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Dark Horses

[whitespace] Allen Barreca, left, Bill Patterson, and Pia Jensen
Michael Amsler

On the bandwagon: Allen Barreca, left, Bill Patterson, and Pia Jensen say they're in the election race for the long haul, despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

Why do they run?
Shedding some light on long-shot candidates

By Janet Wells


Dark horse ... (b) an almost unknown contestant regarded by only a few as having a chance to win.-- Webster's Dictionary

When Cotati City Councilwoman and college student Pia Jensen, 36, announced her candidacy for governor a couple of months ago, she was told by local Democratic Party leaders that she hadn't been around enough to "rub elbows and earn Brownie points.

"I was immediately put off, so I struck out on my own," she says.

Jensen took out a loan to pay her $2,621 filing fee, and has raised another $2,000--petty cash to frontrunning candidates that include a couple of deep-pocket millionaires. "If you look at what constitutes a viable candidate, it doesn't mean you have to have a lot of experience if you have a lot of money," Jensen explains.

So is Jensen now taken seriously as one of 17 gubernatorial candidates? At the state Democratic convention in March, she was invited to speak at a Friday evening caucus meeting. Airline tycoon Al Checchi didn't recognize her. "[Congresswoman] Jane Harmon shook my hand and said something supportive and brief. [Lt. Gov.] Gray [Davis] was nice, shook hands. None of them really wanted to talk to me," she adds. "They know who I am, but ... they appear to think that I'm not part of their structure."

With a shoestring campaign and a progressive agenda pushing for population control, sustainable resource programs, and more stringent energy efficiency standards, Jensen knows that, though she's a member of the Democratic Party, she won't exactly be welcomed into the inner circle.

"My intent is that whoever makes it through the primary will take a serious look at the issues I'm raising, because I represent a large constituency."

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks like a cruel year for dark horses. Judging by the Titanic sweep of the Oscars, it's pretty clear that winning isn't just about talent and substance. To win you need the ol' familiar triumvirate: big money, connections, and a glossy advertising campaign (dazzling special effects don't hurt, either).

While a few dark horses surprise everyone by leaping out of the starting gate and maintaining their lead, or sneaking up gradually and overtaking the frontrunner, it doesn't usually work that way, in racing, Hollywood--or politics.

So why do people bother to run for elected office--waging an uphill battle against incumbents bolstered by name recognition, going into debt, knowing that their lives will be open to scrutiny and ridicule?

Few dark-horse candidates are wackos. They are committed to their campaign: right off the bat they have to pay filing fees ranging from a several hundred to a few thousand dollars. Most have good ideas. Almost all are serious and sincere.

Some people run to put a spotlight--however dim it may be--on their pet issue or political party platform. Some want to get rid of the incumbent. Others believe it's their duty to participate in the democratic process, to offer more than the bland choices of the major parties. And of course, there are some who run to win, pure and simple.

Bill Patterson filed to run for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for one reason: To eliminate incumbent Paul Kelley of Windsor.

"[Kelley] demonstrates an appalling lack of fundamental understanding ... about humanity and other life forms on earth," says Patterson, a community activist and secretary of the Sonoma County Green Party. "Kelley seems to think we're at war with nature."

Patterson, also a Windsor resident, says that he and his political cronies have been looking for a candidate to oppose Kelley for a year. Patterson felt that Kelley's sole challenger, Greg Wonderwheel, didn't have enough support to win. So 24 hours before the March 6 filing deadline, Patterson submitted his papers. A third challenger, attorney Bill Smith, filed just hours before the deadline.

"Mr. Kelley does not have a clue," Patterson says in summing up the catalyst for his campaign. "We are opposed to pumping wastewater in the ground for energy. We want to use it for agriculture and tree farming. Tree farming is a recent concept for a use of secondary-treated water that can use this valuable resource. Timber is amazingly profitable. If Windsor can grow its own timber through using wastewater, it will mean an enormous savings for people and taxpayers.

"Shall I go on? You've got me on the soapbox. I feel impassioned about this."

Patterson pauses just long enough to take a breath. "Incorporating wastewater into tree farming will bring $1 billion [to public coffers]. It's a staggering concept. I want to see that happen ... and be a part of the transformation," he continues. "If I'm not elected, yes, that message will have gotten out there and hopefully others will take it up. If I'm not elected, I will be pounding on the doors of the supervisors and Windsor to pursue these options."

Patterson is not alone in using the campaign trail to get his message out.

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Rig(gs)marole: Why is Rep. Frank Riggs running for Marin Democrat Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat?

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Miles Everett, a Healdsburg resident making his first bid for public office by running for state superintendent of public instruction, doesn't have a big beef with the incumbent, Delaine Eastin. But get him started on education reform, and he'll send you position papers, ready-made OpEd pieces, or, for $12, his analysis "How Television Poisons Children's Minds, Undermines Schooling, and Threatens American Civilization."

"The thing that brought me into the campaign initially is the concern of the effects of electronics on children," Everett says. "Children in school spend about 12 percent of their waking hours in school, and 30 percent of their waking hours on electronic entertainment. Electronic entertainment is anti-everything school is trying to accomplish: rational thought, knowledge, authority."

Few educational organizations dispute Everett. "It's kind of like the smoking situation," he says. "The science is clear. Every major professional organization in this country that deals with children has taken the public position saying that the kinds of TV viewing kids are doing is bad for them."

With three additional challengers, Everett knows his chances of beating Eastin are limited. So what's his goal? "To bring [the issue] to people's attention. The bulk of Americans don't know, and a good many of them don't want to hear it," he says.

"The media pay no attention. If I had a chance to go head to head with Miss Eastin before a variety of audiences, I bet anything in the world I'd win. When I talk to people I convince them. Nobody can refute my argument, but it's hard to get the chance to make it."

Coleman Persily, a candidate in the last four elections for the state Assembly seat currently occupied by Novato Democrat Kerry Mazzoni, running for office is a chance to express the ideas of the Peace and Freedom Party, which seldom get much ink.

"It's obvious that I'm not going to get elected," says the 82-year Marin County resident and retired insurance agent. "But if you don't run, nobody will understand some of the issues we're trying to bring out, so I run."

Persily's agenda includes building more affordable housing, getting rent control for mobile homes and apartments, abolishing the three-strikes law, and opposing the proposition to teach only in English in the classrooms.

Persily doesn't raise money; he hasn't written a position paper yet. He's happy to debate anytime, but suffice it to say that the other four candidates for the office probably aren't worried. "They enjoy me because I'm the only one who can say what he thinks without having to worry if someone's not going to agree," he says. "They play the game. I get up and talk on the issues."

Alan Barreca, a candidate for Rep. Lynn Woolsey's 6th Congressional District seat, is out doing the same thing, stumping for the Natural Law Party. "Third parties do have a very profound effect," he says. "I'm happy and proud to be able to stand up with the Natural Law Party, especially in regard to its platform."

When asked if he's running for office to win, Barreca responds, "Your question points out the problem. Elections are not a Superbowl. ... Come out and say, 'We're going to win,' and then the candidates start doing whatever it takes to win. [Candidates] see which way the wind's blowing, then decide what [their] position is on the issue."

The Natural Law Party, according to Barreca, offers solutions to "virtually every problem in the country," ranging from crime and health care to education.

"I don't need to win to feel gratification," he says. "I want to influence the process of the election and raise the awareness of the people in this congressional district. In those aspects, I'm already a winner."

Al Liner, a homeless-shelter coordinator who was a Peace and Freedom candidate in 1996 in a race to unseat state Assemblywoman Valerie Brown, D-Sonoma, agrees. "For most, when you talk about winning, you mean getting the most votes. When I talk about winning, I talk about trying to get my point across.

"That's one of the problems with our entire system," adds Liner, who used his campaign to promote the legislative concept of proportional representation in which each party wins representation, in the Assembly proportionate to the number of votes. "Winning has become the paramount thing rather than leading. There's a world of difference."

For candidates like Sam Crump, winning isn't nearly so conceptual. Crump, a 33-year-old Sebastopol city councilman and judicial legislative adviser running for state Assembly, doesn't consider himself a dark horse. He certainly has that groomed-for-politics look: Republican, married with four kids, former military prosecutor, student body president at Montgomery High School--all outlined in an easy-to-digest one-page campaign profile.

Crump is the only Republican running against Assembywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, D-Duncans Mills, so he's looking at the June primary as a litmus test for November. For people who say he doesn't have a chance or the experience, Crump is quick to point out that both the incumbent and Rep. Woolsey were quick to jump from local politics to the bigger arena.

"This one seemed very appropriate for me," he says. "I think I've got a great shot."

Crump's party line of "[Strom-Martin] is out of step with the district" may or may not be true, but he certainly offers voters a choice. Crump is hardline get-tough-on-crime: He's pro-three strikes and pro-death penalty; and for juvenile offenders, he'd like to see wiretaps, stiffer criminal sentences, and penalties for truancy. He wants to attract business to the North Coast by "rolling back oppressive regulations and taxes."

"There's an economic recovery in California, but it hasn't visited the North Coast," he says. "We need to foster an entrepreneurial climate in California. This used to be a state where people felt good about taking a risk, starting up a business in their garage. Now it's a bureaucratic nightmare of taxation."

Most underdog candidates--if they do any fundraising at all--are grassroots all the way: They shy away from PAC money and eschew ecologically wasteful and expensive campaign signs and mailers. Not Crump. He's going for it with gusto: "Virginia Strom-Martin raised over half million in cash for the last election. I don't see any reason why this should be less if I plan on winning," he says. "I plan to match her dollar for dollar."

Many candidates are intimidated and dismayed by the specter of campaign fundraising. "It's excruciating to raise money," Everett says. "A lot of people won't even put $100 where their mouth is."

Barreca isn't accepting any contributions. "People like Dianne Feinstein bowed out [of the governor's race] simply because some well-heeled candidates showed up and there's no way to compete," he says. "The electoral process should be overhauled. It shouldn't be the case that you can buy office."

Patterson was reluctant to enter his race because of money. "I feel a little sullied by going around begging for money. The Greens are calling for public funding of campaigns," he says. "People stepping forward to run for office need to be helped. We should receive assistance from the general public. That's the problem: money, money, money in politics," he continues. "In the past it has been a corrupt process, corrupted by money. Good people are refusing to run for office, and those good people who are in office are retiring from office early. We are faced with a crisis in our democracy."

Candidates, even by losing their race, can still have a profound effect on the outcome. Consider Darlene Comingore, the Peace and Freedom congressional candidate in 1990: she siphoned off 15 percent of the liberal votes from Democratic incumbent Doug Bosco. The benefactor? The winner, Republican Frank Riggs.

Patterson is expecting that he and the other two challengers will leave Kelley with fewer than 50 percent of the votes, forcing a runoff in November.

Liner lost his state Assembly race in '96, but says he was successful enough in his campaign for "a Republican who's running in the current election to offer me $35,000 to run again to pull votes away from his main party opposition." (He declined.)

Meanwhile, Jensen, one of six Democratic candidates for governor, doesn't hold any grand illusions of winning the primary. But she does hope to take away some of Rep. Jane Harmon's votes.

"She has been touted as a fresh face, the only woman. I take umbrage with that," Jensen says. "She's very conservative. Most people heard that she is pleased to be considered the best Republican in the Democratic Party. I find that problematic, being a Democrat myself."

Many third-party candidates talk of the frustration of running for office, of the difficulties getting heard by the voters and the media. But just as many throw their hat in the ring again.

Jensen plans to use her first experience running for statewide office as the basis for a book on the campaign process and political reform, and to bolster her bid for state Assembly in the year 2000.

For candidates like Persily, running for office isn't really about winning, losing, or even making a career move. It's a way of life.

"I'll keep doing it until I croak," he says.

And why not? After all, long odds, when they pay off, pay the most.

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From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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