It was early in the morning, and already you could hear the edge creeping into Kevin Zeese's voice.
The night before was supposed to be the crowning moment for him, a chance to ignite his struggling campaign for U.S. Senate. The night before, he had finally pushed his way into a rare three-way debate in Baltimore.
The next morning, however, he woke to find a sharp dose of reality waiting at his doorstep. Newspaper headlines recounted a heated debate between Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Democrat Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. The front-page photo in The Washington Post, Zeese angrily pointed out, had cut him out of the picture entirely. His name wasn't mentioned until the 11th paragraph.
And so, he turned to his computer, as he often does in such moments, and began sending messages out into the Internet ether -- e-mails and postings expressing his frustration, anger and, most of all, his urge to fight the establishment.
It's a tough world for independent candidates such as Zeese, pleading for attention only to be treated as a crazy Quixote tilting at the windmills, rationing campaign funds that look like crumbs compared with your opponents', and dreading that pesky question that dogs you at every turn: Do you really expect to win?
But for this role, Zeese is uniquely qualified. He has spent his life fighting for the impossible.
For 26 years, he worked as a lawyer trying to legalize marijuana and end the war on drugs. In 2004, at a point when Ralph Nader's own Green Party refused to support him, Zeese signed up to become Nader's spokesman.
Now Zeese, 51, is running an uphill campaign of his own and looking to win, he insists. But can he?
That is missing the point entirely, his parents say. "With Kevin, it's always been a question of right and wrong," said his father, Charles, 74.
Born in Queens, N.Y., into a middle-class family, Zeese grew up as the stubborn son of a public school teacher and an intensive-care nurse. In elementary school, after a music teacher refused to acknowledge the accordion as a wind instrument, Zeese marched to the library and came back armed with books to prove his teacher wrong.
"We were called to school a lot," said his mother, Barbara, 74.
His father tells this story: When Zeese was about 9, he took his younger brother's most valuable baseball card and tore it apart. "He was always pushing his siblings to be better, and he told Mark, 'You'll never be known or famous collecting baseball cards. You have to do something more important.' "
Zeese has spent his entire life looking for that something. "I tend to take on tough causes," he said. "If it's easy, it's not worth doing, because someone else will do it."
For years he was a registered Democrat. But in 1996, disillusioned with President Bill Clinton, Zeese cast a vote for Libertarian Harry Browne.
In 2000, he voted absentee for Nader, then rushed to Michigan to campaign for Vice President and Democratic candidate Al Gore -- a mistake he swears he will never repeat: "I wasn't fully committed. I was hedging my bets, falling into the trap of lesser evilism."
When he finally committed, Zeese discovered the ultimate windmill: an uphill struggle with high stakes, fierce arguments and issues clearly divided, at least in his eyes, between right and wrong.
Last year, he courted and united several parties, becoming, according to his campaign, the first candidate in U.S. history to represent the Libertarians, Greens and Populists. The alliance is crucial, Zeese said, for him to have any prayer at electability.
Even now, however, the numbers suggest that may be a difficult, perhaps impossible, goal.
It's hard to measure Zeese's support. (He is rarely included in polls and earned less than the margin of error in the most recent.) The voter registration numbers look just as bad. Democrats make up 55 percent of Maryland's voters; Republicans about 29 percent. Altogether, the Greens, Libertarians and Populists make up less than half of a percent. Even adding in every unaffiliated voter in Maryland, the total hovers around 14 percent.
To make matters worse, Zeese has raised about $70,000 -- a drop in the bucket compared to Steele and Cardin's millions.
So Zeese and his supporters have focused on gaining access to debates. A debate, after all, means free air time, guaranteed media presence and a chance to reach hundreds of thousands of voters.
Appearing on stage with Steele and Cardin would also give Zeese's candidacy an air of legitimacy, the appearance of equal footing. Without that come the questions: Isn't a vote for you a wasted vote? Isn't a vote for you a spoiler vote?
His answer: There is nothing to spoil. Zeese, who is liberal on many issues, calls Cardin and Steele equally bad choices. "People have grown up listening to a lie," he said. "The two parties give you a choice of A or B. But it's a false choice, because there's really a C."
So what does "C" represent?
For Zeese, it means addressing the "real issues," including the war in Iraq, the deepening gap between the wealthy and the poor and the need for a national health care plan.
But most of all, it means ending "corporate control of government." Corporate influence is the most common target of his tirades. It is also, scholars say, a pervasive theme among third parties, who see politics less about left and right and more as clean versus corrupt.
Both of Zeese's opponents have acknowledged the problem of corporate influence. In television ads and speeches, Cardin and Steele have positioned themselves as outsiders -- independent from corporate influence (although both have accepted donations from corporate interests) and from their own parties (although Steele has served as state Republican chair and Cardin has voted largely with his party).
If voters could see all three of them side by side, Zeese reasoned, then they would see what a real independent looks like. If only he could get into a debate.
This month, in an old gothic Baltimore church, Zeese finally got his wish. He took to the stage with Steele, who had the polished look of a businessman, and Cardin, who was working his typically calm countenance into an angry scowl.
Zeese -- with his legs splayed and his hands running through his hair -- appeared more policy wonk than politician.
On Iraq, while Steele fumbled a vague response and Cardin talked about international efforts, Zeese called for an immediate withdrawal in four to six months. When Steele talked about empowering black entrepreneurs and Cardin opposed tax cuts, Zeese talked of making higher education free and overhauling the income tax system.
When the debate ended, Cardin was encircled by a crowd of reporters, almost crushing him. Others made a rush for Steele, who had slipped quietly out the back. Zeese's supporters tried hard to steer reporters toward him. One chatted with him briefly but left when he spotted Cardin. Another approached only to pose the spoiler question. Zeese, nonetheless, looked invigorated. "A slugfest, don't you think? Cardin hitting Steele. Steele hitting Cardin. Me hammering both."
The enthusiasm stayed with him through the night, as he drove back to Takoma Park in his hybrid car, and into the morning, when he picked up his newspaper and began to read with anger. By late morning, he decided an obvious winner had emerged. "It was such a clear, decisive victory," he said. "I don't think there's any question who won the debate last night. Do you?"
For more on Kevin Zeese, visit www.zeeseforsenate.org
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