Snow Pond, NH -
About two weeks ago, a supporter of Sen. Mike Gravel purchased a full page advertisement in the Concord Monitor. The ad likened Gravel to New England's favorite, and currently dominant, sports teams:
"The Red Sox and Patriots used to be underdogs, too."
It was a very simple ad, composed of little more than a metaphor and a plea for voters to "root for" Mike Gravel. The man behind that ad, Gregory Chase, just decided to up the ante a whole lot. Today he is putting more than $1,025,000 of his own money on the line for the cause of a low-polling, financially-floundering former Senator from the wilds of Alaska. That's right, Million with an "M".
Mr. Chase is a Harvard-educated hedge fund manager and a New Hampshire resident. He is also a newcomer to political activism, but he is entering the game with a bang. Upon hearing the news that Gravel was being excluded from October 30th's DNC/NBC debate, Chase decided that he needed to do something about it.
He called NBC to find out why the decision was made. NBC pointed Chase to Drexel University, where the debate is to be held. So he called Drexel, who said to call the DNC. Then the DNC told him to ask NBC. No one could shed light on the actual criteria for why Gravel was not allowed in the debate. Ultimately Chase felt that it was "pretty clear" that it was NBC's decision.
So what does the young multimillionaire with a newfound political will and a heartfelt cause to celebrate do about it? He contacts NBC and tells them that if money is an issue, he would be willing to pony up the dough himself. Today Chase sent this letter to five executives at NBC, DNC chairman Howard Dean, the President of Drexel University, and also published it as an advertisement in four newspapers. In it, he said this:
If it would help get Senator Gravel back into the debate, I offer to purchase $1 million of advertising from NBC, or simply pay NBC $1 million in exchange for the service of allowing Senator Gravel to participate in your debate.
Chase wasn't even done yet. Well aware that the NBC stunt might not pan out, or that it might smack of pay for play, he simultaneously posted a more populist video on youtube offering a $25,000 prize for the Mike Gravel-related video that receives the most views between now and December 31, 2007. In the youtube video, the entire wad of cash can be clearly seen sitting atop a couple of newspaper advertisements also supporting Sen. Gravel. Here in the upper Granite State, north of Concord, that is what you might call cash on the barrelhead.
Those newspaper ads, by the way, are more than just a one-trick pony. Chase has purchased advertising space in the three major New Hampshire newspapers, the Monitor, the Manchester Union Leader and the Nashua Telegraph every single day between now and the end of the year. These ads are all entirely funded by Mr. Chase, they are not connected to the campaign, and touch on issues ranging from decreasing military spending to repealing the Federal Income Tax in favor of a national sales tax and imposing a carbon tax. There is even one advocating lowering the drinking age to 18, the same age at which one can join the military. All of them match Sen. Gravel's positions and hint at Mr. Chase's passion.
Having worked as an oil trader for Morgan Stanley before recently moving to the hedge fund business, Chase is no stranger to the role of money and oil in the upper ranks of our economy. The idea that Gravel might be excluded from a debate because of a lack of money raised a major red flag.
"It strikes me as so incorrect. Some of the things about earning money are great," Chase remarked, "but sometimes money can play into people's perception of themselves or others in ways I don't like. To think that a prerequisite to being a politician or President is to know people who have money in the bank is very unfortunate. It is completely bogus to cite how much money he has, and it gets my blood boiling to think that's how our political system is working."
Chase also lamented Gravel's financial disadvantage as a non-incumbent. "Gravel needs a little push.
I would imagine it is a whole lot easier for the others to make a few phone calls" to build up the campaign coffers. "But," he said, "that's not what his campaign is about."
Gravel's name recognition problem, as well as his candor, are big part of the justification Chase gives for his monetary support of the Senator.
"He used to have a pretty big name, but he doesn't now even though he has been a multi-term senator. I think that should count for something. And he's got the guts to criticize other candidates."
By that logic, it only seems fair that a millionaire like Chase should try to help make up the difference, whether by offering to buy his debate ticket or flying the flag every day in the newspapers. After all, it was a haphazard glimpse of Gravel at an earlier debate that got him interested in the first place.
Chase calls himself an Independent and also likes some of the things that Ron Paul is saying. His first foray into politics was simply voting in 2004. A young man in his late 20s, he wonders whether this new enthusiasm is a matter of going through a normal process of political awakening, or something different, something bigger.
"Maybe I just don't like the way things are, or maybe this is a unique time. This country is headed in a direction that's not so appropriate and not so great. It causes me a lot of anxiety."
As for Gravel, "I just saw him at the debate and realized that [with the other candidates] we are choosing between republic and empire. Senator Gravel understands that it and makes me have a great deal of respect for him."
For a million plus, that is some respect.
Jose Rodriguez, a Gravel staffer, said of the NBC offer, "We are aware of it. We don't know if it is legal or if it is legitimate. Somebody here is trying to get to the bottom of it."
But more to the point he said, "It shows a lot by the actions of our supporters who are willing to put up quite a bit of money and raise a lot of hell."
As for the legality of the issue, Chase said that he had spoken with an election lawyer who advised him to make dependent expenditures on behalf of Gravel, where his name would have to be attached to any advertisements he made, along with a notation that it was not involved with the campaign. Furthermore, Chase mentioned that he has never met Gravel, and for that matter has never been to a political rally in New Hampshire. At first Chase was reluctant to release his name, but then he realized, "Hey, this is what I believe. Why would I mind putting my name on it?"
It is clear his genuine convictions are driving this massive political spending spree. Chase is a true believer in America's need to change our tax code, eliminate our dependency on oil and reduce our military spending, and he truly believes Mike Gravel is the only candidate seriously talking about these issue. Why else would Chase make these sacrifices?
"I've stopped working on the day to day operations of my hedge fund right now because I'm focused pretty much full time on trying to get Sen. Gravel's name out. He is polling low, he is a longshot, but it is
critically important that he get his ideas out. A lot of people will support Gravel and his ideas once they learn about them."
Ay, there's the rub of the political system these days. How would the pundits react if Hillary bought her way into a debate? What if John Edwards' top supporter ran a hedge fund? Should it only matter sometimes? Does so-called campaign finance reform actually help democracy? These questions may never be answered without a healthy dose of spin and cynicism.
As for Chase's million dollars?
"We could put it in a fireplace and burn it for all I care, as long as he gets in the debate."
The Peace Czar also contributed reporting to this piece. He is the proprietor of Bleeding Hearts Club, a sustainable and subversive political art business. He occasionally muses on his eponymous blog.