Independent candidates fight an uphill battle in any election. It’s as if they’re driving against a blinding snowstorm of big company money and contributions, nonchalant dismissal as legitimate leaders from opponents and media alike, or, if they actually gain traction, character assassinations from the left and the right.
Fitting then that the first real snow event of 2015 began a few hours before Drew Curtis’s mystery announcement party Friday to announce he would run for Governor of Kentucky. He and his wife, Heather, will file today to run for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, respectively, as independents. The odds seem to be stacked against them.
Curtis laid down the gauntlet, saying if he is elected governor, it will be by the people and without special interest monies. Therefore, once elected, influence can’t be bought. That brought a round of applause from the 40 or so gathered at a Lexington, Ky., pub. But that’s the same kind of political rah-rah we’ve heard from lowly independent candidates before. Why is this so different?
Because Drew Curtis is the founder of Fark.com – the world wide web’s original social news site – and a master of community. He’s a visionary, a technologist and is already several strategic steps ahead of any traditional candidates vying for the state’s top office.
“What really put me over the edge was the net neutrality vote,” Curtis explained during his announcement speech, my recording of which is below. “One million people called the FCC … called, emailed, wrote in … and said, ‘Hey! We want net neutrality.’ That was not politics. That was not a political movement. There were no TV commercials run for it. It was literally, ‘Hey, my friends: net neutrality is really important! Please call the FCC.’”
Similarly, Curtis is hoping to engineer a true people’s movement – to leverage his considerable online influence (built on trust and transparency, honor and consistency) to disrupt the world of paid-for influence found in politics. Even if he loses, but makes a considerable dent in the race, this is a huge story for the power of community, social media and a more pure definition of the collaborative economy.
By way of disclosure, I’ve known Drew Curtis since high school. We met at a summer learning program called Governor’s Scholars. He has always been a thinker, out ahead of everyone else’s curve. Personable and witty, Drew is someone you gravitate to. He gets your attention, but not in an obnoxious way (like, say, me). Rather, he draws you in with a sort of awkward, king-of-the-geeks charm. Within seconds, you know he is several planes above you on the intelligence scale. He’s always 2-3 steps ahead, but isn’t cocky or off-putting about it.
We chatted for a few minutes Friday. I asked if he were essentially attempting to be a more lucid version of Gatewood Galbraith, a gem of a man who ran for the office several times anchored by a hemp legalization platform. He said yes, but reminded me that Galbraith was actually quite brilliant, just inefficient in how he used his time and energies.
“And Gatewood didn’t have social media,” he said.
Curtis does. And boy, does he. The latest Quantcast data shows Fark.com gets 1.5 million unique visitors per month – almost ½ the population of the State of Kentucky. It’s no Reddit, or even Digg. But Farkers are an influential sub-set of online social networkers. They’re passionate about Fark, snark and Curtis. That could make this run for office very interesting.
Certainly, most of those 1.5 million people aren’t Kentucky voters. And that’s the rub: Can Curtis convince the majority of voters in the state, many of whom have no idea who he is, that an Internet junkie who runs a news satire site – and even spawned a companion NSFW site called Foobies – is fit to run their state?
His platform? “No experiments, leave people alone and don’t spend money you don’t have.” He called it, “The most boring campaign platform ever.” But it may just strike a nerve if voters take the time to listen to it.
No experiments means no programs or policies that haven’t worked elsewhere. Do what you know will work so government works better. Leave people alone sounds rather Libertarian and likely is just that. So is not spending money you don’t have. But to hear Curtis describe it, you find yourself nodding a lot. Even if you’re a liberal who believes in government programs to assist those in need.
He spent several minutes describing his first act of asking everyone he could how they would fix their last interaction with government, then setting about the task of doing that. He essentially made an argument that the tenets of social media – listening, focusing on the consumer not the brand, being transparent and honest – should be the tenets of government.
More of his platform and, if you’re interested in supporting the campaign, appropriate donation mechanisms and the like, can be found at DrewCurtis.com. Not too surprisingly, the swell early Saturday morning seemed to have crashed its servers.
Curtis’s platform sounds good. But in the world of scripted, nuanced and layered complexities of politics, is it enough?
The Bluegrass State’s government is ranked one of the most corrupt by Harvard Business Review. Its executive branch was one of just two to be given the worst score on HBR’s ranking. You don’t do much in Kentucky politics without 3-4 big companies in town writing you checks. It’s fairly common knowledge among it-getters the current governor takes orders from the CEO of one Lexington-based financial institution like a Shoney’s waiter.
Aside from the political machine and those interested in its longevity, Kentucky’s voters won’t likely take an independent candidate seriously. But Curtis may bring out a powerful sub-set of the population: Non-voters. The disenfranchised middle and lower class who don’t vote may very well be the ones spending time on sites like Fark. If he can tap into the “do this because it’s important” word of mouth that protected net neutrality, he might be the first Kentucky governor to use the phrase “kick ass” in public and pass an official declaration from Frankfort that Duke does, in fact, suck.
Traditional Kentucky voters will be looking for signs that Curtis isn’t a crackpot. They’ll probably get a lot of them. My guess is that at the first sign of momentum the State’s Democratic and Republican parties will try to attack him. He’ll retort with responses so intelligent, they won’t know if they won or lost that argument. But the voters will see the sign.
If the state media doesn’t legitimize Curtis’s campaign, the national media sure as hell will. He has appeared on nearly every significant television and radio show over the years talking about the media and his book (which, ironically, attacked them). He may not be known in Kentucky, but he is everywhere else. And the voters will see the sign.
And when the traditional candidates resort to their predictable, stayed methods of stump speeches and attack ads and union pandering and corporate glad-handing, Curtis will be glad handing real people where real people hang out … on- or off-line. And the voters will see the sign.
And, since we’re looking for signs, perhaps Friday’s weather was one. The 1-2 inch dusting certainly wasn’t a blinding snowstorm. Maybe Curtis has a chance, after all.
Disclosure: While I have donated to Curtis’s campaign and we are friends (more than acquaintances but not besties), I intend to chronicle his run from the perspective of the power of community and social movements, not from a political perspective, and do so as independently and bullshit-calling as I can. He would expect nothing less. Neither should you.