Politicians and their campaign helpers say running for office is an endurance test that's good for the brain, the soul and the ego

THE JOY OF RUNNING

October 22, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

Mayday! Mayday!

This is a campaign disaster, the political equivalent of a plane crash, and Larry M. Epstein is the pilot.

He thought he was the Republican candidate for state comptroller. But somehow he has become the teacher in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

L "Then there is the Y2K problem. You all familiar with that?"

Thirteen inert eighth-graders stare at him. Their bodies slump in a mid-morning torpor, heads balancing on hands, droopy eyelids closing fast. The most energetic among them steal furtive glances at the clock. There is much, much time left.

"Does everyone know what a computer virus is?"

More silence. Heavy-lidded stares. Three weeks before Election Day, Epstein stands in a Bel Air classroom that contains exactly four adults of voting age. He could meet more voters changing a flat.

Why do they do it? Why do politicians wear funny hats, rise before dawn to shake hands at Metro stops and endure enough chicken dinners to sprout feathers? Why do they humble themselves before a public that ranks them somewhere between telephone solicitors and graffiti artists?

They do it for votes, sure, but where's the satisfaction in winning? We live in a mean political age, with subpoenas and sensational accusations replacing Fourth of July speeches and civil discourse. Both political parties say it's more difficult to attract new candidates.

Is there any joy in running?

"Absolutely," says Stephen H. Sachs, the former Maryland attorney general who ran for governor in 1986 and lost in the Democratic primary. "It's fun in terms of meeting people and learning. It was a tremendous education for me and my family."

Every politician has a campaign horror story. Losing a speech. Getting the wrong directions to an important event. Learning you aren't universally loved. Sachs held out his hand to a prison guard in Hagerstown and had it spat upon.

What's surprising is how many politicians enjoy the campaign life. Or atleast say they do. You know you can't trust them. (Another job hazard: cheap shots.)

"I've been to a thousand meetings since the spring of 1997," says Ralph G. Neas, the Democratic candidate for Congress from Montgomery County. "I average 18 hours a day. I go to speeches and coffees every single night. ... It's exhilarating. You think you are doing something that transcends self."

This is the first time Neas has run for office. Ask candidates why it's fun, and they yammer like college graduates at their first job interviews. I'm a people person, they say. I'm a people person who likes helping people because there's lots of good people out there. People who need people are the luckiest ... you get the idea.

Sachs reveals another reason.

"It's a high," he says.

Candidates and the people who work for them say embarking on a political campaign is one of life's great adrenalin rushes. First, there's the competition. Then there's the non-stop activity and the knowledge that other people agree with you and are volunteering to help you. Then, come Nov. 3, you receive the world's most public report card.

"I love it, I absolutely love it," says Jason Shoemaker, 20, a junior at Loyola College and a field representative for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's campaign for governor. Shoemaker's job is driving Richard Bennett, Sauerbrey's running mate, around the state.

"I've learned more in the past two months going out on the campaign trail with Dick Bennett than I have learned in the rest of my life," Shoemaker says. "You just feel like you're so much a part of something that matters."

Feeding the ego

And don't forget the ego food. If you're a candidate, you're in demand. Community groups ask you to speak. Supporters give you money. Neighborhoods invite you to walk in their parades -- former U.S. Rep Helen Delich Bentley says she liked the parades best of all.

"If you have an ego -- and you can't be in politics without one -- there's the applause," Sachs says. "When you get the recognition and the approval, that means a great deal. But it's also about trust.

"It's a very sobering and moving thing to have people trust you."

Don't misunderstand. The campaign trail isn't all chicken gravy. There's begging for money and scrambling for votes and learning how little sleep the human body actually needs.

But Julian L. Lapides has fond memories of his seven terms in the Maryland Senate. He remembers campaigning door-to-door in the 1960s, when people sat on their front steps and didn't

mind a visitor. One person gave him a check. Another, a jar of spaghetti sauce. Another invited him in for a drink.

Now, with so many political advertisements on television, "there's no interaction with another human being," he says. "People would really welcome you. Today everyone's hiding behind closed doors."

Candidates run for any number of reasons, both selfish and altruistic, says Joseph Tecce, a neuro- psychologist at Boston College who has studied presidential candidates.

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