A Podiatrist and a Truck Driver Walk Into a General Election

    On the trail in Ohio’s Second Congressional District.

    William R. Smith, a 61-year-old truck driver who goes by the nickname Butch, sits at a patio table in front of the aging, tin-roofed farm house in rural Pike County where he lives with his mother. It’s a warm, sunny afternoon, and the sounds of buzzing bugs and chirping birds fill the midsummer air. Compared to the rusting trailers that dot this economically stunted region two hours east of Cincinnati, Smith’s home is a palace, full of photos, knickknacks, plants, and wood paneling.

    A pleasant, heavy-set man with white hair, a white beard, and 1980s-era bifocals, he smokes his way through a pack of Cheyenne menthol cigarillos while explaining his life in painstaking detail. Wearing an orange T-shirt and worn blue jeans, Smith speaks slowly, with a disarming Appalachian drawl. He has a politician’s gift for giving indirect answers, and he wanders aimlessly from topic to topic.

    “I apologize to you if it seems like I’m rambling,” he explains with the wry smirk and squirrelly tone he employs when trying to be particularly clever, which is almost always. “But the problem with things are, you bring up something and then there is a different tangent automatically because it’s all symbiotic. It’s all tied together.”

    Although Smith sometimes struggles to articulate his thoughts succinctly, he’s a sharp guy, with an impressive memory for facts and dates. He likes politics. “I feel comfortable saying I’m pro-life,” he says suddenly while talking about campaign finance, “but not to the extent where contraception is not an option and not to the point where I think abortion should be criminalized again.”

    He believes ethanol could help solve the energy crisis. Or better yet, the federal government should honor an 1868 treaty allowing American Indians to grow commercial hemp, which Henry Ford once used to fuel his personal vehicles. “Commercial hemp and marijuana, as we buy it on the street corner, are two different animals,” Smith says. “They’re just common cousins.”

    He argues that the men and women of Congress should be forced to write out the budget themselves, rather than relying on bureaucrats to draft thousand-page documents that nobody reads. “That’s not good enough,” he says. “I may not be the brightest light in the house, but I’m not stupid either.”

    It’s at this point in our meandering, discursive interview that Smith’s mother returns home from a shopping trip with his sister-in-law. William’s brother Walter, who gave him the nickname Butch, lives right down the road, but their relationship has been rocky. They once went seven years without speaking.

    “Mom, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.” Smith says. “You told me to cut the pie. I cut the pie. It was coconut.”

    “There was a coconut, and there was a rhubarb,” she replies.

    “I ended up cutting both of them,” Smith says, bringing the exchange to an end without ever really explaining the nature of his grievance. Still, he takes it as an opportunity to rehash the many ways in which the world has treated him unfairly.

    It began at birth. He was born next door, at his grandparents’ house, during a blizzard. The roads were snowed in, so his grandfather used a horse-drawn sleigh to retrieve Doc Haas from Bainbridge, where he had been drinking. Possibly as a result of that insobriety, the doctor mistakenly recorded William’s time of birth as 11:53 p.m. on January 16, 1951. The hour was right, but he jumped the gun on the date.

    “I was born seven minutes before the 16th,” Smith says. “That’s going to make me have to work an extra day before I can draw my Social Security. It just starts out a life of…”

    Little indignities. The way he sees it, Smith has fallen victim to slight after slight. He didn’t finish his degree at Ohio University’s Chillicothe branch because a math professor wrongly accused him of cheating on a test. He didn’t get promoted as a corrections officer, despite having seniority and the highest test score. He quit working at the post office after 23 years because of a bitter dispute with his boss. He mortgaged his house to pay for his father’s cancer treatments, then the bank refused his payments, ruining his credit. And on and on.

    “But I just figure my whole life’s been to get here,” he says. “Everything has been pushing me toward this.” And by this, he means running for Congress.

    Placing your name on the ballot in an election for the United States House of Representatives doesn’t take much. You must be at least 25; you must have been a citizen of this country for the past seven years; you must live in the state where you plan to run; and you must submit an application that includes a petition with 50 signatures and an $85 filing fee. That’s all you have to do to enter the race, though usually much more is required to win—speeches, fund-raisers, ad campaigns, community meetings, kissed babies, debates.

    Unless you’re William Smith. He did the absolute minimum to enter the Democratic primary in Ohio’s Second Congressional District, a Republican stronghold that comprises part or all of eight counties including Hamilton and Clermont. Blaine Beekman—a family friend, fellow Democrat, and Pike County commissioner—helped circulate his petition since Smith is on the road six days a week. The trucker made just $15,000 last year, but he was able to scrounge together the filing fee. And that was it. He did no campaigning. He made no public appearances. Party leaders didn’t even know who he was. “William Smith was entirely invisible,” says David Krikorian, his primary opponent. “I never saw him.”

    Then, on March 6, William Smith won.

     

    It was a stunning result, and Smith’s narrow margin of victory only added to the intrigue. After a recount, he came out on top by a mere 60 votes, 10,176 to 10,116. That sets up a general election between Smith and Republican candidate Brad Wenstrup, who pulled off an upset of his own in the primary, ousting incumbent Congresswoman Jean Schmidt.

    How did Smith pull it off? He has no idea. Maybe God influenced people to check the box next to his name? “Sometimes I think there’s a higher power that even though we may not want to go that way, kind of makes us go that way,” he says. “You know what I’m saying? I just think it happened because it was supposed to.”

    Just about everybody else thinks he won because of a flurry of robo-calls that were made in the week leading up to the primary. People answered the phone to hear a recording of a woman’s voice say: “William Smith has an opponent that describes himself as a Reagan Conservative. William Smith’s opponent was already sanctioned by the Ohio Elections Commission for not telling the truth. Please, don’t make a mistake and embarrass the party. Vote for William Smith, the real Democrat for Congress. This has been paid for by the Victory Ohio Super PAC.”

    Here’s the weird part: There is no Victory Ohio Super PAC, and nobody has any clue who made the calls. Smith says he knows nothing about them. Leaders in both parties deny having any involvement and called for a full investigation. And the FBI and the Department of Justice are reportedly looking into whether any federal election laws were broken. Certainly, making up a phony PAC name to place calls on behalf of a no-name candidate is highly irregular behavior, regardless of who’s responsible.

    But this is politics, and people in politics love playing amateur detective and spinning theories, even without evidence to support them. The leading opinion is that a Republican made the calls to take Krikorian out of the race and set up an easier victory in November. Krikorian has been an outspoken opponent of a proposal (supported by Rep. Schmidt) to give a massive hunk of federal funding to the energy company USEC, which would enable it to expand its uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, a small village in Smith’s neck of the woods. It’s a project that could bring precious jobs to Pike County, which has the highest unemployment rate in the state. Thus, a second hypothesis is that someone associated with USEC made the calls. Krikorian also has a history of criticizing public unions, so a third theory holds that labor interests were responsible.

    Whoever or whatever was behind the robo-calls, Krikorian is still mad about it. “I can tell you that I will not be voting for William Smith,” he says. “He’s a fraud. It’s a fraud candidacy. The whole thing is a fraud.”

     

    It’s easy to understand why Krikorian is bitter. This was his third run for Congress in the Second District, and he has lost all three times. The scars from those battles show. He speaks like a man who has something important to say but can’t convince anyone to listen. This much, however,  is clear: He blames Jean Schmidt for everything.

    The conflict between the congresswoman and her would-be replacement started in 2008, when Krikorian ran as a conservative-leaning independent. He did reasonably well for an independent, drawing nearly 18 percent of the vote. But the Sunday before that election, Krikorian (an Armenian-American) distributed pamphlets making various allegations against Schmidt and the Turkish government related to the Armenian Genocide. Schmidt responded by filing a complaint against Krikorian with the Ohio Elections Commission.

    The fight that followed was high on legal drama. Krikorian’s legal team included local conservative political activist Chris Finney and celebrity attorney Mark Geragos, a fellow Armenian-American who has represented such high-profile clients as pop star Michael Jackson and murderer Scott Peterson. On Schmidt’s side was Bruce Fein, an experienced political attorney and the resident scholar at the Turkish Coalition of America. After multiple filings, depositions, and hearings, the commission sanctioned Krikorian for making false statements.

    “Frankly, the Ohio Elections Commission, their whole process was ridiculous,” Krikorian says. “It’s a partisan panel. In my opinion, they made a mockery of the law.” Not long after that decision, Schmidt filed a $6.8 million lawsuit against Krikorian for defamation. The case dragged on for nearly two years before eventually being dropped.

    In 2010, Krikorian changed his party affiliation and ran as a Democrat. A few days before the primary, Schmidt’s campaign put out a press release accusing him of making racist comments about his Democratic opponent, Surya Yalamanchili, at a VFW post meeting in Batavia. Neither Schmidt nor Yalamanchili was present at the meeting, and Krikorian has consistently denied the allegations with support from several of the veterans in attendance.

    But the damage was done. Yalamanchili won. “So Schmidt reached across the aisle and basically engineered my defeat,” Krikorian says. “She wanted to run against a much weaker Democratic candidate, and that’s what she did.”

    This year, Krikorian thinks Schmidt pulled another dirty trick. When William Smith put his name on the ballot, Krikorian believes that Schmidt—and, he says, “the Turks”—took advantage of the situation by placing the robo-calls and orchestrating his downfall. (Schmidt’s office has denied that she had anything to do with the calls, though the congresswoman declined to comment for this story.)

    “If it was a heads-up matchup, Schmidt versus me, we win,” he says. “I think that Schmidt knew that. I think that the Turkish Coalition of America knew that.”

    The problem with that hypothetical is that when given the choice between him and someone they knew nothing about, 10,176 voters opted for the unknown, essentially saying that anyone would be better than David Krikorian.

    Whatever the reasons for his loss, Krikorian hasn’t made things easy for himself. During his flap with Schmidt over the Armenian Genocide, Krikorian asked Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party and a Greek-American, to honor his heritage and side with him. When Triantafilou declined, Krikorian contacted the Republican leader’s priest, urging him to apply some holy pressure. Triantafilou, who is not naive about the vicissitudes of politics, was flabbergasted.

    “I just don’t think he’s part of the adult conversation from either party about leadership and government,” Triantafilou says.

     

    Another obvious flaw in Krikorian’s fantasyland general election victory over Schmidt is that the congresswoman didn’t win her primary, either. As with the robo-calls, everybody has a theory for why she lost.

    Schmidt became the representative in the Second District in 2005, when she won a special election to replace Rob Portman, who left to work for President George W. Bush. She won reelection in each of the next three cycles. Some of those races were closer than expected, but Schmidt always emerged on top. Until this year.

    Finney, one of the founders of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, has been working to defeat Schmidt since her days as a state legislator, when she helped Governor Bob Taft raise taxes. “I’ve been involved in a seven-year crusade to get rid of her,” he says unabashedly. “This titanic struggle to get rid of a bad congressman obviously was made significantly easier by her.”

    Finney attributes her demise to “a series of foibles.” The most notable example came in 2005, right after she took office, when Schmidt made headlines by attacking John Murtha, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and a decorated retired Marine, for his opposition to the war in Iraq. “Cowards cut and run,” she infamously declared on the floor of the House of Representatives. “Marines never do.” The comment caused a stir in Congress and drew considerable media criticism.

    But the real trouble for Schmidt came in her feud with Krikorian. During the course of her elections commission complaint, it came out that the Turkish Coalition of America was paying her legal fees. When she didn’t report those services on her disclosure forms, Krikorian (with Finney’s help) filed a complaint. The House Committee on Ethics investigated, and in 2011, they partially exonerated Schmidt. She had to amend her forms and pay back some of the money, but she wasn’t sanctioned because she claimed she hadn’t accepted the illegal gifts knowingly. “They basically let her skate with a ridiculous excuse that she didn’t know,” Krikorian says.

    To Finney, the negative press from that ethics inquiry is what lost Schmidt the primary. “How can one guy with 1,000 pieces of paper topple a U.S. congressman?” he asks, referring to Krikorian and his pamphlets. “Ultimately, that’s what happened, not because of what Krikorian did but because of what Schmidt did in response. She turned an infinitesimally small issue that nobody in the district really cared about—there are fewer than 50 Armenians in the district I think—into the end of her political career.”

    Not surprisingly, Krikorian agrees: “I thought that Jean Schmidt was a horrible representative, and I wanted to see a change there. In that respect, I think that I can claim at least a decent hand in that.”

    It’s a nice narrative, but it isn’t the whole story. The ethics issues never got much attention in local media, and voters in the district didn’t seem to care. A local Republican Party official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, offers an alternative explanation for Schmidt’s primary loss.

    First, conservative voters were furious over what they have come to call “The Kiss.” At the president’s annual State of the Union address, Schmidt made a habit of sitting on the aisle and greeting Obama as he walked past. This year, she gave him a peck on the cheek. “Jean lost because this standing at the aisle next to the president finally just pissed off so many people,” the party official says. “Politically, that didn’t play in her district.”

    The official also accuses Schmidt of underestimating Wenstrup. She didn’t campaign as hard as she should have, and on the day of the primary she was in Washington, D.C., meeting with the Turkish ambassador. (Krikorian, too, is quick to point out the irony.)

    “For her to lose her home [county] by 2,500 votes is just a travesty,” the official adds. “Everybody in Clermont knows Jean. They already had an opinion of her. Brad strolls in and he’s an actual, real alternative that would make people proud, and they voted for him.”

     

    To understand just how improbable it was for two political outsiders to win primaries in the same district, it’s worth taking a look at the Campaign for Primary Accountability (CPA), a nonpartisan Super PAC from Texas that supported Brad Wenstrup. The group’s aim is to address what they see as a fundamental problem: Congress’s approval rating is in the toilet, and yet incumbents almost always win. That’s because a vast majority of House districts are “safe.”

    “It’s either they’re overwhelmingly Democratic or overwhelmingly Republican,” says Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the CPA. “In these districts, like Ohio Two, the primary is the real election because come November, whoever is the Republican nominee is going to win, unless something tragic or bizarre happens.”

    Even when congressmen face challenges from within their own parties, the primary is slanted toward the incumbent. “The incumbent has all these advantages: name recognition, franked mail, access to the local media, and most importantly, access to PAC money,” Ellis says. If incumbents are guaranteed victory, what incentive do they have to listen to their constituents?

    That’s where the CPA comes in. They spend money on behalf of primary challengers, both Democrats and Republicans, to make it a fairer fight. “It’s a good government effort, as strange as that sounds,” Ellis says. “You don’t usually hear good government and Super PAC put into the same sentence.”

    This year, the CPA decided to back Brad Wenstrup. Their polling showed that Jean Schmidt had been winning in her safe district despite being unpopular, and they considered Wenstrup to be a viable challenger.

    It’s worth noting that Wenstrup has the same amount of experience in public office as William Smith: zero. But the 54-year-old Wenstrup has impressive credentials—as a doctor, soldier, and small business owner—and he is a natural politician. A strong, compact man with soft blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair, Wenstrup is nice and charismatic; people gravitate toward him.

    He likes to say that he watched two shows growing up: Medical Center and Combat. He decided he wanted to be a doctor in second grade and went on to become a podiatrist, running his own practice for a dozen years before joining Wellington Orthopaedics. Then in 1998, upset with the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, among other terrorist attacks, Wenstrup joined the Army Reserves. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and was called upon in 2005 to serve in Iraq, where he spent a year as the chief of surgery at the combat support hospital at Abu Ghraib and won a Bronze Star for his leadership. “I just tell people it was the worst thing I ever had to do, but at the same time the best thing I ever got to do,” he says.

    When he came back, Wenstrup gave talks to various community groups, paying tribute to veterans and discussing Army values. Along the way, people began encouraging him to run for office. In 2009, when the Republican Party couldn’t find anyone else willing to run against Mark Mallory for mayor of Cincinnati, Wenstrup volunteered. He lost, but did better than expected. In a city that strongly favors Democrats, Wenstrup got 46 percent of the vote, an impressive haul for a political newcomer. “We came so close, everybody wanted me to run for anything,” he says.

    Soon after, he started to think that Congress might be a fit. He saw congressmen who had never served in the military making military decisions, who had never run a business making economic decisions, and who had never worked in medicine making medical decisions. “I bring a wealth of experience in the topics of the day that concern this nation,” he says.

    Like Smith, Wenstrup isn’t sure why he won. “I’m not that great of a political scientist to figure it out,” he says. And like Smith, he seems to credit a higher power. “I thought, If I don’t win, I don’t win,” he says. “But if I win, I’m supposed to be there.”

    With his can-do attitude and engaging smile, it’s easy to see why Wenstrup is a promising politician. But he also can come across as idealistic; he’s quick to offer clichés that sound good but don’t mean much. “I think we’re just at a point in our history right now that we need leadership that’s going to embrace the idea of America as one,” he says. He favors a flat tax, supports fracking, and wants to prevent the military from cutting troops, but he’s hesitant to propose specific spending cuts, saying he needs more information.

    In his victory over Schmidt, Wenstrup had Tea Party support. He says he agrees with many of the Tea Party’s values—limited government, fiscal responsibility, free markets—but rather than following their lead, he wants them to follow him. “I said, ‘I need you to be Wenstrup guys,’” he says. When asked how he would vote on an issue if his own beliefs differ from those of the Republican Party, he echoes that refrain: “If I think I’m right, I want the caucus to come with me.”

    When he says things like that, it’s easy to think Wenstrup is naive. But maybe that’s what voters want. “I think that the idea of being someone who hasn’t spent the bulk of their life in politics is resonating with people today,” he says.

     

    All of which brings us to a general election between a podiatrist and a truck driver. Chances are good that Wenstrup will win in a landslide; a Democrat hasn’t won an election in the Second District in more than 30 years. Plus, Wenstrup spent the summer campaigning hard, visiting county fairs and speaking at Tea Party gatherings while raising more than half a million dollars. William Smith largely stuck to the strategy that brought him success in the primary: lie low, do little. As of mid-August, he had raised a few hundred dollars in personal donations, acquired a volunteer campaign manager, and made a few awkward appearances at Democratic Party functions.

    Whatever the final outcome, at this stage of the race, it’s clear that Wenstrup has stronger backing from Republicans than Smith does among Democrats. As Triantafilou puts it: “Brad Wenstrup is a rock star.” Meanwhile, state Democratic leaders seem to view Smith’s primary win as a minor embarrassment, particularly after he gave a rambling speech at the Ohio Democratic Party Convention that ended with an apology for wasting everyone’s time.

    Why weren’t the Democrats able to produce a better candidate than Smith or Krikorian? Caleb Faux, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, takes a fatalistic view. “It’s a district that traditionally will give at least 60 percent or more of the vote to the Republican candidate,” he says. In other words, they were going to lose anyway, so why bother?

    Local Democratic leaders discussed the possibility of replacing Smith on the ballot for the general election and took a few shots at him in the newspaper, but they never directly asked him to drop out. “My position on that is that Mr. Smith won the primary. He’s the candidate,” Clermont County Democratic Party Chairman Dave Lane said in late July, before quickly adding, “if he were to choose to withdraw himself, then I’d be more than happy to find another candidate to replace him.”

    Krikorian wanted to be that candidate. So much, in fact, that he called Smith on August 11—two days before the deadline for Smith to withdraw—and asked him to pull out. Smith declined. That spared Krikorian from potentially making inglorious history. If he had assumed the nomination, he might have lost for the fourth time in the past three elections.

    When I spoke to Faux a couple of weeks before the deadline, he noted that even if Smith dropped out, replacing him wouldn’t be worth the effort. “If William R. Smith were to withdraw his name, the only way we could produce a candidate would be to stage another primary, which would be a very expensive proposition,” he said at the time. “Under these circumstances, it would be very difficult to justify doing that.”

    While Faux’s conclusion may have been correct, his understanding of the procedure was a bit foggy. If Smith had withdrawn, the party chairs could have simply named a replacement. Given that they didn’t appear to know the rules, it might be tempting to accuse local Democratic leaders of being inept. But Triantafilou says he feels their pain. “I have similar issues in my party when I have to field candidates in tough districts for Republicans,” he says. “Watch me scrambling to find somebody to run for mayor next year. If you want to run for mayor…”

    Even though William Smith’s chances are slim—given the lack of party support, the limits on his time and finances, and the makeup of the district—Wenstrup is taking him seriously. “You’re either running unopposed or you’re running behind,” he says, offering another pithy one-liner. It’s probably wise. After all, you never know when the robo-calls might start up again.

     

    In a way, this race takes the current political climate to its most extreme. Frustrated with the deadlock in Congress and the duplicity of career politicians, people often wish they were represented by someone like them. It’s a completely understandable, if misguided, form of folk logic: If only the Average Joes ran things, we could find common sense solutions. Well, William Smith is nothing if not an ordinary American; common sense is the only sense he’s got. It would be hard for him to do any worse than the people who are already in office, right?

    Pike County commissioner Blaine Beekman, for one, thinks he could do the job. “This is an intelligent guy,” Beekman says. “He’s the everyman candidate.” He goes on to rebuke those who doubt Smith: “Those party leaders in the district who are criticizing him haven’t been able to elect anybody to Congress either.”

    Back on his front step, Smith says that if elected, he won’t succumb to the left versus right nonsense that plagues the national discourse. “I think politically my objectives are centrist,” he says. “I don’t want dominion by one mindset over everybody else.” And then, without warning, he launches into a tangent about how President Johnson screwed up Social Security by borrowing money to fund public housing.

    He is interrupted when his cat Pokey, which he usually just calls “cat,” climbs up a tree in the yard. “Now cat, if you get up there and you can’t get down, I’m not coming up after you,” he says. “I got a .22 that will get you out of the tree.”

    Citizens of Ohio’s Second Congressional District, this is William R. Smith. You can call him Butch.

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