The Good Fight


The Good Fight

James Browning
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Long before I ran for the Maryland House of Delegates in 2006, a legislator in another state offered me his seat if I’d sleep with him ten times. Otherwise, he explained to me, I would have to grovel, toil, and humiliate myself in other ways for about ten years before I could mount a campaign on my own. (That was fifteen years ago, so that his estimate of grovel­ing time was in fact conservative.) After this I went to New Hampshire to work for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign, my only real qualifications being that I had an American car and would work for room and board. My first day began at six a.m. and seemed to have ended just before midnight, when another staffer came into my bedroom, lit a joint, and talked about all we had to do tomorrow. I quit after three days, moved in with my mother, and finally read Ulysses.

Maryland has forty-seven House districts, each of which is represented by three delegates. Multi­member districts were used in the early days of the British parliament, in part because there was safety in numbers on long carriage rides and several M.P.s were harder to rob than one. Also seeking safety in numbers, the two incumbent delegates in my district were running as a team, or “slate,” and the contest for the third of each voter’s three votes would likely be between me and several other challengers. The district sits just above the northern tip of the District of Columbia and has been called one of the most liberal in the country. Two years earlier the most popular bumper sticker seemed to be ReDefeat Bush. Now it was Impeach Him. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than two to one, so that the winners of the Democratic primary in September were guaranteed a win in November.

I would be a weak candidate. I had only lived in the district for four years and barely knew my neighbors. I’m not a people person, and would rather read a book than pocket business cards. (The legislator who offered me his seat for sex also suggested that I fill a shoe box with business cards before running for office.) I’ve lived for months at a time without a phone and did not get email until the twenty-first century. I have crooked teeth and a right eye which wanders when I look to the left. I do not go to church, do not believe in God, and will ­mumble something about a “oneness of all people and things” if forced to state my religion. My wife and I had a two-year-old, and I planned to take a crucial hour from campaigning each day to take him to a swimming pool. (Oliver was confident if unaccomplished in the pool, charging into the deep end even as the water rose into his mouth and nose.) Worst of all, I’d need to raise about $80,000 to run a competitive campaign, but couldn’t accept corporate or PAC contributions, even from liberal PACs, because of my background as the director of a government watchdog group, and I wasn’t going to spend our savings trying to win a job that paid $43,500 a year.

I was weak, but the voters and the press and interest groups and my potential donors wouldn’t have to know how weak. I was in the newspaper almost every week and had been on TV dozens of times, which, if you don’t see the clips of the slouched man with one eye rolling up into his head, at least sounds impressive. My step-grandmother owns part of the New York Times, and during my interviews with the Sierra Club and other interest groups, I could dump this information onto the table the way they do the grand prize at the end of the World Series of Poker, suggesting that I had money, connections, and a powerful ally once I used my seat in the House of Dele­gates as a stepping-stone to Congress. I am six and a half feet tall and handsome under the right conditions, and the best thing about running and knocking on more than six thousand doors was that, by standing a step or two below many of the roughly three thousand people who were home, I was able for the first time in my life to look ­people in the eyes without slouching, stooping, or craning my neck awkwardly.

I ran because the other challengers seemed even weaker.1 Calvin, a mild-mannered town council­man, had only registered as a Democrat recently, and he gave a careful, dull performance at the first debate. Frank, a lawyer, didn’t even come to the first debate and so I wrote him off. David, the twenty-one-year-old son of the district’s retiring state senator, sat on the ground with his girlfriend at political events, and boasted on his website of living in the district for “nearly twenty years.” Mona, an advocate for better sex education in the public schools, looked to be a brawny woman in her fifties. Then I shook her hand, felt her long, strong fingers, and remembered that she used to be a man and was seeking to become the country’s first transgender state lawmaker. Mona and I were standing in a room of other candidates, waiting to be interviewed by the AFL-CIO, and she began talking loudly about anal sex. The second time we met, her lips were heading for my mouth before veering off to kiss my cheek.

And then there was Ken, a twenty-six-year-old corporate lawyer with bright red hair and a last name near the end of the ­alphabet—a handicap, since the ballot would list us alphabetically. Ken seemed unelectable in our liberal district even before I read that his law firm had defended the now-convicted Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom, and that Ken himself worked in corporate fraud defense. Then I read his campaign website and saw the letter of support from the Sierra Club, which seemed not to know or care about his firm’s defense of environmental polluters, and a letter­ of support from NARAL, which seemed not to know or care about his firm’s defense of companies accused by their workers of sexual harassment. He had done pro bono work or volunteered his time for both of these groups, blind or turning a blind eye to his non-pro-bono work for corporate America.

Still, I felt good and could not believe my luck. Exposing corporate fraud and government corruption had been my job in Annapolis. I had fried much bigger fish—­inspiring an FBI investigation into campaign contributions from a racetrack owner to our senate president, and exposing the fact that a delegate from my district was working for a public relations firm that represented several pharmaceutical companies while, at the same time, chairing the House committee that dealt with health care legislation. I believed I could drop Ken in the frying pan at any time. Finally, there was his name. “Browning” wasn’t great, and the brown lawn signs that I almost used were ugly and hard to see. Ken’s last name was hard to remember, would appear beneath mine on the ballot, and brought to mind Nabokov’s description of someone’s name as “a madhouse of consonants.”

Ken called and asked me not to run. He talked about the need for campaign finance reform and assured me he would be a champion for the public interest against corporate excesses. Hating him more with each word, but not wanting to pick a fight, I told him I thought he could be “a great delegate” and I wished him all the best. Next, Ken’s guru, a representative of the local ­teachers’ union, took me out for French toast and asked me not to run. Remembering my grand­father’s advice when I first went to work in Annapolis (“You’re not a lawyer and don’t know what you’re doing, so just be confident as hell”), I told the guru that I was the only candidate in the race with experience in state government, the only one with a good relationship with the Washington Post, and that I was going to win. The guru’s eyes got wide when I said I’d quit my job in order to campaign full-time. Two weeks later the Post ran an item about my campaign—making me the only challenger so honored—on the same day Ken was officially endorsed by the teachers. Had he been their lawyer, too? I had been a teacher but they may have been more impressed by Ken promising to spend tens of thousands of his own money in order to win the race.

I had no guru and was hard pressed to find a campaign manager that I liked or trusted. I was a Democrat who disdained most other Democrats—suicide in a Democratic primary—and finally hired my old assistant, a fearless twenty-six-year-old who shared my “I love it because I hate it” philosophy of politics. Aryah’s job for the first few days was to stand behind me while I talked to voters at their doors, then ridicule my performance. I was nervous, talked too fast, apologized when I asked for someone’s email address, and generally squirmed like a kid whose ball had gone through each voter’s window. Aryah’s attitude was that we were trying to help people by interrupting their dinner and telling them about the great James Browning. He told old ­people that I was going to make universal health care a reality, people with toys in their yards that I was going to get more money for the public schools, ­people with Chesapeake Bay license plates that I would do something about Maryland’s terrible air quality. Listening to Aryah talk, I started to like the sound of this Browning guy and lost some of my shame. A breakthrough of sorts occurred when a woman whose house faced a prominent intersection on the Maryland-D.C. border (and was therefore a great place for a yard sign) interrupted my anti-­corporate shtick to tell me she’d been a lobbyist for AT&T. Without missing a beat I explained how poor AT&T had been shut out of the Maryland telecom market through the shady and cynical practices (giving money to both political parties simultaneously) of Comcast and Verizon, after which she asked me for a sign and put it up herself.

I once hiked five hundred miles on the Appalachian Trail from New Jersey to New Hampshire. In the woods, my biggest fear was running into a bear or stepping on a stick that turned out to be a snake. On the campaign trail, my biggest fear was being hit by a car or bitten by a dog. Hiking, I carried a water puri­fier that could turn muddy ­water clear and make it pass for Evian. Canvassing, I was offered a bottle of water at eight houses in a row, and made the mistake of accepting an orange soda with a little red umbrella and carrying it to the next house on my list, only to realize that my drink made me look ridiculous. In other words, both trails appealed to my masochistic streak, the part of me that didn’t mind walking for days in the sun if it produced one genuinely interesting memory. Going door-to-door became my favorite part of the day—­better than dialing for dollars or haggling with my various graphic designers, some of who seemed to have been forced into this line of work due to an inability to understand language.

Walking from the eastern part of the district while Ken walked from the west, it took a month before we crossed paths and I saw doors festooned with his purple flyers and yellow Post-it notes expressing the hope that, with hard work, Ken would earn your vote. The handwriting of the Ken on each note varied slightly and I wondered if he had really signed them all. ­Others were signed by his father or a woman id­entifying herself as “Ken’s fiancée.” You can’t fool all people all the time, and some voters, bless their hearts, told me with disgust about getting notes from “Ken’s girlfriend,” or being told in one of his mailings that he lived with “the girlfriend”—this while Ken talked about the large role religion played in his life. I was the candidate with the actual wife and adorable ­toddler smiling on my flyer, and I began to hope the atheist could win the ­family-values vote.

Voters also said there seemed to be “a lot of good candidates” who all held roughly the same positions. True, we all talked about protecting the environment, expanding access to health care, and building some version of the Purple Line—a new Metro line that would connect our area with less-affluent communities in Prince George’s County to the east. The merits of a new line were undeniable. The D.C. suburbs have some of the worst traffic and worst air quality in the country—some days the air is so dirty that children and the elderly are told to stay indoors. The existing Metro system lets a government worker go from a northern suburb to the capital in about thirty minutes, while the bus ride for the maid traveling the same distance from east to west, coming to clean that worker’s house, could take as much as ninety. As in the children’s book Harold and the ­Purple Crayon, in which a boy draws each new page of the book to suit his needs—falling through space he draws a balloon in which to fly, then the ground on which to land—each candidate in the race had his or her own Purple Line. Ken’s would go underground but cost so much that it would likely never be built. Mine would cost far less but would run on the surface, next to a hiker-biker trail, through neighborhoods and along the lush fairways of a country club whose members have spent more than $1 million to defeat the Purple Line. Supporters of the trail had their own lobbyist, a former state senator who was Maryland’s Lorax (warning us about air pollution as a lobbyist for the American Lung Association) and simultaneously our Once-ler (boosting new car sales as a lobbyist for the automobile dealers). Several thousand trees would have to be cut down and several homes would have to be seized and torn down to make room for the tracks. “What about the trees?” some ­people asked about my plan. “What about the fact that the air is so dirty that our children can’t go outside?” was my response. The good of the many outweighs the good of the few, and here was one more issue on which I thought I could claim the moral high ground, even if that high ground led through the backyards of some of the district’s richest and most politically active citizens.

Living just a few blocks from the hiker-biker trail was the woman in charge of making endorsements for the local chapter of the Sierra Club, and after it endorsed Ken, I found myself in the position of trying to convince voters that up was down and that the Sierra Club was opposed to the Purple Line and, therefore, opposed to reducing air pollution. In an act of Orwellian doublespeak, Ken would state his plan for solving the region’s transportation woes this way: “I’ll support increased transportation funding for roads.… As the endorsed candidate of the Sierra Club, I will also crack down on sprawl and uncontrolled development in Montgomery County.” In other words, the district’s most powerful environmental group was supporting a candidate whose law firm defended polluters, who opposed the Purple Line, and who went against the Sierra Club’s own plan for controlling sprawl by supporting road construction.

So why not go negative? Throw dirt and you will have dirt on your hand. I relished my role as the white knight in this race and was too vain to get off my horse and fight Ken in the mud. Second, we were both getting such good word of mouth, with bloggers and elected officials saying we might both be elected, that I didn’t want to poison our relationship. Third, Ken seemed to be his own worst enemy. His first mailing was a huge picture of himself smiling nervously in some woman’s foyer, looking like he’d come to take the woman’s daughter to the prom. A later mailing was done in the style of an interview with a Playboy centerfold—another huge picture of Ken across from questions and handwritten answers about his best childhood memory (playing with his grandfather) and his hero (his fiancée). The campaign manager for one of my county councilmen called it “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

If politics is show business for the ugly, then state politics is show business for ugly people who can’t remember their lines. One secret of Annapolis and other state capitals is that many legislators wear earpieces through which aides who’ve actually read and actually understand the legislation at hand tell their bosses what to say on the House or Senate floor. I’d seen worse candidates become delegates and power­ brokers in Annapolis, and even the worst candidate should not be taken lightly. A month before the primary, I was still wondering how and when to pull the rug out from under Ken, when I ran into Frank, the lawyer who had not come to the first debate. We were canvassing the same street on a sweltering Sunday afternoon and stopped to size each other up. “Look at you—you’re a mess,” he said, pointing to my sweaty shirt, winning my trust and respect with his friendly insult. He was not sweating and carried no water, as opposed to the milky dregs of my iced coffee. Short and blond with a deep voice and a big, Clintonesque head, he looked like a politician but had no experience in state politics and had yet to win any major endorsements. Frank’s red, white, and blue signs had sprouted up all over the district, but signs don’t vote and I wasn’t worried till he grinned and asked me how much money I had raised. “About forty,” I said, “mostly from my family.” Frank said he’d raised more than $117,000, the biggest number I’d ever heard from a candidate for delegate—biggest until the next week, when Ken reported raising $119,000, two thirds of it from himself. Now there was no point in going after him; doing so might turn some voters against us both, handing the race to the well-funded Frank. Even Mona had raised close to $100,000, most of it from herself, so that I’d be trying to beat three challengers each spending more than twice as much as I was.

I still saw a way to win—crush them at the last debate and win the Post’s endorsement and trust the voters of Montgomery County, who are among the best educated in the country, to pick the right candidate. I once spent a summer hustling pool and blowing my winnings on video poker in Portland, Oregon, and learned that the way to make a shot is, first, to miss it in every way possible. On TV, in the papers, and in hundreds of speeches around the state, I’d made a lot of stupid comments and gotten a lot of stupid ideas out of my system, and learned that, while you may be talking about the future of our children and the planet Earth, people still just want to laugh. Frank and Ken used the last debate to say that they were good men with good ideas. I said that after weeks of listening to me dialing for dollars my two-year-old had started asking me for campaign contributions, and got the only real laugh of the night. I won the debate but lost the post-­debate as I stood sniggering with a few supporters while Frank seemed to shake every hand in the room. Ken scurried into the night, shooting me a furtive look like a bald little­ dog who’d been kicked in the guts.

I took a half day off from campaigning to celebrate my birthday. My wife and I went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, then had sex in our car in a parking garage. The words This is the best birthday I’ve ever had were barely out of my mouth when I knew I’d be punished for this statement, probably before the day was out, perhaps by losing the campaign. That afternoon she went door-to-door with me for the first time all summer and made a better­ spokesperson for me than I was for myself. That night she told me that she might be pregnant, and two pink lines on a little white stick heralded our second child. We had talked about having another child but not so soon and definitely not while I was spending every night with strangers instead of her and Oliver. I had missed his bedtime almost every night for two months, and he would say, “No Dada,” and try to close the front door on me when I came home during the day. If I won, would I have to spend my nights at meetings and rubber-chicken fund-­raisers while she took care of both kids by herself? If I lost, we would have two kids and no jobs between us. My wife said, “Now you really have to win.”

But what else could I do? I knocked on doors for four hours a night on weekdays, and seven to eight hours on the weekends, and spent the rest of every day fielding calls and emails, and asking people for money. After the debate, I began to see mailings from Ken or Frank in people’s mailboxes almost every day, and began to run into more and more of their paid can­vassers. (One day I ran into Frank inside a bewildered voter’s­ house, after which we accepted fate and simply knocked on several doors together.) Several elected officials had told me that it takes seven “touches” before a voter learns your name and that, whatever the merits of the candidates, local elections are really just name-recognition contests. I had enough money to do four mailings. Ken, between his robocalls, his family and his army of paid canvassers, his mailings, and the teachers’ apple-shaped postcards, had at least fifteen that I saw or heard about. The Post ran an article about Mona and her transformation from man to woman. Mona talked about knocking on Chief Justice John Roberts’s door for fun, and I began to think I would lose to her, too.

The last of the roughly six thousand houses on my list was a green town house facing a busy intersection in Rockville. I thought something funny or profound would happen, but the man just shook his head and closed the door in my face. Then, with seven days until the primary, I went back to Chevy Chase, where the loudest, most disruptive part of my Purple Line would go. “Oh yes,” an old woman said when she saw me at the door, “I was going to vote for you until I got your letter saying that you were dropping out of the race.” My heart sank. I asked if she still had this letter, and she invited me into a living room strewn with paper. I got on my hands and knees and went through the mess, looking for this fake letter from myself. Who was pretending to be me and how many of these letters had they sent? We never found it, and the woman may simply have been addled (though older voters are often the target of false mailings and notices like “Don’t forget to vote on Wednesday,” when the election is on a Tuesday). Would I lose because of this dirty trick?

The Post endorsed me, Frank, and one of the incumbents, an Oklahoman who’d become mayor of Chevy Chase. Now people who had been ignoring me all summer called and tried to help and be part of my impending victory. Frank called and talked about what we’d do when we won. Irony number one: I ran on a platform of campaign-­finance reform against two of the best-financed challengers in Maryland history. Irony number two: I spent the summer warning voters about the unreliability of our electronic voting machines only to get a call, the morning of election day, telling me that none of the machines were working and that people­ couldn’t vote. Thousands went home without voting, others wrote their choices on scraps of paper­ and gave these scraps to election judges. The cards needed for each machine to boot up were delivered by midmorning, but turnout remained low for the rest of the day.

My favorite part of the whole campaign was taking Oliver to various polling stations that afternoon, then turning my cell phone off and taking him to a park. The polls would be open for a few more hours but I’d exceeded the number of hands I could shake, grins I could grin, lies I could tell for now. Pathetically, the thought of having no job and a second kid on the way made me want not to fight but to curl up and go to sleep. Indeed, the difference between me and Ken can be summed up by the fact that while I was chasing my son around a ­jungle gym shaped like a fire truck, he called my next-door neighbor at three p.m. that afternoon to ask for her vote. As for the difference between our staff and volunteers, I had ­dozens of poll workers, including my wife, handing voters pictures of our family and telling them, “This is me. This is my husband. He needs your vote,” but the teachers had the day off so they could work the polls and stare each voter down with “Would you like to see whom the teachers have endorsed?”

Ken came in third behind the two incumbents. Then came Frank, Mona, and me, in sixth place. I couldn’t believe how badly I’d done and wondered what other reason I’d needed to run hard and win beyond my professional and financial future, and the chance to do good in the world. My reason came soon enough. Two weeks after the primary, my father-in-law got a call from the FBI and learned that his entire 401K plan, worth three hundred thousand dollars, had been lost or stolen by his financial planner. Ken’s law firm defended financial planners who had been accused of fraud and mismanagement. Had my father-in-law lost his money at the start of the campaign, perhaps I could have managed to take its young associate seriously. I’d committed the classic mistake of book-smart, street-dumb Democrats all over the country. Being right is not enough to win a political campaign; being right is irrelevant if you don’t have the money and the gall to tell people that you’re right.

If running for office reveals you in all your ugliness—the fake smiles and lame jokes and inability to fight even when it matters most—the campaign had also wreaked havoc on our house. Ants had taken over our kitchen and one of our cars and, when I turned the hot water tap in the shower, ants streamed up the wall in a scene from a horror film. All of my shoes had holes, our phone was disconnected as I’d forgotten to pay the bill, our TV broke and our Internet service stopped on the same day for different reasons. I read novels for pleasure and was slow to fix our phone, not wanting to hear from supporters­ urging me to run again.

Four weeks after the primary and eight weeks into her pregnancy, my wife had a miscarriage. I blamed myself for putting her through the stress of the campaign while she was pregnant. I would have stayed in bed for days were it not for Oliver asking to get out of his crib in the morning, asking twenty times for cocoa or pretzels or whatever other junk food he could see, asking for help with setting up his train tracks after he’d tossed them around his room. “Someone broke the tracks,” he’d say in all innocence.

“No,” I’d say, “you broke the tracks, and we’re going to fix them.” 

1. The names of my opponents have been changed.
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