The Magazine

They Don't Got Mike

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By MATT LABASH
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Exactly four years ago in this space, I documented the failed campaign of my former brother-in-law, Mike Benton, whom the enemies of freedom decided not to make clerk of the circuit court of Calvert County, Maryland. I owed him ink for an old favor. When we were both setting standards of academic excellence in our community college human sexuality course, he let me crib his copious notes on the Gräfenberg spot, which I've kept (laminated) to this day.

Though he long ago quit being married to my sister-in-law, Mike's no quitter. This cycle, he's answering his true calling: that of county commissioner. A bit of a tough guy, Mike's a former Marine who used to greet even women with friendly head butts, and who was once himself knocked unconscious by his drill instructor for not removing his hat at a urinal. "I deserved it, Ooh-rah!" he says. So it's small surprise that, as I stand shivering on the side of Route 4 and Mike waves to voters as he's done nearly every morning for the last month-and-a-half, he's not wearing gloves. "I need to keep my fingers free for when they flip me off," the now-seasoned campaigner explains.

While other candidates are addicted to alliterative exclamations (Wells Works! Go Gracie! Definitely Dixie!), Mike has gone a different direction with his omnipresent "Got Mike" signs. It's a play on the "Got Milk?" ad campaign, though I point out to Mike that he botched it by dropping the question mark. Now it sounds as if someone has made a citizen's arrest and is waiting for the police to arrive. He waves me off: "I'm not a question, I'm the answer." I withdraw the objection.

Since the last time, when just the two of us went campaigning, Mike's gone a bit corporate. He went to a four-day candidate school in Gaithersburg. He has wall charts next to his "Girls of Maxim" calendar that keep straight his meet'n'greets. He has 40 volunteers working polling stations. He has a campaign manager, a body man, and a driver, even if they're all the same person: Kevin Turner, a real-estate colleague of Mike's. Kevin is both a human Google map and the glue that holds the campaign together, earning him the nickname G2.

Last Election Day, we took leisurely breaks for crab cakes and light refreshments. This time, Mike, G2, and I have to make do with Dunkin Donuts in the back of G2's SUV. "No time for lunch, stay focused Matt," Mike says, informing me that we'll be hitting all 23 polling stations--twice. Mike is a man with a fever. He works people like a grease gun, lunging at Democratic campaign workers (he's a Republican), hugging old women (his only previous electoral success was winning Northern High's Best Looking in 1984), putting the squeeze on everyone from colleagues to old high school pals to doting cousins, one of whom, Boo Boo, struggles when I ask her to tell me a good story about Mike from his youth. "I could tell you about the time he drank too much and ran stark naked through the bushes. But that was only five years ago."

Like most politicians, Mike is an optimist, listening to Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins tapes in the car. He meets people and ingests them like toasted-coconut donuts. He has secured real estate listings and dates at funerals ("Her boyfriend died," he says defensively, "I felt sorry for her"). He loves talking to strangers, he confesses of his compulsion. "If I behaved like this without the campaign, they'd lock you up or think you're Forrest Gump or something. At least when I'm running, I have an excuse."

Our fieldwork done, we adjourn to Mike's regular watering hole, Robert's in Prince Frederick. G2 nervously sets up his laptop in the back, waiting for returns. "I could chew through this wall," he says. Over plates of quesadillas and crab nachos, the bad news drops. There are five seats for commissioner, and with 100 percent of returns in, Mike finishes ninth out of eleven. I tell him to look on the bright side. At least we beat (11th place) Doug Parran like the village conga. "I need a beer," he says.

The next day he is still shell-shocked. He doesn't understand how so much effort yielded so little result. He doesn't understand why do-nothing incumbents are steering our county to ruin. "I don't understand," he says, "how three grown men can eat two whole boxes of donuts."

But you can't keep a good man down. Or Mike either. So he'll be back, maybe as commissioner, maybe as something sexier, like Judge of the Orphan's Court. Either way, he tells me he's already crafted an amended slogan: "'You didn't Get Mike last time, but you Got Mike this time.' Do you think it needs some work?"


MATT LABASH