The candidate for the school board hadn’t finished the third grade. He was fairly open about the fact that he barely could read and write.
The candidate for the Legislature denounced divorce because families are being broken up too easily. He was on his third marriage.
The city council candidate decreed that no photographs be taken of him because it was a holiday. Alaska Day.
If American democracy depends on the best in society volunteering to serve their country, some of this year’s election choices suggest voters are in what George Bush once called “deep doo-doo.”
Voters face candidates who lie about their records - little, easily checked lies such as whether they’ve ever run for office before or what civic activities they engage in.
They have candidates who appear to self-destruct before their eyes by making off-color remarks in public or demanding to be taken off the ballot for no other reason than they think they can’t win.
“We always have some candidates that are strange, that just aren’t credible to hold public office,” said Lance Henderson, a former official with the state Republican Party. “But we might be seeing a shrinking of the pool of available and qualified candidates.”
It’s hard to find reasonable people willing to face an angry electorate eager to criticize them for every action and a scandal-seeking news media hoping to expose their littlest flaws, Henderson and others say.
When well-qualified candidates sit on the sidelines for a variety of reasons, those with more questionable or unusual qualifications jump in.
“Government has stepped on a lot of toes, so more and more people find themselves motivated to run and make a change,” said Brett Bader of The Madison Group, who usually works for conservative candidates and causes.
With so many new people getting into politics, “they can’t all be George Nethercutts,” said Bader, referring to the Spokane attorney who pulled off a historic upset of House Speaker Tom Foley last year.
Cathy Allen, who often works for liberal candidates and causes, agrees. Most of the electorate seems to believe government is so badly broken that “even I can do better.”
“The second most popular line is, ‘I certainly could do no worse,”’ said Allen of Campaign Connections.
Such beliefs are easily reinforced by listening to a few like-minded people at a meeting, chatting with a neighbor over the fence or sipping coffee with friends at the diner.
Suddenly, it’s a mandate for change and I’m just the one to do it, by God.
A candidate is born. A news conference is called. Fax machines send out statements on “a grass-roots campaign” to fight “entrenched interests” in government, end “business as usual” and return to “the founding fathers’ intention” of a “citizen legislature.”
“Some people run for office like they call up talk radio,” said Steve Excel, former aide to Gov. John Spellman and a Seattle public relations consultant. “They’ve got an ax to grind.”
It’s not just a Spokane phenomenon.
In Olympia, a candidate for City Council lists his qualifications in the voters pamphlet as “psychic, schizophrenic,” and talks about connections to the lost civilizations of Muu and Atlantis. In Seattle, a bicycle messenger is challenging a successful incumbent, showing up at campaign events in Lycra cycling suits.
To some, this is merely a new wrinkle to the axiom about democracy espoused by former U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska, R-Neb. There are a lot of bizarre people out there. Don’t they deserve representation too?
To others, it’s a sign that elective office no longer is a job for a reasonable person.
“I would no more run for public office, or advise my children to run for public office, than I would jump off a tall building,” said Denny Heck, a former Democratic legislator and gubernatorial chief of staff who now manages TVW, the state’s version of C-Span. “There’s too much what I call smash-face politics.”
The rewards are relatively meager, while the hours can be long for even such part-time positions as school board, Heck said.
Former office holders, party officials and campaign consultants also point to tough public disclosure laws that require candidates to reveal extensive details about their personal and business finances.
“If you’re in a business with complicated financial situations, you’re going to shy away from disclosure laws,” said Henderson, who left the state GOP and set up his own campaign business.
He wondered what established business person hasn’t had a lawsuit by an unhappy customer or a dispute with a city building inspector, a state environmental official or the Internal Revenue Service?
That’s sure to be discovered by the news media or another candidate’s “opposition research.”
Such people, paid to burrow through divorce records, legal claims and government citations, are “the growth industry of politics,” said The Madison Group’s Bader.
That doesn’t explain why people who don’t make particularly good candidates - but have plenty of problems, financial or otherwise - appear very willing to run for office.
“People who are political exhibitionists really don’t care what other people think. They’re running with an attitude,” said Excel.
Secretary of State Ralph Munro, the state’s chief election officer, sees a sign of hope in this year’s crop of candidates, however bizarre some may seem.
“There may be more extreme points of view, but the lethargy is gone,” he said.
Washington has a rich history of wacky and borderline candidates, Excel said. Although there seem to be more than usual in recent years, he sees no cause for alarm, yet.
“Voters have an uncanny knack of sorting these things out,” he said.