Saturday, April 10, 2010

Money Talks In Columbia

By Aaron Johnson

I voted yesterday. For myself. For mayor.
It was surreal to see my name on the ballot screen. I clicked a little checkbox next to my name, then I clicked the little checkbox next to the name of my best friend - one of the most honest and good-natured men I’ve ever known - and then I looked around, bewildered, and walked away.
A million thoughts and emotions flooded my brain. It’s finished. I’m done. We’re done. We’ve done all we can do. Is that door over there the exit? I think this lady from WIS wants to interview me. I just voted for myself in a municipal election.
Well, how did I get here?
Six months. Half a year. Culminating in a couple taps on a weird little civic ATM between two flimsy sheets of “political blue” velveteen. I was interviewed by WIS. I babbled a lot. It was hard to focus. I felt like a boxer must feel after getting punched in the face a few hundred times then having a camera shoved in his face. I was light-headed, giddy, a little sick. I felt like I needed someone to cut open my bruises with a razor. I felt like I needed to spit out blood.
The poll worker shook my hand. He told me he was impressed with me and, in the same breath, asked me what I was going to run for next. I felt the same little suffering gratitude I always felt when people made similar remarks. I had been hearing them every day for six months.
“You have some great things to say, you seem really honest and I am really glad you are running, but you know there’s no chance you can win.”
At first the press treated me like a joke, which is understandable, because I do host a show called “Drinking in the Morning” on the Internet, I am young, and I use a lot of humor when I make my points. I don’t look like a politician. I have a handlebar moustache, I’m poor, and most of my stump-speakin’ wardrobe comes from Goodwill.
When I was considered a joke, I got some press. The State ran a cover story about how these lovable kids were playing politics. It was really quite sweet. Really quite insulting. Hey, these zany characters are running for mayor and city council! And over here we have a story about a lady who was killed by a whale!
As I started making the rounds at the forums, it became clear that I wasn’t a joke. Nobody could deny that I was making points and raising issues that were important. I was holding my own pretty well against men (and a woman, Sparkle!) two and three times my age with hundreds of thousands of dollars and with vast armies of professional political consultants. And I was just some young dude who ran a couple of small businesses and assembled a handful of volunteers on Facebook.
Once it became clear that I was serious, that I might even be a contender, the press stopped calling. The stories stopped mentioning my name. If they did, they would refer to me as a “purposefully drunk talk show host” or as a “lower tier candidate.” All of us were written off as a freak show, at best, or completely non-existent, at worse.
I spoke at forums and gave passionate speeches. I received rousing ovations. I felt energy as I walked through the crowd afterword. And then the article would only mention the “big three.” It was as if I wasn’t even there. Why did this happen? Why was I a “lower tier” candidate? Was it because I was young and inexperienced? That couldn’t be true, because one of my opponents, Gary Myers, was a distinguished Lieutenant Colonel in the army with decades of experience fixing broken governments and establishing democracies in the third world. He was also ignored.
Why? Because he didn’t raise a truckload of money. He didn’t reach out to the power structure. He ran a clean campaign, focused squarely on the issues and didn’t worry too much about money. He figured that if he was honest, made good arguments and did his best, he would get due, fair coverage by the press and people would find out about him and his message would resonate on its own.
But we learned quickly that what actually happens in news and politics in this town is that if you don’t raise a ton of money you get ignored. Plain and simple. And so the “lower tier” candidates don’t have a shot in Hell. Once you get pushed out, once you are branded as a “lower tier” candidate, once the press starts making vague, spurious, editorializing claims like “most political analysts say that Mr. Robertson does not have a serious chance of winning,” the myth begins to settle in and harden into fact.
I am not upset that I lost. I am not upset that Grant lost by a far slimmer margin than any of the “political analysts” projected. But I am upset that my city is still sick. E. W. Cromartie is going to the slammer but the machine he spent decades building is still humming along, well oiled and fully functional. Tameika Isaac Devine has proven herself to be untrustworthy, self-serving and incompetent. She has made attempts to steal money that was supposed to go to poor people for her own gain, she has brought City Council into executive session time and time again inappropriately, she has shipped off hundreds of thousands of our precious tax dollars to other states for spurious “studies” and she does it all shamelessly. She really thinks it’s okay to do all of these things.
And the press just let her get away with it. The press, with the exception of Columbia City Paper, did not cover the at-large race at all. An entire race for a seat that is just as powerful as the mayor’s office, and the press did not cover it at all.
A couple of twenty six year olds assemble together a band of young, energetic, creative citizens to fight corruption and bring fiscal responsibility and to promote democracy in a town where only two hundred and eighty eight people between the ages of eighteen and twenty four voted in the last municipal election. Together they build a strong and vocal movement that gives an incumbent candidate with tens of thousands of dollars a run for her money. We did things nobody thought we could do. We built things that are incredible. Remarkable. And we did it all with almost no money. We did it all with sweat and conviction. It was unprecedented. It was wholesome. It had substance. It was real.
And it wasn’t newsworthy?
Ah well. I am not disheartened. On the contrary, I am steeling my resolve. We must keep the pressure up. We have to keep moving forward. We have to keep coming together, examining the issues, asking the questions. We have to be a thorn in the side of corruption and apathy and we have to build something that can’t be ignored. If machine politics run this town, then let us build our own machine. But let us do it in the light of day. Let us be inclusive and selfless and reasoned and good.
It was apathy and ignorance of local politics that got us here, that allowed a group of greedy sociopaths to take control of our government. Only a strident, bold, passionate and sustained movement will ever unseat that kind of regime. I am in this for the long haul.
It took six months. Half a year. It was maddening and frustrating. It took thousands of man hours and some of the most valiant, creative and incredible volunteers I’ve ever met. It shook my soul. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It hurt.
But damnit...
I voted yesterday. For myself. For mayor.


  1. Bravo City Paper - you saw some exciting, cutting edge news, and you published it. You've got my vote for excellence in journalism.

  2. Since, in only six months, you both have made such an impact...imagine what you can do by the next election! I'm very encouraged and excited. Fight the powers that be!