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FEW ARE CHOSEN: A CAMPAIGN MEMOIR

By Doug McFarland©

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Excerpt from Prologue

The apt analogy to a campaign for public office is a ride on an amusement park roller coaster. The candidate, giddy with anticipation, begins a slow, agonizing grind up a seemingly endless hill. Finally over the initial hill, the ride gathers speed as it swoops down, up, and around, apparently ready at any second to leave the tracks. The rider bounces up and down, side to side, forward and backward, again and again thrilled, apprehensive, exhilarated, terrified—all on the same short ride. At the end of the ride, the rubbery-legged passenger rises from the seat physically and mentally exhausted.

Some years ago now, I ran for the United States Senate seat from Minnesota. This is the story of that marvelous ride.

As with any story of politics, this story is about people. A candidate who can’t connect with people might as well not buy a ticket for the ride. Many of the people remain bright in memory, and many have faded into the mists of time. I will describe, as honestly as possible, the people who came and went in the campaign. Some will appear wise, or hardworking, or savvy, or loyal, or committed. Others will appear foolish, or cunning, or simpleminded, or devious, or shortsighted. To tell this story right, I must tell it truthfully.

That applies to me also. I’ll tell of my triumphs and disasters honestly. While politics is about people and building coalitions and gathering support, it is also about the candidate. The candidate has to have enough self-confidence, ambition, ego, hunger, fire in the belly, or whatever it takes to step forward. Any budding candidate who sits at home waiting for the telephone to ring is soon going to conclude the telephone doesn’t work. A political campaign is about stepping forward, not being dragged kicking and screaming into the fray.

This story is about Republican politics, and it’s also about Democratic politics. It’s not about advocating partisan political positions. This is a story of American politics and American campaigning great and small. It’s also a story about having fun while pursuing a serious purpose. I still laugh at all the things wild and wonderful that happened along the campaign trail.

Along that trail, I picked up a lot of knowledge—ranging from tidbits to wisdom—about people in politics and candidates in campaigns. People say they want honest answers from a politician. Well, they’re in here. Some of the answers may produce a knowing nod. More of the answers will produce a "wow." I’m not trying to polish my political reputation or ready a run for the next office. So here’s the straight scoop on what a candidate running for office really experiences and really thinks.

I step back from the story once in a while to make an observation or to state a lesson learned about politics and campaigning. This is not a how-to-do-it book, but it does have some practical tips and lessons valuable to a candidate. These observations, lessons, and tips are sprinkled into the story in italics, all leading to the final chapter "20-20 Hindsight and Fuzzy Foresight."

I answer the following questions, and many more, while describing my days and months on the campaign trail.

• What don’t people know about politicians?

          What’s the first question everyone asks a candidate for office? What’s the second? Which is more important to a politician: good resume or good hair? What’s the first thing a candidate looks for upon arriving at a political event? What do sitting U. S. Senators and aspiring candidates talk about in unguarded moments? Do politicians have tough skin or do they bruise easily? How does a candidate transform himself from a low-key common man into a high-octane political candidate in a small-town gas station mens’ room—or ladies’ room when the other key is missing?

• What is life like on the campaign trail?

          What’s a day in the life of a candidate really like? Is driving through pitch black midnight with a temperature of 25 below zero to the Icebox of the Nation as much fun as it sounds? Which is more important to a candidate: raising political support or raising money? Why does a politician always seem to be looking for the next hand to shake? How does a candidate work a room? A convention? A parade? When does a candidate need a chaperone? Why do candidates on the campaign trail take seriously signs, portents, and omens? Why are politicians always late? Is a campaign harder on the candidate or the candidate’s family? Why do so many politicians have bad backs? How does a candidate make daily decisions based on half-truths, guesswork, and rumor while trying desperately to avoid the big mistake? What does a candidate do while traveling in a car between campaign stops? What’s a stall warning on a small plane sound like?

• What are some truths about the American political system?

          Why do political parties nominate candidates near the conservative or liberal ends of the political spectrum instead of a centrist who can appeal to both sides? Why aren’t politicians honest? What’s the practical effect of campaign finance reform laws? Why is Social Security the third rail of American politics? Does a person have to be an extrovert to succeed in politics? Is the statement "money is the mother’s milk of politics" true? Why is the national political debate becoming more hostile? How does a political candidate get attention in a sea of public apathy?

• Want a few how-to-do-it tips?

          How can a speaker get up close and personal with an audience? Why shouldn’t a candidate eat before speaking? Is memorizing a speech a good idea? Where should a candidate sit at a table full of supporters? What’s the best answer to a question about a hot-button issue? When is the better response to a question about an obscure issue to confess ignorance than to open your mouth and remove all doubt? Finally, what’s the most important word in the statement "I want to win the right way?"

           

           

Excerpts from Chapter 3:  You Need Professional Help

After a brief lull for the holiday season, the campaign began again in earnest the first week of January. Hours committed to the campaign increased dramatically. Steve Knuth and I talked strategy on the telephone daily. I continued campaign by lunch, meeting another dozen party leaders. I wrote and mailed to newspapers around the state another political commentary, this one called "Conservatives Care." The theme was conservatives care for common people by respecting them enough to allow them to make decisions for their own lives. Party activists for months to come proudly showed me copies they had clipped from their local papers.

A professional photographer took my official campaign photo. The pose he induced Steve Knuth, Mary, and me to select looked soft and gauzy; the photographer said it made me look accessible. I thought it made me look sappy.

 

Tony Sutton had recommended I start my party meeting appearances in my home district, the fourth, so on the evening of January 5, I showed up at the monthly meeting of the fourth district executive committee in St. Paul. Many who would become stalwarts of my campaign were there. Bob Weinholzer, state party chair, was also there.

After I made my brief pitch and answered a few questions, Bob motioned me into a small storage room cluttered with furniture. He asked how the campaign was going, and hardly waited for a response before unloading "Doug, you need professional help." Two months earlier I would have thought he meant I needed to have my head examined. Now, I knew he meant a political professional. I reminded Bob that Steve Knuth was advising me. Bob was not a Knuth fan, but I was. The campaign by lunch was proceeding nicely. Newspapers around the state had published the commentaries I had written at Knuth’s prompting. Here I was at a district meeting. The word was spreading. All of this was happening with minimal out-of-pocket expense, and that was important since the campaign was running out of my pocket. I was not inclined to listen to Bob.

 

Not long after, Bob Weinholzer called. He announced "I thought you should know a rumor is floating around that Steve Knuth is working with Cary Humphries."

"He is?"

"Doug, you know that Humphries has a lot of personal money to finance his own campaign," Weinholzer continued. "Knuth will go where the money is."

"Bob, you know Knuth has been working for me. How good is your information?"

"It’s good. I wouldn’t trust Knuth for a minute."

"Why not?"

"Just believe me on this. If I were you, I’d be looking for a campaign manager."

The news was surprising, but not shocking. Knuth had not been calling as often, and he was no longer johnny-on-the-spot returning my calls. I knew Bob was probably right. "Who would you recommend as a manager?" I asked.

Weinholzer gave me four names: Chris Georgacas, but he would probably not leave his job with the Republican state House caucus; Gail Sutton, the wife of Tony Sutton, Bob’s state party political director; Dwight Tostenson, former manager for Congressman Vin Weber; and Jeff Larson. "The trouble is," Bob continued, "you probably can’t afford Tostenson or Larson."

That didn’t leave me much choice, which was likely exactly what Bob had in mind. I asked "Is Gail Sutton any good?"

"Oh, absolutely. She’s never managed a campaign before, but she’s ready. She’s a tremendously hard worker, and she’ll be loyal to you. Of course, you understand that with Tony’s position in the party, he has to remain neutral, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two of them consult a little."

This was sounding good. "How much would I have to pay her?"

"That would be up to the two of you. I would say $2500 a month minimum."

"I don’t know if I can pay anyone that kind of money yet."

"Talk to Gail about being a combined campaign manager and fundraiser. I think she could make it work. She could pay herself with what she brings in."

Bob made sense. I called Gail Sutton. She wasn’t surprised to hear from me. We agreed to meet over lunch to talk about the job.

Gail showed up at O’Gara’s Bar in St. Paul at noon primed for action. She wanted the job. Her resume¢ showed she had a lot going for her: Hamline honors graduate, campaign positions, party positions culminating in state party finance director. She sat across from me in a booth. Short-cut brown hair, round-frame glasses, fast-paced speech, total intensity. I already knew from our previous breakfast meeting she was a hard driver. She talked about making a big impression on party delegates without spending a lot of money. We went over the important people to work on for early commitments in all eight congressional districts.

How about salary? Gail said she would be half campaign manager and half finance director for the early months of the campaign. She would raise enough money to pay herself and run the campaign. How could I go wrong with that? One of the top political professionals in the state was willing to throw her future onto my back, which was thrilling.

I was sold, but officially Steve Knuth was still my campaign consultant. Was he really jumping to Cary Humphries, or was that just another typical political rumor? I told Gail I would get back to her.

That same afternoon Knuth called me with the sad news that he was leaving to go to work for Humphries. I tried to sound appropriately surprised and hurt. The next morning, I called Gail.

I was a little sorry to see Knuth go. He had started calling me "Senator." It sounded good. A couple of days later, Gail and I ran into Humphries and Knuth at a district meeting. I heard Knuth call Humphries "Senator." It didn’t sound nearly as good, although Humphries seemed to like it.

 

So I had dodged a killing campaign disaster, but gaffes were not so easy to avoid. Faye Hatch, chairwoman of the sixth congressional district, and I met. I worked hard for her support all through lunch. When the moment was right, I tried to close the sale—even though I didn’t expect her commitment nearly two years prior to the election. I looked into her eyes and murmured "I want to have you."

We each looked at the other quizzically. After a pause, she replied "I think you’re going to have me, but not today." A few months later, Hatch did commit to support me. Not all campaign gaffes are damaging.

 

The big news of January arrived in a frantic telephone call from Gail. I picked up the receiver. Without any preliminaries, Gail blurted "I just heard that Cary Humphries had a heart attack over the weekend! He’s going to drop out of the Senate race!"

"We’d better check this out, Gail," I cautioned. "You know how political rumors are."

Gail was not to be deterred. "Yeah, I know, but this one’s good. He told Bob this morning."

Schadenfreude! I wished only good to Cary the man, but ill to him as my only competition. I wandered down the hallway to share the news with Mike Scherschligt, a close friend on the Hamline faculty. I added "I need to confirm this. I’d like to call Humphries and ask, but that doesn’t seem right."

"I’ll call Humphries’ secretary at Cargill," Mike volunteered with a sly grin. He was the most unusual combination of a Lutheran pastor and a law professor—with a mischievous streak. "I’ll tell her I’m one of his old friends and ask about him."

"Do you really think you could pull it off?" I asked hopefully. Today, with caller ID, we would not try this stunt. In January, 1993, caller ID was not a concern.

"Sure. Just listen," Mike said. As I listened, he dialed Cargill and reached Humphries’ secretary. He was an old friend who had heard Cary had a health scare. Just calling to check in on him. Yes, there was a health scare over the weekend. A heart palpitation. No, not a heart attack. Cary was resting and seemed fine. Yes, he had decided to drop his campaign for Senate. He was taking his heart scare as a sign from God that he should not run.

Mike and I grinned at each other. Humphries was fine, and he was out of the Senate race. Good news all the way around.

I couldn’t help grinning a little, too, when I thought of Steve Knuth. He had picked the wrong horse. Knuth had jumped off of my back onto Humphries’ back, and within a week, Knuth’s new horse had dropped dead in the starting gate.

Over the following months, other candidates and rumors of other candidates appeared, but Knuth never was able to latch onto one. I saw him at several party meetings until eventually he drifted out of sight. Last I heard he moved to Montana.

I did not truly hold ill will against Knuth, since he had helped me get started and now Gail Sutton had my campaign rolling smoothly. My children weren’t so charitable. For months, every time I returned from a political meeting, Amy or Stuart, or both, would ask "Was traitor there?"