Tilting at political windmills on a bicycle built for two
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Paul Van Dam and his wife, Mary Dawn Bailey, looked a bit, well, unlikely as they rode in matching T-shirts across southern Utah. You couldn't miss their bike, a tandem festooned with a big sign and an American flag. They traveled slowly enough to be stopped by anyone along the way who wanted to discuss issues facing the state.
Mr. Van Dam is Utah's Democratic candidate for the US Senate. His wife is my friend - and that's why I know about an experiment in democracy half a nation away, but close to my ideal of how to run a campaign.
In June, the pair set out on a bike tour to meet the people of rural Utah, in an area they estimate is 90 percent Republican. They plan another bike tour later this summer.
Some might call the whole campaign a naive waste of time. Utah hasn't had a Democratic senator in Washington since 1976, when Republican Orrin Hatch beat incumbent Frank Moss. The most recent poll showed Van Dam's opponent, Sen. Bob Bennett, leading by 40 percentage points. Mr. Bennett hasn't even started campaigning for the November election yet. But when he does, he will probably outspend Van Dam 10 to 1.
The national media have taken absolutely no notice of the race. The New Yorker, which profiled the Democratic nominee for the US Senate from Illinois, probably won't devote seven pages to Van Dam.
And yet I see the image of Van Dam and Bailey pedaling among the red rocks as a modest but heartening embodiment of democracy. It fills me with hope that democracy can work, that ordinary people might actually have a shot at important public offices, and other ordinary people might vote for them.
It's partly because of who Van Dam is. As a former attorney general of Utah, he's got credentials. He's won high-profile cases. He's also the only living Democrat in Utah who has beaten a Republican incumbent for statewide office.
But I'm also reassured by who he isn't - and I think our presidential candidates could learn something here. He hasn't been coiffed and media-prepped to a high sheen, every hair - and viewpoint - shellacked so rigidly into place that he no longer resembles a normal person. A candidate willing to ride hundreds of miles on a bike is a candidate willing to take some risks. It's hard to keep the Armani suit pressed when you're flying down a steep winding road on a bike that's lost its brakes. Fortunately, Van Dam wasn't wearing a suit when that actually happened to him.
He also isn't financing his campaign from a vast personal fortune. Somewhere between the time I cast my first vote in 1980 and now, money has separated me from most politicians. I'm middle class. The people who want to represent me - and those already in office - are usually wealthy. Of my US senators, Elizabeth Dole and John Edwards, only Mr. Edwards might understand how it feels to worry how you'll save enough for your kids' college education. From Bush, Cheney, and Kerry to Senate hopefuls like Erskine Bowles, Clinton's former chief of staff, I see lives insulated by the kind of money most of us will never know.
Of course it takes funding and smarts to win elections. But I rebel against the assumption that only a certain type of person can run and win. I look at Van Dam and think there's something in him that resembles me.
Aristotle defined a citizen as one who participates in power. If my representatives experience something of what I have, and use those experiences to inform their votes, I'd have a much greater sense of participating in power through them. I wouldn't feel, as so many voters do now, that my voice and votes have no effect.
And I'm white. Imagine how disenfranchised most black, Hispanic, and Asian voters must feel.
These issues take on greater urgency as we turn over the Iraqi government to Iraqis. It's time we reexamine our own democracy. Remember that idealistic rhetoric about government "of the people, by the people, for the people"?
Call me innocent, but I'm wondering whatever happened to that. Intelligent, caring people who don't fit the mold don't seem to be welcome in many political races.
If we ever hope to lead by example, in Iraq or anywhere else, we must make our own democracy more inclusive, starting with our candidates. That might require paying elected officials more at the local level, so it isn't necessary to be wealthy to serve. The change could create a broader pool of experienced candidates to run for regional and eventually, national, offices.
It takes guts to run, and a willingness to get your ego bruised, as Van Dam's current poll numbers suggest. But he isn't fazed. He remembers the attorney general's race, when he inched up and up until, at last, he won. Naturally, I hope he prevails. But even if he doesn't, democracy in Utah has already won. In many political races in the state, voters haven't even had two political parties to choose from. They do now, for one of the most important positions in government.
After the onslaught of photos from Iraqi prisons and the distorted view of America that they carried around the world, I am comforted by the image of Van Dam and Bailey crossing mile after mile for what they believe in. And when I show their campaign trip photos to my 10-year-old daughter, she'll understand what democracy can be. She'll see it in action - on two wheels.
• Andrea Cooper is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.