An Experiment in Democracy

Angst and inspiration on the campaign trail

As a kid growing up in Tampa, I used to think I was a human guinea pig in some heinous experiment, trapped in a coldly calculated artificial environment filled with ugly strip malls and treacherous ghettoes and highway exit ramps. As a teenager, I used to walk the deserted, brightly lighted grid streets of downtown Tampa in the middle of the night and imagine what it used to look like 100 years ago. I was sure the whole city was designed to cause me constant stress and frustration and that there was some mad scientist looking down on me giggling and taking notes. It wasn't until I left Tampa and started to see that most other cities in America were as screwed up as my hometown that I started to relax a little.

It's a strange time to be alive in America. We're experiencing an era of constant growth and consumption typical of most empires. Only this empire is leading the most rapid alteration of our landscape in human history. Studies say the American countryside is losing around 365 acres i>per hour/i> to urban sprawl. I traveled across the country a couple of years ago and found a Dale Mabry on the outskirts of every city. And a dilapidated housing project right next to every downtown. It's only a matter of time before we're living in a nationwide wasteland of ghetto police states surrounded by eight-lane highways lined with mega-discount stores and the same five fast food chains.

It was the frustration I felt from these and many other issues that drove me to run for public office. I didn't feel that decision-makers were paying enough attention to the crucial issues that affect our lives. I thought the most patriotic thing I could do was to get involved in the American political process and create a public discourse on issues that stir debate. The most nurturing thing for a democracy is to hear as many voices as possible. But I realize now not everyone sees it that way.

Former City Council member Scott Paine told me to drop out of the race early on. "You're 27," he said. "You don't have any political experience." I found that to be ironic coming from someone who got beat by a candidate who had no political experience. Then again, Scott's the guy who made a big stink over the Butthole Surfers playing Guavaween a few years ago. I happen to like the Butthole Surfers, so Scott and I just don't understand each other.

My opponent, Rose Ferlita, despite her giant campaign war chest, went out of her way to discredit me as an illegitimate candidate from the very beginning of our race. She condescendingly referred to me as "young man" and "Mr. Kelly" numerous times throughout the campaign and she brought an all-female goon squad to every single debate to sit in the front row and give me the evil eye every time I opened my mouth. Truthfully, I was more flattered at the effort than anything else.

On another level, this whole political experiment reaffirmed my feelings that we're still far from having a genuine democracy. Besides an urgent need for campaign finance reform, we also need to examine seriously the mainstream media and their amazing ability to shape public opinion. The media are there to inform and engage the populace; it's difficult to accomplish that when they're horribly biased. The i>Times/i> and the i>Tribune/i> certainly have their own slightly differing agendas, but they both have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. They both endorsed the most politically connected and big-business minded of all the candidates.

There's a very good chance that a 27-year-old political outsider with some good ideas and who has studied urban development for years can do a better job serving the city than an entrenched elite millionaire businesswoman. Yet, no one in the establishment was willing to publicly take a stance and say, "Yeah, the guy's got some excellent points, let's put him in there."

The papers couldn't get over the pop-culture appeal of my candidacy. "Look, he's young, he dresses weird, he used to smoke pot ... there's a story there." I had more articles printed that mentioned the clothes I was wearing than any other candidate. I wish the newspapers had focused more on what I said, but I guess that wasn't as newsworthy.

I can't completely dis the papers though. The i>Tribune/i> did take me out to lunch three times (the i>Times/i> only bought me coffee once). And I even got i>Trib/i> reporter Kathy Steele to give me a ride to a peace protest downtown.

One of the best things to come out of the whole thing was getting to know the other candidates on a personal level. It was cool to hang out with Curtis Stokes and discover that he loves to listen to 50 Cent to get pumped up before debates. I kind of miss secretly playing ticktacktoe with him at the debates, while the other candidates ran through their rehearsed rhetoric.

It was also nice to have political candidates show up to parties I'd throw. I got to know guys like Ali Akbar, Don Ardell and Frank Sanchez pretty well. I even got Frank's fiancée to come out to a peace rally at MacDill Air Force Base. It was at the same one that Mayor Dick Greco called everyone who attended an "idiot." I demanded an apology from Dick and asked Frank to join me, but he was too savvy: "It's unfortunate that the mayor made that statement," he said with a shrug.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, I feel that the diversity of this year's election process was very healthy for the city. I encourage more concerned citizens to get involved in local politics and not leave the decision making up to career politicians. Sooner or later, one of us will win!