Sirenian Publishing sat down with author Adam Gordon Sachs to discuss his new narrative nonfiction book, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics. The book recounts Sachs’ amusing, exhilarating and disillusioning travails during his campaign for a Maryland House of Delegates seat and takes an inside look at the sometimes noble, but often corrupt and incestuous world of politics from an Everyman perspective.
Sirenian Publishing (SP): Why did you run for the Maryland legislature?
Adam Gordon Sachs (AGS): I wanted to advocate for specific ideas I believed in that would make a difference: universal access to affordable, essential health care, eliminating the profit-mongering health insurance companies; campaign finance reform to reduce the undue influence of corporate and PAC money; redistricting reform to take the corrupt process out of the hands of self-interested politicians; a reduced tax burden for the middle class; and sensible gun control laws. And I wanted to be somebody important, something common to politicians yet none will acknowledge.
SP: Why did you write a book about your campaign experience?
AGS: There are many books about politics, but nearly all are written by journalists who are observers, academics who are researchers, or politicians, who are career political professionals and millionaires detached from the masses, with help from biographers. I couldn’t find any books written by an “Everyman candidate” – a political amateur with no political machine or huge bankroll who tries to crash through the iron gates erected to keep out such outsiders. How many people can relate to a Hillary Clinton or a Donald Trump or a Bush — pick any? Only the Elite of the Elite. I believed average people who ever considered running for public office could relate to my experience and could get a glimpse of what it would be like to step across that terrifying threshold to candidacy.
SP: What did you find encouraging about your campaign experience?
AGS: There are honest, well-intentioned, civic-minded people who want to contribute their talents, ideas and efforts by getting involved in politics for the public good. I viewed the majority of the 10 candidates in my Democratic primary that way. I also felt involved in something exciting and meaningful during my campaign. There’s nothing like a political campaign to make you feel engaged, stimulated, challenged and alive.
SP: What was discouraging?
AGS: The insiders – the entrenched political class and their loyal henchmen – rule the business. Through the power they have obtained through their positions, name recognition through years in public office, large campaign bank accounts, political relationships, allegiances, and loyal corporate, PAC and union donors, they have a path to stay in office in perpetuity and to a large degree determine who will join them when a seat opens. It was discouraging to realize how much the ability to raise money – or spend a lot of your own – impacts electoral success, or even to have any chance to win at all.
It was frustrating to discover the organizations that make endorsements dismiss candidates with little regard for what they may stand for in office, but because they have too little money to be considered “viable.” It becomes a vicious cycle: If you don’t have enough money, you don’t get endorsements. If you don’t get endorsements, you have more difficulty proving you are “viable” and raising money.
It was also discouraging to observe how detached most citizens are from public life, and how disillusioned they are about politics and elected representatives as a whole.
SP: What’s the biggest problem you see in politics at the state level?
AGS: Too many politicians, especially those in the Democratic majority party, are chickens and weasels. They’re more concerned about staying in line with legislative leadership – protecting their own hides — so they can stay in office, continue reaping huge contributions from corporations and special interests, and get promoted through the ranks, than in taking a stand for positions that leadership may frown upon but many citizens would support. For example, the legislature failed to vote on a bill in 2016 that would ensure a modest amount of sick leave days per year for working people, the fourth year in a row the bill has failed. Leadership, which is in bed with big business, doesn’t want it. It’s the same with reforms for which I advocated – health care for all, campaign finance, and redistricting.
SP: What did you learn about yourself during your campaign?
AGS: I learned that I am not aggressive, ambitious and driven enough to do everything it takes – and you have to do a hell of a lot – to win a highly competitive election. I had limits, and if you want to win, you have to bust through those limits. Really, the race reconfirmed some things that I already knew about myself that are shortcomings for a politician: I am a substandard salesperson and self-promoter; too reluctant to ask people for money, help and favors; and lean toward introversion, or being a lone wolf in a game that demands extroversion and a massive team effort. Those traits are not a winning formula for success in elections. I equated my campaign style to a general going into battle without an army, or even a tank, an excellent plan for getting slaughtered.
SP: What does it take to be successful as a candidate?
AGS: Extroversion. It’s difficult to be successful as a candidate if you are a private person and you don’t gain energy from constantly being around people, meeting new people, talking about yourself and being curious about others and their thoughts and concerns. If you lean toward introversion, you have to get in touch with your extroverted side and bring it out. You need confidence and the sincere belief that you will do a good job because you are smart, engaged and care about improving society and the effects of laws and government policies. However, I learned that you don’t necessarily have to stand for anything. You can just talk a good game, spout platitudes and feel good lines, and if you are properly connected and your bank account is fat, you have a great shot at success. It may help to be sincere, authentic and truly caring, but it’s not a requirement.
SP: Do you plan to run for office again?
AGS: No, never. I’m done. I always wondered if I could do it and relished the challenge, but now I’ve done it twice, the first time in 2006 for Howard County Council, with the same result. It’s a Herculean effort, and I’m not a workaholic. There will be no “third time’s a charm” for me. I can walk away with no regrets, because I know I gave it my best shot, and I understand the Herculean effort it may take to win, especially against incumbents, and I know I don’t have enough to give. But I’m grateful for the experience and proud to have given it a shot.