Lean And Green

Candidate Rick Kunkel may be short of dollars for campaigning, but he's big on giving voters an alternative to big-money politics.

Campaign Culture

October 30, 2002|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

For a political candidate, Rick Kunkel has a high degree of self-awareness. You can tell by the way he prefaces his pronouncements about the issues of the day. "I don't want to sound kooky or radical, but ... " he says to introduce his support for universal health insurance. "I don't want to sound strident, but ... " he says as a wind-up to his denunciation of how big, special-interest money finds its way into political campaigns - although not into his.

Even about his candidacy, Kunkel finds the need for a qualifying prologue. "I'm not delusional," he might say, or "I'm not crazy." All of which, of course, only begs the question.

Kunkel is the Green Party candidate in the race for the House of Delegates in the 42nd District, a splotch on the map just above the city's northern line in Baltimore County. He is running for one of three seats against three Democratic candidates and three Republicans. If it helps, think of them as France and Germany and him as Luxembourg. As of last week, his opponents each had raised an average of $55,255 for their campaigns. Kunkel had managed $5,939.

That financial disparity, which undoubtedly will grow wider by Election Day, helps explain why, at the moment, Kunkel is standing in a steady rain on a traffic island at the corner of Charles Street and Towsontowne Boulevard. He is a stick figure, long and thin, in clothes that hang ever more limply the wetter he gets. In each hand, he holds a green cardboard sign, and he constantly raises and lowers them as though sending signals by semaphore. The signs bear his name or a Green Party slogan, such as "Not for Sale" or "Corporations Out of Government." Four Green Party volunteers with similar signs man other parts of the intersection.

If you are in need of an antidote for the cynicism in American electoral politics, a good place to find it is in the electoral long shot. After all, who has more faith in the possibility of democracy than the candidate with the least chance of winning?

That describes Kunkel, and he knows it. "I'm not unrealistic about what this is about. I know I'm a long shot. I'd be a fool to say otherwise."

Kunkel never has run for anything before and never wanted to. He is running now, he says, because he couldn't sleep at night if he didn't. "For me, it's 100 percent idealism combined with 100 percent outrage. I know and feel what's possible, how things could be and should be."

As ardent and expansive as he is on the various issues, he is all too aware of the irony that his campaign is reduced to one of catchwords. He refuses all contributions from corporations, unions and PACs - not that any have been offered - and in no case will he accept a gift of more than $100.

Those constraints severely limit his opportunities to reach the 63,000 voters in the 42nd District. Glossy display ads and big lawn signs would empty the budget. Mass mailings are too expensive. Radio and television spots are unthinkable. So, it's sign-waving.

"I get home from work at 5:30 or 6. At that point, how many meaningful conversations can I have with voters? Ten, if I'm lucky? So, we made the decision of waving signs on street corners. This way, we hit thousands and thousands of pairs of eyes. It's a tactical decision - an unfortunate one."

As the traffic lights change during this afternoon rush hour, Kunkel constantly reorients himself to face passing cars. Most passengers wear stony expressions, but in virtually every group, someone rewards him with a honk, a wave, a smile or a thumbs-up sign. Kunkel registers every such positive reaction. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he cheers to himself under his breath.

None of it comes naturally to him. "The first five minutes, you feel a little foolish," he says, "but then you get into a groove."

Because Kunkel is running for office, he is by definition a politician. But it is an identification that feels as foreign to him as would "venture capitalist" or "junk bond trader."

Over coffee earlier in the afternoon at Barnes & Noble, he had reflected on the strangeness of this role of candidate. "I'm an introvert by nature," he said. "I get my tank filled by being alone. But here you're out front, speaking in front of an audience, introducing yourself to strangers. I can't deny I get a thrill out of it, but it also runs down my battery."

Until recently, Kunkel says, he considered his work a sufficient expression of his politics - organizing a farmer's cooperative in the Himalayas as a Peace Corps volunteer and serving the homeless and the mentally ill as a social worker. He was catalyzed into electoral politics in 2000, when he heard a speech by Ralph Nader, who was running for president as the Green Party nominee.

Kunkel agreed with the Green Party positions on a range of subjects - universal health insurance, a living wage, campaign finance reform and other trade, labor and environmental issues. It was something Nader said, though, that changed everything for him.

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