As of today, I am a full time political reporter for The Daily Beast. You can read my reporting here!
As of today, I am a full time political reporter for The Daily Beast. You can read my reporting here!
This being a story about New Jersey, it begins, of course, in a diner. Assemblyman John Wisniewski is just finishing up breakfast at the Sunnyside on Main Street in his hometown of Sayreville. Sitting with him this late January morning are a member of his staff and the mayor of another town in his legislative district. Wisniewski appears patient and thoughtful as he talks with the mayor about a possible development deal—but his fingers, nervously tapping on the table, give him away. The assemblyman clearly has something bigger on his mind.
Wisniewski is the reason the world knows about the political disaster that is Bridgegate. As chair of the state assembly’s transportation committee, he was the one who unearthed the smoking gun email from Governor Chris Christie’s fired Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Kelly—“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”—to Christie’s Port Authority appointee David Wildstein. It was a discovery that would turn lives upside down, Wisniewski’s among them. The formerly obscure state lawmaker has made Christie seem scattered and frantic, and as the scandal continues to unfold, it threatens to knock the once seemingly invincible governor out of contention in the 2016 presidential race, or worse.
In Fort Lee, New Jersey, perched high above the Hudson River, is a white, slightly weatherworn building. It houses the law offices of Rosemarie Arnold, advertised in bold white lettering above the doorway. At the entrance of the office driveway, a sign informs you that you are at “The Personal Injury Center.” The.
Six days ago, a group of six New Jersey residents filed a lawsuit in federal court in response to revelations that suggested at least one official in Governor Chris Christie’s administration closed lanes of the George Washington Bridge as an act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat. Rosemarie Arnold is the civil trial attorney who is representing those (now ten) residents. They are suing Christie, the Port Authority, ex-PA officials David Wildstein and Bill Baroni, and Christie’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly.
Arnold’s website advertises her practice areas: car accidents, dog bites, workplace injuries, burn injuries, workplace discrimination, dangerous and defective products, truck accidents, construction accidents, fall-down injuries, spinal-cord injuries, and wrongful death. When we emailed, she responded to me from her iPad. Her sign off included a series of emojis: three ambulances, five bags of money, four shamrocks, and a rose.
Inside her office waiting room, which smells overwhelmingly of Italian food, a downtrodden client sits on a shiny, brown leather chair. He taps his foot and rests his head on the wall behind him, which is overflowing with thumb-tacked thank-you cards. The rest of the walls are decorated with framed press clippings, highlighting Arnold’s many high profile legal battles.
On the cover of US Weekly, with the headline “My World Was Shattered,” is an article about supermodel Christie Brinkley’s divorce. Arnold represented the young girl with whom Brinkley’s ex allegedly had an affair. The entire wall is devoted to this one case, with three other full-page clippings from the New York Post.
As I read the walls, Arnold, who sports a deep tan and dark brown hair, wizzed by, dressed down in jeans, a white tank top and a pink flannel shirt, “I’m running late, be with you in a minute!” Arnold barely looks 25, which is about how long she has owned her practice.
Cars were coming like within millimeters of each other.
In front of a very large box of Advil, she began by explaining the terror that was the gridlock on the bridge. “People were screaming at each other, and cars were coming like within millimeters of each other, like trying to cut each other off and be first! It was stressful; it was anxiety producing; and it made everybody late!”
Arnold told me one of her clients was late to work and fired. She said she knew of a “newspaper delivery company that delivers The Times” who was affected, and has a client who owns a doggy daycare “right at the foot of the bridge” that couldn’t have pooches picked up or dropped off.
Arnold said her ten plaintiffs are just the ones they named, and she “expects the class to consist of over 100,000 people.” Arnold adds, “each persons’ damages need to be calculated, but I can’t imagine this case is worth less than tens of millions of dollars.”
The smoking gun text by Bridget Ann Kelly (“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”) is what Arnold says will win her case for her. The rest of the documents, she told me, weren’t even that important. And Arnold, a former supporter of Christie, said his gross misjudgment and mismanagement in Bridgegate has turned her. “The governor to me is a clear-cut defendant in this case. He is the captain of the ship, and he has publicly stated that this was his fault and his administration failed. He actually publicly stated that they acted, and these are important words, with ‘callous indifference,’ that’s purposeful conduct, that’s not negligence, okay? And the governor has proven to be a bully who takes steps to retaliate against those who don’t support him, so of course suing him puts people in a position where they might be subject to his wrath. I don’t fear that.”
Given Arnold’s familiarity with tabloids and television shows like Inside Edition, where she once appeared, I offer a comparison to Gloria Alred.
Arnold gives me a look.
“This is a serious law firm.”
Saturday’s New York Post asked “Was Bridgegate a fight over judges?” running with an idea Rachel Maddow introduced to the cable-viewing masses on Thursday evening. The alternate theory suggests that the closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge may not have been an act of political retribution against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, but against Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg instead.
Since he has been in office, the issue of New Jersey Supreme Court has been a contentious one for Christie. In 2010, he declined to reappoint a sitting justice, spurning State Senate Democrats who retaliated by rejecting all of Christie’s later nominees. On August 12, 2013, Christie chose not to nominate a justice he had personally endorsed because “I was not going to let her loose to the animals,” (“the animals” being Christie-speak for Senate Dems, in this case). The following day, Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s now-fired deputy chief of staff, sent the smoking gun email to David Wildstein, the now-resigned Port Authority Director of Interstate Capital Projects: “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”
Rachel Maddow (and the Post) meets the logical fallacy: you know, the one that says, if event A happens, then event B happens, so event A must have caused event B.
Weinberg has long been a Christie foe. In 2009, she was Jon Corzine’s running mate. Christie asked the press to “please take the bat out on her” in 2011. The alternate theory is that high ranking Christie staffers closed the GWB lanes to retaliate against Weinberg because of the Senate Democrats’ general refusal to cooperate with Christie’s wishes for the State Supreme Court.
Are you making a connection here?
No? Me neither.
First, Weinberg only became Senate Majority Leader in 2012, after Senator Barbara Buono, Christie’s gubernatorial opponent, was ousted by Democratic leadership. It’s not like she’s been running the show since Christie assumed office. She’s probably not even running the show now.
Second, Senator Loretta Weinberg is, as you may be able to guess from her title, a State Senator. That means she represents a Legislative District, not a town. Weinberg represents LD 37 which is comprised of 13 different towns, including, yes, Fort Lee. But Weinberg doesn’t live there (she lives in Teaneck, which is not even close to Fort Lee), nor is her office there (it’s also in Teaneck). In Weinberg’s last election, she beat her opponent by nearly 15,000 votes, and she took Fort Lee by a full 1195 votes. If Weinberg were to lose Fort Lee, it is more than likely that she would still get elected. But were Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich to lose Fort Lee, he definitely would not get to continue to be Mayor of Fort Lee. Duh.
Third, so far, no one has uncovered anything in the thousands of Bridgegate documents released last week that suggests this was about Weinberg. There are no references to Legislative District 37. No one seems to be trying to mess with Teaneck. What have been found, however, are lots of references to Mark Sokolich and Fort Lee. Resigned Port Authority executive Bill Baroni repeatedly refers to Sokolich, who is Croatian, as “the Serbian.” David Wildstein, the other resigned Port Authority executive called him a “little Serbian.” Bill Stepien, Christie’s now-fired campaign manager and top adviser, calls Sokolich an “idiot.” Nobody gave Weinberg any fun nicknames!
Fourth, Sokolich sent an email on September 12 to Baroni, informing him that “members of the public have indicated to me that the Port Authority Police Officers are advising commuters in response to their complaints that this recent traffic debacle is the result of a decision that I, as the Mayor, recently made.” It is possible that higher-ups in the Port Authority ordered police officers to inform Fort Lee residents that this was Sokolich’s fault. In which case, how again does this negatively impact Weinberg? Why wouldn’t the Port Authority Police Officers have told Fort Lee residents that the traffic was the result of a decision made by her? It is also possible that police officers arrived at the answer themselves that yeah, the mayor of a town would probably have to sign off on something that would impact his residents so severely. In which case, why bother to go to such lengths to ruin Weinberg if you’re not even going to make sure her constituents get the message that they should be mad at her?
Finally, there is a question of how many conspiracies could anybody run at once? Certainly, people in the Christie administration could have been, and obviously have been, dumb enough to jeopardize the governor by screwing up the GWB and putting it all down on paper. Or, they could have been smart enough to screw up the GWB in order to retaliate against a politician (Weinberg) without mentioning her or making it clear to anybody that she was being punished. But it defies logic and credibility to suggest that they could have done both.
Stop trying to make the Loretta Weinberg theory happen. It’s not going to happen.
By Olivia Nuzzi
Democrats in New Jersey have been celebrating what you might call Chris Christiemas this week. When documents were released strongly suggesting that senior members of Governor Christie’s staff were behind the George Washington Bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, the Gov’s ideological opponents breathed a sigh of relief. Christie’s unrivaled political skill and, as Matt Katz outlined here in November, ability to drive a narrative of his choosing, have meant that until now, The Story of Chris Christie As Told By The National Media is one that Christie has largely written himself. As one New Jersey Democratic strategist told me, “the press had basically inaugurated him already.” But Christie’s political career has been riddled with controversies big and small, most of which have been paid little attention by those outside the Garden State. And while perhaps none of these kerfuffles placed anyone in imminent danger quite like Bridgegate did, at least a few of them might have spelled the end of another, less media savvy politician’s career.
Better luck next time, guys!
By Olivia Nuzzi
"Counting the new Senatorial Democratic Chicks," reads the header of a 1934 political cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman of the Washington Star. Eight chicks, newly hatched, sit in a box: Maloney of Connecticut, Minton of Indiana, Radcliffe of Maryland, Moore of New Jersey, Donahey of Ohio, Guffey of Pennsylvania, Gerry of Rhode Island and Truman of Missouri (yes, Harry.) Holding a ninth egg, with a bespectacled man’s head sticking out of it, its shell cracking, a farmer, "Jim," says to "Miss Democracy," "You may have to set a while longer on this one, Auntie!"
The bespectacled man in the cartoon was Senator Rush D. Holt, Snr. of West Virginia. The reason he needs more time in the nest is, at age twenty-nine, he’s still months away from being able to legally serve in the Senate. An FDR liberal at the time of his election, by the end of his first and only term, Holt Snr. would be a rabid, isolationist conservative. Eventually, he would be a Republican. When he sought the Democratic nomination for a second term, Holt Snr. finished third.
Today, 79 years after it was first published, the cartoon hangs on the office wall of Representative Rush D. Holt, Jr. Holt is seeking the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in the special election which will fill the seat of the late Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. If current polls reflect the final outcome, Holt, like his father, will finish third.
It’s nearly 8 p.m. and the halls outside of congressman Holt’s office are empty and quiet. Holt’s office is empty, too. A vote is underway on a series of amendments to the 2014 Energy and Water Appropriations bill for which Holt has, at the last minute, traveled to Washington from New Jersey.
Holt’s Legislative Assistant had appeared, let me into the office to wait, and then vanished. Every surface is piled high with papers and every shelf crowded with books: All ten volumes of “The Thomas Jefferson Papers”; books about science; “Mosques From All Around the World”; books about government. A large bowl filled with bags of gummy candy, like the kind you hand out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween, sits on a coffee table. Hanging in a closet are dozens of button-down shirts.
Holt walks through the door, arms full with more papers, and introduces himself as just “Rush.” He’s thin and appears younger than his sixty-four years, his (mostly) gray hair notwithstanding. He speaks as though he is always delivering good news and has a habit of using the phrase “on balance” when discussing an issue.
"Have you eaten?" he asks. He hasn’t — and suggests that we walk down to the National Democratic Club: "Maybe I’ll have a piece of pie."
Rush Holt is a busy man. Lautenberg’s death, on June 3, at the age of 89, wasn’t a shock — his illness wasn’t a secret. But etiquette, and decency, dictated that candidates keep their pre-campaigns slow and secret until the seat was actually vacant. Now any preparations his would-be successors might have already made have moved from that slow, hidden walk to a public sprint.
On June 4, Governor Chris Christie announced, to much flak, that the special election was to be held on October 16. Holding a second, separate election in addition to the scheduled general November election - in which Christie is up for a second term - will cost the state an estimated $24 million. Holt seems slightly in awe of the governor’s audacity as he speculates about what, specifically, drove Christie’s “self-serving” decision. “I believe one of the reasons was, he wanted his name at the top of the ballot; he didn’t want the federal election on the ballot above him… I mean, maybe it was vanity. I assume it was also a calculation that he would do better, and he wanted to have a really strong showing so that he could run for president. That was his thinking, I’m sure.” About Christie, he later added, “I don’t know how he gets away with as much as he gets away with.”
When Lautenberg announced in February that he would not be seeking reelection, the names of all of the contenders in the current Democratic primary were mentioned as possible candidates - except for Holt’s. The Mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, filed papers to run for Lautenberg’s seat in January - a move that, at the time, Lautenberg’s senior aides called “disrespectful.” Asked about his aides’ comments, Lautenberg said, “I have four children, I love each one of them. I can’t tell you that one of them wasn’t occasionally disrespectful, so I gave them a spanking and everything was OK.” The comment was spun into dozens of “Lautenberg Says Cory Booker Needs a Spanking” headlines, which had the neat effect of elevating Booker to become Lautenberg’s primary rival and most likely successor. Sure enough, in the Monmouth University poll, Booker is currently polling at 52 percent. Also in the Democratic field are Representative Frank Pallone, who is polling at 10 percent, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, at three percent. Holt is wedged between Pallone and Oliver, at eight percent.
Rush Dew Holt, Jr. was born in Weston, West Virginia. His father, who was first elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1931, died when Rush was six years old. “I learned a lot from him,” Holt tells me. “I didn’t learn practical politics, but I learned how much good a person can do in politics. After my father died, for years, for decades, I would run into complete strangers who, figuring out who I was, would say how much my father meant to them, or how much he helped them, or what it meant to them to see an honest, conscientious politician like my father.” Although at first, he tells me, he “resisted the idea” of following in his father’s footsteps.
Holt Sr. was last elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1954. When he died the following year, his wife assumed his position until the end of his term in 1957, immediately after which she was appointed as Secretary of State in West Virginia - becoming the first woman to hold the title. She served until 1959. “She didn’t present herself as a trailblazer,” Holt says. “She was - I now understand - raising three kids, as a single mother, and being the first woman to do a number of different things. I’ve always admired her, I really have.”
In 1966, Holt graduated from Landon, a private prep school in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of the District of Columbia. He received his B.A. in physics from Carleton College in Minnesota and both an M.D. and P.h.D. in physics from New York University. There was never any question as to what Holt wanted to do: “I was going to be a scientist. And I was.”
While completing his PhD at NYU, he became a member of the physics faculty at Swarthmore College, where Holt, a Quaker, also taught religion and public policy. From there, he went to the State Department where he monitored the nuclear programs in Iraq, Iran, the former Soviet Union and North Korea. Beginning in 1989, Holt was an Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which is the largest alternative energy research center in New Jersey.
"It had crossed my mind, from time to time, that I might make a good legislator," Holt tells me. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a nail-clipper. "But if that was my career goal," he traces the nail clipper over each of his fingernails, "I was kind of slow getting around to it. I didn’t get into congress until I was fifty - I like to think of that as mid-career." He puts the clipper back into his pocket without having clipped a nail.
Holt’s personal political involvement began in student government and transitioned to volunteering for local and congressional campaigns in Colorado, Minnesota, Arkansas and “really, wherever I was living at the time.”
In 1996, Republican incumbent Dick Zimmer from New Jersey’s 12th congressional district gave up his seat to run for the United States Senate. Holt entered the race for the Democratic nomination. With 24 percent of the vote, he came in third place. Lambertville Mayor David DelVecchio won the nomination, going on to lose to Republican Michael Pappas whose campaign focused largely on opposing abortion rights and gun control.
In 1998, Holt secured the congressional nomination and with it, the general consensus that he had no chance of election. But, as Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray would later tell me, Holt “has keen political instincts.” Insisting that the man should be separated from his policies, throughout his campaign, he stuck by President Clinton. Meantime, the incumbent, Pappas, stuck by the conventional wisdom of the spring and summer of 1998, that Clinton would probably be out of office by the 1st day of the new year and that the Republicans would score massive gains in that November’s midterms. That is when Pappas became one of the last Republican congressmen to try a Clinton-related stunt on the floor of the House.
On July 21, 1998, Pappas revealed that he had written a song. To the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he sang in support of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr:
Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr
Now we see how brave you are
Up above the Pentagon sting
Like a fair judge in the ring
Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr
Now we know how brave you are
When subpoenas and lies are gone
When obstruction shines upon
Then you throw your trump cards down
Twinkle, twinkle, all brought down
Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr
Now we see how brave you are
Then the Congress in the dark
Thanks you for your courage and spark
We could not see which way to go
If you did not lead us so
Twinkle, Twinkle, Kenneth Starr
Now we see how brave you are
Just ten days before the election, trailing Pappas by 20 points in the polls, Holt launched a campaign ad called “Mike Pappas: Out of Tune; Out of Touch.” Holt won by five thousand votes.
(Pappas told me that he had nothing to say about the New Jersey special Senate election or Rush Holt. I asked him if he would take my phone number in case he thought of something he would like to say.
I asked him if he had a pen.
I gave him the area code and paused.
I gave him the exchange.
I gave him the last four digits.
I’m confident he didn’t write down my phone number.)
Holt and I are still looking for a place to talk. After determining that the National Democratic club with its loud music and raucous crowd of elderly lawmakers is too noisy, Holt leads us a few yards away, down a cement path, to the National Democratic Headquarters. “You used the word ‘fiddles’ in your response to President Obama’s climate change speech,” I say as we determine that the building is closed. “And I thought ‘Nero fiddled while —’” “‘While Rome burned,’” he hays in unison with me as he fights to open the door, pushing the handicapped automatic-door button repeatedly. “Congress fiddles,” he says as the door finally opens. “Hi, we want to do an interview, can we go in there?” Holt asks a cleaning woman as he points to an empty conference room.
As a vacuum drones nearby, Holt explains to me that he believes he is “the most liberal member of Congress” - an assessment shared by the National Journal. Although, “that was a little bit of an alphabetic artifact because Barbara Lee and Pete Stark, I think, and some others, were tied with me, but I was earlier in the alphabet, so I was listed first.” As Holt gets up to move the mop and bucket that are keeping the conference room door open and allowing the sound of the vacuum in, he dismisses Pallone; “I would argue I am clearly more progressive than he is.” He doesn’t bother to address Oliver. Instead he thinks “of my race being with Cory Booker.”
"I’m Rush Holt," begins Holt’s first senate campaign ad, "and I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no Cory Booker."
Booker is the very prominent mayor of Newark. He is known for his social media prowess and heroic, often live-Tweeted actions, like saving a woman from a burning building, shoveling a constituent out of a snow-covered driveway and rescuing cats from trees and dogs from crates. He has appeared with Oprah and he has delivered nearly half a dozen commencement speeches. Booker is so visible that when he gave only one TV interview in April of this year, his relative absence from our screens was addressed by New York Magazine.
"The work of the Senate is not done 140 characters at a time," Holt’s ad said, taking a jab at Booker’s constant presence on Twitter. The work of the Senate, he continued, is "done with time on task. None of the problems facing this country are solved quickly with a fine speech, no. It’s solved with diligent work." He later added, "I Tweet in moderation."
Hitting Booker on his celebrity is “an argument not worthy of Rush,” says Democratic strategist Brad Lawrence of Message and Media, who worked with Holt from his 1998 campaign until his most recent congressional race. He now works for Booker. Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray seems to agree, “The celebrity attack is not getting him anywhere,” he tells me. “New Jersey doesn’t know Cory Booker all that well, but he has a national reputation so they expect that he has substance.” Continuing, “the attack would have to be that Booker is empty behind his celebrity, but Holt will not go deep into the dirt to attack him. He’s not willing to sling the mud.”
If Holt is known at all in New Jersey, it is because of his science background, advertised with “My Congressman IS A Rocket Scientist!” bumper stickers. When the stickers were initially proposed to Holt, he vetoed the idea. He is not, after all, a rocket scientist; he is a nuclear physicist. “My Congressman COULD Blow Up The World If He Felt So Inclined, But He’s A Liberal, So Don’t Worry About It!” would have been a more accurate declaration, albeit a less catchy one. Nevertheless, the bumper stickers were made.
"I would be," he tells me, "the only scientist in the Senate." Scientists, he explains, "tend to believe that not all solutions are equally good, and so they tend to look for the best solution. The other thing about scientists is, we are trained, always, to say that the facts have the last word. I, probably more than most, demand evidence in my decision making."
Though Holt has needled Booker, he has not impaled him. His campaign has, largely, been one of ideas. For Wall Street reform, he has suggested a “transaction tax,” which is “a small speculation tax applied to each share of stock bought or sold.” The policy could generate, Holt claims, $43 billion a year. For climate change, he’s offered a tax on carbon emissions. For education; doubling the maximum Pell Grant from $5,550 to $11,100.
He is passionately against domestic surveillance, having just recently proposed a bill to repeal the Patriot Act. “Bush and our country, out of fear, with President Bush leading the way, did some things that I have called ‘un-American,’” Holt says. Would he use that same phrase, “un-American,” to describe what the Obama Administration has done by continuing the Bush Administration’s policies, I asked. “Yes, I think so.”
"There aren’t two classes of people, one class above suspicion and the other class subject to suspicion. America doesn’t do that," he says, emphatic. "The two principal ideas in the Fourth Amendment! One, that enforcement and intelligence operatives have to prove to an independent judge that they know what they’re doing, so they can’t just run off on hunches or wild goose chases. The other, that they can’t cast suspicion on people without good reason…" He finally takes a breath. "That’s what really makes America; it is one of the founding pillars of America. It is why, for centuries, some immigrants have come to this country to avoid the knock on the door in the middle of the night…We’ve never tolerated that in the United States. It is a kind of inequality that is unacceptable."
I try to nudge Holt into saying that the New Jersey primary is a metaphor for style versus substance in American politics. He won’t be drawn.
Instead he says, “If your whole record is commencement speeches, It’s a little hard to know where you are on the hard choices facing our economy…I have, I think, an A+ rating from the Humane Society. I haven’t arranged with a television crew to film me petting or saving an animal.”
A slight smile. “I’ll leave it at that.”
By Olivia Nuzzi
WASHINGTON - “I got my start working for Jimmy Carter,” Senator Michael D. Brown tells me. “I worked on his reelection campaign… I didn’t do a very good job.”
It is very early in the day and District of Columbia Shadow Senator Brown and I are outside of the African American Civil War Museum, where he is scheduled to attend a press conference. We sit at a table, beneath a large umbrella that does almost nothing to shield us from the sun. Brown is relentlessly friendly. Every so often, while he speaks, he reaches out to the umbrella that stands in the middle of the table and grasps it’s shaft, flashing a ring he wears which features a silver etching of a hoofed mammal. We have been talking for nearly half an hour and I still don’t really understand what a Shadow Senator does.
"My brother doesn’t really know what I do," Brown laughs.
Does he get to vote? No.
Does he get to hold hearings? No.
Does he get to debate bills? No.
Does he get to approve Secretaries of State? No.
Does he get to reject anything and everything the House has done? No.
Does he have a staff? No.
Does he get paid? No.
"So what do you do?"
"Unfortunately, I do whatever I can do."
"Are you like the Queen of England?"
"I don’t have the really nice jewelry and the really nice house, but yes."
The District of Columbia elects two Shadow Senators “every six years, like all other US Senators,” Brown explains. The position was created as part of DC’s efforts to gain full admittance to the Union as a State. “You can’t have a make believe government unless you do it right.” Sure enough, DC elects Shadow Representatives too: every two years.
So, what does a Shadow Senator do each day?
"I go talk to school children, I lobby on Capitol Hill, I handle constituent problems, people come to me with stuff and we do the best we can to work it out. But the problem is that everything is extended to me is a courtesy, and Democrats on the Hill sometimes extend courtesies to me on the basis that I’m an elected official. I call myself the Blanche Dubois of politics, ‘cause I get along on the kindness of strangers."
Shadow Senator Brown was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1953. He moved to Montgomery County, Maryland with his parents who passed away when he was fifteen. He was subsequently raised by an older sister. After studying political science at the University of Maryland and getting his start in politics on the aforementioned Carter campaign, Brown went to the 1980 Democratic Convention. That, he told me, “led to a job at the DNC,” where he stayed for roughly four years. After leaving the DNC, Brown ran a public interest group “which was not me,” and then he began consulting, which he continued to do at his own company for twenty-five years. “My wife used to say I was looking for a job for twenty-five years,” he says, amused.
Brown’s transition from man in the shadows to man in the elected shadows was, as he tells it, somewhat casual. “One day I said to myself, here I’ve been in the periphery of politics for all these years,” he begins. “I always volunteered to do stuff. For example, I’ve had some role at the last ten Democratic National Conventions: I’ve been a super delegate, I’ve been the guy that allowed access to the podium, I’ve been somebody that did credentials - I’ve done all these different things. So I was always involved in one way or another, even though I ran a direct mail firm, I did a lot of campaign work. And one day I decided, you know, I had a relative that fought in the Revolutionary War, and isn’t this stupid that we don’t have rights in the District of Columbia? I found out about this office and I looked in to see when the guy who had the office’s term was up so that I might run, and I found out there were two senators! I never knew there were two senators! I’m like, holy crap! There’s two senators - and one of them’s up! So I ran against her.”
To prove he was serious about his campaign, Brown purchased the domainShadowSenator.com. Life soon imitated domain and Brown won all 132 precincts. I suggest to him that perhaps Hillary Clinton should follow his lead and purchase UnitedStatesPresident.com while she’s running for office.
He thinks for a second. “Maybe should call her.”
Shadow Senator Brown loves to tell of how his title often confuses people or places him in unique situations. “Outside the District of Columbia, it’s amazing the way I’m treated,” he says, laughing. “Because people don’t understand that the people of the nation’s capitol don’t have the same rights that everybody does…I go to things and they say, ‘we’re not sure if we announce you first or the governor first - do you know what the protocol is?’ and I go,” he adopts a tone of mock deference, “oh, let the governor go first…”
"Oh!" he inhales sharply, this is one of my favorite stories…”
"My kids, they hate what I do and the fact that I stand up and give speeches spontaneously. We’re in New York on vacation… and we decide to take the kids to see the Lion King. So I buy these tickets and I go up to the box office, I say Michael Brown, and the guy says ‘do you have some ID?’ so slip my ID under the thing and he says ‘where did you buy these tickets!’ — only New Yorkers would do this — and I go ‘online,’ and he goes ‘oh, Jesus Christ.’ and he just walks away and he comes back and he slips a card under the thing and says, ‘look, we have seventeen theaters on Broadway, if you need a ticket, you call this guy, you don’t go on the Internet, you got it?’ and I go ‘okay,’ and he goes, ‘I don’t know what the hell you expect me to do for you now, because the show starts in an hour, but go away, come back and I’ll see what can do for you,’ so I come back and he says ‘ok, we put your three kids in the front row, but you and your wife are still in the back with the orchestra, there was nothing we could do for you.’ I have stuff like that happen, and it’s nice. I don’t ever try to abuse it, but people are very kind to me. it’s been an interesting experience…”
He slips seamlessly into his next story.
"I get a call one day and they say ‘Senator Clinton would like to have breakfast with you, are you available?’ - ‘cause I’m a Super Delegate, so I go ‘yeah, I think I can squeeze her in,’ and O go to this thing and there is a podium and I’m up there talking to somebody and she walks in the room, so I go and I sit on a love seat behind the podium and she walks in and realizes as she’s walking to the podium that somebody is going to announce her, so she comes and she sits on the love seat next to me, so I put my arm around her and I say, you know, I whisper in her ear, ‘Senator Clinton, I’m the senator from the District of Columbia and I’m a personal friend of Maggie Williams’ - who’s just been hired to be her campaign manager - and she turned around and said ‘oh, Maggie! Of course!” and so we’re talking about Maggie and having this real animated conversation. So, my sister in law says that night the news comes on and goes [he puts on a fake news caster voice], ‘and today, Hillary Clinton was out schmoozing with the delegates,’ and my sister in law goes, ‘there you are, rocking back and forth on the couch with Hillary Clinton like the two of you dated in high school.’ And my brother goes, ‘Oh my God that’s Michael!’… My brother thinks we’re old friends, whenever he calls, it’s ‘how’s Hillary?’… Of course, I supported Obama, so I don’t think she likes me anymore.”
Lion King tickets and Clinton schmoozing aside, the bulk of a Shadow Senator’s life is spent trying to secure statehood for the District of Columbia. Brown’s campaign slogan was “THE LAST SHADOW SENATOR YOU’LL EVER NEED.” Opponents of statehood, he tells me, “say such silly-ass things. Like, ‘Washington’s too small to be a state!’ and I’ll say, ‘well, we’re bigger than Wyoming,’ and they’ll say, ‘no, you’re not bigger than Wyoming,’ and I go, ‘look, it’s not a geographical thing, this is why California doesn’t have 100 senators and Rhode Island only has one,’”
"Or! They say ‘this is the way the Founding Fathers wanted it.’ Yeah, the Founding Fathers didn’t want women to vote, they didn’t want Native Americans to vote, they didn’t want African Americans to vote, they didn’t want people that didn’t own property to vote. They were not a very inclusive lot. So, who gives a damn what the Founding Fathers wanted, you know?" He continues, "I mean, we’ve enfranchised women, African Americans, Native Americans, people under the age of 21 - the only group that’s still out there in the cold is people that live in the District of Columbia."
But, fear not, Shadow Senator Brown has a plan to further the cause of statehood for DC. “We’re looking at clothing and food products.” “Food products?” I ask. “Yeah, Freedom Franks - ‘take a bite out of injustice.’”
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