The candid ate
I was a fetus during the Watergate scandal. Television newscasts on the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s resignation accompanied my gestation, incorporating political cynicism into my body on a cellular level. I vote, but strictly out of duty, like paying taxes or going to the dentist. I feel a vague pride at the polling place, followed by very specific disappointment when every race I voted for loses. (I occasionally suspect I jinx candidates and that it would be better for everyone if I stayed home.)
Every brush with politics leaves me feeling angry and impotent, so it’s no wonder I almost declined Marc Valdez’s dinner invitation. Valdez, a local meteorologist and musical-theater performer, was one of 135 Californians who ran for governor in the 2003 recall election. Fellow recall candidate Lorraine “Abner Zurd” Fontanes was screening a documentary about her campaign, The Day Arnold Schwarzenegger Kicked My A**, at the Crest Theatre last Thursday, and local also-rans were gathering for dinner beforehand. “One of our number suggested we needed a media representative,” Valdez wrote to me, “and I thought of you.”
I seized the opportunity to dine with “historical figures”—as the former candidates call one another—because I wanted to understand how they’d developed enough confidence, in the political system and in themselves, to volunteer to guide the entire state.
I met Valdez, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Cheryl Bly-Chester, and Bly-Chester’s daughter Erika at the Pyramid Alehouse. Valdez, a staunch Democrat, finished 41st in the election with 1,837 votes. Bly-Chester finished 17th with 5,294 votes. Before they could dig into dinner, I asked the most immediate question: “Why run?”
“Every once in a while, you get the feeling that the people in charge have made a colossal mistake and actually no one’s running things,” Valdez said, citing the Kennedy assassinations and the Tet Offensive as other examples. Valdez felt that by forbidding other Democrats to run in the recall election, Gray Davis was ceding the position to the Republicans. Unwilling to let the governorship go to the other side, Valdez threw his hat into the ring.
“I love to challenge myself, but that was a challenge I almost didn’t overcome,” Bly-Chester said of her decision to run. “I was very choked up taking the oath. It’s the same one you take as governor, defending the constitution and all that.” As an official candidate, she saw people in new colors. “I began to wonder about them. What they were having for dinner. If they were having dinner. What the government was doing for them. What I could do for them.”
Both registered before Schwarzenegger and other high-profile candidates jumped onboard, and neither expected the recall media circus. As dinner continued, Valdez and Bly-Chester swapped campaign tales: how they were inundated with Mentos when the “the Freshmaker” named itself the official candy of the recall, how 45 candidates met on the USS Hornet to forge common goals across all parties, how they gathered on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 10 seconds of air time to shout their platforms (simultaneously), and how the overall experience shaped them.
Bly-Chester strengthened her commitment to politics, serving on the state’s Mining & Geology Board while pursuing a doctorate in organizational leadership. Valdez said his life hasn’t changed much, but he cherishes the community the candidates forged, which stays in contact via a private listserv. “It’s like we’re the class of 2003,” he said.
At the Crest, they traded comments about the film—sympathizing with Fontanes’ struggle to gather enough signatures for her nomination and her humiliating audition for the Game Show Network’s Who Wants to be Governor of California? “I left my heart on the floor of that audition,” Valdez said.
Later, during a Q-and-A, Fontanes announced her intention to run for president in 2008 as the head of the League of Open-Minded Voters. “What I love most about being a part of political life,” she said, “is this hopefulness about it. There’s this can-do attitude; we can fix it.”
Members of the audience nodded enthusiastically, and I felt a touch of the inspiration that spurs ordinary citizens, like those I’d just met, from cynicism to action.