“So I Ran for Congress”: Sneak Preview Redux

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 new book, So I Ran for Congress, which is available in paperback or on Kindle via Amazon.com.

GARY WHO RESISTS: Do you think people understand how money works in politics?

Bjorn: I think, generally, Voters have no idea how money works in politics. Here’s the thing: everybody who isn’t a member of The Establishment core knows that money is the root of all problems in politics. At the same time, very few people understand specifically how this is the case. They just sense, rightly, that something is askew.

That was one of the benefits of a non-career politician like myself and Thomas Dixon, who ran for U.S. Senate in South Carolina, just “showing up on the scene” to run for federal office. Our campaigns have served as an opportunity for us to help sort information from misinformation to average Voters.

That leads me to another point: I think the single worst problem in South Carolina politics is that members of the South Carolina General Assembly only earn $10,400 per year. Thus, we have a political system where you essentially have to be of independent financial means, or have a job that allows you to take off oodles of time (say, a lawyer), to serve as a South Carolina State Representative or Senator. In other words, I can’t afford to run for my local House seat, because if I were to win, I would have to quit my job as a public librarian. I wouldn’t have an income, a way to take care for my family.

GWR: So you would like to see a respectable wage created for members of the General Assembly—in addition to a Living Wage for all folks?

Bjorn: Yes! Trust me: The Establishment wants it to be exactly the way it is—so that you and I and other average folks can’t represent our state communities, which is about 35,000 people at the State Representative level and 100,000 people at the Senate level.

Also, one last thought on salaries and office holders. A common, and to my mind, misguided complaint by Voters is, “Members of Congress make too much money!” A U.S. Congressperson salary is about $175,000 a year. The truth is, if you’re doing your job well as a member of the U.S. House or U.S. Senate, that salary is hard-earned and well-deserved. If you add up the combined salaries of 100 Senators and 400-plus members of Congress and compare it to the multi-trillion-dollar federal budget, it’s not even a drop of a drop of a drop of a drop in the bucket.

And the last time I looked, the combined South Carolina state budget is over $20 billion. If you provided a salary of, say, $50,000 a year to the 170 members of the General Assembly, that’s not even $10 million. {fiddles with a calculator} What is that, four ten-thousandths of one percent of the state budget? Like I said, a drop of a drop of a drop of a drop. Now just imagine investing in a State Government actually governed by The People.

One of the lessons I’ve learned in politics is that math is a powerful weapon; it cuts like a diamond saw through all manner of Establishment spin and B.S. Now, if only it motivated folks to vote.

GWR: Actually, if I think about it, that $10,400 salary for General Assembly members isn’t even enough to qualify for Medicaid, in some ways. Let’s move on to another question: are you happy with the campaign that you ran? Not win or lose, but in terms of the way you ran the campaign.

Bjorn: Happy is a funny word. I’m not “happy,” but I am pleased and immensely proud, not only of my own efforts, but of the efforts of so many volunteers and staff who gave endlessly of their time and resources. Let me phrase this just right, because it’s a delicate statement: at the South Carolina Democratic Party Election Night watch event, the mood was rather, um, glum. Let’s be honest; it was apocalyptic—people watching the Advent of a Trump Administration occur right before their very eyes. My young daughter was with me, some of our hardest-working staff and volunteers were there. Yet despite everything, I was immensely proud.

Victory is not just about getting the most votes. We accomplished many things. Number one, we were a Voice, where before the People had no Voice. We helped to kick-start a grassroots #Resistance movement across the state. And while many candidates and folks took a break after the campaign, I didn’t. I kept going full steam ahead starting November 9—and really still am going. I’ve been getting three to four hours of sleep a night since mid-March 2016; it’s now mid-June 2017.

The one benefit of slowing down my activism just a bit to write this book is that I actually get about five hours of sleep a night now.

GWR: A little bit of self-preservation.

Bjorn: Yes, it’s been a grind. But we accomplished so many things. We non-career politicians—Mal Hyman, Dimitri Cherny, Thomas Dixon, myself—I think one of the things that most disappointed us is that while we didn’t individually raise three-quarters of a million dollars, we made discoveries that we think would help make a difference in tight campaigns all around the country. Yet it seems there’s no Party mechanism in place to capture that information. One of the things that I think a state and national party should be is an information warehouse and information laboratory. I’m stealing a bit from my South Carolina Blue Brothers colleague, Dimitri Cherny, who ran as the South Carolina District 1 candidate. As a librarian, I’m in complete agreement with him.

Case in point: more than 300,000 people visited my Facebook politician page the final week of the campaign, with us spending very little money. Why isn’t anyone asking me how we did that?

As for Dimitri’s campaign, he was very experimental in the way he engaged voters directly. He’s an engineer. He built this incredible “amphibious bike-boat” and traveled all over his coastal District, including communities no candidate had ever set foot in before. We each in our own way—Mal Hyman with radio ads—accomplished things on tight budgets, and were just as successful, or even more successful, as the candidate who spent nearly $750,000.

GWR: Speaking of money: do you think it’s more difficult to raise funds in a Presidential campaign year, or a non-Presidential campaign year? Do you think the Trump versus Clinton battle siphoned money away from you? Will things be different in races like yours for 2018?

Bjorn: In a midterm, of course, interest and turnout is so much lower. There’s likely a correlative between waxing interest and money available and trying to get what you can. Please fact-check me, but I think turnout in Richland County in the last midterm primary, 2014, was 12 percent. {It was 16 percent.}

Speaking of which, it’s June 2017. We’ve already had a number of special elections since November 2016. City Council race in Columbia in January—I supported Jessica Lathren in a nonpartisan race, but she was the definitive Left-of-Center candidate; turnout was only 12 percent.

The Democratic Party runoff to replace Joe Neal in South Carolina House District 70: only 2,600 votes.

The turnout for the South Carolina House District 84 special election was 2,500 votes for 40,000 residents.

In the recent South Carolina District 5 U.S. Congress primary: Republicans outnumbered Democrats two-to-one—about 40,000 to 20,000.

Oh, and no Democrat ran in the recent South Carolina House District 3 State Senate race in Anderson County.

For all the complaining we’re doing about Donald Trump and his regime, it doesn’t seem to motivate us to take an hour or two out of our day to vote.

This reminds me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Apparently we haven’t reached the point where we’re eating rotten corncobs and pig slop. The greatest mystery in politics has always been that so many Voters seem perfectly content with a system entirely opposed to their own self-interest.

GWR: I think we’re all hoping that Trump as President is going to change that.

Bjorn: To which I say: Covfefe.

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!


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