The Elegante Hotel conference room has been arranged like a generic campaign set. There’s the podium at one end, flanked by flags and facing several rows of chairs. A cameraman sets up equipment in the back near a buffet table set with a carafe of weak coffee, beige mugs, a box of donuts. The gathering of supporters is small, maybe 15 people, which seems to indicate the launching of a hyper-local campaign—maybe for a school board member or low-level bureaucrat.
There’s a smattering of whoops and applause as a spokesman delivers a spirited introduction, including a few platitudes (“He is a man of the people!”). A well-dressed, middle-aged man shakes hands as he makes his way toward the podium. He shuffles his notes, thanks his audience and smiles into the camera.
“My name is William Russell Sype, Jr., and I’m here to announce my candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in 2016.” He pauses. More applause. A gray-haired woman in the second row lets out an agreeable cheer. “Having no political experience, no name recognition, no money and no organization, I figured it best to start early.”
There’s a long and colorful history in this country of outsiders running for every level of office. Many made a name for themselves as unconventional presidential candidates, if not as victors. In 1920, Eugene Debs won more than 900,000 write-in votes for the Socialist Party while he was incarcerated in a federal penitentiary for obstructing the WWI draft. Housewife Ellen McCormack tried for the Democratic Party nomination in 1976 under the banner of a single issue (a constitutional ban on abortion). She secured more than 200,000 votes in the primary before she went on to found the Right to Life Party.
Sype may be operating in a tradition far beyond the mainstream political machine, but he’s neither a nut job nor a satire-slinging eccentric. (For examples of those, refer to 2008’s Jonathan “The Impaler” Sharkey or Vermin Supreme speaking at the Lesser-Known Democratic Candidates Presidential Forum in December.) Sype was educated at Harvard and Stanford. He served honorably in the military. He worked for 20 years as a statistician for Intel. And yet he freely acknowledges his endeavor is the political equivalent of whistling into the wind. Aside from a few stints volunteering for congressional campaigns, Sype’s study of political science has so far been limited to avid reading about civics and ruminations on his blog.
“Having no political experience, no name recognition, no money and no organization, I figured it best to start early.”
Nonetheless, “judgment and character matter,” according to one of four press communiqués fanned out at one end of the buffet table. “Not knowing the practical limits of politics might make it possible for me to achieve what seasoned political veterans would never attempt. And unlike seasoned political veterans, I do not regard politics as a game but as the very serious matter of governance.”
Indeed, Sype’s ideas are well in line with tenants of the Democratic Party mainstream. His opening remarks decry the demonization of immigrants and GOP attempts to seize on fear of “the other” as a basis for both domestic and foreign policy. He also refers repeatedly to the preamble of the Constitution, positing it as the basis of such questions as: “If timely access to affordable, high-quality health care doesn’t count as the ‘general welfare’ of ‘We the People,’ what does?”
The following week, Sype appears for an interview without the distinguished dark suit. He’s instead sporting a T-shirt and jeans and a shadow of beard stubble on his face. He looks like someone’s retired dad (which he is).
Sype says he feels great about how his campaign opener went, especially because a few of people he invited followed up with interest in helping out. Plans are in the works to convene a formal committee and begin divvying duties such as website development and Facebook page maintenance. A couple of the folks even asked him what he’ll do when he actually wins, though he’s not thinking that far ahead, he says.
“First, what will I do when I get on the ballot?”
Sype says his frustration with the direction of the country grew unbearable during President George W. Bush’s administration, and it spurred him to get more politically active. He volunteered for three rounds of Democratic congressional campaigns and began what he refers to as “venting” on a blog. His ruminations tapered around the time his wife died following a long struggle with breast cancer, but he slowly revived them in a series of homemade YouTube videos poking fun at the Republican Party platform. Reading through his blog entries, it’s clear Sype was thrilled when President Obama was elected. But he says he soon felt a renewed wave of disillusionment as Republican backlash intensified.
“Speaking as a sympathizer with my elected Democratic officials, I think they've done a particularly lousy job at communicating what I think is a superior set of positions.”
If it were up to him, the Dem stance on the domestic issue at the forefront right now—the economy—would be straightforward: Unemployment is high. There’s no incentive for businesses to invest because there’s no demand for their products. Our trade balance is negative because the dollar remains strong, and it’s cheaper for us to buy goods from overseas than it is to export them. What factor is left then to stimulate the economy?
“First, what will I do when I get on the ballot?”
“Government spending,” says Sype. “Exactly how is slashing that going to contribute to GDP growth? The Democrats can’t propose increased spending—job creating spending, direct infrastructure spending, food stamps—without getting hammered. They’ve been unable to defend their position. That’s one of the things that drives me up the wall.”
The neoconservative approach to foreign policy and counterterrorism is another source of Sype’s inflamed political passions.
“We've not really thought through exactly what weapons systems we need to use in a contemporary combat situation,” he says. “And we've also not thought through why we're fighting to begin with. Can’t we exhaust diplomatic options? And if we do decide that we're going to war, we need to realize that the idea is not to defeat the enemy militarily—though that's a prerequisite. The idea is to achieve a lasting peace.” Sype says we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan without sufficient troops to control either territory or population. The result, he contends, is a miserable failure that we’re still paying for in both lives and budget deficits.
Despite the gravity of his positions, Sype is under no illusions that his campaign will be taken very seriously by the political establishment.
“Truth to tell, I’m doing this more as performance art,” he says. “It’s an attempt to at least introduce some different points of discussion into the political conversation.”
At some point, says Sype, it would be nice to get invites to speak for student groups on nearby college campuses or to tap into some level of the Democratic Party infrastructure (“to the extent that the crazy guy from Albuquerque can”) and help advance its messaging.
In the meantime, Sype sees his campaign as an extension of his training in amateur community theater, and a means for directing his frustration with the status quo into something productive. There’s also another remote possibility: His attempt at putting forth a clear political vision, however low-budget and far-fetched, might inspire others to get active.
“It’s always going to be frustrating, and you’re not going to change the world,” he says. “But at least you’re doing something. If you’re not doing something, then maybe you shouldn’t be bitching all that much.”