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My Life as an Underdog

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.

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?“

Only Nixon could go to China, and only a Republican can risk being perceived as soft on drugs -- except Campbell. His near-libertarian voting record has left him with dubious right-wing credentials, and as if to pre-empt accusations that he would ease off on drug offenders, he has proposed the death penalty for anyone who sells heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine to children under 12. (That boldly reckless proviso has already alienated some progressives, who have understandably misinterpreted it as Campbell proposing the death penalty for anyone who sells drugs to minors.)

Today‘s small audience, comprising several retired women in white Campbell baseball caps, a Navy man, a young female student and an outspoken Vietnam vet, is less concerned with drugs than with abortion. Though the vet speaks up to echo Campbell’s opposition to intervention in Kosovo and Colombia, by far the most openly opinionated element in this room is made up of middle-aged, earnest women who want to know why Campbell voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion.

Campbell‘s manner is refined and thoughtful; he is not a forceful lecturer, but a measured and methodical rhetorician. His unnaturally sea-blue contact lenses notwithstanding, he looks the part of the friendly conservative, with silver hair, cherubic good looks and an expression that seems to be fixed at kindly optimism. He is admittedly more comfortable with a chalkboard behind him, and seems at a loss when he can’t underscore his points by writing key phrases for his audience. (”How could you do this to me?“ he gently chided the organizers of another event, where he gave his talk in front of an empty wall. ”I‘m a teacher, I need a blackboard!“) He likes equations: His doctoral dissertation was a statistical analysis of gender discrimination in federal-government jobs, inspired in some part, he says, by his having grown up with five older sisters (he is the youngest of eight). And when someone challenges him, he does not fight -- he reframes the argument.

”Why should we vote for a Republican who only wants what the Democrats want?“ says an older woman in polyester pants and sneakers near the back of the room.

”Why do you want to expand the role of the federal government?“ Campbell asks in return. ”That’s what the Democrats do.“

After his talk, I asked Campbell whether he didn‘t fit in better with the Libertarians. ”I’m a Republican,“ he said, ”because I believe in small government. But there are aspects of the Republican Party that trouble me, where the party has retracted from its charter, and they have to do with personal liberty -- abortion, gay rights, the introduction of religious concepts into the public schools.“

A native of Chicago, Campbell joined the Republican Party in his 20s, despite a weighty family legacy -- his father, William, was not just any New Deal Democrat, but a federal judge appointed by FDR in 1940. In the 1970s he went to work for Jim Thompson, who won the Illinois governor‘s seat in 1976 in part because his opponent resembled Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, but also because of his reputation as a federal prosecutor in the ‘60s: Through Thompson’s efforts, three of Daley‘s close associates were jailed for political corruption. ”If you were a reformer in Illinois,“ Campbell recalls, ”you weren’t a member of the Democratic Party.“

The fiscal conservatism Campbell gleaned from Thompson was bolstered at the University of Chicago, ”a very free-market environment,“ where Campbell studied economics on a scholarship. He continued on to law school at Harvard, and later returned to Chicago to earn a Ph.D. When his wife, Susanne Martin, asked him to find a job in California, he did, and at 31, he became the youngest professor in the history of Stanford University‘s law school. He has remained true to his reformist roots: After losing the primary to Bruce Herschensohn in 1992, he sponsored a blanket-primary initiative, Proposition 198, to correct a system he believed favored only the most right-wing (and anti-abortion) Republican candidates. (The proposition passed in 1996.)

On certain matters of civil liberty, Campbell does better than Feinstein, whose tough-on-crime policies and proposals for censoring the Internet earned her a relatively low 57 percent on the American Civil Liberties Union National Freedom Scorecard (Campbell’s voting record matched the ACLU 69 percent of the time). Feinstein opposes Proposition 36, which would promote treatment for drug offenders. ”She believes in the court system,“ says Feinstein campaign manager Kam Kuwata. Campbell has been among the proposition‘s most energetic promoters, which a recent Gannett poll showed has 62 percent of the public’s support as well.

Campbell nearly voted against granting China free-trade status, but says he changed his mind when the country was allowed into the World Trade Organization. He has argued in favor of diverting funds from Israel to provide clean water to sub-Saharan Africa, believes the debt of developing countries should be forgiven without conditions, and authored a bill, with Michigan Democrat John Conyers, to restrict sales at gun shows. He has more than once been labeled a maverick, and embraces the term. ”I voted against Newt and for impeachment,“ he likes to remind his audiences. ”I‘m probably one of three people in the world who would have done both.“

That vote for impeachment, however, may have made him unelectable for a second term in House District 15 -- the impassioned speech he gave to Congress near the close of the proceedings was not well received in Santa Clara County. And when it comes to welfare and workers’ rights, Campbell is back in lock step with his fellow Republicans. He was pronounced the legislator ”least likely to spend money“ by the Taxpayers Union, and the Libertarian Cato Institute counts him among its five favorite free traders, all Republican -- a distinction that sets him sharply at odds with fair trade--conscious Benjamin. He voted in favor of a bill the AFL-CIO calls a ”tax cut for the wealthy,“ and opposed a bill to add $1 an hour to the minimum wage. And like a good conservative, he justifies that position on the grounds that an increase in the minimum wage will lead to a hike in unemployment. ”Raising the minimum wage will hurt those entering the work force,“ he said in a radio editorial last May, ”and those who would not get a job, except that it was at the minimum wage.“ By the AFL-CIO‘s most recent count, Campbell voted with labor 9 percent of the time. Feinstein’s record isn‘t perfect, but on 11 bills so far this year, she cast labor-friendly votes on seven.

According to Kuwata -- the most prominent voice to emerge from the Feinstein campaign this year (to Campbell’s frustration, Feinstein rarely responds to a challenge in her own words) -- Campbell does not deserve even his social-liberal credentials. ”Senator Feinstein is 100 percent pro-choice,“ he contends. ”Congressman Campbell is not.“

I ask Kuwata how he arrived at that conclusion. ”He backed the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas,“ he says. ”I don‘t believe anyone who supported Clarence Thomas is 100 percent pro-choice. Thomas is an anathema to choice.“

At Bovard Auditorium on the USC campus, Medea Benjamin is serving as Ralph Nader’s warm-up act. Uncertain of this segment of the student body‘s position on global trade and workers’ rights, she repeatedly tests the crowd‘s enthusiasm: ”Let’s see if you like this one: Do you think you should have the right to know whether your clothes were made in a sweatshop?“ The applause comes on cue, and Benjamin carries on. ”Do you want to live in a world where one-third of the population does not have access to -- something I‘d like to have right now -- clean water?“ A full glass is promptly delivered to the stage.

Although the students in this room have come to hear the Green Party’s candidate for president, a fair number of them -- the two seated on either side of me, at least -- had not yet heard Medea Benjamin speak. But she has been in their orbit for years. Long before the Green Party and Ralph Nader approached her to run for office, Benjamin had made a name for herself as an activist. With her San Francisco--based nonprofit fair-trade organization Global Exchange, Benjamin has led a remarkably effective campus-based crusade against sweatshop labor, pressuring Nike to stop using toxic substances in its shoes and the Gap to pay its workers in various factories around the world a living wage. After Seattle in December -- where she was arrested for taking the stage to deliver a guerrilla address to WTO members -- she appeared on CBS‘s Early Show to give Bryant Gumbel an account of the Seattle police’s brutality.

Still, Benjamin is an obscure figure to mainstream voters. ”I heard that Kam Kuwata told a reporter that ‘The only people who have heard of Medea Benjamin are the people in this office and the Seattle police,’“ Benjamin says with a laugh. (Kuwata, for the record, maintains that ”I would never say something so dismissive about Dr. Benjamin.“) ”And the AP story this week says ‘the unknown Benjamin’ gets 5 percent in the polls. Well, 5 percent in the polls is pretty damn good, given that we‘ve been outspent, probably, 100-to-1 by a woman who refuses to even campaign.“

Benjamin is a small blond with a boisterous spirit and a marked tendency toward speaking her mind. She got her start in politics in her Freeport, Long Island, high school, when she and two of her classmates turned the yearbook into an anti-war manifesto. (Her big mistake: She used her family’s own home number as graffiti on the brick-wall design that served as the book‘s cover.) She spent her freshman year at Tufts, but dropped out to travel around the world. ”My interest was international affairs, and I couldn’t think of a better way to learn about international affairs than to travel. I went by camel through sub-Saharan Africa, I picked grapes in southern France with the Arabs, I traveled everywhere in Latin America. My goal was to go where there were no Americans, so I kept heading farther and farther south.“

After four years, she returned, and parlayed her life experience into credentials sufficient for admission into Columbia University‘s master’s program in public health and nutrition. ”I wanted a skill,“ she says. ”I didn‘t want to go back out in the world and just travel; that would be worthless. I wanted something I could do to help people.“ Back out in the world, however, she realized that the problem couldn’t be solved by lessons in nutrition. ”I kept encountering situations where people knew very well how to feed themselves, but companies like Chiquita had come in and taken their lands away.“ And so she went back to school, this time to the New School of Social Research, to earn a master‘s in economics. ”After that,“ she says, ”I felt that I really understood the economic and political dimensions of the world’s problems.“

In the 1980s, Benjamin went to work for the grassroots Food First anti-hunger organization, and wrote a book about political unrest in Honduras, Don‘t Be Afraid, Gringo. In 1988, she and her husband, Kevin Danaher, left the organization, along with a friend, Kirsten Mull, to form Global Exchange, which, in addition to its anti-sweatshop activism, sponsors travel to developing countries and sells imported items produced according to fair-trade principles. She and Danaher now reside in the Bay Area with their two daughters, Arlen, 19, and Maya, 9, and Global Exchange has expanded into a social force large corporations reckon with. The organization’s latest coup: Starbucks is now carrying a line of fair-trade coffee.

The shift from activist to politician has not always been smooth. For one thing, says Benjamin, many of Global Exchange‘s allies are Democrats. ”You want to shake them and say, ’Why the hell are you still in that party?‘“ For another, activism requires a certain abandon; running for office, a little more decorum. Benjamin starts to tell a story to illustrate the difference, then stops: ”I’m not very sure if I should -- I‘m not sure I want you to write this,“ she says. But then she reconsiders, because ”It’s good to show the contradictions of how activists have to think about this stuff.“

”I was at the Republican Convention as an assistant to somebody from the Rainforest Action Network,“ Benjamin explains. ”She had dressed up as a ‘corporate whore,’ and we‘d gone inside the convention. But we had an extra wig, and some extra paraphernalia, and I got caught up in the excitement of the event,“ she says, laughing. So Benjamin dressed up -- capital domes for a bra, oversize wig -- and went around the floor soliciting funds for various campaigns. ”We had a great, great time that day,“ Benjamin recalls. But as it happened, an AP photographer captured the image, and ”a picture of me went out to papers. And one of my campaign people out in San Francisco got one of the pictures and said, ’Medea! You‘ve been acting up again!’ Since then, we‘ve had to talk about what is appropriate behavior for a candidate.“

On the other hand, Benjamin’s antics may be exactly the right behavior for a candidate whose aim is not to lure mainstream Americans to her ranks, but to bring vitality to an electoral system undermined by voter apathy. In a Thursday-night debate with Tom Campbell at the University Synagogue, Benjamin dug up opportunities to point out where she and Campbell parted ways, and demonstrated an uncanny talent for infusing what might have been a polite exchange of views with the drama of open confrontation. She may have only 3 percent in the polls, but about 90 percent of the debate audience had come out for her (unlike Campbell‘s Republicans, Benjamin’s Green supporters have a tradition of getting themselves to events). After both she and Campbell had expounded on yet another point of agreement, abortion rights, Benjamin seized the opportunity to shake things up by declaring, out of turn, that ”If you had fewer white men in Congress, choice would not be an issue.“

Campbell objected: ”If that‘s a joke, okay. But if you’re sincere, I just want to say I believe strongly that people should not be judged by their race or gender.“

”Women are over 50 percent of the population. They should be over 50 percent of the legislature,“ Benjamin shot back. ”We have an electorate controlled by rich, white men.“

”I agree with you about rich,“ Campbell allowed. ”But I don‘t think Dianne Feinstein is a man.“

”She is one of the few exceptions,“ Benjamin said. ”But she might as well be a man.“

”There is no way,“ Campbell said, ”I’m commenting further on that.“

From the audience, there was raucous applause.

Benjamin is a disarmingly passionate, articulate and witty speaker, and listening to her debate Campbell, it‘s hard not to wish that she had a better chance. ”My mother keeps saying to me, ’Why are you doing this? Why don‘t you just join the Democrats or the Republicans, and then you can win?’ But I think I‘m doing the most important thing I can do between now and November. I’ve been working as an activist for 25 years. We introduce legislation, it goes nowhere, and when it does, we can‘t even get the monitors we need in the regulatory groups to enforce the laws that exist. We see things getting worse and worse in terms of corruption, big money in politics, moving away from any semblance of a Democratic system. Less and less people are interested in voting, and the progressive agenda has been pushed off the public’s radar. The system,“ she concludes, ”is broken.“

”If Tom Campbell wins this Senate race,“ declared the California Journal on October 1, ”it would redefine the term ‘upset.’“ Campbell may dismiss such statements for the record, but the quixotic nature of his bid seems to have freed him to propose notions that are sometimes bizarre, such as abolishing the income tax and replacing it with a sales tax -- ”to tax the consumption of wealth,“ he argues, ”not the production of wealth.“ The very tenor of his campaign -- his outspoken opposition to the war on drugs, his willingness to provoke detractors in his audiences and to align himself with a candidate off his own party‘s political radar -- suggests that he has yet another thing in common with his progressive opponent: He is building a party.

Campbell has placed high hopes on a new crop of strategically placed TV ads he began to run in mid-October, and on Feinstein’s recent emergence into the limelight: She has agreed to debate Campbell twice this week, once in Los Angeles and again up north. Between June and September, he managed to close the gap between himself and Feinstein from 26 to 17 points. But he has made no progress since: A poll released Tuesday by the California Public Policy Institute revealed no change in those numbers.

Also on Tuesday, Campbell and Feinstein‘s first debate was held at Adelphia Cable’s Santa Monica studio. It got off to an awkward did-so--did-not start, with Campbell attacking Feinstein on her husband‘s business interests in China and Feinstein tediously repeating her denials. The low-profile face-off did little for either candidate. Instead, it proved only how dismally uninteresting two-party politics can be. The debate’s pedantic and predictable rhetoric served as a persuasive argument for the inclusion of third-party candidates. This year, that may be sufficient victory for the Greens.

”Five percent,“ Benjamin begged the audience that turned out to see her debate Campbell. ”Five percent. That‘s all we need to change all the rules for the next electoral season.“