How I ran for a U.S. Senate seat, and what I learned

by John Dougherty

Like many other journalists, I've often secretly longed for a chance to serve in the place of the hapless politicians I skewer. Last April, after more than 30 years of longing (and skewering), I plunged into a four-month crash course in running for office.

The political climate in my state, Arizona, was tumultuous. The Legislature had passed an immigration bill that sought to intimidate undocumented workers into packing up and leaving. The state's budget crisis was among the worst in the nation. Even Arizona's top politician, four-term Sen. John McCain -- the Republican 2008 presidential standard-bearer -- was struggling, challenged in his party's primary by a hard-charging Tea Party candidate. McCain, who is 74, was also vulnerable from the left. I looked at my state's politics and thought: No point in aiming low.

A quick-strike insurgency campaign by a hard-boiled investigative journalist might succeed. After all, 21 years ago I scarred McCain's reputation by exposing the Keating Five scandal: how McCain and four other senators pressured regulators to go easy on a major campaign donor, Charles Keating, who ran a savings-and-loan into bankruptcy and bamboozled thousands of investors. If I made it through the Democratic primary and McCain survived his primary, I could rub his nose in the old scandal, and perhaps his infamous temper would erupt.

Crazy? Certainly. And so I signed up for a three-day Wellstone Action! campaign boot camp in Las Vegas. Wellstone Action! is a nonprofit dedicated to progressive social change, essentially carrying on the work of the late Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, a political science professor, engineered a great grassroots victory in 1990, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz even though Boschwitz outspent him 7 to 1. Wellstone was killed in a plane crash just weeks before the 2002 election, and his children founded Wellstone Action! the following year.

Once in Las Vegas, I shaved off my grizzly beard and lopped off my shoulder-length white hair. After all, this was boot camp! And that's what it felt like. I got excellent training in grassroots campaigning and an opportunity to discover whether I had the fire-in-the-belly fortitude required of a candidate. I wrote and delivered stump speeches that were sharply critiqued by Wellstone staffers, and held mock press conferences as they played the role of skeptical reporters on the trail of yet another scandal.

Then I talked it over with my wife, Liz, my two grown sons and my ex-wife, Barbara. We were fired up for a real battle, but we could not foresee all the obstacles. On April 29, I filled out and mailed the Federal Election Commission forms. Then I called a former colleague at the Phoenix New Times, who broke the story online with a "believe it or not" take on my candidacy.

Arizona's Democratic Party had not groomed any big-name candidates to challenge McCain; the party has suffered a power vacuum since 2009, when then-Gov. Janet Napolitano joined the Obama administration instead of hanging around to run against McCain. I was encouraged by the fact that the only other Democrat in the race was Rodney Glassman, a 32-year-old former Tucson city councilman and former congressional staffer who was virtually unknown outside Tucson. Glassman had ridden the coattails of his family's prosperous Fresno, Calif., agribusiness operation. He was even a registered Republican as recently as 1997, then shifted his allegiance to the Democrats.

But within a few weeks of my decision to run, two more Democratic candidates jumped into the race. Randy Parraz, 43, a union organizer, hoped to mobilize Latinos who were angry over the anti-immigration law. Armed with a University of California-Berkeley law degree and a master's from Harvard, Parraz also brought years of community organizing experience to his campaign.

Cathy Eden, 60, was quietly backed by old-guard Democrats in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. A former state legislator who headed state agencies under Republican and Democratic governors, Eden also had support from Napolitano's get-out-the-vote foot soldiers, the Phoenix firefighters' union.

Suddenly, I was in a four-way primary with each competitor having at least one element of the classic Democratic candidate: Parraz, the union organizer with national funding opportunities; Eden, the political insider with boots-on-the ground support; and Glassman, the self-funded millionaire.

So the first lesson I learned was that one old adage applies especially to politics:

Expect the unexpected.

Without the money and staff for a traditional campaign, I had to gather at least 5,124 valid signatures from registered Democratic and independent voters by May 26 to qualify for the ballot. Collecting signatures on a clipboarded petition is a sketchy business at best. I was lucky because I had about 50 volunteers, ranging from college students to retirees; together, we collected more than 4,000 signatures, which means that we probably contacted close to 40,000 people. I also hired a couple of companies that employ teams that are paid for each signature they collect; I spent close to $24,000 on this, mainly out of my own pocket.

Most signature-collectors are honest, but there are some scammers. I watched how the paid collectors handled my petition and discovered that some were also pushing petitions for my competitors, which is illegal. When I confronted one in Tempe, he threatened to "stick me" if I kept hassling him. I kept hassling him, and he dropped his pants on a busy downtown sidewalk and gave me a full moon. Welcome to Arizona politics!

Asking people to sign a petition is an education in itself: I learned how to hone a pitch, engage potential voters and accept rejection graciously. I constantly reminded myself: Smile! The day before the May 26 deadline, we submitted 12,500 signatures to the Arizona secretary of State. I was on the ballot.

There wasn't much time for the rest of the campaign, since Arizona's mail-in voting began on July 29, and more than 60 percent of the ballots would be cast before the Aug. 24 primary. I needed to make a statewide impact quickly, but the Phoenix and Tucson news operations were virtually ignoring the Democratic primary. McCain's battle with J.D. Hayworth for the Republican nomination hogged all the limelight.

Forced to act as the campaign manager as well as the candidate, I developed a strategy that set me apart from my opponents: Use my journalism skills to develop a fact-based platform. Dump the bob-and-weave of political doublespeak, answer all questions directly and confront volatile issues. Use open-source software to build a campaign website, exploit social networking and YouTube to further spread the word, and rely strictly on volunteers.

I also pushed for televised debates and embarked on a statewide tour to generate coverage. I called for the end of the expensive debacle called the War on Drugs and urged Arizona to bolster its economy by becoming the world's leader in solar energy technology. And I promised to bring a team of investigative journalists to Washington, D.C., to weed out corruption from inside the Senate.

In a truly grueling process, I attended Democratic legislative district meetings scattered across the nation's sixth-largest state. These "LD" meetings can draw anywhere from a half-dozen people to a packed house of 50 or more. Attending them can literally mean a three-hour drive to make a three-minute speech.

The work got harder as summer extended its paralyzing grip on the Sonoran Desert. Many people just burrowed inside their homes and cars or fled the desert entirely, making direct contact with voters all the more difficult. Running a summertime campaign in central and southern Arizona is akin to stumping in Anchorage in the dead of winter.

In the Tucson area -- the heart and soul of Arizona's Democratic Party -- my progressive stance and straightforward approach were embraced by a handful of well-connected people, and I was immersed in a round of speaking events and fund-raisers. Meanwhile, in the Phoenix area, which has far more Democrats but considerably less cohesion, I put together a team made up mostly of former journalists and old friends. They helped develop my statements on the issues, handled press contacts, built my website, kept the books, scheduled events, shared driving duties, put up campaign signs and provided moral support.

Party leaders advised me to spend many hours a day on the phone begging for campaign contributions to fund direct-mail pitches and other predictable advertising blasts. I rejected that advice. Unlike the other candidates, I had no natural allies to call on. I had spent my entire career pissing off the establishment, exposing corrupt politicians and business practices. I was in no position to call in favors. And I couldn't rely on special interests, such as unions, to round up cash and volunteers.

Instead, I tried to be creative. I called Tom Robertson, an old friend who did political cartoons for a small weekly paper I'd owned in Flagstaff back in the early 1990s. I convinced him to sharpen his pencils for my campaign, and he whipped out a series of cartoons that we used in ads in alternative weeklies. In one of them, Robertson mimicked "Little Orphan Annie" to depict the front-runner, Glassman, as a carpet-bagging interloper who relied on his daddy's big bucks to finance his campaign.

At the first hour-long televised debate, all four of us lined up at podiums under harsh lights. It felt like a firing squad. By all accounts, Glassman won the debate; I came off as a fact-driven hard-ass who lacked "warmth" but seemed determined. In all, we held three TV debates and another on public radio. By the final debate, I felt like I'd settled into a more relaxed, reassuring presence and was able to deliver thoughtful responses. But the debates still didn't get much attention.

Instead of reporting how we addressed (or dodged) the issues, the news coverage focused on fund raising as if that defined the whole race. I raised $93,865 from contributors, most of whom were Tucsonans giving $200 or less. That was enough for some radio ads on progressive stations in Phoenix and Tucson, 100,000 postcards featuring a Robertson cartoon and a dozen large ads in the alternative weeklies. Ten days before the primary, I purchased time on two electronic billboards near downtown Phoenix. In retrospect, I wish I had done this much earlier. Those billboards projected an image of power and success. I shared the rotation on one of them with Gov. Brewer's campaign.

But I couldn't match Glassman's onslaught of direct mail, phone banks and TV ads during Phoenix and Tucson newscasts. I thought his message was vapid, but he reached a huge number of voters, spending close to $1 million during the home stretch.

Finally, still trying to get attention, I tried another unusual tactic: I walked across metro Phoenix, from the Superstition Mountains to my downtown headquarters. With Liz joining me for much of the way, I covered 10 miles a day for four days. The daily high temperatures averaged 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and my trek didn't attract much of a following, save for a couple of volunteers who joined for short stretches. It could have been discouraging, but instead, it gave me time to reflect -- and to stretch my legs after nearly 20,000 miles of driving over the summer.

I'd learned that many voters say they yearn for a candidate willing to cut through the crap and lead a charge for genuine change. They are tired of slickly packaged, focus-group-driven campaigns. They know our nation is on the brink of disaster and want to avert catastrophe.

I came to believe our nation is on the threshold of a much brighter future. Unfettered access to information, reaffirmation of civil liberties for all, and the potential for abundant renewable energy can help us transcend today's failed politics of legalized legislative bribery, religious-based repression of individual liberties and fossil fuel addiction. We need a surge of new candidates and voters who are willing to push aside the multinational corporations and their traditional political handmaidens.

On election night, I drove my biodiesel-fueled, 1978 Bluebird Wanderlodge bus -- dubbed the Strayhound -- the 120 miles to Tucson. I had no idea how the night would end, but I felt a sense of relief. I parked the Strayhound, draped with campaign signs and American flags, across the street from the venerable Hotel Congress, where the Democratic establishment was holding a "unity" celebration.

A dozen or so volunteers arrived and we had a potluck dinner -- including salmon mousse -- in the bus and parking lot. A delightful light rain drizzled off and on, breaking the oppressive heat. Shortly after 8 p.m., the results began trickling in. We gathered inside the Strayhound and peered at a computer screen. When the count was over, Glassman carried the day with 34 percent of the votes. But I held my own, coming from nowhere to win 23 percent, finishing third with more than 68,500 votes. Eden got 26 percent and Parraz 14 percent. It didn't feel like a defeat. We had acquitted ourselves well and showed there is another way to campaign.

Accompanied by a bagpipe musician, we headed over to the Hotel Congress to congratulate Glassman. I gave a short concession speech. My run for office had changed my personal and professional life, and I had grown in ways I could never have imagined.

In September, I received an e-mail from Jane Wood, a Democratic activist in Green Valley who had hosted an untelevised debate. "I have been making calls for the last few days to independent voters and democrats on behalf of (other candidates) and just wanted you to know that you have made a big impression," she wrote. "People wanted to talk about you. We all hope that you are considering running for office again. ... Public life is hard but well worth it ... Hope our paths cross again."

Me too.

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Other stories in our elections package:

Editor's note: Stringing up the Western sheriff

Introduction: Lynch-mob politics

Arizona: Obama's curse?

California: Dope, eBay, pollution and moonbeams

Colorado: The West's true swing state

Idaho: How a Democrat wins in the Northern Rockies

Montana: Utility regs and clean energy up for grabs

Nevada: A hairy ride for Harry

New Mexico: Wolves, wilderness, drilling and Latinos

Oregon: Tea Party limbo

Utah: A Sagebrush Rebel headed for D.C.

Washington: Tea Party limbo #2

Wyoming: A popular governor gets mysterious

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