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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles of people running for office in America who are unlikely to win, but who believe so strongly in their cause that they still try. The second profile, on Joe Pakootas' campaign in Washington, can be read here. The third, on Zephyr Teachout's challenge to governor Andrew Cuomo New York can be read here.
MASSACHUSETTS — “It’s all about figuring out the right wave point,” Bruce Skarin said as we set off for the day. At first it wasn’t clear what he was talking about. Half an hour earlier, Skarin (pronounced skuh-RIN) and his assistant, Sonia Peralta, had met up in the suburbs of Worcester, around 50 miles west of Boston. We had listened to ’90s rock on the stereo and Peralta, a fifty-something from the Dominican Republic, had insisted we put on plenty of sunscreen. Before long, we had reached the day’s staging ground, the small, white post office in Sterling.
This was Day 30 of Skarin’s 1,000-mile walk across the state, part of an independent run for the Senate that often felt more like a walkathon against money in politics than a traditional campaign. Wearing a brown checkered shirt and jeans, he took off his flip-flops to put on the hiking boots he’s owned since his Boy Scout days in Washington state. Then he explained the right wave point: It is, he said, the ideal moment when you should raise your hand as cars pass by you while you’re walking on the highway. If you’re too late, people won’t notice. But if you’re too early, they won’t know it’s directed toward them. It’s important because Bruce Skarin waved at every single car that day.
Before we headed out, he had updated his website so his supporters could follow his route online, fixed his Worcester Polytechnic Institute baseball cap (he’s a proud alumnus) and put on an ice-filled camelback bag rigged with a sign that read “Fix the System” on one side. He turned to show the other side: “Bruce Skarin for US Senate, Independent, Restoring Representation, 100% Voter Funded.”
The Massachusetts midterm election this November will decide the fate of the Senate seat held by the Democrat Ed Markey, a longtime representative turned senator who has worked in the Capitol for 38 years — “basically since the year I was born,” Skarin said. And though the Bay State has a history of being deep blue, the independent hopeful was betting his campaign on a national trend confirmed by a recent Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll, which found that 51 percent of Massachusetts voters identify as independent or not enrolled in either party.
Soft-spoken and calm, Skarin describes himself as a scientist, not a politician. He started his career as a mechanical engineer but went back to school to study system dynamics, a computer-aided approach to understanding human behavior. His thesis, on modeling terrorism risk, landed him an internship and then a job at Aptima, a defense-research firm. It was there that he first wondered if he could create a system that could design policy.
Then, four years ago, his first son was born and he started thinking about what the world was going to be like for him. “There’s huge amount of inertia in things like the national debt and climate change,” he said. “Even if we slammed on the brakes right now, the system is going keep trucking for decades.” Fueled by an increasing frustration with politics, his research led him to Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and campaign-reform activist who recently made headlines with his Mayday political action committee (PAC), a crowd-funded super PAC designed “to end all super PACs.”
“Larry was particularly interesting to me because here I am, a systems guy, and he’s talking about this as a system of legalized corruption,” explained Skarin over the mechanical voice of his GPS, which indicated we had already walked a mile. Average pace: 20 minutes 44 seconds per mile. Interrupting himself, he said he was pleased with our rhythm and carried on where he left off. Skarin talks about Lessig a lot, but always with a particular mix of admiration and demarcation. Yes, he’s been a huge inspiration. But they differ politically. “Money in politics is the first issue. I absolutely agree with Larry,” he said as we walked toward the town of West Boylston. “But it doesn’t just stop there. I think his strong progressive perspective is a little bit of a blinder for him.”
Still, when Lessig announced plans for the first New Hampshire Rebellion walk — 185 miles in two weeks — in January, Skarin signed up. The challenge was launched on the first anniversary of the death of Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who committed suicide while facing prison time. (Swartz and Lessig were friends and both advocated a wider sharing of copyrighted works.) The other major inspiration for the walk was Doris Haddock. In 1999 the then 88-year-old better known as Granny D set out from Los Angeles with a sign on her chest that read “Campaign Finance Reform” and achieved a modicum of national fame after walking over 3,200 miles across the United States to Washington, D.C. Born in New Hampshire, she has become a sort of poster girl for Lessig’s movement.
The Rebellion has a simple goal: to make all 2016 presidential candidates answer the question “How are you going to end the system of corruption in Washington?” By walking, the group hopes to gather media attention, as well as meet local voters to raise awareness about the issue. The more people it reaches, the more that question will be asked when the candidates come to town. The Rebellion also encourages New Hampshirites to record and publicize politicians’ answers.
This was Skarin’s first political walk, and though it was a call to action, it was also a time of reflection for him. “I was trying to figure out whether I was actually going to do this [run for the Senate]. I was thinking about my family. My wife is not passionate about this in the same way that I am, and we’ve got two young boys we need to provide for.”
Soon after returning home to Millbury following the walk, he pulled out a map of Massachusetts and started drawing a route for his own march against money in politics, adding his name to a long history of protest walkers that spans many countries and cultures. In fact, another Rebellion group member, Rick Hubbard, also did a walking tour in a bid for a Senate seat in Vermont. And on July 5, the second Rebellion walk gathered a group of 400 people for 16 miles along the New Hampshire seacoast to further January’s efforts.
“People genuinely appreciate the physical demand,” said Skarin. “I’ve had so many people that are like, “Don’t say any more. You’re going to walk 1,000 miles? I’ll sign.” Throughout today’s 12 miles, Skarin was greeted by drivers honking and cheering. “What system are we fixing?” a young woman shouted out of her open window. He started introducing himself, but the car was already far in the distance. “Hell yeah!” shouted another driver, honking. Skarin laughed nervously but beamed with pride at the same time — despite the occasional “Get a job, hippie!” the reactions were mostly encouraging.
Though a sandwich on the go is usually enough for Skarin, we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. It was a perfect summer day. In front of a fluorescent-blue Gatorade, he demonstrated how to make a straw wrapper wriggle like a worm with a few drops of water. Peralta looked on, amused. It was a short halt, and she got back in her car as we regained the road, honking as she passed us. “Walking is a good way to disconnect,” Skarin said, indicating he would rather walk on the car side of the path, so that his sign would be more visible. “It’s a way to step outside yourself and look at the entirety of the world and the universe.” This from a self-proclaimed space nerd who cited SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as one of his heroes (“He’s going to make it possible for more people to go to space, which is awesome.”).
Back on earth, the next day was an important one for Skarin’s campaign. He had decided to temporarily halt the walk to concentrate on collecting signatures. He needed 10,000 to get his name on the November ballot, and while he said he preferred walking to knocking on doors, he couldn’t actually meet people on the shoulder of the highway. The walk served primarily to raise awareness about money in politics and show his dedication to the issue. It was also a bit of a gimmick, he admitted.
The next morning, in Springfield, Peralta was busy filling up her signature sheet with the details of registered voters. “He’s a good guy, you know,” she said, pointing at Skarin, whose silhouette stood out thanks to a placard above his head. The two met a few months back at a parking meter; she was looking for work and he needed an assistant. They’re an unlikely pair — Peralta is an extrovert who will approach anyone with a “You see this guy over there?” or a “Que linda tu hija!” while he describes himself as “quiet and reserved.” Because of this, he’s got a pitch of sorts. First, he asks if he can introduce himself, then he starts talking about the walking tour and his campaign to get money out of politics. If he can hold people in conversation, more often than not, they agree with him.
“I think it’s money in politics, frankly,” said Ahmad Sarrage, a 47-year-old consultant who lives in Hampton, Mass., when Skarin asked what he cared about most. “It’s distorted everything. The country is so corrupt.” Many Americans agree. Reducing corruption in Washington was the second most pressing issue (after jobs) that will face the next administration, according to a Gallup poll directed in July 2012. A more recent poll shows that 79 percent of Americans believe corruption is widespread in the U.S. government. Of the voters Skarin met in Springfield that morning, Mary Beth Quink was so inspired by her discussion with him that she signed up to volunteer for the campaign.
A surprising number of people did sign the petition to get Skarin on the ballot — even those with children tugging at their shirts or who spoke little English. But as workers on cigarette breaks and tourists eating out drifted away from the city center, Skarin admitted it was sometimes disheartening to approach strangers on the street, who are often too busy to stop. It took him a while to find the last few people who would help him complete his 24-signature sheet, the goal he had set for himself for that day. Thanks to Skarin and Peralta’s relentless work, they added 100 signatures to the tally. But there was still a lot to do. Skarin had already changed his original $15 limit on individual contributions to a “recommended amount,” and he was about 9,000 signatures short with a little over a month remaining.
It was a long day, but as we walked back to our cars, Skarin was still upbeat. The obstacles are, he said, a welcome part of his anti-establishment approach. “Campaign experts are telling me what I’m doing is totally wrong. I understand that’s the way the system works now, but I am not going to beat them at their own game. So, yes, it’s a long shot, but if it was successful, it would be incredibly disruptive. It would be earth-shattering within the political world of Massachusetts and the country.”
As he signaled to Peralta that they were done for the day, he said he was getting ready to spend time with his two sons.
Skarin kept up the hard work for another month, going from town to town to find 10,000 people who would sign to get his name on the November ballot. But on July 21, with the numbers not adding up quickly enough, he decided to end his campaign. “Real change may be incredibly hard,” he wrote in his withdrawal letter, “but when good people come together for the right cause I know we can win.”