) is good for everyone, whether it be helping with paperwork or going door-to-door. You get a real appreciation for the process, and a respect for anyone involved - even those you disagree with - should you do so.
How I got a mandate from the People
Losing three elections isn’t as easy as it might seem
1988: Into the Fray
Though I had long had an interest in politics, it had been pretty much restricted to reading about politics and writing many letters to the editor. But then, one day, as I was working in the parts cage at Mexican Original, a man came up and introduced himself to me.
He told me that he had read many of my letters to the editor, and suggested to me that perhaps it was time for me to evolve. I can’t recall his exact words, but “evolve” seems like a good description for our discussion.
A few days later he introduced me to a friend of his, a man who had led the often lonely fight against Fayetteville’s plan to build a solid waste incinerator. He had managed to galvanize the public and this had led to a public vote, in which a majority of voters said, “No thanks” to the proposition.
We became friends, and he began educating me about the ins and outs of Fayetteville politics. I began accompanying him to meetings and met people whose names I had only encountered in news articles and letters columns.
In August of that year I decided to take the plunge - as long as I was “evolving” - to run for a seat on Fayetteville’s city government. At that time Fayetteville had a City Manager form of government, supported by a Board of Directors, which elected a weak mayor.
I still remember how cocky I was. “Blood will flow,” I told the City Clerk when I picked up my application forms. Too bad I didn’t realize the blood would all be mine.
As luck would have it, I found myself in a four-man race. I don’t think it will spoil your suspense if I tell you now that I came in last. Of course, at that time, ward races were city-wide. After a while, I just gave up trying to get to all parts of the city with my campaign literature.
Still, as learning experiences go, it was a wonderful thing. I hadn’t yet had any experience in front of a camera, so my performances were pretty stiff, and I said some pretty silly stuff, a lot of which I can’t remember, thank God.
I do remember one of the all time worst political radio spots I’ve ever heard, and it was put on by folks who supported our slate of progressive candidates. The film Good Morning Vietnam had just come out, and so imagine, if you will, a voice bellowing out of your radio:
“Good Morning, Fayetteville!”
With no practical political experience, even I thought this ad was a terrible idea. I didn’t say anything at the time, though. I was still the New Kid on the Block.
I also learned that once you announce for office, you are fair game for every group out there that wants to send you a questionnaire - whether it be newspapers, political groups, or fringe outfits.
Abortion and traditional marriage seem to matter an awful lot to some of the groups who send out questions to candidates. In the beginning I filled them all out, but after a while I just started throwing some of them away.
Even though I came in last, I still managed to get enough votes to make me think that this running for office stuff might have some kind of future for me.
1990: The Year I joined the Republican Party- well, sort of
Anyone can lose one election. Even Bill Clinton managed to do it. But 1990 gave me an opportunity to climb on the horse yet again.
Of course, no one makes the decision to run with the intention of losing in mind; it’s just that sometimes you find yourself in a truly unwinnable race. And so it was that year, as I took on Lyell Thompson, a Democrat who had held a seat on the Washington County Quorum Court since the time of Methuselah.
Well, not quite that long. But long enough that he was firmly entrenched in the seat. Not only that, Lyell was (and still is) a very popular man. And, added to that, I was running as a Republican in a firmly Democratic area. What could have been going through my head?
Well, the man who had persuaded me to run for city board had been sitting on the Washington County Quorum Court for the past two years as a Republican. He wasn’t really much of a Republican, but he never got much support from the Democratic Party when he was fighting the incinerator battle several years before. He thought he could do some good as an elected official, so he ran as a Republican
After a couple years, making motions and never getting a second from anyone else on the court was starting to get to him. In the summer of 1990 he came up with what seemed at the time like a cunning plan.
“Come join the Republican party,” he said to several of us. “You can help liberalize it from within. You can make real changes.”
At least two of us fell for that. We paid our filing fees as candidates, and began attending party meetings. The race was on. Only this time, things were a whole lot different. I’m not saying that the new crowd of people we were hanging out with weren’t nice people - most of them were - but we weren’t exactly among friends.
Some things you learned to keep your mouth shut about. Abortion was off-limits. You didn’t talk bad about Ronald Reagan, or George Bush the elder. You sure didn’t praise the governorship of Bill Clinton.
Possibly the oddest moment during the whole campaign came when I attended the governor’s debate between Bill Clinton and GOP opponent Sheffield Nelson and was honor-bound to sit with the GOP side. It just didn’t feel natural.
And the deal was that nobody really accepted the pseudo-Republicans as anything but Klingons in sheep’s clothing. In fact, the Republican Women’s group, which doled out money to candidates, even voted not to give money to some of us.
But the late Leland “Tiny” Hamilton, who was a good man and a good friend, came to our defense and convinced them to write us some checks. Hamilton, who ran several losing campaigns himself, was often dismissed by reporters as a “gadfly,” but he was much more than that.
But that’s a story for another day.
I enjoyed going door-to-door this time around. I enjoyed talking to people, and when someone wasn’t there, I left my flyer. Of the three times I ran, this was the most fun.
Election Night I hung out at the Hilton with other candidates to watch results come in. This is always pretty nerve wracking, even when you are in the lead, which I wasn’t. No matter how tough you are, it’s hard to restrain tears when the results come in, and all your hard work has gone for nothing.
All that self-serving crap about running an educational campaign, and it not mattering whether you win or lose is just that - unadulterated crap.
Still, I garnered over 40 percent of the vote, which was pretty good. My best showing out of three races, actually. But today, looking over my campaign flyer for that race, my eye fell on one paragraph:
“Our environmental integrity must be protected. Twenty-five years ago we began living in what we foolishly called ‘the disposable society.’Today, those mountains of trash are beginning to tower over us. We must seize the initiative and safeguard our children’s future . . .”
No wonder they didn’t trust me.
1992: The Race for City Council
June of that year saw the end of a hard-fought campaign to change the form of government in Fayetteville from City Manager/Board of Directors to Mayor/Council. Many things helped to bring about the change, including the bitter public access war that had taken place over the previous winter and spring, in which public access television itself was almost gone from the screens of Fayetteville viewers.
There were many other criticisms of the city manger form of government, of course, but the main argument in favor of change boiled down to this: the new form of government would be more responsive to the people.
Well, if Fayetteville hasn’t had mayors who have been particularly open to public input and criticism since 1992, at least our various city councils have been. So you’d have to conclude that yes, the people made the right choice, overall, in June of that year.
It was that summer that I decided to make my last - to date - foray into electoral politics. I felt like this might be my year; aldermen didn’t have to campaign city-wide, but only in their own ward, and I was a little better known this time around. At the very least, I had been doing an interview show (On the Air with Richard S. Drake) on Fayetteville Open Channel for over a year, and was writing a column for Grapevine, an alternative newspaper - which I felt gave me some name recognition.
Very little name recognition, as it turned out.
Somehow, once again, I found myself facing multiple opponents. Four, this time around. Please God, don’t let me come in last this time.
So I got my campaign literature ready (and it looked pretty sharp), got ready for my TV debates, and began going door-to-door. But it was different this time around.
My heart just wasn’t in it. Half-way through the election season, I realized that I was bored.
And not just bored the way you are on Sunday afternoon when you are too lazy to leave the house and there’s nothing good on television, and even reading is a chore. I mean really, really bored.
I was bored with the election, bored with the process, and bored with myself as a candidate.
I realized I was becoming one of those politicians, who, like Pavlov’s dogs, begin salivating at the clang of the chime beginning the election season. I had known enough of those candidates, and had written about quite a few of them; now I was becoming one of them.
I still went through the motions; I filled out all the questionnaires (even the insane ones), I participated in television debates, and answered questions for newspapers. There were even issues that I cared very strongly about.
Maybe the last two elections were still too fresh in my mind. Or maybe, as more than a few people pointed out, I was having more of an effect writing about issues, and interviewing people, than I would be as an alderman.
Maybe the voters picked up on that, because I didn’t win that election, either. But I didn’t come in last, which does still count for something. No, I came in next to last.
So I have concentrated on writing about politics, and learning about local government and history, and discovering where the bodies are buried. I interview news makers on my little talk show.
I write books. Life is interesting.
I learned a lot in those three elections. I learned how even tough guys can cry, and how pretentious some people can get. I think that running for office gave me a unique perspective on covering local elections, and I’d recommend it to almost anyone who wants to write about politics.
I learned that ordinary men and women can make a difference, which, while a cliche, really is still true. And win or lose, the sun still comes up after Election Day, and your friends are still your friends. Everybody is your friend if you win, but your real friends are there when you lose.
And I learned that you don’t join the Republican Party in an effort to “liberalize” it from within.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a novel, “Freedom Run,” and a history of Fayetteville, “Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.”
Arkansas Free Press - December 2007