Every four years, I observe a hallowed election tradition: I strap on my civic pride, gather my reporting utensils, and go watch my former brother-in-law, Mike Benton, get stomped like a Woodrow Wilson impersonator at a Glenn Beck rally.
In 2002, I documented how Mike was obliterated in his clerk of the court race in our own Calvert County, Maryland. In 2006, I watched him finish eighth out of ten candidates in the county commissioner’s race. Originally christening our journey “Road to the White House 2016,” Mike, who divorced my sister-in-law over 15 years ago, has since scaled back his ambitions.
He returned to his small, scrappy hometown of North Beach, abutting the Chesapeake Bay, remodeled the cottage where his grandmother raised him, and this year ran for one of six unpaid town council seats. Mike explains he once thought he could do good for the whole county. “Now, I’m down to doing good for North Beach. After this, I’m looking at 3rd & Frederick.” But he can’t quit, he says, not until he gets rid of all his “Got Mike” campaign T-shirts.
As we knock on doors the Sunday before Election Day, with Mike scampering through flower beds to hit as many as possible before the Redskins game starts (“After that they’ll shoot you”), I notice some changes. At 44, Mike still appeals to female voters—the only title he’s ever won is Northern High School’s Best Looking, circa 1984—but he no longer tries to gain their votes by dating roughly half of them. (His longtime girlfriend, Tina, is campaign treasurer.) While he once relocated competitors’ signs, he now lets them stand. Though if rival candidates leave Halloween candy on doorsteps with their literature, “I’ll eat it,” he confesses.
Not to suggest Mike’s gone soft. On any given weekend, when buying shots for prospective voters at local watering holes, after he’s had enough firewater, Mike’s likely to try to reenlist in the Marines, to give his mates a jujitsu lesson, or to stand naked before the voter. Literally. He is known to remove some or all of his clothing and run home in a fleshy white blur. “I get hot,” Mike explains. “He’s had that problem since he was a toddler,” his cousin Anna seconds. “He just never liked clothes.”
Still, Mike seems driven in a way he wasn’t before. Since my last visit, he’s been splitting his time between his real estate company and a business-coaching venture, counseling everyone from corporations to unemployed Ph.D.s. While he says, “In coaching, you’re either karaoke or Bon Jovi—I’m still karaoke,” his goal is to touch millions of lives, sharing the aphorisms that have helped him, such as, “You either make your economy, or your economy makes you.”
Though he’s faced tough times in the past—he once had to sell his refrigerator to make ends meet—and wants to help others face theirs, the fear still nags as we stumble out of Neptune’s, fortified with beer for the difficult days ahead. What if he loses again? He reasons that next time, he’ll be relegated to running for dog catcher. As if on cue, two neighborhood dogs start barking at him. “Look, they know,” says Mike, shaking a -defiant fist their way, “Fear me! Fear me, now!”
On Election Day, we gather with the other hopefuls outside the polls in front of the North Beach Community Center. Most of Mike’s nine competitors are respectable lawyers and such. But then Junior Lubbes rides up on an orange scooter, wearing a camo boonie hat, his shirt unbuttoned to mid-sternum. Junior tells me he spends his days hauling trash. (Not for money, another old-timer suggests, “for fun.”) And he has just about enough teeth left to wrestle a Chiclet into submission. “Look at it this way,” says Mike, “he never gets food caught between his teeth.” Junior shares his unofficial campaign slogan: “If they want me, they want me. If they don’t, they don’t.”
“Whatever else happens,” confides Mike, “I can’t lose to Junior.”
And he doesn’t. The polls close, results are announced, and Mike rolls over not only Junior, he rolls over everyone, garnering 412 out of 550 votes. At his ebullient victory party at the Westlawn Inn, I’m not even sure I know Mike anymore. This man who has made an art of losing is now a winner. Where does that leave me and this franchise of failure that has spanned one-fifth of our lives?
Mike sees me sulking, and bucks me up. He says not to worry. In four more years, he might run for mayor. There will always be new failures to celebrate.