Tim Sherno's a great political candidate.
For starters, he's got name reocgnition. More than 13 years spent as a reporter on local TV news (first Fox 9, then KSTP) will do that. Sherno says a lot of the people he's met campaigning in the 3rd Congressional District, where GOP U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen is defending a toss-up seat against DFL state Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, remember Sherno fondly from his time on air.
Sherno's bright and engaging. He's got a message that resonates, and will get nods from disaffected voters who skew either liberal or conservative. Namely: The whole system's fixed, and it's stacked to work for powerful people, not regular folks here in Minnesota.
Plus, Sherno's never run for office, and has a distinctly anti-Washington D.C., anti-incumbent bent to his campaign. That's usually a good hook for a campaign to hang its hat on. Now maybe more than ever.
Let's get to the bad parts. Sherno's not affiliated with any political party, meaning he has no organizational support. He's deliberately running without any financial backing, too.
Oh, and this: Sherno's name's not on the ballot, meaning 3rd Congressional District voters will have to manually write in his name -- some form or approximation of it, anyway -- on November 8 for him to get elected.
Those negatives badly outweigh the positives, to the extent that Sherno can't get invited to a candidate debate (Paulsen and Bonoff will hold their second on October 30) or listed in polling: A new Survey USA/KSTP poll showed Paulsen polling at 49 percent to Bonoff's 38 percent; the remaining 13 percent are undecided.
Sherno spoke to City Pages about why he's embarked on this quixotic journey, and what he's learned about politics by knocking on people's doors -- and rifling through his opponents' campaign finance reports.
City Pages: What are you trying to tell people about the effect money has on politics?
Tim Sherno: Have you seen the ad where Terri Bonoff says, "When you’re five feet tall…"? Think about how much it cost to make that ad. The very first shot is a low-level dolly shot. The production crew required for a dolly shot would already be significant. Now, the next shot, we see a crowd of people cheering. Was this an event that occurred, that they happened to be filming?
Or is that a staged event? Are those people paid actors? That’s the rabbit hole we go down when you have marketing and advertising and money taking the place of what should be regularly scheduled debates, until people are sick of hearing you talk. It shouldn’t be about selling the candidates like a cookie, or a speaker. But that’s what we get.
CP: You’ve spent some of your time poking around in your opponents’ campaign fundraising reports. What have you found in there you think people should know?
Sherno: Look closely at Congressman Paulsen’s FEC filings, which are much more robust [than Bonoff's]. I spent, a couple of nights at least, going through, and pulling out all of his corporate, and tax, and special interest donations. There are 490 of them: 5 percent from Minnesota, 54 percent from Washington, D.C. It’s totally legal, it’s all on the up and up. It’s how the system works. I don’t like how the system works.
I think it shows to me that the business community want to have their voice heard. And they have the vehicle with which to do it, which is money. Verizon Communications Inc. cannot contribute to a political candidate. But the “Verizon Communications Inc. Good Government Club,” which is the name of their political action committee, can.
When I was doorknocking, I had a conversation with a woman whose husband is an attorney. She said she and her husband were regularly invited to these fundraising events – she said, “I had to get dressed up, and we’d bring the checkbook” – and if her husband wrote a check for $2,000, she said, regularly, her husband’s next paycheck would have $2,000 extra in it.
The line between a corporation and an individual… it’s a fuzzy line. Think about this whole Wells Fargo scandal, that is a horrendous example of some of the imbalance that’s built into this, and how we, the consumers, the public, get screwed. You go back and look at Congressman Paulsen’s campaign finance filings. By my math, there’s $50,000 from Wells Fargo, from either the corporate PAC, and private contributions from executives, and others who list as their employer Wells Fargo. $50,000.
If you want to get your message out, and have yard signs, and fancy shirts, and radio and TV ads, you’ve got to pay for that. You have to pay for it, and you’re going to have to pay for it again next time. So why would you go to Washington and change the laws so they’re going to level the playing field? You have the advantage of the incumbent. I would argue that regardless of who wins, anyone who takes money has a vested interest not to make any change whatsoever to the system. Because the incumbent is going to get more money than the challenger, and that gives them the advantage.
CP: Have you filed a campaign finance report yet?
Sherno: I don’t intend to. It’s part of what’s made this amazing odyssey so interesting. There’s no state law that regulates candidates in federal elections. So now we turn to my good friends at the FEC. According to the FEC, campaign finance filings have nothing to do with candidacy. You are allowed to take or spend up to $5,000 without declaring yourself a candidate. $5,000 is the trigger at which you have to file, have to have a treasurer, and all that.
I’m not taking $5,000. [Laughs] I’m not spending $5,000. I’m not anywhere close to that. I’ve been very careful to avoid donations in-kind; I don’t allow any of that. I’m keeping myself absolutely free of any financial encumbrances of any kind.
CP: If you do that to prove a point, but your message doesn’t get out there because you didn’t spend any money, did you prove the point?
Sherno: I have an advantage over most people who would do something like this. Having been on the air for 15 years, I have significant name recognition. Seven out of 10 doors I knock on, people already know who I am. It’s a matter of building my message to a larger and larger audience between now and Election Day.
CP: They might recognize you, these people at the doors. But when you meet them, do they know you’re running for Congress before you’ve told them?
Sherno: More and more frequently they do. It’s not at a threshold yet that would cross into what I’d say is significant, but it’s noteworthy. But when, at the door, I tell them I’m not Republican or Democrat, their faces break into broad smiles, and they love that. And then we go on with our conversation from there. Their exposure to the system is frustrating, and that’s about where they are emotionally connected with it, and not understanding mechanical pieces in the background.
If I were doing this for any other reason, it would probably bother me. But I believe I’m doing this for the right reasons. I’m doing it because I think it’s right. Whether or not it works, or anybody finds out, shouldn’t sway me. I’m going to give it everything I have to tell people what I’m trying to do. I think it’s a good message, I think it’s an important message. I don’t want to be a career politician. I’m doing this so I can sleep on November 9. So I will feel like I did my part, that I tried.
CP: Are there issues that you think aren’t talked about, or will only be talked about in a certain way, because of the influence of campaign money?
Sherno: Well, no one’s going to talk about campaign finance. If you watched the first debate, Congressman Paulsen challenged Terri Bonoff, saying, “Why don’t we just get rid of our outside money?” This is after he’s collected gobs of money – from outside. “I’ll just take the gobs of money I’ve taken from special interests in Washington, D.C., and we’ll just go at it.” Which is laughable. I think that’s a critical point.
I think it’s at the core of almost every problem we face. When you want to make changes in, let’s say, clean energy, and you look at the donations Congressman Paulsen’s taken from Marathon Oil, and the Koch brothers, and others, how are you going to get him to address clean energy? Any conversations we have at this point about does climate change exist, is it manmade or not, are a waste of time.
Flat-earthers are never going to believe it. That’s fine. We should continue to try and help them, anyway. Let’s look 20 years down the road. Here’s I-394, and here’s I-494, and here’s Highway 100. Let’s say you can fit 1,000 cars on that road in a 15-minute period with a safe space in between. Now we have a problem. We have traffic jams. And think of the amount of productivity lost, and the pollution, that comes with a traffic jam. Now you introduce something like a Tesla, or a self-driving car, or cars that would come together like links in a chain, and move together as one.
Now all of a sudden you don’t have to be so concerned about our infrastructure being able to support it, because we’ve found a way to more efficiently use what we have. I would say we need to start asking smarter questions. That dovetails into all-electric cars. But it goes back to campaign finance. Here comes Marathon Oil and the Koch brothers to put a stop to that. Or, in some places, unions that are involved in old energy, come to put a stop to that.
People tend to look at problems and they see them as just a dot. But if you change perspective on it, you’ll see that the dot is really a cord. We can’t address the end result of a process with a moment. We need a process to address a process.
You have some people that people are angry, and that’s because they’re scared. We’re looking at taking away their livelihood, and it’s a profound problem. We’re talking about taking that away. We can’t let them be afraid, we need to let them know, you’re coming with us. We’ll figure this out.
CP: But there aren’t that many of them living in your district. There aren’t that many families there directly tied to the coal industry, or something like that.
Sherno: Which gets into the outsized role someone like me could have in Congress. The House and the Senate are in some kind of transition. The closer the House gets to even – which could happen – the more important somebody not standing with either side becomes. Imagine, best case scenario, it’s 50-50, and I’m not with either party. What kind of power does that give the Third District?
It’s a hot button issue, but conversations around guns and gun safety that need to happen, people in the Third District, and around the country, support. Congressman Paulsen takes money from the [National Rifle Association]. The NRA does not have to slam 50 congressmen. They need to slam one. The rest will fall in line. I’m a gun owner. I’ve taken hunter safety. A gun can be a great teaching device for responsibility, it’s a threshold to the great outdoors of Minnesota.
The idea of responsibility around a gun should be the first thing that comes to mind. If we had that mindset as opposed to feeling it was some type of attack on patriotism, we could have a rational conversation around it. Nobody, and certainly not me, is going to suggest we should be taking guns away from people. It’s not going to happen. We have to be able to say, to the NRA, “Guys, I own a gun, I understand what your concerns are.” You need to know that part of what they’re doing is getting people to feed those membership dollars to them.
But we’ve got to shove the door open and walk through, and start talking about it. They do have power, but every poll I’ve seen says 70 or more percent of Americans want to have some kind of conversation. So, why don’t we have more power?
CP: If by Friday you were supposed to write a bill for Congress that this is what the new campaign finance system would be. What does it look like?
Sherno: I’m a pragmatist. I have an idea I think is worthy of discussion. We need to look at the landscape now. I’m a donor you’re a politician. Here’s my money. [Rips off a scrap of paper.] Let’s make it look like money. [Uses a pencil to draw a face on the bill.] Now, I give you my money. The courts have said I can express my views with my money to advance the ideas I believe in, through you. I have supported you, you’re going to go make my speech happen.
Now, this is the exact opposite of what we do. [Grabs a napkin, holds it up front of him, hiding his face. Slides “money” under the napkin.] I have just made my “speech” known. And you have been enabled to go make speech. I would argue identity is the movable part in campaign finance that can, for the time being, we should examine , as a way of repairing the system.
CP: Some people took solace in the fact that, with Citizens United, the Supreme Court said money is speech, and you can’t regulate speech, but you can force disclosure, and transparency.
Sherno: I go the exact opposite. If you don’t know I gave you that money, we can’t establish that influence. If you don’t know I gave you $5,000, I can’t call you up and say, “I gave you $5,000 and I expect something for it.” You’ll be like, “wait a minute, somebody else just called me up the other day and said that.” If you look at Terri Bonoff’s campaign finance filings you can see a hint of how this might work.
In her individual itemized contributions, there are dozens of donations that are listed as having come from “ACTBlue,” a political aggregation fund. I think we could create a system, like an aggregation system, that would maintain established limits on contributions, but would strip out the identity of the donor. The courts have allowed, anyone who wants to give $50 or less is allowed to remain anonymous. So clearly they believe some amount of anonymity in donations is OK.
So that’s what I would do. I would find a way to make campaign donations entirely anonymous, and I would have severe penalties in place for anybody who tried to lay claim to one, and establish influence.
CP: If you overperform what would be expected of a third-party candidate, it's unlikely you'd be taking from Erik Paulsen. You'll be taking from Terri Bonoff. If suddenly you started polling at 10 percent, you'd be taking that 10 percent away from her, and assuring that the incumbent wins, and the system doesn't change. Do you have any hesitation about that?
Sherno: Oh, this is the [Ralph] Nader question. I'm trying to solve a problem. If the problem doesn't get solved this election cycle, somebody elese can try to sovle the problem next time. But I'm not going to not do something because of a potential outcome being something I don't beleive in. Most importantly, with the groundswell of dissatisfaction that's growing in this country -- that's fed into, and growing every day, with the lock-horn policies of Republicans and Democrats -- that if the voters in the 3rd District were to write in a winning candidate, it would be a national story.
The politicians in Washington would have to sit up, because they respond to fear, and fear of loss of power. They would have to pay attention. If we can do that in the 3rd District, other candidates, people better than me, will see the door's open. And they'll try also. And that's a worthy battle.