Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Outsiders: Also on the ballot, and making good points

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Three candidates you haven't heard a lot about from the mainstream media are, nevertheless, running for US Senate. Danny Dalton, Andrew Ian Dodge, and Steve Woods are perhaps like the much-maligned but ultimately more heroic Greasers gang in the classic SE Hinton novel The Outsiders. They're not polished, refined campaigners or politicians — and they definitely lack the slicker appeal of the more popular and seemingly successful crew that Hinton called the Socials. But each of these underdogs has noteworthy credentials, experience, and ideas. In fact, if you think standard politicos are part of the problems in Washington, you might consider taking these men more seriously than the Big Three. They're certainly more likely to "stay gold," maintaining their philosophies and political stances upon arriving at the Senate.

In the sprawling Falmouth building that houses his privately owned mini-conglomerate, Woods laughs at the irony of being a marketing executive running on what he calls an "anonymity platform." Then he rails against mainstream media — specifically the Portland Press Herald — for failing to cover his campaign adequately. He has a point: While the press talk with King, Summers, and Dill about health-care issues, one of Woods's firms is actively engaged with big players in the health industry, giving him broad perspective. (He supports the Affordable Care Act, not as a finish line, but as a starting point.)
But rather than elaborate, he moves on, observing that when the press talk with the Big Three about energy and environmental issues, perhaps they might want to talk to a guy who has a solar-powered office campus (complete with electric-car charging station), a rainwater-reclaiming roof, and a green-living marketing firm, Viridescence. He might have something to say on those topics, too.
If only he weren't so upset that when talk turns to jobs, nobody calls him — "I've created 100 jobs here" and invested millions in Maine as part owner of the Maine Red Claws, and as a partner in the Thompson's Point redevelopment project, he says. He complains that high taxes and onerous government regulations have made running small businesses harder than ever.
Which reminds him that democracy is on the wane ("woe is the republic" is a frequent refrain), and that civic involvement is dropping, and that elected officials are incompetent and —
Well, that's the real problem. Listening to Steve Woods talk is like drinking from a firehose. There's delicious, refreshing substance that can bring great relief and growth, but There's. Just. So. Much. Of. It.
Perhaps it's the relentless drive — and let's say it, passion — that has landed him at what he terms the "kids' table" of this US Senate race. It could be his own admission that "I probably entered the process a little naively," expecting a more level media playing field. Maybe it's his idealism about American civic obligation.
"Public service is a privilege," Woods says. He's serious when he says he won't accept the $174,000 salary a senator receives, and will seek to have it sent directly from the US Treasury to several Maine-based charities.
It's a way to achieve his goal — which is not to change history (he thinks none of the candidates will), but to "change the dialogue, and . . . to change democracy in America," bringing civic engagement back from the cliff of cynicism.
But this wish is tempered with a harder reality, such as when he condemns today's broken political system with lines like "institutional lying has become part of the fabric of our political system" and accuses not just the leaders but also the followers of failing to protect the American experiment. "In effect, it's all our fault," he says, following that with an admission that it's an uphill slog to seek votes from people while telling them they're the problem.
Dodge got into this race because of a promise to his father, who died shortly afterward. A Maine Tea Party Patriot coordinator whose vow to drive Olympia Snowe from office failed to win him the Republican primary, Dodge declared independency after the loss and has tried to wax more libertarian (including speaking recently before a USM appearance of Libertarian Party veep candidate James Gray) while keeping his ultra-conservative but very personable campaign going for the November election.
Dodge's conversation is punctuated with an occasional English-accented word or turn of phrase, recalling his work for, as he describes them, "unsuccessful" UK parliament races, as well as his time studying at the University of Hull in Yorkshire, almost 20 years ago. He regularly refers to his studies — which also include a 1989 BA in political science from Colby College — as qualifications for his Senate run.
His is an off-beat effort, perhaps most obviously distinct from most candidacies by its bright-yellow comic-book "kapow" logo. Dodge embraces this aesthetic, even "opening" for a trio of metal bands in Gardiner the night after the USM event.
"I'm perfectly happy to say things that piss people off," he says — and so he does, not shying away from taking fairly absolutist stands, and brooking little moderation. He rejects the idea that humans are influencing global climate change, thinks Paul Ryan's budget-reform plan does not go far enough in cutting federal services and spending, and would abolish the federal Department of Education. He opposes the Affordable Care Act and objects to federal funding of any kind for Planned Parenthood (even for non-abortion services). He's against raising taxes on the rich, and instead promotes a "flat" tax system — as well as the dramatically reduced federal spending such a system would mean. He wants to expand NAFTA and lower barriers to trade with other English-speaking countries. At the same time, he wants to "de-fund the UN and suggest it move elsewhere" from its current New York home.
Endorsed by the Libertarian Party of Maine, he also is in favor of some left-wing causes: same-sex marriage, food sovereignty, and marijuana legalization. On immigration — his wife is English — he favors easing the legal arrival of skilled workers while wanting "strong border defenses," as his website words it. He wants to slash military funding, too, and eliminate all forms of corporate welfare.
And his logic is generally consistent — if at times arriving at politically questionable suggestions. Government is too big, and should be dramatically reduced, he argues, returning direct exercise of sovereignty to the people (or, if collective action is necessary, the states). That includes privatizing Social Security and Medicare, programs he has claimed are poorly managed and wasteful despite their overwhelming effectiveness and popularity among citizens of all political stripes.
He doesn't think much of traditional politicians, though, and sums up his competition this way: "I find it hard to believe that I'll be any more of a pretentious ass than some of the others who are running."
Dalton's a details man, as you might expect from a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who spent more than a decade chasing narcotics cartels across the globe. Also a former Air Force and Army serviceman, Dalton's approach is bold and direct.
For example, this question: "Why are we bothering to spend $700 billion on a military that can't win a war?" Much of his campaign energy is spent talking about waste and incompetence in government agencies, specifically law-enforcement and military organizations. He has reams of allegations on the tip of his tongue, with sometimes-excruciatingly exhaustive explanations.
There's also his work history. He left the DEA in 2005, objecting to ineptitude he saw throughout the government. And then he went to work for the State and Defense departments, at least some of the time as an employee of Blackwater, the controversial paramilitary company that was ultimately expelled by the Iraqi government and fined by the US State Department for misconduct, including alleged illegal arms dealing.
After seeing even more fraud, waste, and incompetence (the three may be his favorite words, he uses them so much), in 2008 he apparently became some sort of international private investigator. That effort was funded with his own money and did, he says, a better job investigating terrorists and drug-traffickers than the federal agencies tasked to do that work, including those for which he used to work.
Upon offering the information he and his network uncovered to top-level federal agents, he found himself rebuffed. (It's unclear whether that was related to his requests for reimbursement for the expenses he incurred — which he says are minuscule when compared with the costs of supporting a uniformed American soldier in an overseas combat zone.) So he took his complaints elsewhere, seeking audiences with Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. He met with their staffs, but says he was never able to talk to either of the women directly. In any case, they didn't want his information either, he says, and referred him to some of the agencies that had already declined his information.
This led him to enter the Senate race, accusing both Snowe and Collins of failing in their duties as elected officials by refusing to even look at what he was presenting.
At the same time, he took advantage of basically every chance opportunity to present US law-enforcement personnel with what he had learned. He tells the story of being stopped at a border crossing, and then trying to hand over a dossier of information on the whereabouts of an alleged Taliban commander in Afghanistan — to a Border Patrol supervisor near Canada. He continues to profess amazement that the officer was uninterested in his data.
It may stick in his craw because for a time he worked for the Department of Homeland Security's effort to get law-enforcement agencies to share information better. But he views it as part of something much larger: "That's the problem — the two parties. Everything else is a symptom of that problem," he says.