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The anti-candidate

John Driscoll’s earnest attempt at Congress

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A recent “Butte handshake” didn’t sit well with John Driscoll. The Democratic nominee to unseat U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg bumped into an old friend at a Helena gas station and, after exchanging a few pleasantries, Driscoll’s friend slipped him a $100 bill in a parting handshake. The sly move was intentional because Driscoll, a long-shot candidate running an unconventional campaign against a four-term incumbent, has pledged not to accept or spend a single dime during his bid to win the election.

“I see this $100 bill in my hand and I start chasing him down the street trying to give it back,” says Driscoll, 62. “You had these two white-haired guys chasing each other in downtown Helena, calling each other names and laughing. It was ridiculous.”

The $100 ended up being donated to the Butte Food Bank in the name of Driscoll’s friend, but other situations have proven trickier. When he wanted to start a campaign website, Driscoll couldn’t pay for registering a domain name; he ended up transforming his existing—and free— “web.mac.com” address and built a barebones site himself. When countless community organizations asked Driscoll to speak at their events, he had to decline because of travel costs; he’s suggested teleconferencing through Skype, a free online service that allows your computer to act like a telephone, but no group has taken him up on the offer. When Driscoll spoke twice with the Independent, the Helena resident stopped by our office, but only on the two occasions when family commitments had him driving through town. The no-money promise has presented some unusual challenges and required discipline, but Driscoll says he’s kept his word without fail.

“I never felt that money equals campaigning,” says Driscoll, who has served in the state legislature and on the Public Service Commission. “I understand how [critics of my campaign] feel because everything’s organized around money, it’s what works now. So I understand it. But for me to be a candidate, it had to be this way…The single hardest part of this campaign will be making a change in Washington. And you cannot change Washington unless you start the change before you get there. I feel real strongly about that.”

So far, Driscoll’s strong feeling about not spending money hasn’t been the problem—it’s that he keeps making bold promises. Earlier this month, he dared his opponent to vote against a second version of the $700 billion bailout bill by promising that he’d vote for Rehberg if he maintained opposition. When Rehberg voted “No,” Driscoll found himself in an awkward position with state Democrats, including his wife.

“If I’m still living by Nov. 4 and my wife hasn’t killed me yet, then I will vote for Rehberg,” he says. “She was traveling to Great Falls to see the grandkids [when I made the comment] and I said to her, ‘I told you not to leave me alone.’ It’s just really hard for her…Finally I said, ‘Okay, all right, stop.’ If you don’t like what I did, then you can vote for Rehberg too. She didn’t like that option.”

But Driscoll believes the bailout bill was “the most important single vote of Congress in my lifetime,” and thinks Rehberg would have flipped his stance had he not publicly pressured him not to. The Montana Democratic Party spins the situation as another example of Driscoll’s personal integrity.

“Was I surprised by what he said? Yes, I was,” says Kevin O’Brien, a state party spokesman. “But for two decades Denny Rehberg has been anything but a friend to Montanans and his votes in Washington have been completely different than what he says as a candidate running for office…When it comes to the role that money has in Congress, he is the perfect example of the problem. So to do something completely 180-degrees different, which is what John is doing with this campaign, and to stand up for what you believe in—that is definitely change. And voters have said they want change in this election.”

There’s no telling how significant the gaffe was to Driscoll’s chances of beating Rehberg because no polling numbers have been released before or since, and many don’t believe Driscoll stands a chance anyway. Although Driscoll has a distinguished public service background, including 28 years in the National Guard, his no-budget campaign and lack of public appearances translate to limited name recognition. That’s not as important, Driscoll’s campaign argues, as the connection he makes with those he does meet.

“In a traditional campaign your candidate is spending 70 or 80 percent of the time dialing for dollars,” says Pat Driscoll, John’s brother and campaign coordinator. “In this campaign, it’s obvious—this campaign gets to be 100 percent campaign, or people oriented. It doesn’t have this aura of being a makeshift business. It’s an interaction with individuals and the public, an opportunity to really listen to the issues people want to discuss.”

For Driscoll, that mainly boils down to ending the war in Iraq and solving the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. Other than being known as “the guy with no money,” he calls himself “Mr. Energy,” and proposes a policy that invests aggressively in wind power, solar power, high-speed rail powered by electricity and electric cars.

Driscoll has spread his vision for change more in recent weeks due to family gatherings across the state, and the race’s only debate, which was held Oct. 4 in Helena. But even as the campaign reaches the homestretch, he remains steadfast on running on his own understated terms. For instance, during a stop in Libby he chatted up a few locals at a bar about the economy. He never once introduced himself as a candidate for Congress.

“I’m guessing the local press may have had a story the next day about me being there, and maybe they saw that, but that would be it,” says Driscoll. “It’s kind of like an Elvis Presley sighting, I guess. And I’m okay with that.”

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