While none of her Republican opponents for her congressional seat in California’s 8th district have ever garnered more than 22 percent of the vote (and many less than half that), win or lose, Nancy Pelosi’s current GOP challenger John Dennis is a fascinating political story: He won the GOP primary running a distinctly Ron Paul-style campaign with a special San Francisco bent.
He’s for legalizing pot, backing the dollar with gold, and eliminating capital gains taxes and eventually the income tax, and bringing all the troops back home. He’s also able to run to Pelosi’s left on things like bailouts of the rich and powerful and support for civil liberties, even, as his campaign wrote about a Dennis appearance at San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade, slamming Pelosi for “refusing to make repealing DOMA and Don't Ask Don't Tell a priority." Senior Editor Brian Doherty interviewed Dennis by phone earlier this week.
Reason: What’s your history with politics? How did you end up the GOP candidate up against Nancy Pelosi?
John Dennis: In other words, where did it all go so wrong? How was I thrown into this mess? I guess it goes back to college in 1984, of all years, when I read Ayn Rand. I went to a Jesuit university [Fordham] where I met a libertarian Jesuit, a guy who was an associate of Murray Rothbard [Fr. James Sadowsky]. I was student body president and had a little taste of politics and I helped Ron Paul’s campaign in 1988 [when he ran for president with the Libertarian Party]. I was motivated to get involved in politics more after the birth of my daughter. Ron inspired me to get involved in his campaign three years ago, and as a Republican I’ve worked on a couple of campaigns locally. And I saw this race as an opportunity to do a couple of different things.
First, I was intrigued by the idea of an anti-war Republican, of a libertarian Republican running against Pelosi, challenging her on issues Republicans traditionally couldn’t. I also thought the platform I would have running against someone like her was an enormous and huge asset to talk about things I believe, and in some ways extend Ron Paul’s campaign from 2008.
Reason: What was your level of involvement with that first Paul presidential campaign in '88?
Dennis: I was living in Chicago, and was a Reason magazine subscriber, I might add. I just stuffed envelopes.
Reason: Did he directly ask you to run now, or suggest you should?
Dennis: No, I did not talk to him about it before running. We met for the first time briefly on a campaign stop of his in Mountain View in summer 2007 and I met him a couple of times briefly after that, and didn’t consult with him. My first extended conversation with him was the day after I won the primary.
Reason: What was the primary fight like?
Dennis: I had one opponent, Dana Walsh, the woman who ran in 2008 against Pelosi and didn’t do very well [earning fewer votes than independent Cindy Sheehan, who has appeared at anti-war rallies with Dennis]. I’d say that we won for a combination of reasons—really enthusiastic volunteers who worked, the same way they worked for the Ron Paul campaign, and covered the district. Only about 12-13,000 were expected to vote in the primary, and we knew we could cover the precincts really well. That, and most people agreed with me on social issues—those who agreed on war were really fervently in my camp in that regard and in spite of practically no name recognition, against the 2008 nominee who raised $2 million in the primary and in spite of the fact she had her attack website which is still up online—johndennisexposed.com—we still won.
Reason: Two million in the primary against you? That seems excessive. How much did you raise in the primary?
Dennis: Around $600,000. My charming personality had nothing to do with it. In this district, here’s how it works—very little of that money for her or for me came from within the district, most comes nationally from people wanting to support the candidate running against Pelosi. [Walsh] used huge commercial fundraising outfits doing telephone soliciting.
Reason: Did you get any local press attention during the primary?
Dennis: A little bit but very little. We mostly fought it out over airwaves and mail and on the streets. Walsh had no ground game, and we had substantial ground game by any measure.