Of all the rituals I count on to give my life shape, there is none so sacred as witnessing my former brother-in-law, Mike Benton, stand for local office in our pleasant burg of Calvert County, Maryland. Though my wife’s sister wound down with Mike two decades ago, he and I have a same-time-next-cycle arrangement, in which we use each quadrennial Election Day to catch up on the families, celebrate public service, and drink until we can’t feel our legs.
Since 2002, I have detailed in these pages Mike’s losing seasons. He was stomped for clerk of the court—a position he learned of after reading his daughter’s grade-school report on the subject. He was humiliated in the county commissioner’s race, finishing 9th out of 11. But then came last cycle, when he finally won a spot on the town council of North Beach, his home turf that snugs up against the Chesapeake Bay, helping him reclaim electoral glory he hadn’t known since winning Northern High School’s “Best Looking” in 1984.
Now 48, Mike’s seen many changes since our last ride. He married his former campaign treasurer, Tina, and they had Little Mike (who is not little at all—when the hulking 3-year-old is asked his age, he simply replies, “Big”). After selling his real-estate company, Mike’s a financial planner and certified “Go-Giver” success coach.
The former Marine used to campaign relentlessly, holding signs along frozen highways for a month at a time in fingerless gloves, keeping his middle digits free for voters/hecklers who yelled obscenities. But there’s a slackness to his campaign efforts this time out—the anticlimax of incumbency replacing the thrill of the chase. He has spent no money, relying on his old “Got Mike” signs, which list a moribund email address. He answers the door with belt unfastened. “There’s no time,” he says of his state of undress. It’s two days before the election, and he needs to start campaigning, fast.
Even at a recent candidates’ forum, Mike felt a little off his game. Everyone else gave a prepared statement, but he hadn’t bothered drafting one. When his turn arrived, Mike stood up, boldly bluffing, “I’m all in!”
“What the hell does that mean?” I ask. “That’s what everybody else wanted to know,” Mike shrugs.
We hit the streets, and that afternoon’s 20-knot winds, as luck would have it, blow us into Neptune’s Pub, our first and last stop of the day. As we tuck into plates of “Billy’s Bad Ass Wings” and some beers, Mike is warmly greeted by a steady procession of fishing-charter skippers, old real-estate clients, and the tattooed woman who knows him from the “Mondays with Mike” sessions he conducts at an area unemployment office, where he uses get-up-and-go optimism to blow some confidence into the sails of the downwardly mobile. “I don’t want to coach the guy with the third Jaguar,” Mike says, “but the guy who everyone says, ‘You’re screwed, you’re a loser’—I wanna be that guy’s coach, because that was me, that is me.”
Mike hasn’t campaigned traditionally, he stipulates, because he spends every day in his unpaid perch as town councilman out among the people, even volunteering to do their jobs for a day, such as working as a beach attendant picking up cigarette butts, or helping public works snake the sewer system. I ask him what he learned from the latter stint. “That North Beachers need to eat more vegetables from our farmers’ market,” he says.
At the polls, I vote my conscience—no easy feat, as I haven’t had one since around 1997. Then I join Mike to catch election returns at the town council building. All the eccentrics are out. There’s the erratically toothed Junior Lubbes, a scrap-metal hoarder who is also running for the job, boasting that he reads on a 10th-grade level and needs to get elected to see what’s going on inside that building, since he doesn’t have cable. Then there’s Josh Brown, a former American Idol aspirant who serves chili and ’70s funk music out of his tent, saying if elected, he intends to “paint the town in glitter!”
Mike is easily reelected as North Beach’s leading vote-getter. He’s trashing his old signs tomorrow—maybe he’ll give them to Junior—as he now has his eye on the 2018 mayor’s race. Later, at the victory party, reelected mayor Mark Frazer thanks his town council for helping him in the fight. I elbow Frazer, and tell him Mike would like to say a few words. Mike and I have been surreptitiously hitting my cooler for the last six hours, so Mike hasn’t had time to prepare a speech.
But he squares up to the barroom with the intrepidity of the victor, letting North Beach know, “I’m all in!”