There are certainly books by people who lose elections. Sarah Palin comes to mind.
You can buy Palin’s recounting of her losing bid for vice president, “Going Rogue,” for 99 cents on Amazon, or 10 times that much if you insist on getting it electronically for a tablet.
But it is virtually unheard of for a candidate who badly loses a primary for the Maryland House of Delegates to examine the campaign in as much excruciating detail as does Adam Sachs. His book, “Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics,” came out last year. It has sat on my office floor waiting for an opportunity to write about it.
Who is Adam Gordon Sachs? That, of course, was his problem from the start. And why does he have such a negative view of campaign politics?
Sachs has put together many more words about the 10-way race for three open delegate seats in legislative District 12 than was written in all the publications and all the blogs that even mentioned the race to represent an area that stretches from West Columbia to Lansdowne and the Baltimore City line.
It is a long book, 344 pages, and I was put off by that subtitle. “Unseemly Underbelly” seemed a far stretch in the highly competitive race for three open seats, in which at least seven of the 10 candidates were as qualified as any non-incumbent could be. Adam Sachs may have been one of them.
One candidate did wind up getting prosecuted for anonymous attacks on an opponent, and there was a smidgen of negative campaigning. But it appeared, from the outside, as clean and as hard-fought a race among 10 non-incumbents as you might find.
Why even write about such a book?
Besides feeling guilty for not having written about it earlier, it contains a lot of good information about the candidates, campaigning and politics, down to the nitty-gritty of fundraising, door knocking, endorsements and candidate forums. It also contains interesting references to research on why candidates run and why they win.
The many novice candidates who are popping up this year and next could learn a lot from Sachs’s detailed descriptions.
A former Sun reporter, Sachs writes well and has a keen eye for detail. He accurately describes his fellow candidates. But first you must overcome the stylistic choice that the candidates, and most other people in the book, are known by nicknames and pseudonyms, not their real names. Some of the nicknames are pejorative.
If, like me, you know all the public figures in the book, it is obvious who the characters are. Sachs changes none of their personal details.
Nicknames for Opponents
The three winning candidates, who went on to win the general election and are now seeking re-election, are Terri Hill (whom Sachs calls “Anointed One”), Clarence Lam (called “Zelig”) and Eric Ebersole (“Energy”). The others are Brian Bailey (“Man of the People”), Jay Fred Cohen (“Spare-a-Dime”), Rebecca Dongarra (“Gadfly”), Michael Gisriel (“Joker”), Renee McGuirk-Spence (“Ballerina”) and Nick Stewart (“Next-Big-Thing”).
Sachs found redeeming qualities in most of his opponents, except for Gisriel, a lobbyist who had been disbarred, moved into the district to run in the race and spent the most money, mainly his own and big checks from groups he had lobbied for.
To Sachs, Gisriel, a former delegate, represented all the things wrong with the political system, particularly the influence of money and special interests.
In fact, Sachs paints, with disdain, the strong points of his opponents, and especially the winners — their ability to get influential endorsements, to raise money, to recruit volunteers, even to knock on doors effectively.
Early in the book, Sachs said, “You’ll get a vicarious glimpse into the experience of an amateur politico trying to fit his round personality and sensibilities, and lack of political chops, into the square hole of American campaign politics.”
In many ways, Sachs resents the experience and qualities that the others bring to the campaign.
A Terrible Candidate
What becomes clear in the book is that Sachs is a terrible candidate: shy, filled with self-doubt and a lack of confidence. He blames the system for his personal failings and inability to raise funds.
He has run before, for County Council, getting a lot more votes in a much smaller district — and ultimately runs ninth in the House race with 757 votes, getting just 187 votes more than Cohen, who spent no money and did little (if any) campaigning. The top winners got 6,300 votes (Lam), 6,057 (Hill), and 4,427 (Ebersole).
The reason they are called campaigns is because they are like military battles, depending on resources, planning, vision, strategy and logistics. Money is important, but it not the only thing of importance.
Ebersole, who came in third, spent only $38,000, while Hill and Lam spent more than $100,000; three other candidates spent more than Ebersole, with far less effect.
For my nonprofit news website, MarylandReporter.com, I have raised more than $200,000 in individual and business contributions over the years. I don’t like fundraising, and it is not one of my best skills. However, it is a necessary fact of life.
Sachs is not only bad at fundraising, but he wants public financing to avoid it. Yet any public campaign financing scheme requires some personal fundraising to receive matching funds to show that others will support you.
Sachs views himself as highly principled, but he was a single issue candidate focused on single payer public health care. Advised that he should broaden the issues he embraces, he does little to change his message.
Candidates, like Ebersole, who don’t have as much money, make up for it with door knocking and volunteers. Sachs expresses grudging admiration for how hard and effectively Lam knocked on doors, leaving personal notes and remembering personal details about voters. Sachs admits he stopped knocking at 1,307 doors. All of the winners and some of the losers, too, knocked on thousands more in a district with 39,000 registered Democrats.
All told, setting aside the snide remarks and snarky comments, Sachs provides a lot of detail about what works in a political campaigns — what the winners did, and didn’t do — basically Sachs’s ineffective campaign.
Any decision to run should probably start with an honest assessment of what it takes to win an election — however distasteful you might find them — and what you, as the candidate, are capable of doing. Running for office is neither easy nor pleasant, and that can also be true of serving as an elected representative, despite the supposed glamour.
Dan Medinger, owner of Advertising Media Plus and a former editor of the Catholic Review newspaper, clearly made the assessment that he has what it takes to run a successful campaign. Medinger, a moderate Democrat who has been president of Ellicott City and Western Howard Democratic Club, would like to challenge Republican Del. Bob Flanagan in district 9B, the single-member swing district in the very Republican district 9 that encompasses Western Howard County.
“I have the plan, the team and the resources to flip this district from Red to Blue,” Medinger said, in announcing his run last month. “For Maryland to flourish in the 21st century, we need new people with new ideas in Annapolis.”
Medinger lost a close primary race for the District 9 Senate seat held by Republican Gail Bates, who is likely unbeatable in a district drawn by Democrats to pack in as many Republicans as possible.
Others Democrats are likely to join this race. The options are limited for other Democrats who might want to be elected to the Maryland General Assembly, like the three Democratic County Council members who must leave due to term limits. The four incumbent Democrats in District 12 filed for re-election as a team in July, and the four in District 13 did the same in June.
That sends a clear message to any Democratic challengers that they plan on coming back.