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10/21/2010

News

Reality Check
Gubernatorial candidate Michael Arth thought he could play politics by his own rules. He’s learning it’s not so easy.

 

In a recent sunny afternoon in downtown Winter Park, a bespectacled man with an athletic build stands atop a plastic milk crate and treats passersby to an impromptu political speech. It’s the city’s autumn arts festival, and the brick-lined streets are abuzz with activity, but few stop to hear what the man has to say. 

“We’re not going to be able to change the system until we attack it at its roots,” he declares, while being filmed by a well-dressed young man to his right.

On this particular afternoon, he was supposed to speak at a forum for the Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform (FLIER), but the local event organizer never showed to open up the building. So the man and his colleagues decided to make the best of their trip to Orlando by bringing the discussion to the street. 

If you stick around long enough to listen, you’ll find that this man is running for governor of Florida, and his name is Michael E. Arth. 

Arth, a 57-year-old from DeLand, is running without any party affiliation, direct political experience or substantial funding. He threw his hat in the ring in May 2009, he says, to “turn the bullshit of politics into compost” and reform a political machine beholden to special interests. He’s an idealist and an optimist who speaks not only of changing Florida, but the entire world. 

But like Ralph Nader and countless others who’ve run anti-establishment campaigns as write-ins or candidates for outsider parties, Arth is learning that the field of politics is a rough place for an idealist – especially one without the support of a mainstream political party. It’s a place where televised debate gets you attention but street-corner oratory gets you ignored. 

 “I know you guys walking past are more concerned with getting to that next store or listening to music, but this is something that concerns all of us, on a fundamental level,” Arth says, calling out to a group of young people walking past him. “Because if you don’t have representative democracy, your future is going to be determined by other people.”

An older man responds to Arth’s challenge without even breaking his stride: “That’s what democracy’s all about. You hire somebody and they run the show.”

Arth replies that it’s supposed to work that way, but by then he’s already speaking to the back of the man’s head, leaving him once more with his audience of four – his three colleagues and myself – all of whom have heard Arth’s positions already. 

After 15 more minutes of speaking, mostly for the benefit of two recording devices, Arth steps down from the makeshift podium. “Standing on your soapbox doesn’t work anymore, unless that soapbox is being televised,” he says with a tight smile. 

After dedicating more than a year of his life to the governor’s race, Arth is realizing one can only get so far in politics on ideas alone.

With every political season comes a curious club of outsiders – those who, through some strange blend of idealism and foolhardiness, dedicate themselves to the endeavor of running for public office without the backing of either of the two major parties. 

To describe their attempts to get noticed as an uphill battle would be an understatement: They’re routinely excluded from official debates, omitted from polls and derided as “spoilers” for even daring to run. On Oct. 12, California Green party gubernatorial candidate Karen Wells was arrested for trespassing after entering a debate from which she was shut out. On Oct. 6, Florida Libertarian Senate candidate Alex Snitker was protesting his own exclusion from a debate on a street corner opposite the WFTV studio here in Orlando. He told Orlando Weekly about the Catch-22 he faced: Pollsters told him he needed more media attention to be listed in their candidate polls, but the media told him he needed more presence in the polls to be covered. 

According to Christina Tobin, ballot-access coordinator for Ralph Nader during his 2008 presidential campaign as an independent candidate, the two main political parties actively collaborate to exclude outsiders. Because the presidential debates are organized by former chairs of both the Democratic and Republican national committees, she says, third-party candidates are usually not invited to take part. “They’re absolutely terrified for the voters to have more voices and choices,” she says. 

But Arth is a man who thrives on long odds. Ten years ago he bought 30 homes and businesses for a pittance in a run-down neighborhood in DeLand, then known as “Cracktown.” In 2001, he and his wife Maya left their picturesque home in Santa Barbara, Calif., and moved into one of the buildings. After arriving, Arth immediately started planting trees, remodeling homes and nudging out the drug peddlers in the neighborhood.  

Only a year later, what was formerly a crime-ridden nest of drug dealers had been largely converted into a quaint neighborhood lined with white-picket fences and palm trees. Arth named it the “Garden District,” and for his work both the city of DeLand and Volusia County named Nov. 12, 2002, “Michael Arth Day.” A documentary of Arth’s accomplishments, New Urban Cowboy, was released by an independent filmmaker in April 2008.

Because Arth is running for governor, neither DeLand police nor city officials will comment on his work in the city. But an Orlando Sentinel article published in February 2002 implies that Arth had broad public support for his project: “DeLand Police Cmdr. Randel Henderson, who calls Arth a visionary … described his work with Arth as a one-two punch: Arth cleaned up the neighborhood, and police cleaned up the crime.”

Yet Arth realized that his overhaul of Cracktown didn’t address the larger cycle of drugs and crime. “I went through hell rebuilding one little, tiny four-square-block area, when just a little tweaking of the policies could change the whole world,” he says. Not one disposed to just talking, Arth, then a Democrat, decided that he would make a run for governor. “I felt an ethical obligation to do something,” he says.

Ideologically speaking, Arth is a progressive liberal who has a stance on everything. Compared to the Democratic candidate Alex Sink, he may as well be a Molotov cocktail-throwing anarchist. He wants to legalize, regulate and tax drugs (but ban all drug advertisements), end the death penalty, abolish private campaign financing, create a state bank, cut the military budget in half, consolidate homeless agencies into “pedestrian homeless villages,” adopt a single-payer health care system and change the voting process to a ranked-choice method used by most European countries. His ideology is utilitarian with flourishes of modernity: “The goal of politics should be to bring the greatest good to the greatest number in the most efficient manner possible, to this and future generations,” he says. 

Arth’s past is laced with so many incredible stories that even the barest outline of his pre-Florida life took him a couple of hours to explain. Arth left his Dallas home at age 17 and worked under legendary magazine illustrator Don Punchatz at the age of 20. By 25 he had enough success as a poster artist that he could afford to travel the world for a year. In his travels he’s given piggy-back rides to kids in the Chinese countryside, taken the hallucinogen ayahuasca in the South American wilderness and driven a Volkswagen van from Greece to Scandinavia. After moving to Hollywood, Calif., in his 30s, he taught himself architecture and built a seven-story Mediterranean-style villa, “Casa de Lila,” on a cliff overlooking Los Angeles. 

Arth says he always had an interest in urban planning – “Ever since I was a little kid, I fantasized about building the perfect city,” he says – so in 1999, he arrived at his own philosophy of urban design. He called it “New Pedestrianism,” and it encourages more walking and less driving. The next year, he found DeLand’s Cracktown and decided it would be the perfect place to try out his ideas. The rest is history.

Given his eccentric past and relatively radical political views, in person Arth comes off as a surprisingly normal man, looking more like an accountant than an artist. He makes conversation easily, although he’s cautious about being misunderstood and chooses his words carefully. When talking about the issues, he’s more likely to cite statistics than make sweeping statements, and usually qualifies his political arguments by mentioning that his writing is more concise and cogent. 

His election prospects initially looked encouraging, at least for a “dark horse” candidate. Not long after he declared his candidacy, the Daytona Beach News-Journal ran a front-page story about him and his successes in DeLand, followed shortly thereafter by another front-page article in the DeLand-Deltona Beacon. Convinced that he would have an audience, he dedicated the following nine months to writing a 480-page book, Democracy and the Common Wealth: Breaking the Stranglehold of the Special Interests, which touches on practically every major problem facing the country. He says that spending more than half the span of his campaign writing it was worth the effort, and it allowed him to further develop his knowledge of the issues. “Instead of focusing my time on just winning, I focused on being the kind of person that all of our leaders should be,” he says.

As Arth writes in his book, it wasn’t long before he had his first encounter with the reality of politics: “On June 5, 2009, a week after I filed for office, I called the Florida Democratic Party. By chance, communication director Eric Jotkoff picked up the phone. In the only conversation that I have been able to have with any top [Florida Democratic Party] official or leader, Jotkoff told me not to run for governor unless I had $3 million to start and $1.3 million a week to win. As Jotkoff told me, ‘It’s not about the issues; it’s about the money.’”

Nearly three months later, after a dozen unanswered e-mails and several calls to the party regarding his candidacy, Arth filed a three-page official grievance titled “The Florida Democratic Party is not being Democratic.” Despite being published in full on the Miami Herald’s “Naked Politics” blog, it was roundly ignored by party officials.

Then came the Florida Democratic Party conference at the Disney Yacht Club resort last October. “The first night I was there I was doing great,” Arth says. “Hundreds of Democrats were coming up to our table and were making donations, and I thought ‘Well, this is pretty good.’

“And then Alex Sink spoke outside to everybody, and I stood next to the stage waiting my turn. And that’s when Karen Thurman came out – she’s the chair of the [Florida] Democratic Party – and she said ‘No, no, I’m not going to let you speak. We just want to focus on one candidate.’” 

The party had already anointed Sink as its candidate, almost a year before the primary even took place. Arth says Thurman physically blocked him from taking the stage.

The next morning, Arth says, he found he had been reassigned to a table in a nearly empty room far away from the main hall, to where he calls “political Siberia.” His campaign materials, he says, had been put into a storage room. 

Despite the multiple rejections, Arth held out for eight more months as a Democrat, hoping that the party brass would come around. They never did. 

The Orlando Weekly tried to contact Eric Jotkoff to discuss the aforementioned incidents, but multiple calls and messages went unanswered. Requests to speak with Ms. Thurman were redirected to Jotkoff, and the Sink campaign also declined to comment on Arth’s criticisms of her platform. 

That the state’s Democratic leaders don’t want to talk about Arth doesn’t surprise Al Krulick, Arth’s running mate (and contributor to the Orlando Weekly’s Arts & Culture section). “They don’t want to play with Michael,” Krulick says. “Michael’s too smart.” 

Krulick ran for U.S. Congress in 1996 and 1998 on the Democratic ticket against Bill McCollum, and says he was “pulled back” into the political fold by Arth. “Here’s a guy who has actually thought things through, and actually has answers, not slogans,” he says.

Yet Arth’s preference for answers over slogans didn’t resonate as well with the media, members of which received press kits with 67 pages of information and a DVD (and later, his book). When Arth went on a campaign tour from Key West to Pensacola in July, making the whole trip by bicycle, he received little coverage outside of his own blog. 

To a seasoned observer like Roger Handberg, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, the media’s unwillingness to give Arth attention is nothing personal. “The media historically likes a horse-race, where you’ve got two horses battling for the win,” he says. “It makes life simpler for them, less complicated.”

Further, Handberg says, money does indeed play a role in running a successful campaign – despite a strong stance on the issues, a candidate needs to have money to spend to get noticed. “It can be about issues,” he says, “but it’s going to have to be tied to money.” 

And money is not Arth’s strong point, to say the least. It may have been if his DeLand properties were still worth $1.5 million, as they were at the peak of the real estate market, but all of his eggs were in the Garden District basket when the recession hit. He’s only managed to sell half the properties he owns there.

“Now, if you gave me a check for a quarter million dollars,” Arth says, “I’d only be back up to broke.” 

As of this writing, Arth has only raised $8,072 for his campaign and spent $36,199 of his own money. Placing a PayPal link on his website is about as far as he’ll go to fundraise. “I just can’t do it,” he says. “The process of begging for money – I just find it degrading.”

Handberg suggests that a third-party candidate like Arth, with no name recognition and little to no financial resources, would have a better chance getting into office at a lower-level election. But Arth is too old and too ambitious to start at the bottom of the ladder. Furthermore, he says, he doesn’t even really want a career in politics.

“I’m interested in the governor’s office as a bully pulpit,” Arth says. “To shame legislators into looking at rational policies.”

Which begs the question: Can a man who mostly wants to preach be an effective governor?

“Most politicians ride the waves, they don’t make them,” Arth replies. “To start telling the truth about our dysfunctional system will make waves, and I intend to do that whether in office or not.”

There are other things about Arth that lend weight to the argument that he has no business running for governor, let alone any other political office. He doesn’t want to do the difficult work of fundraising, has no political connections and would rather write books than film campaign ads. He knows how modern electoral politics work but refuses to play the game. When asked how he would operate as governor with no allies whatsoever, he says he doesn’t know. He says he figures that since most politicians are “sycophantic suck-ups,” holding the title of governor would be enough to turn most of the people who once ignored him into deferential yes-men.  

After a meeting with Arth in DeLand earlier this month, it was evident that he recognized defeat on the horizon. “[I’d run again] if my wife went along with it,” he said while we walked along Woodland Boule-vard, the town’s main thoroughfare. “And it’d have to be under a different set of circumstances, not where I’d have close to no chance of winning.”

But this race isn’t over yet, and so Arth soldiers on, holding public debates with cardboard cutouts of Alex Sink and Rick Scott with his trademark dry humor, despite his estimate that only 5 percent of voters in Florida know who he is. Like a well-trained baseball batter, he sprints towards the goal regardless of the surrounding circumstances. 

And, like the batter fresh off an unimpressive ground ball, the best Arth can hope for now is that his opponents screw it up big time.

The Also-Rans

In addition to Michael Arth, these outsiders are also gunning for the Florida governor’s seat.  As you read below, the spectrum of sanity among these folks is quite wide – although of course, it can be argued that they’re all insane for running.

Farid Khavari (no party affiliation) is an Iranian-born economist with a doctorate in economics from a German university. His poor English immediately precludes him from the office – when he was allowed to speak for two minutes at the Agriculture Institute of Florida Candidates Forum last month, his visible nervousness exacerbated the problem, as he closed his speech with this final line: “We have 1.2 unemployment Floridian. Thank you very much.” And despite his supposed expertise in economics, he makes some dubious claims – that he can create a million jobs in three years purely in the business of solar energy, and that eventually, a society modeled on his principles would be completely cost-free. That’s right, no costs whatsoever. No wonder he calls it  “carefreeism!”

Peter Allen (Independence Party) is a respectable guy who just wants to respect the Constitution. Born with only one eye and one kidney, and raised in a household run by a distant father and an alcoholic mother, Allen left home at the age of 15 and made an impressive life for himself, eventually starting an industrial electronics business that let him retire at an early age. As a member of the Independence Party of Florida, he’s a centrist who says he would benefit the state by acting as a “referee” between the two eternally bickering parties. We’d prefer someone to act as a warden instead, but it’s a start.

Daniel Imperato (no party affiliation), as fate would have it, also has only one functional eye. He says that while carrying a briefcase full of jewels in London, he had acid thrown in his face by a thief, blinding him. What Imperato doesn’t understand is that such stories are only believable if told sparingly – he also says Barack Obama knows him well, that Donald Trump stole the idea for The Apprentice from him and that he’s working on a documentary with Michael Moore about the “African banks.” At one point during our discussion, he pointed to a Porsche Cayenne parked outside and said it was his car. Yet after we bid each other adieu, he slunk off to a white minivan. 

Josue Larose (write-in) is the most puzzling enigma of the bunch. A 29-year-old Deerfield Beach resident who claims to be a billionaire music producer, Larose has formed 40 political parties and more than 340 political action committees. Either the man has a fetish for paperwork or thinks that practically every institution in contemporary American life is in need of more political muscle: He’s created PACs for judo schools, helicopter companies, Episcopal churches, dating agencies and medical laboratories, just to name a few. The one time his campaign phone number was answered, a man with a thick Caribbean accent briskly redirected us to his e-mail address and hung up the phone. 

C.C. Reed (no party affiliation) did not answer any of our phone calls or e-mails, but if his website is any indication, he’s got a knack for making lemonade from lemons. Rather than lament his steady string of political defeat stretching back to 1994, Reed brags that he is “the longest running candidate for governor.” Hooray for persistence!

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