It was 10 am on March 31, 2010, the filing deadline in Missouri to run for Congress. My wife and I kept looking at the Secretary of State’s website to see if someone would step forward to be the Democratic nominee in the 2nd District to run against Todd Akin.
At 10:30 am, no one had filed, we headed for Jefferson City to file, just in case no else would. No one filed as a Democrat, and when 5 pm arrived, I had immediately secured a win in the Democratic primary and the opportunity to run for Congress against Todd Akin.
Akin had succeeded in winning virtually every election he had entered, and doing it all under the radar. He had a quiet but intensely committed core of supporters: the religious right, who believed that they were right about everything. After winning a close Republican primary for the seat in 2000, because his supporters were more willing than his competitors to brave the rain, he has had one landslide after another. When I ran in 2010, I became another in a long list of low-profile (or “no-name”) candidates to run against him.
Obviously, I didn’t agree with Akin about almost anything, whether political or in many cases ethical. Akin was part of the Republican firewall in the House of Representatives that joined with Democratic Blue Dogs to fight most of President Obama’s progressive proposals. But Akin was truly a backbencher. The legislation that he introduced, other than co-sponsoring anti-choice and other items in the Republican litany, were the renaming of post offices for Iraq veterans and trying to ensure that “under God” would remain in the Pledge of Allegiance.
But within his small circle of intense supporters, he said some true whoppers. This was all available on-line in 2010. Among them were:
“Finally, however, America is waking up! Patriots across America are mobilizing, and Heaven is bombarded with the prayers of Saints who sense our national peril. Once again America calls for true sons and daughters. May the Divine Author of our lives and liberties give us strength — He was always our great hope and He must be again.”
“Now, in short two years, our country is being destroyed by a one party rule of self-identified socialists, known communists, and other miscellaneous liberals. National security is compromised and the economy is plundered. Private enterprise is managed by Czars. Job creation is almost at a standstill. Red tape and taxes are the solution to every problem. Socialized medicine has been approved and threatens to destroy our Healthcare as well as our Federal Budget. The rate of federal spending will soon destroy our economy and Obama leadership’s incompetence is eclipsed only by its voracious appetite for centralized power.”
I was aware of these statements, but I chose not to attack him on his prior gaffes, or should I say, beliefs. His previous statements made his August 19, 2012 uninformed and indelicate comment about rape just a further example of how scary he could be. It was just another example of “Akin-speak.” But my campaign did not focus on him; rather it was an experiment in running a campaign that hopefully would set an example for how politics could be.
I looked at my candidacy as a unique opportunity. My goals were essentially two:
– To diminish the role of money in politics by simply taking no contributions. No money; not even three dollars. I funded the campaign with my own money, using about the cost of sending one student to a top-level college for one year (about $50,000, or less than 1 percent of what some Congressional candidates spent). I did not fear that I could be bought by small contributions; I just opposed them, because I strongly believe in public funding of elections, which creates a level playing field for all candidates. In part, I communicated my wishes regarding contributions with a web-page button that said, “Don’t nate.”
-To elevate the level of debate or dialogue. So much of political talk consists of nonsense ranging from platitudes, cliches and diatribes. Very little involves thought, self-questioning, logic, and seeing the other person’s point of view. It was my goal to try to engage the voters, and perhaps Akin, in a dialogue characterized by give and take. I would learn from them, and hopefully, they would learn from me. To the extent that I was able to reach voters, I believe that happened.
Like other Democratic candidates who had run against Akin since 2000 in the highly Republican district, I was soundly defeated. Akin won 71 percent to my 29 percent, which sounds terrible. When we examined the data following the election, my performance was not that bad in comparison to other first-time candidates running against incumbents, but it was not enough to give Akin the slightest of scares. In fact, he barely bothered to campaign.
I never personally saw the ugly side of Akin. I met him three times. The first was at a community fair where I asked his staff if he would simply agree to meet me. He did, and we chatted for about ten minutes, mostly about people we knew in common. I asked him if he would be willing to participate in the forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. He said that he would have to check with his scheduler, which meant no. We met two other times at meet-the-candidate gatherings sponsored by community organizations. We had small chats, and while I continued to ask him to participate in the League forum, he repeatedly declined. He admitted that he had a grudge against the League of Women Voters, which I saw as strange, since the League is generally about as non-partisan as a political group could be.
As the 2012 election grows closer, it seems likely that Akin’s faux pas will bring an end to his political career and may make him a pariah to anyone who wants to advance in the world of politics. I hardly will shed any tears over this development. All the same, I will not regret taking a clean approach to Mr. Akin in 2010. For him to self-destruct as he has in 2012, he would have had to vigorously engage in the 2010 campaign. He punted on that opportunity.
There was one other option in the 2010 campaign that might have brought his strange religious and ethical views to light. The on-line St. Louis newspaper, The Beacon, graciously arranged for Akin and me to write competing essays on several topics. They included “How government can help small business,” “Assessing the Obama record vis-à-vis the military,” “Lessons from the Civil War & the Civil Rights movement” (to which Akin did not submit an essay). With several weeks to go in the campaign, I asked the editors of the Beacon if we could do one more on religion and politics. I thought that even if Akin did not say anything strange, at least he would have had to clarify his positions. It would have been particularly interesting in light of my agnostic views. However, the Beacon said no. I think that a chance was lost; not necessarily one that would have changed the results of the election, but one that could have given the public two more years to contemplate Akin’s unusual views.
Perhaps I should have challenged Akin more on his non-mainstream beliefs. But then again, mine were out of the mainstream as well, only in a different direction. Missouri is an unusual state, and perhaps he has a chance of winning his current Senate race in spite of (or because of) his views on rape and other personal issues. If he does, as a society we may have to redefine what is normal. I hope that doesn’t happen, and that he joins me in the 29 percent club.
You can read more about Arthur Lieber’s race against Todd Akin in 2010 in his book An Unlikely Candidate.