For Democratic party leaders in Tennessee, this year’s governor’s race was less about who they could get on the ballot than who they failed to keep off of it. The state offers almost no barriers to entry. Filing fees are nonexistent and a grand total of 25 signatures are needed to become a candidate. The man who emerged from this no-horse race to win Thursday’s Democratic primary has no chance to win in November. But it’s still worth hearing what Charlie Brown has to say.
This fall’s election in the heavily red state didn’t figure to be close, even before most of the Democratic party’s top candidates declined to run. Republican Bill Haslam cruised to victory in 2010 and has a multi-million-dollar war chest. No incumbent governor in the state has failed to win re-election since 1979, and even that figure is misleading—the governor that year, Ray Blanton, was hampered by the fact that he was on his way to jail. And this wasn’t the first time Tennessee Democrats nominated a virtual unknown: Two years ago, the state’s party was embarrassed by the accidental U.S. Senate nomination of Mark Clayton, a Nashville floor installer and the vice president of an anti-gay hate group.
These are the unique conditions which led me, on Thursday night, to wake up half of the tiny town of Oakdale, Tennessee, population 212, in search of the party’s newest nominee, a political novice the likes of which we haven’t seen since Alvin Greene stumbled his way into the spotlight in South Carolina four years ago.
It was nearly midnight when I finally reached him. His name is Charles V. “Charlie” Brown, and he perked up immediately when he heard I was calling from Denver. “I need to get out to Colorado,” the 72-year-old said. “Hunting season is coming up, right?”
Reaching Brown hadn’t been easy. Of the four candidates for the Democratic nomination, the Tennessean reported that Brown was one of three with no working website. That wasn’t entirely true. One of Brown’s competitors, Ron Noonan, had something like one: a YouTube video of himself singing a Vince Gill ballad in an open field. Brown even had his own sort-of online presence: a Facebook page that as of Thursday night featured no posts and no pictures, save for one with him kneeling in front of three giant dead catfish (on Friday afternoon that photo was replaced by one of him and his wife Julia Sue). On the page, his name was accidentally misspelled as “Chrles.”
In the process of trying to find Brown, I’d called many of his neighbors. All accepted my apologies for intruding so late. Some knew that Brown was running for the state’s highest office. Yet none said they had voted for him, though they swore he shouldn’t take it personally—not one of the nearly dozen Oakdale residents I talked to said they had voted for anyone at all. When I was finally able to reach a neighbor who had his new number, not the old one which was listed but disconnected, I asked what I thought was a basic question. Did Brown have any signs up in his yard? The neighbor didn’t know, but the man himself answered definitively a few minutes later. “I did not put up a sign,” Brown said. “I don’t believe in them.” Then he told me what he does believe in.
According to Brown, his candidacy began on the side of a local highway. “I was waiting on this guy at the interstate,” he said, when he felt something come over him. “I just fell on my knees right outside the truck and went to praying.” Brown says that he felt a sudden revelation come from the Lord, who asked him to run for higher office.
This was not a normal request. Brown told me that the only other time he had run for an elected position was nearly 50 years earlier when he lost in an attempt to become something known as a road supervisor. For most of his life he had traveled through the South working in construction—building Marriotts in Atlanta, helping put a marble slab on the face of one of Nashville’s downtown skyscrapers—before finally returning to Oakdale, the town where he had been born.
As we talked, he kept me updated on the returns. “I’m getting up to around 90,000 votes right now,” he said. The click of his mouse was audible as he refreshed the page. “I’m a computer nut. I love this computer.”
Brown didn’t campaign in a typical way. He didn’t go to banquets or barbecues. He didn’t send mailers, or pay for TV ads. He said he didn’t raise any money at all, though he did solicit donations. And he hadn’t even talked to the people who lived nearest to him. Instead, he told me that he sent a letter to the editor of nearly every paper in the state, a short missive full of misspellings that ended with the plea: “Please join The NRA.” Few publications actually ran the letter, which began with him saying that he “would like to strap [Gov. Haslam’s] butt to the [electric] chair and give him about half the jolt.” He also said that if he won “we will have hog hunting again.”
Brown’s main source of votes, he told me, was a club he belonged to. The Original Mountain Cur Breeders Association may not seem like the world’s best resource for a politician hungry for votes, but Brown was quick to correct me. “We’ve got 18,000 members,” he said. One of them, who he says he met at a squirrel hunt in Indiana, had even put an ad in a paper in support of Brown’s candidacy.
Since few papers printed the letter, few voters got a chance to read about Brown’s stance on the issues. He gave me three definitive policy statements. The first: He wants to put Bibles back in public schools. “I’m not a preacher, don’t get me wrong. But the Bible says to beckon little children to come to me,” he said. The second: Raise the state-wide speed limit to 80 miles per hour. “If I can,” he hedged. “My state representative told me I could.” And the third: Use his salary to help out his fellow hunters. “I’m wanting to buy some big deers and bring ’em in here and do away with our small buck deers. Buy some big buck deers and turn ’em loose.”
From a distance, Brown would seem like an easy man to parody. He’s not. During our hourlong conversation, he brought up a number of issues that made him sound more like a concerned citizen than a Southern stereotype. Brown said he had been in a union all his life, and was dismayed at the way his home state treated organized labor, including groups representing teachers and prison guards. He thought that the clear-cutting undertaken by the state’s wildlife resources agency was putting that same wildlife in danger. And he brought up a number of potential scandals that he saw as disqualifying for Bill Haslam, including what he saw as a suspiciously lucrative land deal for a friend of the governor’s. “There’s no banks in heaven,” Brown told me, in response to the daunting personal wealth of his opponent, whose family fortune totals nearly $1 billion.
How did a man who’d done no real campaigning manage to get 92,000-some votes? Like Mark Clayton—who the Tennessee Democratic Party successfully sued to keep off the ballot this year—Brown had an alphabetic advantage. He didn’t win the Democratic primary because voters knew and liked him, it seemed, but because his last name was the first one listed on the ballot.
The candidate with so little campaigning experience was eager to ask advice from a reporter with even less. “How do I make a name for myself?” he asked. I told him I didn’t know anything about running a campaign. His best quality—the fact that he talked like a normal human being and not a politician—was also his biggest liability. As if to hammer home the point, Brown told me why his wife wouldn’t like the third part of his three-point plan, the one about forgoing a salary in favor of purchasing some large deer. “She’s just after me constantly about buying a new truck, but I ain’t doing it,” he said. “If I want to go to the mountains I go to the mountains. If I want to go to the lake I go to the lake. Nothing’s wrong with the truck I have now.”
Brown had started the night a political novice and ended it the same way. The difference was that he was now an actual politician. In November, Charlie Brown’s name will be the one opposing the most powerful man in the state.