A crowd shot from the 1972 convention | Photo by Joe Livernois
By Joe Livernois
Wasted votes are the worst. Ross Perot. Ralph Nader. Jill Stein. George Wallace. They are the Rogue’s Gallery of kooks, and yet people of a certain preference for nincompoopery insist on wasting their votes on candidates of that ilk.
My own history of throwing away votes started at an early age. I happened to turn 18 the very year the 26th Amendment was ratified, in 1971. The elections in 1972 were the very first time 18-year-olds were allowed to vote in U.S. elections. (Before then, the voting age was 21.)
I squandered that unique opportunity by casting my first vote for me, myself and I.
The record will reflect that I was a certified candidate for the El Centro City Council during the municipal election on April 11, 1972. I voted for myself, and I think my mother did also. At least she told me she did. If nothing else, my misguided candidacy for elected office as an 18-year-old is how I met the vice president of the United States of America.
You might conclude I was one of those hyper-political weirdos as a teenager. You know the type: the bores who quoted Mao or Barry Goldwater during lunch breaks. I was a weirdo, certainly, but politics really wasn’t my bag in 1972. I was mostly a baseball-and-bongs weirdo, with a vague interest in performative art.
For context to the era, fellow codgers will recall that rock-solid Nixonians were losing the hearts and minds of American Youth. The War Machine was shipping youngsters to Vietnam, where kids my age served as cannon fodder for some crappy-ass war on communism. Hippies and resisters were stirred up because kids were dying overseas before they could legally buy a drink in a bar. They were drafted against their will and asked to murder strangers in a foreign land before they could vote.
Battle lines were being drawn, young people were speaking their minds, getting so much resistance from behind.
So the patronizing adults drew up the 26th Amendment, got it ratified in short order. The idea was that scads of grateful young voters would pour into polling places in November 1972 and cast their ballots to re-elect (gulp) Richard Nixon, who up until recently was the slimiest political animal the U.S. ever produced.
In the interim between ratification and the election in November, my California border-city hometown of El Centro held its usual municipal election. It would be the very first time 18-year-olds in the city could vote. Bored and stupid, my friend “R.B.” and I conspired to be a part of it somehow. R.B. was in fact one of those young political weirdos who aspired to become a Political Consultant (aka Devil’s Spawn) when he grew up. He convinced me to run for City Council so he could manage my campaign.
With nothing else in my brain, I got the idea to base my campaign on the fact that 18-year-olds could now vote. In fact, 18-year-olds could now run for public office. So that’s how we came up with my campaign slogan:
BECAUSE I CAN!
It was all very exciting. Except for one thing. Candidates for public office should have at least a crumb of knowledge about the terms and conditions of the office they are seeking. Candidates should have some idea about the machinations of government and politics. Worthy candidates should know which end of the shiv to grab when they’re stabbing opponents in the back. High school civics isn’t enough.
But we did give it a half-assed effort. With about $12 in the campaign treasury, R.B. bought some plywood and some paint and we spent an afternoon creating a sign with my name in big blue letters and the “Because I Can” logo in red.
Along the campaign trail, I was invited to a forum that featured myself and a cast of other City Council candidates, most of whom knew what the hell they were doing. The forum was broadcast on KXO-AM, the dominant radio station on the U.S. side of the California border. It was there that I met the other candidates. I didn’t realize until then that my ex-girlfriend’s intimidating older brother was also seeking a seat on the City Council. Seeing him there threw me off my game.
The moderator was a whip-smart reporter from KXO named Carroll Buckley. Buckley was the Walter Cronkite of Imperial Valley — or at least the Dan Green — except he had a resonant radio voice and a bonkers handlebar mustache. I remember being fixated on that mustache during the forum. I may have been secretly falling in love with Carroll Buckley’s mustache when all of a sudden he asked me my position on infill versus urban sprawl for future growth in El Centro.
The question was my introduction to the entire concept of land use and community development. Up until then, I had never given urban planning a moment’s thought. I didn’t even realize that cities were capable of growth, infill or otherwise. What followed was at least 90 seconds of dead air. If listeners heard anything, it was audible flop sweat.
(By the way, Carroll Buckley is still a radio personality. At KXO. In El Centro. And he still wears that mustache, and seeing it makes me fall in love all over again.)
I didn’t win the election, of course. I guess I didn’t have the name recognition and I had botched the forum. Also it was a crowded field, with 15 candidates seeking three council seats. I finished in 12th place, with an embarrassing 4 percent of the vote. I sometimes wonder about the other 140 people in El Centro who voted for me. What were they thinking? Was there some brilliant Jill Stein-ian proposition they thought they heard from me that inspired them to waste their vote at the expense of another candidate who knew what he was talking about?
But I took some consolation in knowing I won more votes than my ex-girlfriend’s brother.
In the aftermath of my defeat, the decrepit geezers from the Imperial County Republican Party circled like screeching pterodactyls. They must have been impressed with my youthful gumption because they invited me aboard. They trotted me around to hot-ticket GOP functions, including a reception with then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. (This was a time in our history when high-powered government people could function even with a name like “Butz.”)
The GOP apparently hoped to groom me for bigger and better things. So they sent me and about a dozen other impressionable 18-year-olds from Imperial County to Miami Beach for the Republican Convention in 1972. We were Youth for Nixon, placed front and center before the TV cameras to comfort the Silent Majority into believing that not all the nation’s young men and women were long-haired hippie trash. I met Anita Bryant there. And Sammy Davis Jr.
That’s also how I ended up poolside at the Fontainebleau Hotel one evening, skull-buzzed after spending the afternoon sampling the wares with yippies congregated at nearby Flamingo Park. I found myself in a proper reception line at the Fontainebleau. I remember lots of pearl necklaces and the stench of Jade East. I was eventually pushed forward so that I could shake the clammy hands of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
It was a defining moment in my life, because that’s when I decided to quit politics.
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