WASHINGTON — Meet Gil Fulbright, a nondescript 55-year-old white man who was persuaded by a lobbyist to run for a Senate seat in Kentucky. What differentiates him from his competitors is that Fulbright tries to keep it brutally real with voters.
In one of his most recent political ads, Fulbright looks into the camera and explains: “This campaign is not about me, it’s about crafting a version of me that will appeal to you. A version that visits random work sites with paid actors, pointing at things. A version of me that doesn’t find old people loathsome or pointless. Has a conventionally attractive yet curiously still family.”
Fulbright continues: “Listening to my constituents, legislating — these are things that I don’t do. What I do is spend about 75 percent of my time raising funds for re-election.”
He ends most of his issue ads with: “I’m Gil Fulbright. For the right price, I’ll endorse any message.”
Fulbright also happens to be the satirical creation of the group Represent.Us, an anti-corruption nonprofit and grassroots group dedicated to combating what it sees as the outsize influence of money and special interests in politics. Fulbright, played by hired actor Frank Ridley, is intended to take the status quo in the U.S. political system to its logical extreme and thereby galvanize voters to do something about it.
Josh Silver, executive director of Represent.Us and one of the project’s architects, said Fulbright was in part inspired by the success of faux news anchor Stephen Colbert’s own farcical forays into the world of campaign finance, which did more to raise awareness around the issue, in Silver’s view, than any cable news program.
At a time when campaign finance advocates seem to be hitting walls with Congress and the courts and spending is on track to break new records, Silver said his group wants to do what works.
“People are more receptive to learning about things through humor than the news and being lectured,” he said. “So we thought, how can we take advantage of this?
“Americans are rightfully completely exasperated with the political system. They’re tired of being lied to, they’re tired of being sold out to the highest bidder. There’s clearly an appetite by the American people, in Kentucky and nationally, to be talked to in an honest way. Gil Fulbright, who again is a fake actor, is saying, ‘I’m in it for the money and I’m gonna sell you out.’”
Kentucky’s Senate race was chosen as the site for Fulbright’s bid because it is slated to be the most expensive in U.S. history, projected to cross the $100 million threshold. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s official campaign committee has already raised $21 million; his opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, trails behind with $8 million. That’s not including the millions already spent on their behalf by affiliated super-PACs and other outside groups.
Fulbright’s coffers are slightly less bloated, but he’s hoping to change that: a crowdfunding campaign for his bid raised $20,000 in five days, enough to make an initial round of political ads and get him on the road in Kentucky in August to stage political events near and around McConnell’s and Grimes’ own campaigns. Fulbright will be at Fancy Farm Picnic, a political gathering that attracts many of the state’s major candidates.
If the campaign can raise $30,000, it will fund billboards for Fulbright’s campaign. With $40,000, it will hire a professional public relations firm to do more advertising, and with $50,000, it will buy radio and television advertising in Kentucky.
The effort is reminiscent of another crowdfunded endeavor, May Day PAC, run by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, that is attempting to channel voters’ discontent with the system into unseating anti-reform members of Congress and ultimately passing a constitutional amendment allowing Congress to regulate campaign finance.
Gimmicky they may seem, but the theatrics of both projects cloak serious agendas: Represent.Us is hoping to follow the model of the marriage equality and marijuana decriminalization movements by first getting campaign finance and transparency legislation passed in cities and states before taking its cause to Washington. It hopes to see provisions making it illegal for regulators to receive money from industries they oversee; bolstering transparency laws; and lengthening the amount of time a former member of Congress has to wait before he or she can lobby.
As for Fulbright, he has his own motivations for running for Congress.
“When I write a law, I want to know the name of the person it's going to affect, and how it can do more to help them,” Fulbright (through his joke writers on Represent.Us’ staff) wrote in an email to Al Jazeera America. “When I get a thank you card, and there's a big fat campaign check inside the envelope, well, that's a good day for Old Gil. It means I'm giving back to the people who gave so much to me.”