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My Life as an Underdog 

The Green-Republican front against DiF

Wednesday, Oct 25 2000
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One is a longtime activist more accustomed to marching on the protest front than glad-handing at a fund-raiser; the other a U.S. congressman who voted to impeach President Clinton. But in the race to oust Dianne Feinstein from the U.S. Senate, Green Party candidate Medea Benjamin and Republican Tom Campbell, both 48, have stumbled upon significant common ground: Both advocate lifting economic sanctions against Iraq and Cuba; both oppose the $1.3 billion military-aid package the Clinton administration granted Colombia. Both believe the International Monetary Fund should be abolished and call the war on drugs a failure. And both are running campaigns against an incumbent so sure of victory that she has scarcely made a stump speech.

”The system is brilliantly rigged,“ says Benjamin. ”It‘s even worse than Mexico in 1994, when they stuffed ballot boxes. You don’t need to stuff ballot boxes here; you don‘t need to put dead people on the voter rolls. You do it in much more sophisticated ways. You do it by making it extremely hard to get access to federal funds. You do it by voting on a Tuesday rather than a Saturday. And you do it by making campaigns revolve around 30-second TV ads.“

Benjamin’s campaign has revolved instead around public appearances and billboards; with a starting balance of $200,000 in her campaign coffers, she has not had the cash for a television ad at all. Campbell, who started with $4 million, has aired only a meager few as Election Day looms. And Benjamin and Campbell are making the most of the American public‘s increasing disgust with the money-bloated business of politics. They have joined forces to call for campaign-finance reform, debated each other to underscore Feinstein’s reclusiveness, emphasized in interviews their shared objections to the system that selects the nation‘s leaders. If they have formed a united front against the financial arrangements of our electoral system, they have a worthy foil: Feinstein started out with close to $10 million, and still has more than four times Campbell’s cash on hand, a little more than $3.4 million -- a budget that has supported a media-driven campaign.

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The two underdogs diverge, however, on their immediate ambitions: With hopes of winning only 3 percent to 4 percent of the vote, Benjamin understands her chance of victory is as likely as a comet hitting the Earth on Election Day. ”I‘m building a party,“ she says, ”and building a movement that’s not just about whales. It‘s about living wage, about police brutality, about clear-cutting forests, global warming, defense-budget misallocation, about sanctions against Iraq. We’re building an electorate for that movement.“ But when I asked Campbell how he‘d feel about returning to his post as a tenured law professor at Stanford after the election, he took it as an insult. After a beat in which he feigned a look of shock, he carefully corrected me. ”Let me tell you something,“ he said. ”I am 100 percent sure I’m going to win.“ He has understood from the start, however, that victory cannot be achieved with a safe and understated campaign. And so he has adopted as the core of his message an issue few politicians would touch: the U.S. government‘s $270 billion war on drugs.

Under other circumstances, the Republican Party leadership might have objected; but facing this incumbent’s robust numbers, it hasn‘t flinched. ”You probably can’t beat Dianne Feinstein with a conventional campaign,“ says Stuart Roy, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign. ”It probably takes an unorthodox guy to get any attention at all.“

In a small classroom on the campus of Hilltop High School in the manicured San Diego suburb of Chula Vista, Campbell is firing off statistics about drugs. It is late afternoon, the students have gone home, and only a handful of locals have come out to hear Campbell‘s pitch. The number of drug offenders in the nation’s prisons, he tells them, has increased 11-fold since 1980; twice as many high school seniors are exposed to drugs as 20 years ago; 2.8 million addicts in the U.S. are in need of treatment and unable to get it (the statistic, Campbell notes, comes from Clinton‘s soon-to-be-former drug czar, Barry McCaffrey). And the Clinton administration has just donated $1.3 billion to the government of Colombia to fight a supply-side war against the cocaine trade -- a plan Campbell has decried as ”having the earmark of Vietnam.“

Interdiction and arrest have proved ineffective weapons against drug use in this country, Campell argues, and he advocates a widespread treatment program instead. ”In California alone, we have 160,000 addicts in need of treatment and only 37,000 spots in rehab,“ he says, quietly -- Campbell never shouts to make a point; instead, he brings his voice down to a whisper. ”One-point-three billion dollars. One-point-three billion dollars. Now, I ask you: Wouldn’t that buy an awful lot of treatment?“

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