Running for governor on $40.

One advantage of approaching middle age is having the opportunity to celebrate so many anniversaries. (We can parse the term "middle age" on another occasion.)

Thirty-years ago this week, I changed the course of Connecticut politics… well, ok, maybe I added a footnote to it… by announcing my candidacy for Governor of Connecticut. I learned a couple of important business lessons from this adventure, one of which may surprise you.

As perhaps the youngest gubernatorial candidate in state history, I didn't take myself particularly seriously at the time (assuming I do now). I figured I had little to lose as a young pup and the political process had much to gain. In the early summer it looked like it was going to be a complete narcotic of a campaign, with a little-known Republican opposing the heavily-favored Democratic incumbent, Ella Grasso. But I realized I could exploit my notoriety in the Nutmeg State as the lead singer/piano player of a popular honky-tonk rock group. I could launch an independent candidacy that could appeal to zoned out voters and inject new life into the political process. I knew I couldn't win the election without a major political party behind me, but I could attract free media coverage by being innovative in my approach, and I could focus attention on important issues that were being ignored by the other candidates.

I began the campaign on a Wednesday morning by contacting WPLR News and the New Haven Register and announcing that the real campaign had just begun. By the afternoon I had camera crews tripping over each other in my East Haven living room as I answered serious questions about my campaign, with as much earnestness as I could muster, to a battery of reporters.

Q: What's your campaign motto?
A: "If you can't trust a politician whom can you trust?" I actually preferred the motto, "Nixon's the one", but it's been used. And I didn't want to have to change my name.

Q: Why don't you start your political career by running for an office you know you could win, like mayor of East Haven?
A: East Haven? Are you kidding? With my luck I'd win.

Q: What if—and I know this is highly unlikely—you're not elected governor. What will you do then?
A. Using Dick Nixon as my model, I will sulk for a while, then eventually run for US President. Nixon was the one, you know.

Q: What's your fascination with him?
A. I'm not sure how to say this politely, but if you don't understand Nixon's genius, you don't know Dick.

Q. You say you're willing to raise controversial issues, but your campaign focus at the start seems to be on safe driving! Isn't that taking the easy way out? Isn't everyone for safe driving?
A. Obviously you haven't driven lately.

It was a wild-and-wooly fourteen-week campaign, ending with a bacchanalian celebration on election night with members of Queen at Toad's Place in New Haven. (I can go into that on another post. Or maybe not.)

In the end Ella Grasso was re-elected—easily defeating her Republican rival, who spent several million dollars and still lost. (That was when a million dollars was a lot of money.) Demonstrating fiscal conservatism I spent only $40 yet wound up finishing a strong fourth (out of at least four candidates). I was barely edged-out of third place by an even more fiscally conservative candidate, a Libertarian with an irresistible message: no one has to pay income taxes! This is technically true because he apparently never did—which is why he's currently serving time in Danbury federal prison.

There are two important business lessons here. One is obvious: be willing to take some entrepreneurial risks in life. Otherwise why get out of bed? But the other lesson is easy to miss if you you weren't paying very close attention. So let me make it explicit. Ready? Here it is... Pay. Your. Taxes.

You heard it here first.

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  1. ah, richard nixon. they just don't make politicians like that any more, do they? nixon was the one but i like ike.

  2. Yes, many of us have missed Dick. I know I'm speaking for millions when I say that the last seven and a half years have put his legacy in a decidedly more favorable light. Such is the power of contrast.

  3. I'd say a larger lesson you learned - and applied - was to not spend a lot of dough on your campaign. Forty bucks, eh? How many votes did you get?

  4. Henry, they were write-in votes because I started too late to acquire enough signatures to get on the ballot. I don't remember the exact number but I'm proud to say I received more write-ins than Mickey Mouse (a perennial favorite in Connecticut) and Donald Duck COMBINED. For some reason I did best in the districts with the most bars.

  5. John- Great post! Considering what's going on in Detroit with regards to the mayor and members of city council, I may just throw my hat into the ring. And, to think that I could do so with $40 dollars? Wow! Tempting indeed :-)

    Besides the obvious shortcomings, Richard Nixon was a bright man and brilliant businessman. I also believe that he was raised as a Quaker. Some of his fiscal policies may have had some bearing on his upbringing. I also must say that in some ways he may have gone astray from it as well.

  6. Judith, I don't know that you can run on $40 today. If I were you I'd have at least $80 in the bank. Yeah, Dick was a bright fellow and a foreign affairs wonk. Near-centenarian that I am, I vividly remember the 1960 TV debates in which both Kennedy & Nixon were at their best arguing the minutiae of foreign policy.

  7. John-I was not yet around at that time but I have seen snipets of that debate many times. Kennedy was pretty savvy or Nixon unaware. The facial pancake effect was apparent even on black and white TV.

  8. I think you're being very harsh about the 3rd placed candidate. He quite obviously just "mis-paid" his taxes and in the fullness of time will come to be seen as a visionary. Of course, if he delayed his tax return in a tactical manner to coincide with any benefit to him - err, I mean - for the public good, then he'll win the Tricky Dicky Reality Distortion Gold Medal as well...!

  9. Judith, Nixon was clearly less aware than Kennedy of telegenics (if there is such a word) but even the Boston Globe at the time felt Nixon won the debates on content. I most remember them arguing about Quemoy and Matsu, two islands off the coast of mainland China that Nixon promised to defend. Kennedy's campaign strategy, believe it or not, was to portray Nixon as softer on Communism than he.

    Mark JF, I'd love to say more about the candidate who came in third - a committed libertarian - but I feel bad for the dude.

  10. You nicely dodged my question. Maybe you're a better politician than you think. :-) How did the media deal with you?

  11. Henry, glad to know you were paying attention. Re how many votes I actually got, I’m confident I got well into triple digits – good enough for a 4th place finish. The fact that candidates #5 and #6 were actual cartoon characters is nothing I’m ashamed of. In fact it’s quite the norm for state and even national politics in the US. (Many now believe the White House is inhabited by cartoon characters.)

    My interaction with the media was the highlight of my run. Many of them personally thanked me for adding some interest to their otherwise dull existence, having to cover another soporific campaign, listening to mainstream candidates drone on about state budgets, etc. Years later in my 1984 near bestseller The Running Game (well, it sold out of the local bookstore), I recounted an important lesson I learned from running for office: it’s important to always give the answer you want regardless of the reporter’s question. This inevitably leads to non sequiturs, but who cares?
    Q: How would you reduce the state budget?
    A: Glad you brought that up. The issue of driving safety is a concern to me too. I think we need to take this up with the legislature in my first month of office.

  12. John, Your response to Henry's latest comment is simply brilliant. This is why I'm a frequent visitor. I love your advice about giving reporters the answer you want irrespective of the question asked :-)

  13. It's one thing to not pay your taxes but it's another thing to not pay your taxes and announce to the world that it's unconstitutional. That just might put a bulls eye on your back.

  14. Well no one can accuse that candidate, being the outspoken tax rebel that he was/is, of sucking up to the Internal Revenue Service. He walked the talk at least.

    Although I love private enterprise and have some preference for a smaller, more manageable government, I don't have the reflexive contempt for government that so many of my libertarian friends have. (I confess to some affection, however, for the recent libertarian Republican candidate for US President, Ron Paul - perhaps for his eccentric iconoclasm.)

  15. Stunt?? You call my breakthrough campaign - which transformed Connecticut politics forever - a (gasp) STUNT??

    Well, on second thought, maybe it was. Sort of.

    My goal if I were to do it again? Well, given the prison sentences that Connecticut's last Governor served and the fore-mentioned candidate for Governor is now serving - both for variations of tax fraud - I think my goal would be to just stay out of jail. I know that's a pretty modest goal, but Tom Peters always says to under-promise.

    My campaign motto could be "He'll pay his taxes." Or "If elected, he won't serve...... prison time." I'd have to focus group it, but I'm sure the Connecticut voter would be deeply moved by either sentiment.

  16. As a Connecticut voter I deeply resemble your profile of us - however it is true that our fine Republican governor John Rowland (who was the first governor since the 1700s to be elected to three terms!) was convicted of mail fraud and tax fraud.

  17. slk, I like to think we all learn the lessons (eventually) we need to, and I wish your former Governor the best.

    Though currently a Massachusetts resident, I dearly love Connecticut, especially New Haven (my favorite small city) where I spent the most interesting periods of my life. Amazingly, for months after my campaign, folks in my nightclub audiences would often ask me - with a straight face - if I had won the election.

  18. John... Jim Goodrich, ex-owner of Showboat (which I have pictures of you on) in NYC back in the early '80s; friend of David Brady, etc. Be in touch. J~

  19. Hi Jim — I vaguely remember those debauched NYC days. You have pictures of me? Is this a blackmail note? Yes, I'll pay, I'll pay...

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