Idaho puts a felon on the ballot with Clinton and Obama.

Notes from the political sidelines.
May 6 2008 12:20 AM

Candidate of Conviction

Idaho puts a felon on the ballot with Clinton and Obama.

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The general election will likely be a rematch between former Democratic congressman Larry LaRocco and Republican Lt. Gov. (and former governor) Jim Risch. If Idahoans find those two insufficiently embarrassing, however, a number of fringe candidates have lined up to take Craig's place. According to CQ, one Independent, Rex Rammel, is a former elk rancher who is angry that Risch ordered state wildlife officials to shoot some of his elk that got away. The Libertarian, Kent A. Marmon, is running against "the ever-expanding Socialist agenda" he claims is being pushed by Democratic congressmen like John Dingell.

But by far the most creative third-party candidate is Marvin Richardson, an organic strawberry farmer who went to court to change his name to "Pro-Life." Two years ago, he made that his middle name and tried to run for governor as Marvin "Pro-Life" Richardson. State election officials ruled that middle names couldn't be used to make a political statement on the ballot. As plain old Marvin Richardson, he won just 1.6% of the vote.

Now that "Pro-Life" is his full name, the state had to let him run that way on the ballot. He told the Idaho Press-Tribune that with the name change, he should win 5%. He plans to run for office every two years for as long as he lives: "If I save one baby's life, it will be worth it."

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As the Press-Tribune points out, Pro-Life is not a single-issue candidate, but has a comprehensive platform. In addition to abortion, he opposes "homosexuality, adultery, and fornication." He wants the pro-life movement to refer to abortion as "murder," although he has not yet insisted pro-choice candidates change their name to that.

Idaho Republicans and anti-abortion activists don't share Pro-Life's enthusiasm. They worry that conservative voters will check the box next to both Pro-Life and the Republican candidate, thereby spoiling their ballots. So last week, the Idaho Secretary of State persuaded both houses of the legislature to pass emergency legislation to clarify that "voters are casting a vote for a person and not a political proposition." Under the legislation, candidates who appear to have changed their names to "convey a political message" will be outed on the ballot as "a person, formerly known as …." The Prince Bill will go to the governor for signature this week.

According to the Associated Press, Pro-Life accuses legislators of " trying to legislate intelligence"—a charge not often hurled at the Idaho legislature. "The people that vote for me are more intelligent than to have something defined in legislation like this," he says.

Of course, Idahoans who really want to make a political statement will still be able to outsmart the Prince Bill. Nothing in the legislation prohibits Idaho parents who feel strongly about issues from naming their children Pro-Life or Pro-Gun at birth. For that matter, Marvin Richardson has changed his name so many times that if he changes it again, the ballot might have to describe him as "a person formerly known as 'Pro-Life.'" Or he could just change his name to Mitt Romney.

On the other hand, Republicans and Democrats alike can breathe a sign of relief over another unintended effect: the new law foils Larry Craig's best strategy for a comeback. Before the law, Craig could have changed his name to "Not Gay" and won in a landslide. "A person formerly known as Not Gay" is more like it. ... 5:27 p.m. (link)

Friday, Mar. 28, 2008

We Are Family:Midway through the run-up to the next primary, the presidential campaigns are searching for fresh ways to reach the voters of Pennsylvania. My grandparents left Pittsburgh more than 80 years ago, so my Pennsylvania roots are distant. But I still think I can speak for at least half the state in suggesting one bold proposal we long for every April: a plan to rescue one of the most mediocre teams in baseball history, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Granted, the nation faces more urgent crises. But in hard times, people often look to sports for solace. To blue-collar workers in taverns across western Pennsylvania, watching the Pirates lose night after night is as predictably grim as the Bush economy. The lowly Bucs are the reigning disappointment in the world of sport—with a batting average that seems pegged to the dollar and prospects of victory in line with the war in Iraq.

The Pittsburgh franchise hasn't finished above .500 since 1992. If, as universally predicted, the Pirates turn in their 16th consecutive losing season this year, they will tie the all-time frustration record for professional sport set by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1930s and '40s.

Pittsburgh is still a proud, vibrant city, which has rebounded handsomely from losses far more consequential than the Pirates'. The once-proud Pirates, by contrast, show plenty of rust but no signs of recovery. In 1992, the team was an inning away from the World Series, when the Atlanta Braves scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to steal Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. The Braves soon moved to the NL East en route to winning 14 consecutive division titles, the longest in sports history. The Pirates moved from the East to the Central and began their soon-to-be-record-setting plunge in the opposite direction.

On Monday, the Pirates return to Atlanta for Opening Day against the Braves. Baseball analysts no longer give a reason in predicting another last-place Bucco finish. This year, the Washington Post didn't even bother to come up with a new joke. Last season's Post preview said:

Blech. This Pirates team is so mediocre, so uninteresting, so destined for last place, we don't know if we can squeeze another sentence out of it for this capsule we're being paid to write. But here's one. … The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992, and that streak will continue this year. That's still not long enough? Well, here's another line! Hey—two sentences in one line! Make that three! And here's another! See how easy that is?

This year, the same Post analyst wrote:

Okay, folks, here's the deal: We need to fill precisely 4.22 column-inches of type with information about the faceless, tasteless Pirates, and as usual we're not sure we can do it. But guess what? We're already at .95 inches, and we're just getting started! Wait—make that 1.19 inches. ... Should they finish below .500 again (and let's be honest, how can they not?), they will tie the Phillies of 1933-48 for the most consecutive losing seasons. (By the way, that's 3.53 inches, and we haven't even had to mention new manager John Russell, Capps's promise as a closer or the vast potential of the Snell-Gorzelanny duo.) There: 4.22 inches. Piece of cake."

So now the Pirates even hold the record for consecutive seasons as victims of the same bad joke.

Pittsburgh faces all the challenges of a small-market team. Moreover, as David Maraniss pointed out in his lyrical biography, Clemente, the first love for Pittsburgh fans has long been football, not baseball. These days, no one can blame them.

Seven years ago, in a desperate bid to revive the Pirates' fortunes, the city built PNC Park, a gorgeous field with the most spectacular view in baseball. From behind home plate, you can look out on the entire expanse of American economic history—from the Allegheny River to 1920s-era steel suspension bridges to gleaming glass skyscrapers.

The result? As Pittsburgh writer Don Spagnolo noted last year in "79 Reasons Why It's Hard To Be a Pirates Fan," Pittsburgh now has "the best stadium in the country, soiled by the worst team." (The Onion once suggested, "PNC Park Threatens To Leave Pittsburgh Unless Better Team Is Built.") Spagnolo notes that the city already set some kind of record by hosting baseball's All-Star game in 1994 and 2006 without a single winning season in between.

Although the Pirates' best player, Jason Bay, is from Canada, if Pittsburgh fans have suffered because of trade, the blame belongs not to NAFTA but to an inept front office. Jason Schmidt, now one of the top 100 strikeout aces in history, was traded to the Giants. Another, Tim Wakefield, left for the Red Sox. Franchise player Aramis Ramirez was dealt to the Cubs. When owners sell off members of a winning team, it's called a fire sale. The Pirates have been more like a yard sale. In 2003, when the Cubs nearly made the Series, the Pirates supplied one-third of their starting lineup.

In the early '80s, an angry fan famously threw a battery at Pirate outfielder Dave Parker. Last June, fans registered their frustration in a more constructive way. To protest more than a decade of ownership mismanagement, they launched a Web site, IrateFans.com, and organized a "Fans for Change" walkout after the third inning of a home game. Unfortunately, only a few hundred fans who left their seats actually left the game; most just got up to get beer.

This year, fans are still for change but highly skeptical. In an online interview, the new team president admitted, "The Pirates are not in a rebuilding mode. We're in a building mode." One fan asked bitterly, "How many home runs will the 'change in atmosphere' hit this season?"

I've been a Pirate fan for four decades—the first glorious, the second dreary, the last two a long march from despair to downright humiliation. In more promising times, my wife proposed to me at Three Rivers Stadium, where we returned for our honeymoon. On the bright side, the 2001 implosion of Three Rivers enabled me to find two red plastic stadium seats as an anniversary present on eBay.

Our children live for baseball but laugh at our Pirate caps—and, at ages 12 and 14, haven't been alive to see a winning Pirate season. Yet like so many in western Pennsylvania, I've been a Pirate fan too long to be retrained to root for somebody else.

After 15 years, we Bucs fans aren't asking for miracles. We just want what came so easily to the pre-2004 Red Sox, the post-1908 Cubs, and the other great losing teams of all time: sympathy. Those other teams are no longer reliable: The Red Sox have become a dynasty; 2008 really could be the Cubs' year. If you want a lovable loser that will never let you down, the Pittsburgh Pirates could be your team, too. ... 12:06 p.m. (link)

Thursday, Mar. 13, 2008

Craigenfreude: In a new high for the partisan divide, a mini-debate has broken out in far-flung corners of the blogosphere on the urgent question: Who's the bigger hypocrite, Larry Craig or Eliot Spitzer?

Conservative blogger Michael Medved of Townhall offers a long list of reasons why Craig doesn't need to go as urgently as Spitzer did. He finds Craig less hypocritical ("trolling for sex in a men's room, doesn't logically require that you support gay marriage"), much easier to pity, and "pathetic and vulnerable" in a way Spitzer is not.  Liberal blogger Anonymous Is a Woman counters that while Craig and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter remain in office, at least Spitzer resigned.

Warning, much political baggage may look alike. So, party labels aside, who's the bigger hypocrite? Certainly, a politician caught red-handed committing the very crimes he used to prosecute can make a strong case for himself. In his resignation speech, Spitzer admitted as much: "Over the course of my public life, I have insisted, I believe correctly, that people, regardless of their position or power, take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself."

Moreover, for all the conservative complaints about media bias, the circumstances of Spitzer's fall from grace ensure that tales of his hypocrisy will reverberate louder and longer than Craig's. Already a media star in the media capital of the world, he managed to destroy his career with a flair even a tabloid editor couldn't have imagined. Every detail of his case is more titillating than Craig's—call girls with MySpace pages and stories to tell, not a lone cop who won't talk to the press; hotel suites instead of bathroom stalls; bank rolls instead of toilet rolls; wide angles instead of wide stances; a club for emperors, not Red Carpet.

Spitzer flew much closer to the sun than Craig, so his sudden plunge is the far greater political tragedy. No matter how far his dive, Craig couldn't make that kind of splash. You'll never see the headline "Craig Resigns" splashed across six columns of the New York Times. Of course, since he refuses to resign, you won't see it in the Idaho Statesman, either.

Yet out of stubborn home-state chauvinism, if nothing else, we Idahoans still marvel at the level of hypocrisy our boy has achieved, even without all the wealth, fame, and privilege that a rich New Yorker was handed on a silver platter. Many Easterners think it's easy for an Idahoan to be embarrassing—that just being from Boise means you're halfway there.

We disagree. Craig didn't grow up in the center of attention, surrounded by money, glamour, and all the accouterments of hypocrisy. He grew up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains. When he got arrested, he didn't have paid help to bring him down. No Mann Act for our guy: He carried his own bags and did his own travel.

Larry Craig is a self-made hypocrite. He achieved his humiliation the old-fashioned way: He earned it.

Unlike Spitzer, who folded his cards without a fight, Craig upped the ante by privately admitting guilt, then publicly denying it. His lawyers filed yet another appellate brief this week, insisting that the prosecution is wrong to accuse him of making a "prehensile stare."

While it's admittedly a low standard, Craig may have had his least-awful week since his scandal broke in August. A Minnesota jury acquitted a man who was arrested by the same airport sting operation. Craig didn't finish last in the Senate power rankings by Congress.org. Thanks to Spitzer, Craig can now tell folks back home that whatever they think of what he did, at least they don't have to be embarrassed by how much he spent. In fact, he is probably feeling some Craigenfreude—taking pleasure in someone else's troubles because those troubles leave people a little less time to take pleasure in your own.

Like misery, hypocrisy loves company—which, for both Spitzer and Craig, turned out to be the problem. But Spitzer was right to step down, and Craig should long ago have done the same. Politics is a tragic place to chase your demons. ... 5:30 p.m. (link)

Wednesday, Mar. 5, 2008