The knock on my door was insistent, rousing me from a sound sleep. Expectantly, Dean Curtis stood there in the morning light.
“Today’s my birthday,” Curtis said. “I just turned 35.”
“Congratulations,” I said. For this he woke me?
“I had to tell you. Now that I’m old enough, I’ve decided to run for president.”
I stared at my longtime neighbor whose unlined face was framed by a mane of hair that fell halfway down his back.
“Right, Dean. Good luck to you.” I closed the door and went back to bed.
Curtis proved to be a man of his word. Twenty years ago, from a VW Bug he carried his Presidential quest from Venice to the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.
As votes from the nation’s first primary roll in today, it’s worth looking back at a Presidential bid by a Venice idealist, who is still politically active today. Check out his appearance on CSPAN here.
“I ran because I had been imagining a full platform of liberal ideas that were quite necessary. I called it the care agenda,” Curtis said.
In the spring of 1991, when Curtis decided to run, George W. Bush had just won the first Gulf War, pushing Saddam Hussein back across the border from Kuwait, while wisely refraining from conquering Iraq. The Soviet Union was collapsing and freedom seemed on the march world wide. With an approval rating of 89 percent, Bush was considered unbeatable.
“I was the first Democrat to announce my Presidential candidacy,” Cutis said. He promoted an agenda that looked beyond growth in the gross domestic product.
“The general wellness, the quality of life is more important. My aim was caring for the planet, saving mother earth,” he said.
Where did he raise the money for his campaign?
“It was self-funded, costing me about $10 a day. I had only lived in and around big cities until my campaign, but I soon learned that everybody is willing to engage. People all across the country want to talk about important issues. They are intelligent and concerned. They are willing to buy you a sandwich, give you a place to sleep on the couch or porch, and drive you to the next stop, if you offer leadership.”
Those hamburger-sized donations are the ones Curtis solicited. He decries the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which prohibits limits on spending by corporations for political purposes.
“It now allows unlimited corporate contributions, reversing decades of campaign finance reform," Curtis said.
Occasionally, Curtis’ presidential crusade had a decidedly guerilla aspect. In New Hampshire, on a Lake Winnipesaukee cruise chartered by a rival candidate, Curtis worked the top deck while the candidate glad handed below, switching places with him when the candidate clambered topside.
“An active exchange of ideas is essential for democracy to move forward. We are a 50/50 country between Democrats and Republicans," he said. "Today, Republicans are obsessed with fiscal discipline, when the real need is to stimulate jobs to grow the tax base, as economists like Keynes and Galbraith recognized. The future is in a green sustainable economy, doing what we need for the planet to fight climate change.”
Venice had a big influence on Curtis’ campaign. He grew up in suburban Detroit, the heart of the Rust Belt. He described Venice as the “West Coast’s Greenwich Village, a place where artists come historically. The atmosphere here allowed me to explore my artistic and philosophical side, while growing intellectually. You can leave Venice, but it will always be part of you.”
Here Curtis earned his master's degree in administration from Antioch University.
Curtis’s first go at politics was at Hughes Aircraft where he launched the employee buyout movement at the company.
“Then GM bought the company out from under the employees and then sold off the crown jewel of the US military industrial complex piece by piece," he said.
The heart of Curtis’ campaign was extending the Hughes’ bottom-up democracy model to every aspect of American life.
“All of us should live up to our full potential, from the shop floor to the office space, to the board room," Curtis said. "That kind of grass roots participation was adopted by the Occupy Wall Street Movement. It’s hard to practice, but it yields the greatest consensus.”
He continued, "Because our nation's employees own a massive amount of stock in this country through retirement plans and accounts, I would like to see democratic corporate elections on a regular basis, perhaps every spring, of company employees to a third of the board seats running every publicly traded company in this country."
Venice attorney Matthew Fladell is one of Curtis’ oldest friends.
“Employee democracy and empowered shareholders are long overdue so that captive boards of directors won’t let entrenched management run amok. They would have gone a long way to preventing the abuses that lead up to the market crash in 2008 – 09,” Fladell said.
Placing workers on corporate boards could reign in the growing gap in compensation between CEO’s and average workers ,which is now 325-to-1. When Curtis ran for president, it was 107-to-1.
Curtis saw bottom-up decision making in full flower in the Iowa caucuses.
“In the caucuses there, people literally stand up for the candidates they believe in, cajoling and urging their neighbors to join them," he said. "It’s a state where my father, grandfather and great grandfather had put down roots. I walked out of there with an Iowa bump, delegates that I took with me to New Hampshire.”
There in the snows of New England, in the nation’s first primary election, Curtis finished in the middle of the Democratic pack. He proved prescient. In a worsening economy, Bush ultimately lost to the largely unknown governor of a state with a population smaller than Los Angeles.
Does Fladell see potential for other low budget campaigns like Curtis’?
“The other 'Dean' (Howard) started small and showed how to compete with small donations. Maybe someone will try an iPhone-based candidacy in 2012,” Fladell said.
Curtis has no immediate plans to run for office again. Instead, he is an instructor in the UCLA Extension Global Sustainability program, while writing a book about his candidacy, called How to Run for President on $10 a Day. Tonight’s New Hampshire returns will surely remind Curtis of his own presidential quest, two decades ago.