Perhaps at first blush the casual observer might have concluded this was a room full of losers-in-waiting, political candidates who, by the time the polls close, will go down in flaming, resounding defeat rivaling the Iraqi air force. • Maybe so. But at least these candidates — despite the overwhelming odds conspiring against them — were still willing to throw their collective hats in the ring even at the obvious risk of having their dreams, their ambitions, their self-respect shattered by yawning indifference.
For about five hours Saturday they gathered at the River Bend Church, located in an old car dealership in Mango, for SPCTAMPA 2010, which was really more of an encounter session between the unelectable and delusional. I had been invited to moderate the event, which attracted candidates for governor, attorney general, the U.S. Congress and some local races.
I've been around politics for most of my life. My parents were active in campaigns as I grew up in Ohio. I knew my congressman personally. I majored in political science. And I've covered every imaginable campaign from the presidency to national conventions to school board races — and everything else in between.
I admit it. I'm a junkie. I mainline rallies. I snort polls. I smoke bunting. I'm the Keith Richards of the hustings.
You can easily understand why candidates like Rick Scott, or Bill McCollum, or Alex Sink, or Charlie Crist, or Jeff Greene, or Kathy Castor, or Kendrick Meek, or Adam Putnam, or Pam Bondi, or Jeff Kottkamp, or a host of other figures who have been inundating us with commercials, fliers and robo-phone calls run for office.
First, there is the allure of power, the opportunity to wield influence, to even position themselves for higher office down the road. And in each of these cases, there is the potential possibility they might actually get elected. That's more than reason enough to run.
But what about all the others, the candidates who are willing to subject themselves to many of the same rigors of a campaign — attending the endless, oftentimes sparsely attended, community forums, knocking on doors, handing out their brochures, wearing the shoe leather thin — for nothing in return?
I find most politicians endlessly fascinating people. This is an exercise that ultimately for most aspirants ends badly in rejection, often on a massive scale. And yet, there they are — showing up at events like SPCTAMPA 2010 to wait for hours for the opportunity to have three minutes of time to tout their cause, 180 seconds of exposure into a void few people will even hear and even fewer will care about.
There was the very intense Bruce Ray Riggs, running for the U.S. Senate, dressed in work boots, madras shorts and T-shirt promoting his campaign, who mumbled something to the effect that he has a problem with the 14th Amendment.
Daniel Imperato was there too, offering an almost messianic argument for why he should be governor.
Republican Eddie Adams, who would like to run against Democrat Kathy Castor, noted no Republican has ever won the 11th Congressional District, a trend unlikely to be reversed any time soon. But he's running anyway.
Holly Benson, who is running for attorney general, was on hand as well and when asked to explain why — as her negative advertising suggests — her Republican opponents Pam Bondi and Jeff Kottkamp are dreaded "liberals," suddenly turned into Ralph Kramden uttering, "Hummana, hummana, hummana." It was not exactly a, "You're no Jack Kennedy!" moment.
And so it went. Michael Arth, who is running for governor by riding his bicycle around the state, seemed more preoccupied with his children video recording his appearance than answering questions. Tea party candidate Randy Wilkinson, who is running to succeed Putnam in Congress, wants every bill introduced in the House of Representatives to be read in full on the House floor, an exercise that would further paralyze an already gridlocked legislative process.
It is tempting to belittle some of these candidates for their naivete, their lack of political acumen, their — in some cases — single-minded demagoguery.
Instead, I admire them — even the ones who scared the living bejabbers out of me. It takes an awful lot of intestinal fortitude to run for office. It is hard, hard, hard work — even for a fringe candidate.
At the same time, even though my goldendoodle has a better shot at getting elected to office than most of these candidates, for all their shortcomings they represent the best of American politics — that anyone can run for any office.
These forums offer a chance for a candidate, regardless of electability, to state their case, make their pitch, ask for votes. It is the essence of pure democracy. And is that not a good thing?
By the end of today, most of the ambitions for these candidates will be crushed.
They will pack up their card tables, put away their yard signs and consign their campaign buttons to a box — until 2012.