In 2016, Arik Bjorn ran for Congress against Joe “You Lie!” Wilson as the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate in South Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District. Arik has been a regular contributor to Forward Progressives since 2013. Below is an interview excerpt from Arik’s pending book, So I Ran for Congress, which will be published in mid-August 2017.
Gary Who Resists: What three things would you do differently if you started over from scratch? You get to climb in a time machine, plus you get to take back with you all your experience and run the campaign all over again.
Arik Bjorn: Number one, I might sign up more than 24 hours in advance.
The biggest criticisms I have received are from people who actually don’t understand—or simply refuse to process—the fact that I signed up to run at the last second because nobody else would. I know that you need substantial funds and a well-organized infrastructure to run for federal office. But nothing could change the fact that I had to work full-time, that I’m a single parent. While most candidates spend hours per day fundraising on the phone, at the end of a 9-to-5 day, I had to choose between attending events and engaging voters, or sitting on the telephone asking for cash.
And as to fundraising, The Establishment simply would not open their checkbooks for us. I don’t want to write a “tell-all” book, but anyone is free to come up to me and ask, “Did So-and-So Democratic Party leader or elected official in South Carolina write you a check?” The answer almost invariably will be “no.” And, for what it’s worth, I did, in fact, call a good, good many of them.
To which I say: thank you, Democratic Party Establishment, for supporting the career of “Status Quo” Joe Wilson.
Our campaign was an emergency response, and it’s important for history to record it as such. There was a hole in the dam, a hole I did not create—and I reported for duty to “WE the People.”
Second wish for the Time Travel Genie: a more concerted fundraising approach. Although, there’s a part of me that thinks, “You know, maybe I wouldn’t do that part differently.” Because it was a beneficial, knowledge-gaining political experiment to see how successful one can be without relying heavily on fundraising.
Case in point: the candidate for South Carolina Congressional District 5 raised nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. That’s a lot of cash. Our campaign raised only $70,000. And the results for both campaigns were nearly the same: 36 percent for me to 39 percent for him. What does that tell you? It tells me it’s not always about money. We were essentially as successful with one-tenth of the funding. That is a point of fact—and an important fact for folks in Political Asgard to analyze.
But if not more funding, I certainly would want more time to plan an infrastructure and game plan.
As to a third thing I wish I could change: I should have accepted the fusion candidacy invitation of the Working Families Party. I ran as the Democratic Party and Green Party fusion candidate—which I’m sure is something we’ll talk more about later—fusion candidacy being a fascinating component of our campaign. My name appeared twice on the ballot, as a Democrat and as a Green, and the votes for both were aggregated, totaled. I was also extended an invitation by the Working Families Party—an opportunity for my name to appear on the ballot three times—but I declined.
I discussed the concept with a marketing professor at the University of Pittsburgh. We wondered whether three instances on a ballot was simply too much for the Voter. I considered my own voting booth experience. One feels pressured to cast a vote and move along quickly; you don’t have a lot of time to think through a choice you had never previously conceived. I mean, if a Voter hadn’t heard of the Working Families Party, would he or she discount my appearance as a Democratic Party nominee? In the end, I made a choice, and it was a flat-out wrong choice.
Thomas Dixon, the Democratic Party U.S. Senate candidate, also ran as the Working Families Party fusion candidate, and he received nearly 40,000 Working Families fusion votes! Mal Hyman, the District 7 Democratic Party congressional candidate, received nearly 7,000 Working Families Party fusion votes.
I’m now convinced that a lot of Independents and on-the-fence Trump supporters walked into a booth and said, “Working Families! Heck, that’s me!” Remember earlier my comments by Noam Chomsky about working families. Well, Voters cast their ballots accordingly. And I missed out.
GWR: They thought: “Yep, that’s me. I’m one of those!”
Bjorn: Precisely. That’s the key problem in U.S. politics. Working families feel—are—abandoned.
There are other problems that presented themselves over the course of the campaign, of course. Politics is rife with grifters and charlatans; there are con artists galore.
But I can’t really say I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with people like that, because you have to learn how to identify and deal with them. It’s like your first bad romantic relationship: an unsuccessful relationship helps you understand how good relationships work. I needed to experience “charlatans in leisure suits,” as Steve Taylor once sang. Sooner or later, you have to face Vader.
Again, on Election Night, I was really pleased with our efforts. I go to bed at peace with myself because we gave 100 percent effort. Everybody gave everything they could, with the limited resources available, and we produced an excellent political experiment and result. And, most of all, the Voters of South Carolina Congressional District 2 finally had a Voice and Champion.
We developed so many wonderful relationships—plus, our campaign blazed a trail for Resistance in our region. I have very few regrets. I have disappointments, and I could tell all kinds of horror stories. But why? It was a near-perfect experience. There are few things I would do differently other than have more time to plan and accept the Working Families Party candidacy invitation.
GWR: Let’s talk fusion then. You ran as a fusion candidate. Why did you do that, and how did it impact your campaign? You touched on this already, but explain your decision also to run as a Green Party candidate.
Bjorn: Honestly, I didn’t even know what fusion candidacy was until after the Democratic Party primary in mid-June. For those who don’t know, there are nine states in the Union where you can run as a fusion candidate—used to be more than nine. Fusion means you run for a single office for more than one political party, and your name appears on the ballot for each party you represent. Run for two parties, your name is on the ballot twice. Run for three parties, three times. Most importantly, all of the votes cast for you are added up—totaled.
That was the biggest question I received from Voters. Voters received their absentee ballots and reached out to me: “If I vote for you Green, does it take away from the total Democratic Party votes?” The answer is no: votes for me for the Democratic Party and the Green Party were added together—that’s the benefit.
My understanding is that there are eight states where you can run fusion for any political party-based office in the state, but in California, you can only do it for the Presidency. I believe Donald Trump ran as a fusion candidate in California, as a Republican and as an American Independent Party candidate. The American Independent Party is far-right fringe, which, frankly, makes it more or less indistinguishable from the Republican Party these days.
After I won the Democratic Party primary, Harold Geddings approached me. Harold is with the South Carolina Green Party. He’s one of the most colorful and loveable human beings in South Carolina politics—he’s extremely learned, with a raucous guffaw that rivals Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H. Harold says to me, “The Green Party has been following your campaign, and your worldview seems to align rather much with our platform. Would you like to be a Green candidate?”
I said, “The Green Party stands for Civilization, too, and that’s great! There’s just one problem; I’m already the Democratic Party candidate.”
Harold said, “In South Carolina, you can be both.”
Well, how fun is that! I attended the South Carolina Green Party 2016 Convention, was honored to receive that convention’s nomination. The South Carolina Green Party doesn’t require a candidacy registration fee, so I just showed up at the State Election Commission, signed my name, and I was a South Carolina Green Party candidate too. Fusion, baby!
Harold presented me that day with a pineapple candle. I said, “What is this?”
Harold told me that when he ran for Congress in 2014 as the Labor Party candidate, he was so upset that the Democrats had allowed a Fake Democrat to steal its Party nomination, that one day he pointed at a pineapple plant in the corner of his living room and shouted, “Why, that pineapple should be able to beat Phil Black!” From that moment on, Harold called him Pineapple Phil. It’s a running joke between us now.
As to why I ran as a fusion candidate, I knew 2016 was a bridge year. The Democratic Party presidential primary left so many progressives feeling wounded. Like it or not, there were many Bernie Sanders Voters who weren’t going to vote for Hillary Clinton. That was just a pragmatic assessment. I was “a Sanders man,” as Charles Bierbauer puts it, but I endorsed Hillary after the Convention. As did Sanders, let us remember. Anyway, I knew that being on the ballot as a Green Party candidate would create a down-ticket bridge for Voters—a better chance for our campaign to build Civilization and defeat Joe Wilson.
This is precisely what happened. In fact, I received more than one-third the total number of votes Jill Stein did in South Carolina; she from a statewide field of 2 million-plus votes, me from a District field of just 300,000 votes. Another fact: Thomas Dixon as the Democratic Party U.S. Senate fusion candidate received more Green Party fusion votes than Jill Stein did.
Something on the order of 75,000 third-party fusion votes were cast statewide for the four federal Democratic Party candidates in 2016. This kind of collaboration and coalition is almost impossible in our current national political system, but South Carolina provides a bridge-building path to defeat a shared barbaric opponent like Joe Wilson in order to build a greater good.
It’s important to note that Trav Robertson, the new South Carolina Democratic Party Chair, has voiced public support for fusion candidacy. He gets it. Heck, anyone who cares about turning South Carolina blue gets it!
In fact, if Democrats had the least bit donkey smarts—if we’re literal smart asses—we’ll pursue fusion hard, especially for the 2018 Governor’s race. Democrats tend to lose the Governor’s Mansion by about 75,000, 100,000 votes. Well, there are that many Left-of-Center fusion votes out there waiting to be had—if we choose the right candidate. With coalition, we can win.
All to say: any time I have the opportunity to run as a fusion candidate with a third party that aligns with my worldview, I’ll accept it.
GWR: When people walk up to you now and say, “I’m interested in running for office,” what advice do you give them?
Bjorn: That has happened a lot since November 2016, and not just with folks in South Carolina. I’ve received calls from all over the country. The local activism community doesn’t understand how much of my time this takes; sometimes I get criticized for not being “active enough.” You don’t get social media props or media raves when you spend three hours at a breakfast diner or on the phone with a prospective Left-of-Center grassroots candidate. Yet this is the very essence of #Resistance. Because I’m taking this individual’s desire to run seriously, when The Establishment won’t. I’m sharing something almost no one else can: Experience from a major party federal candidate.
The first thing I tell any prospective candidate is: “The most important thing you need to do…”
Their eyes get big, they grab their pen.
“You need to choose a Treasurer.”
They put down their pen. “Huh?”
I repeat myself: “You need to choose a Treasurer. You need an excellent CPA or numbers person committed to your political vision, who doesn’t mind living in a cave away from the limelight and the fun spectacle that a campaign can be. The Treasurer will be an unsung hero. And, trust me, you don’t want to spend one second of your life more than necessary worrying about finance compliance—even if you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you’ll never misspend one cent.”
An FEC deadline, even for an honest campaign that raises only $75,000, it keeps you up at night. Trust me. The FEC is serious, and they let you know it. That’s why it just boggles my mind how any politician at any level thinks he or she can get away with misuse of funds. You always get caught.
Also, it’s really hard to find a good numbers person. Your Treasurer doesn’t have to be an accountant, but it doesn’t hurt. How many accountants does the average person know who are willing to take the world on their shoulders and put your shared future into their hands?
The second thing I say is: How good are you on three or four hours of sleep a night for months on end? At the end of a really long day, can you put on some sneakers and run a few miles—hop on the rowing machine like Frank Underwood in House of Cards—do what it takes to keep yourself physically fit in order to clear your mind for the daily grind? That was an important lesson I learned; you have to wipe clean the mental slate every night. For me, that involved exercise, physical activity.
Those are two things that the average person never thinks about when contemplating a run for office. They envision fundraisers and speeches and parades, not accountants and sleeplessness.
A third thing: everyone wants to run for federal office. I ask the person to identify all of the offices they could run for based on their residence: school board, city council, county, state office, etc. First, if they can’t do this, I give them a hard time. You need to know your local and statewide office holders. Then I ask: why federal office? Why not local or statewide office? I remind them that I ran for federal office because no one else would—but we had nearly 100 empty Democratic Party slots across the state, not to mention all of the county and municipal office opportunities.
I explain, yes, I had never run for office, but I had a unique skillset. I managed a high-profile, billion-dollar economic development program for our state for nearly a decade. I’ve been doing public speaking and acting for years. I’ve written speeches for some of the most influential political, government and business leaders in our state. I’ve published five books, and my work has been read in 190 countries. I’ve written and shepherded legislation, organized international conferences and big community festivals, etc. My daily job used to include getting yelled at by the Governor’s Office, the Treasurer’s Office, senior research institution presidents; doing interviews with media and dodging interviews with alt media; convincing major competing institutions to work together in their collective interest for the first time ever. Plus, my experience as a public librarian puts me in a unique position to understand and serve daily the needs of many different individuals in a large community. Each one of these things made running for federal office as a first-time candidate possible.
Also, I know how Government works at a high level. There are important differences between Government and politics, but I already knew many of the political players I encountered during the campaign. Plus, I had the advantage of knowing them, while few of them remembered me.
In short, unless you find yourself in an emergency electoral situation, you need to match your skillset with the office. And you need to ask yourself: why that office? Why do you feel called to that particular office?
A bit to the side of the question: the average Voter doesn’t distinguish the knowledge base required for running for Congress and running for President. But Congress and President are not the same. As a presidential candidate, you need to have a researched position on everything under the sun. For Congress, while you need to be engaged in constant research about the issues, your platform is more selective to the specific needs of your congressional District. You tend to concentrate on four or five really important issues, plus your opponent’s record.
As a librarian, I’m uniquely trained to research policy issues. Unfortunately, many politicians can’t do that, or won’t try, and they give bobble-head answers to Voters. They say what they think you want to hear. However, I prefer to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll go find it.”
You know what I’m talking about, Gary. Your expert area as an activist is healthcare. You know more about the ins and outs of healthcare policy than most elected officials I know. You’re deep in the literature. The average Voter wants universal healthcare, or wants the system to be better, but doesn’t know how to get there, or even the reasons why the current system is broken.
Let me turn it around: what do you think the average person considers is important for running for office?
GWR: I have no idea. My entire life has been spent not understanding the reality of most occupations. I’ve spent so much time in hospitals. Before Lynn got sick, we both thought it would be like visiting St. Elsewhere—that we would meet all of these laughable, cut-up characters, that doctors and nurses would be sleeping with each other. Six months later, we were like, “Get us out of this hospital!” I imagine that politics is a lot like that—it’s not like TV, like West Wing. I really cannot imagine what a Korean War Mobile Army Surgical Hospital must have actually been like.
Our perceptions of things are shaped by what we’re exposed to. When I visited other countries; I knew what I thought it would be like. But reality was quite different.
Bjorn: And that’s why I think it was important for a couple of non-career politicians like myself to run for federal office in South Carolina. Because Mal, Thomas, Dimitri and I can offer a sense of, “All right, folks, this is how political campaign sausage is made.” My daughter loves to watch these “How it’s Made” videos on YouTube. You know, magnets, paper, milk, erasers. But the one video I refuse to watch is, “How Hot Dogs Are Made.”
I have seen firsthand how political campaign hot dogs are made; it’s grinding, grueling and gross. I mean, it’s fun, because it’s a hot dog. But, just, you don’t want to see the inside of the factory. Yet for those who insist on becoming hot dog makers—and we really do need average folks to step up and run for office—I can offer a unique perspective.
By the way, I prefer ketchup and onions on my dogs.
Again, the purpose of this book is not to be a gossipy “tell-all,” but to provide Voters and prospective candidates with a realistic narrative of what it’s like to run. So you want to run for office? Let’s see if you still feel that way at the end of this book.
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- An Open Letter to the Democratic National Committee from 4 South Carolina Congressional Candidates - January 11, 2017