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.
Another guy who worked on Ron's campaign actually asked me to run, Dan Pickell. I knew I had him and another guy, also an amazing workhorse, knew I'd have their support. I also knew the county coordinator for Campaign for Liberty, so I was running in those circles, I knew who would do things. When we talked about running they got excited and I used them as the initial hardcore group and then as the campaign got more active, attracted more.
Pickell had a little joke. When he asked me to run I was honored and said, why me, do you love my positions, the way I deliver them, I'm such an amazing person? He said, "We like candidates with two first names."
Reason: How involved have you been in GOP politics before now? The California GOP hasn't exactly been a bastion of sensible fiscal policy combined with sensible social policy.
Dennis: The campaigns I worked on, one was a local guy running for San Francisco city supervisor, then I worked a little bit on a state assembly race. I have had very limited contact with the state party. I mean, I go to state Republican conventions, I got to know everyone and they apparently know who I am and get where I'm coming from. I've gotten no hassle, not a ton of support, though I don't know what kind of resources they have anyway. I will say this: in some ways [state Republicans] have been warm to me, saying, "I may not agree on these positions, but good luck."
Reason: Do you think the people giving you money nationally know what you stand for particularly, or are you just the anti-Pelosi to them?
Dennis: The bulk of money from commercial fundraising came from anti-Pelosi people who knew very little about my position. Those [fundraising] firms become list builders, they keep most of the money but the candidate gets a big list and can go back to that list. One of the differences in the primary was the libertarian team, the Ron Paul scene, the liberty movement, gave the most spendable money that I didn't have to pay big commissions on. They were not just against Pelosi, they were pro-John Dennis. [Note: The most current numbers as of September 30 show Dennis having raised $1.8 million.]
Reason: Are Democratic voters receptive to your message in your district?
Dennis: I was lucky enough to meet Matt Gonzalez, a respected progressive [Ralph Nader's 2008 Green Party running mate] and he endorsed me. That was a pretty good indication, though Matt is a little more open-minded than other progressives. But I've found at least respect about where I'm coming from even if they don't agree.
We could win if we get three out of 10 Democrats, so we don't need seven out of 10, if we perform the same way Scott Brown did [in his unexpected GOP victory for Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat] with independents, getting 65 percent of those. That's the formula we've been pursuing, and I think we're doing well in those areas. It's just a shame local media has only gotten involved and looking with some interest in the last couple of weeks.
Reason: That article by Matt Smith in the S.F. Weekly seemed designed to try to scare away Democrats from you, with the "privatize everything" vibe.
Dennis: I haven't received any backlash from that. But I never said what he said I did. We talked about a couple of things in terms of different libertarian positions that came up. I had a pragmatic position toward [Proposition L], and for him to give the impression I said "privatize sidewalks"… [Proposition L is a San Francisco city proposition that would "ban sitting or lying on public sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m."]
I said, if there were no law on the books that allowed police to move someone obstructing private property and they get complaints and they need a law to do that, if this serves that function then I'm for it. He said, "That's not a very libertarian position." I said, "What do you mean, people should be able to use the space, if you are obstructing private property." I said, "Some libertarians want private roads including private sidewalks, then it becomes a clear cut private property issue, not alien to the libertarian position." That was the context. I never advocated privatizing sidewalks, it's ludicrous.
When I take a position on something I usually stick with it, but I'm having second thoughts about Proposition L after a long discussion with [libertarian activist and founder of Antiwar.com] Eric Garris, who told me there was no need for a new law. That's how [Prop L] was always sold to me, that they needed a law to do this [move along people obstructing private property on the sidewalk]. He said laws on the books already allow that and gave his personal experience with being a downtown San Francisco business owner, so I'm up in the air.
Reason: How does the national GOP feel about you, with your foreign policy heresies?
Dennis: There's been no blowback on the national level; in fact Michael Steele invited me, albeit at the last moment, to join them on the "fire Pelosi" bus tour, which was only appropriate but the schedule didn't work out. One California party official said, "Look with this race you are running, there's really no downside to taking positions you are taking in this election, so go ahead and do it," and I suspect the national party feels that way about it as well.
Reason: Why is the Ron Paul/John Dennis position so rare in the GOP?
Dennis: There are a lot more folks running under Ron's banner, or at least sympathetic to Ron, from Rand to Peter Schiff to Debora Medina…and I think Rand will win, I think if we do well it shows others this new way to go, particularly in urban races. A well-known progressive John Nichols wrote in Capital Times, about how a Republican running in [Wisconsin against a Democrat incumbent] was doing it the wrong way, and offering me as a model of the way a Republican should run in a liberal district and quotes me extensively from my website. So just like Ron we are getting a lot of that kind of respect from left, Democrats, independents, for running on positions of principle.
In terms of polling, we've noticed that the war is number four on the list and the economy like everywhere else number one. But I tend to lead with the war and follow up with civil liberties because it has been my experience if I lead with the economy I get stuck in a no-win left-right fight. "George Bush screwed the economy, we are doing what we have to do," blah blah. So I say, save money, end wars, bring troops home, end military bases around the world, unwind our footprint out there, cut corporate welfare, and while we are at it, get government out of our telephones and out of our email.
And people go, "You're a Republican?" It's a sad state, why Republicans are so anxious to give up these issues, so anxious to drop their fiscal conservative hats when it comes to the military-industrial complex.
Then I get into the economy, cut the income tax. I had a talk with the executive editor of San Francisco Bay Guardian, Tim Redmond, he talked about his fascinating discussion with John Dennis but he couldn't endorse me over Pelosi because of my position on income taxes, which was regressive in his mind.
Reason: How come even most of these other supposedly Ron Paul-esque candidates aren't as good as you on live-and-let-live social and cultural issues?
Dennis: I'd be running on my positions no matter where I was, though obviously they are an easier sell in San Francisco. But on the other hand I might not be the party nominee if I were running in Mississippi, or even in Orange County. But I think a lot of "Ron Paul candidates" are running in conservative districts so they are more socially conservative, they fit in with that crowd. Maybe the slight criticism I might have for some of those other candidates, I'd just say, there are 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, respect them all, and if you follow the non-aggression principle you gotta stand up for what you believe in across the board.
Reason: What are your main strategies to reach voters?
Dennis: We did a lot of mail, big mailers, targeted mailers to Chinese-American voters, get out the vote ones with Republicans, some radio, a lot of online stuff, and we got a P.R. teams, we get our own media, and are hoping to do a little TV in coming weeks, hoping to have money to do that.
Reason: What specifically do you have to say to Democrats about why they shouldn't support Pelosi?
Dennis: She doesn't fight for the things they believe in. Democrats in San Francisco don't want to be in Afghanistan. They want to leave Iraq as soon as possible. Democrats in San Francisco don't want to be warrantless wiretapped, don't want FBI agents writing their own search warrants, and Pelosi hasn't stopped any of that, and in fact has been complicit with the wars and with the invasions of privacy. And then lastly, the economy is a disaster and the federal government extended this bust and Pelosi has been right in front of that because she doesn't know what she's doing, and we will continue in this downturn if we keep letting Pelosi lead. I'm a better fit for the city, the country, if they want someone to get out of wars, reduce foreign empire and wants people to respect privacy and fight for gay rights.
Reason: And what do you have to offer Republicans, especially on the foreign policy stuff where, alas, most of your party members disagree with you?
Dennis: First and foremost we can't afford it any more. I'm the one being consistent. If you want to talk about fiscal conservatism, nothing gets left off the table. For me, it's why turn a blind eye to the foreign military bases? I'm consistent, why aren't they? A point Ron is trying to get across is every policy has risks and rewards, and if you think we can put bases out there and have these wars go on and that only rewards and no risks are involved, frankly you are living in fantasy land. I'm actually more realistic on foreign policy than those who disagree in the Republican Party: I recognize there are risks to having such a forward projection of power in the world. Like, for cultures we don't understand, we obligate them morally to avenge the deaths of loved ones.
Reason: An article I read about a September anti-war rally you did with Ron Paul quotes him advising you to have fun with the race. Have you?
Dennis: Sure, I'm having fun in a couple of different ways. That "wicked witch of the west" video [portraying Pelosi as a wicked witch melted by the water of freedom, removed from YouTube on dubious copyright infringement claims by holders of the rights to Wizard of Oz's music], and I'll do more [videos] soon, I have fun with those. Also for me it is fun to stand up and use a national platform and talk about things I believe in, fight for things I believe in. I hope someday our daughter appreciates what we did here, and that to me is lots of fun. I don't mind taking flak for positions I'm comfortable with.
Reason: Some people thought the witch video was too silly. Are you happy with it in retrospect?
Dennis: Sure, why not? You know, the Imperium hates being made fun of, and there's no better representative of the Imperium than Pelosi. I have no problems with poking fun at her, and the other thing I think is if people go to my site and listen to me talk in other venues they'll know I'm serious; that video is just another side of my personality.
Reason: Any further political plans after this race?
Dennis: I have no plans of doing anything other than running this race. It has been 14 months. A long haul.