September 16, 2019 | News | No Comments
Of all the Presidential hopefuls who have promised to oust Donald Trump in 2020, Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, has perhaps the most compelling electoral record. In 2016, he was the only Democratic governor to be reëlected in a red state, winning by four points among Montanans, who had voted overwhelmingly for Trump. His bid is centered on a pledge to reform campaign finance, and, at stops in Iowa, he routinely touts his history of working with a Rebublican-led legislature in his home state to curb dark-money contributions. And yet, Bullock, the last governor left in the race, failed to secure the necessary number of individual donors to qualify for Thursday’s Democratic debate. Like a number of his fellow-candidates, he has criticized the Democratic National Committee’s qualification criteria, which, for at least a night, winnowed the Democratic field to ten. Last month, the billionaire philanthropist Tom Steyer, who has spent millions of dollars of his own money on advertisements, announced that he had received enough individual donations to qualify for the next round of Democratic debates, in October. A number of candidates expressed dismay, but the most vocal was Bullock, who appeared on television to criticize the lingering influence of money in politics. He conceded that the D.N.C.’s rule was well intentioned, but, he added, “what it really has done is allow a billionaire to buy a spot on the debate stage.”
On Thursday night, as his fellow-candidates stood behind their lecterns in Houston, Texas, Bullock sat at the corner of a glossy wooden bar at the Continental Lounge, a gastropub in Des Moines. The governor was in good spirits, hunched over a glass of Coke, with his right sleeve rolled up and his cowboy boots planted on the base of his stool. “I’d rather be on the debate stage,” he told me. “But I don’t think being on the debate stage is going to define what the first week of February looks like.” Earlier that day, in Clive, Bullock had attended a meet-and-greet hosted by the wife of Iowa’s former governor, Tom Vilsack. By his side at the Continental sat Tom Miller, the attorney general of Iowa and an old friend, who endorsed Bullock in May. (Miller, Bullock also noted, was one of the first state officials outside of Illinois to back Barack Obama in 2007.) They both ordered bacon cheeseburger flatbreads, which arrived, garnished with pickles, on marbled slabs of wood. Bullock, who had also ordered a refill of soda, looked surprised when the bartender arrived bearing tumblers of Bulleit bourbon.
“This is brought to you by the Gillibrand team,” the bartender said, gesturing to his left. A few former staffers of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, who withdrew her candidacy last week, waved.
“I guess we have to drink, then,” Bullock said, raising his glass.
“To a fair shot,” one of his staffers offered, toasting to their campaign’s slogan.
During the debate, Bullock offered wry, knowing nods on several occasions, as when Andrew Yang unveiled plans to extend his signature “freedom dividend” to ten American families. “So he’s getting names by offering twelve thousand dollars?” Bullock said, pulling up Yang’s Web site on his iPhone. (As he predicted, it displayed a prominent banner for the candidate’s giveaway above a registration form.) Later, the New Jersey senator Cory Booker’s criticism of Trump’s foreign policy—“Trump’s America first policy is actually an America isolated, an America alone policy”—sounded startlingly familiar. “He took my line!” Bullock joked. “C’mon, Booker.” He chuckled at Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar’s zinger on Medicare for All—“While Bernie wrote the bill,” she said, “I read the bill”—and also seemed to appreciate her opening: “Houston, we have a problem.” (“That’s not bad,” he said.) When the first commercial break arrived, ninety minutes in, Bullock glanced at his watch. He expressed a sort of empathy for the candidates when I mentioned that the entire program would include only two breaks. “In three hours?” Bullock asked, shaking his head at the thought of “how much you’d sweat—every break they put more shit on your face.” The onslaught of makeup, he told me, is “one of the most humiliating parts of running for office.”
The bar was loud, and the owners had enabled closed-captioning on the debate channel. Still, it was difficult to tell—without consulting Twitter, as a few of Bullock’s staffers did—who was carrying the night. Bullock characterized the debates as somewhat “disconnected from people’s lives.” “I don’t know that any of these debates are helpful to voters,” he said, using his fingers to scoop a few ice cubes from his empty soda glass into his tumbler. “It really is more about gotcha moments.” He added, “Never before in our history has the D.N.C. been trying to decide who the voices should be going forward.” At the same time, Bullock said, his visits to early-voting states made him question whether anyone besides voters could winnow the field. “I find people are a long way from really making these decisions. Even as you’re all following on Twitter, voters are, like, ‘All right, who won? Or does it matter?’ ” People, he added, didn’t necessarily want to “see all that.”
Neither, apparently, did the staffers. Not long after the break, Bullock’s team, which had been exchanging jokes over plates of bruschetta, poutine, and avocado egg rolls, closed their tab and moved across the street to Up-Down, an arcade bar outfitted with retro video games. The basement was bathed in red and green lighting. Not a single screen showed the debates, but a wrestling match was on, as was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. The Bullock team scattered to play at Skee-Ball, Jenga Giant, and Mario Kart. Bullock, a father of three, settled in with an expert’s stance at Donkey Kong—his favorite—hinging at the hips and grabbing the joystick with his left hand. It didn’t take long for him to post the machine’s new high score.
At a quarter to ten, as the debate was wrapping up, Bullock left his can of Bud Light at the bar and lumbered up the stairs. His staffers had been trading text messages with their colleagues at the headquarters to hone a statement on the night’s events. Outside, sirens blared. A gaggle of twentysomethings tumbled out of a Jeep, took a glance at a Maserati parked behind them, and asked if it was Bullock’s. “No,” the governor said.
Bullock found a stretch of block with a nondescript background and recited his statement for one of the staffers to record. It took a few takes to perfect—drunken passersby kept stumbling through the frame—but Bullock persisted, criticizing the influence of money in politics, noting his own record, and pointing out that none of the candidates who qualified over him had once broached the subject of fighting dark money. “There wasn’t even one question asked about that in three hours of debate,” he said. “If we want to get anything done, we need to start by getting the corrupting influence of money out of our elections. This is the fight of our time, and it’s been the fight of my career—and I’m going to keep fighting until we win.”
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