midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “creative nonfiction”

Striving for ‘A Big Agenda’ Instead of ‘A Small Life’

In 2014, just after turning 50, I pursued a dream – for the second time – of running for political office, this time for Maryland state delegate. In 2016, I published a nonfiction book recounting the rollicking, 10-candidate free-for-all campaign that some observers called a “circus,” and taking a look at the dog-eat-dog, mucky, incestuous, narcissistic business of politics from the trenches. Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: a Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, would “amuse FrontCover_FINAL_6283732some and infuriate others,” wrote a local political blogger and campaign strategy consultant who reviewed the book.

Here is the story of how I came to enter this exhilarating yet disillusioning political world, and an excerpt from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead describing my final push over the precipice of reservation and into the tangle of the state race.

A Midlife Wham-Bam Combo: Job Loss and Divorce

I was 42 years old, and midlife was slamming me hard, hurricane-force winds compelling me to grip a light pole tight lest my legs blow out from under me and hurtle me adrift. For the second time within two years, I had been laid off from a public relations job with a nonprofit organization because of budget cuts amid a post-9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack economic slump.

Following the second layoff, I entered the Baltimore City Teacher Residency program, seeking a new challenge to do something more meaningful at midlife, an opportunity to make lemonade with the lemons I was accumulating. I taught elementary school in low-income communities. I struggled to survive the torrent of urban education: The needs were great; the resources and support meager; the kids lagging woefully behind and a handful to manage. I met with the principal, who emphasized if I didn’t commit to the task with every ounce of energy, I would drown. I contemplated for a night, and accepted reality: Mentally and emotionally, I was half in, half out. The next day, I submitted my resignation, jumping ship from my fledgling teaching career with no life preserver.

Only four months earlier, I had separated from my wife, headed for divorce, with two young kids. I was both free and free-falling.

When I quit my teaching job, it was just short of a year before the next election, and the dormant thought of running for political office surfaced. It was one of those bucket-list things, something I didn’t want to go six-feet-under without having attempted.

As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, I covered a largely rural county’s political delegation to Maryland’s state legislature. It was my first glimpse of citizen legislators up close. The part-time lawmakers were provincial men, long-established and well-respected in their tight-knit, small-town communities—a tire shop owner, a gentleman dairy farmer and banker, a pharmacist, a Realtor, a stock broker. Covering them alerted me it was possible for regular folk to ascend to political office and become bedrock representatives. I wondered if I could do what they did. Anyway, it was a moot point as a journalist; the two endeavors couldn’t be intermixed.

It wasn’t until I transitioned into public relations eight years later that the light bulb came on. As community affairs director for a social services agency, I organized political forums for state candidates. Observing the forums, I thought that I could perform as well as many of the inexperienced, run-of-the-mill candidates. The seeds were planted; they didn’t germinate for another few years, until I was left blowing in the wind, unemployed and on the path to divorce.

Maybe I would have time to campaign while I looked for a job, I thought after bailing out of the Baltimore City classroom without a parachute. I didn’t know if it was a life raft to cling to or a bold dream to fulfill, or both. Meanwhile, I obtained a communications position at a health insurance giant—far from a dream job, but a consistent paycheck. Instead of waning, however, the idea of running for council fortified, even with that new lifeline.

I knew the Democratic county council member from my suburban Baltimore district had fallen out of favor. I gathered my courage and filed as a candidate to challenge him. Soon after, the incumbent announced he was resigning before completing his term – a sign from God? I thought. Maybe the idea wasn’t so quixotic after all. A county Democratic Committee would interview applicants and make an appointment to complete the term.

It was almost a great break—except that the one other officially registered candidate had run and lost against the departing councilman in the previous election and since had become a connected political insider. The insider with a track record was selected.

One and Done?

In that 2006 Democratic county council primary, I ran a bare-bones campaign against the newly appointed councilman with party backing. I lost, garnering 34 percent of the vote—respectable for a late-arriving political no-name who couldn’t check the prerequisite boxes as stepping stones. I had not “paid my dues” or built my political network.

I received compliments during the campaign from insiders about my potential and encouragement to stay involved and build upon my effort. I didn’t. Life intervened: an aggravating divorce, a new girlfriend, young kids, aging parents, a stressful job. I figured the newly elected council member would become entrenched, and he did, ultimately serving the maximum three terms. The desire didn’t burn intensely enough, and I faded from the political scene.

I was satisfied to have given electoral politics one shot in midlife, so I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering whether I had the courage to run and what it would be like to put myself into the court of public opinion, to expose myself for all to judge and render a verdict. I had closed that chapter and had no plans to return. I’d sworn it off, closed the door—but left it unlocked. I was occasionally reminded by friends about my run and was asked if I was going to run again, as if I really was a dyed-in-the-wool politician. My answer was no…followed by the caveat that allowed for a sliver of possibility: But I never say never.

Seven years later, the perfect storm conspired to compel me to open the door again, when all three Maryland state delegates representing my district announced they were retiring from office, an unprecedented exodus leaving a gaping hole in a business where participants typically solidify their vise grip on power like the Jaws of Life tearing the roof off a car.

A Dream II Takes Shape (Excerpt from Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: a Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics)

The momentum toward registering as an official candidate was growing in my own mind, yet I still hadn’t talked to anybody about my intentions…I knew the time had come for a Come-to-Jesus moment with my wife Amy.

“I’m thinking of running for state delegate,” I blurted over dinner, and braced for a catapult of mashed potatoes.

 “What? Are you serious? Where did that come from? When did you decide that?”

 “I’m just thinking about it, checking it out. I haven’t decided.”

 “When were you going to tell me?”

 “Tonight. I just did.”

 “I’ve supported you in a lot of things before, when you quit your teaching job and when you ran for council and when you went back to school. I don’t know if I can support this.”

My proposition had landed like a Biggest Loser contestant’s balance beam dismount.

“How will you have the time?” Amy asked. “You complain about not having enough time to do things you want to do now.”

“I’ll just use whatever time I have. Maybe it won’t be enough time, just some time.”

She had a good point, but I didn’t care about such logic or practicality. The idea had taken root, and it had grown hardy, and I couldn’t prevent its development. Like a cocaine addict, I knew I was too far gone to stop.

My council run in 2006 was an easier sell. Since our relationship was new, I had decided I was going to run for county council no matter Amy’s opinion, and Amy would have to adapt—or leave if she really didn’t like it. It was an early test of our relationship, whether we could support each other’s goals. Seven years later, it was harder to take such an uncompromising position since we were married. I didn’t feel I could be as cavalier—and maybe self-centered—anymore. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’ mister, Amy would rib me cornily when I was all about me, which was often.

Still, I countered Amy’s reflexive dismay at the idea by expressing concern about being controlled and giving up dreams for my life. Amy and I were fundamentally different. She valued safety, security and predictability. I felt restless and stifled without risk, ambition, challenging goals and freedom.

 I Want The Real Life

At 50 years old, I wanted the freedom to live life my way, like Sinatra crooned, the freedom to make my own choices and to live with the consequences of success or failure. A midlife crisis? No. I didn’t give a crap about a red Porsche or Botox injections. But I did feel the clock ticking on the time I had to do meaningful things with my life. What was I going to wait around for? A heart attack? Dementia? Retirement? I don’t even play golf. I had the nagging sense, as John Cougar Mellencamp sang in The Real Life, that opportunities to grab the “gold ring”—hell, even bronze—would be continually dwindling:

My whole life
I’ve done what I’m supposed to do
Now I’d like to maybe do something for myself…

I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives
And how we deal with our own destinies
But something happens
When you reach a certain age
Particularly to those ones that are young at heart
It’s a lonely proposition when you realize
That’s there’s less days in front of the horse
Than riding in the back of this cart

YOLO

As I pondered launching a campaign, my sense of urgency about life heightened. A month after my 50th birthday at my daughter Rebecca’s high school graduation, the student commencement speakers referenced the new buzzword “YOLO” —You Only Live Once. They were right, of course, but what can a teenager realistically know about YOLO? It’s not until we’ve had dreams dashed, experienced bad luck and bad timing, suffered life’s tragedies, disappointments, cruelties and failures, come to terms with our own limitations, and battled against becoming stultified or buried in mediocrity and tedium that some of us truly embrace the YOLO creed. Much more than failure, I feared regret. I subscribed wholeheartedly to the saying that you will not regret the things you did; you will regret the things you didn’t do…

Courage

Some people told me about the courage it takes to run for public office. It might take a certain kind of courage to expose oneself to public scrutiny and judgement, step into the spotlight and put reputation and ego on the line. But I never thought of running for public office as something that requires real courage. To me, real courage defines people who put their lives on the line, military members who defend our country and liberate other people, or police officers, firefighters and other rescuers. Or teachers who face the toughest challenges in the roughest school districts. Or people who take a stand despite risks and public condemnation, whistleblowers and civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and Harvey Milk. Or people who are unflappable and unstoppable in the face of abuse, tragedy, disease or disability.

A Hat over the Wall

112 - CopyFor me, entering a political race was more like throwing a hat over the wall. “Throwing a hat over the wall” was the metaphor used by President John Kennedy, referring to America’s determination to explore space and land a man on the moon. Kennedy appropriated the expression from Irish author Frank O’Connor, who wrote a parable about two adventurous boys who were halted in their journey by an imposing stone wall—until one threw his hat over the top, inspiring them both to scale the barrier to retrieve it. For me, it was crossing the line from consideration to commitment—throwing my hat over the wall…

I drove to a nondescript, red-brick State Board of Elections office in Annapolis, threw my hat through the third-floor window and, for a $50 fee, filed my official registration papers as a candidate…

A Big Agenda

I had told my 17-year-old daughter Rebecca, who had just started college, about my plans the day before registering. She was supportive. The same day I talked to my 15-year-old son and budding computer scientist Daniel about being my “Chief Technology Officer” —a cool title that wasn’t to be found on the state registration forms. Daniel already knew about my potential candidacy; he had helped me shoot a video promoting a single-payer health care system.

I knew I couldn’t rely on either of my teen-agers to be big-time volunteers, with one in college and each with big academic loads and teen social lives. More importantly, I hoped I could serve as a model for striving for something meaningful, accepting a challenge, and being bold in life—maybe even a little courageous. They had seen me run for county council as 10- and 8-year-olds and had enthusiastically passed out literature to voters on primary election day. Now they had more maturity and wisdom to understand what being a political candidate meant and what it entailed. Still, they were baffled by why I would want to do such a thing, viewing it as another one of dad’s quirky “adventures,” like when I pulled them on a sled through two feet of snow and over snow banks a mile-and-a-half to Blockbuster, or when I suggested going to a remote, mountainous West Texas national park for Christmas. Regardless their involvement and the outcome, I wanted them to know and remember that I had a dream and wasn’t afraid to pursue it, that I strived for a Big Agenda instead of settling for a Small Life even though success was a longshot.

 

 

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Father Knows Best: A Tale of Political Nepotism & Campaign Finance Chicanery

My first-person account of my run for public office — the narrative nonfiction book Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics — is replete with examples of corruption, malfeasance, deception, power plays, lust, shenanigans, shell games and other mechanisms that help office holders keep their buckets full and padlock the iron gates against intruders.

Here’s another political power tale that didn’t make the cut for the book from Sirenian Publishing, but includes some of the elements and may be added:

[NOTE: Names have been changed. Facts haven’t]

Shenanigans Galore

For a campaign story that contains multiple political shenanigans rolled into one endeavor — nepotism, cronyism, money shell games, political dynasties and bosses, powerful slates created to enrich one candidate, muddled, misdirected or deceptive fundraising requests, fatherknowsbestcoyness about poorly concealed political intentions – look no further than the Orlovski family from Dundalk, a blue-collar community neighboring Baltimore known for its brick row houses and supplying labor to the once-thriving, now defunct Bethlehem Steel plant and shipbuilding yard. Dundalk’s population decreased 27 percent over a 30-year period, tracking the decline of its lifeblood industries.

Dundalk is the type of place known for spawning old-style, pro-labor Chicago-like political bosses who dominate the landscape, strangle power like a World Wrestling Entertainment chokehold and determine who will rise to join the elite club, one that apparently commonly includes members with the “Jr.” suffix. After a half-century of rule, octogenarian Maryland Senator Marvin Rockledge, Jr. of Dundalk announced in 2013 it was time to leave the state legislature after 52 years and 13 consecutive terms. A media report said Rockledge rose to power after joining a local Democratic political club and getting a request (or a non-negotiable order?) from a club political boss known as “Iron Mike” to run for state delegate.

Family Dynasty

Rockledge didn’t leave the legislature empty-handed; he descended from the throne holding hands with Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., throwing his support to his hoped-for successor at Orlovski’s fundraiser and Senate announcement event the day after Rockledge made his retirement intentions known.

Orlovski, Jr. had a valuable political boss in his corner: his father, Jimmy Orlovski, Sr., a four-term Baltimore County Council member. Certainly, the senior Orlovski’s status as the east-side’s leader in the 800,000-population county surrounding Baltimore had something to do with Jimmy Orlovski, Jr. being appointed in 2006 to fill a vacated Maryland delegate seat at the tender age of 23, a year after starting a teaching career.

Later that year, young Jimmy won election to the Maryland House in his own right, and was re-elected in 2010. As it became clear that the aging Rockledge was on his last legs as Eastern Baltimore County’s state senator, the money shell game involving new political slates with altruistic-sounding monikers and influential, well-heeled politicians began.

Money Shell Game

First, Baltimore County Executive and rumored 2018 Maryland governor candidate David Denison transferred more than $100,000 from his campaign account to A Better Baltimore County Slate in early 2013. Members of that slate included Denison, Jimmy Orlovski, Sr. and two other local politicians.

Around the same time, another similar-sounding slate – Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate – was established. That slate was comprised of the Orlovski father-son duo and three other local candidates.

Then, in early 2014, A Better Baltimore County Slate transferred $90,000 to the campaign account of Orlovski, Sr., even though he had announced he was retiring from the Baltimore County Council. So, in essence, Denison had given Orlovski, Sr., who had previously campaigned for Denison, a huge pot with which to play kingmaker by redistributing to other preferred candidates on his way out of office.

For some reason, Orlovski, Sr. held on to that $90,000 gift, which, when combined with his existing campaign fund, armed him with nearly $200,000 heading into an election in which he was not running. He gave sparingly to several Baltimore County Leadership Fund candidates during the 2014 election cycle, keeping his own account stout.

Perhaps that was because son Jimmy Orlovski, Jr. already was flush with cash and was running against a pauper Republican candidate that the political news outlet Center Maryland called a “non-entity” in a Democrat-dominated district that had elected the same Democrat to the state Senate since the 1960s.

Perhaps it was overconfidence – or a case of political hubris. But there must have seemed no way Billy Roy Townley, a former steel worker for more than 30 years with no political experience whose bio said only “attended” – not graduated – high school could defeat the two-term delegate Orlovski, Jr., an educator pursuing his doctorate in public policy who had already risen to chairman of Baltimore County’s House Delegation in the Maryland legislature and whose father was the widely-known, influential politician at the county level.

Money No Match for Anger

Jimmy Jr. outspent Townley by 20 to 1 in the election year — $242,000 to $12,000 – and, stunningly, lost, apparently the victim of the region’s shrinking Democratic labor vote and the trend of struggling, angry white working class voters bucking The Establishment and changing allegiances, the kind of surge that two years later powered Republican Donald Trump to the presidency.

Orlovski, Jr. “ran into a buzz saw of discontent in Dundalk, where voters were apparently sick of the three Os: the Orlovskis, [Maryland Governor Martin] O’Malley and Obama,” the Baltimore Sun analyzed.

Jimmy Jr., an acknowledged rising star among Democrats with all the insider connections, was unceremoniously tossed out, replaced by a political nobody, an outsider whose only listed credentials included membership in United Steel Workers of America and the Dundalk Moose Lodge, and service as a deacon and choir singer at the local Baptist church.

I can only imagine the Orlovskis incredulity at the family dinner table. The burgeoning family political dynasty upended by a career lunch-bucket steelworker who might not even have held his high school General Equivalency Diploma (GED)? Perhaps Pops should have slid Sonny an extra $100,000 through a slate financing scheme before the election so Jimmy Jr. could have enjoyed a 30 to 1 spending advantage. But in politics, as in baseball, there’s always next year.

Follow the Bouncing Dollar Bill

It didn’t take long for the Orlovskis to jump-start a revival for Jimmy Jr.’s now-moribund political career. A month after the November 2014 election fiasco, the Orlovski duo began fueling the family’s political rebirth. Just follow the bouncing dollar bill:

Jimmy Sr. transferred $130,000 from his own campaign account to the Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate, whose five-candidate membership included both Orlovskis.

Two days after that transfer, the Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate wrote a $130,000 check to Friends of Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., easily avoiding the law that limits transfers between candidates’ campaign accounts to $6,000 in an election cycle. Maryland slates are permitted to transfer unlimited amounts to the campaign accounts of individual members of the slate.

So, let’s review, diagram and simplify. Essentially, County Executive Denison gave a boatload of his cash to a slate comprised of a handful of candidates with the philanthropic-sounding goal of improving the community, A Better Baltimore County.

That slate gave $90,000 of the county executive’s cash to a politician who was retiring, thus had no need for campaign money, Orlovski, Sr. Senior funneled the county executive’s money, plus some of his own, through a second slate, the Leadership Fund, to which he belonged.

The cash sat in the Leadership Fund just long enough for the check to clear before that second slate dumped the whole lump sum of $130,000 into Orlovski, Jr.’s coffers.

Within nine months, the Leadership Fund Slate was shuttered, its apparent primary purpose of enriching and regenerating the Orlovskis political endeavors having been served.

Convoluted Political Resurrection

Like many ousted politicians, Orlovski, Jr. promptly signed up for a $90,000 lobbying gig with Baltimore City’s transportation department in 2015, where he could take advantage of fresh ties to influence former legislative colleagues.

Soon after, Orlovski, Jr. launched his political resuscitation, in convoluted fashion. In 2016, Orlovski, Jr. formed something called “Better Baltimore County,” not to be confused with A Better Baltimore County Slate, which was closed in January 2016. The website for Better Baltimore County described it as an organization created to “tell the stories of…unsung heroes and to inspire creative new partnerships.”

The Better Baltimore County website also included an authority line (Authority: Friends of Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., Ken Brandt, Treasurer) indicating it was tied to Orlovski, Jr.’s ongoing political campaign committee, designating the website as political marketing material. The same authority line appeared on Orlovski, Jr.’s personal website, which did little more in 2016 than promote Orlovski, Jr.’s Better Baltimore County and his career and personal background without announcing any particular political aim or office.

Orlovski, Jr. sponsored a fundraiser in August 2016 that the Dundalk Eagle said fueled speculation that he was considering a campaign for public office. Center Maryland reported earlier in the year that Orlovski, Jr. was one of three Democrats mobilizing to replace County Executive Denison, whose term would expire in 2018.

But Orlovski, Jr. remained coy, according to the Eagle, claiming that the money raised would fund his new creation, Better Baltimore County, giving only a vague nod that he was “keeping an open mind about 2018.”

The fundraiser was advertised on Orlovski, Jr.’s personal website, which makes no mention of Orlovski, Jr. being a candidate for any political office. So, what was the money contributed really for, Orlovski, Jr. the politician or some nebulous conception to promote people, businesses and organizations of Orlovski, Jr.’s choice through Better Baltimore County, honorees who, of course, could return the favor and assist Orlovski, Jr. in the event of a future Orlovski, Jr. candidacy?

Which begs the question: Was the benevolent, business-oriented Better Baltimore County and Orlovski, Jr.’s political quest one and the same, just an extension of an ambitious man’s ambiguous political campaign, as intertwined as the two entities were?

Nowhere on the Better Baltimore County website did it indicate that the group was registered as an official nonprofit organization or that it had any director, staff or supervisory board. In other words, it appeared accountable only to Orlovski, Jr. Apparently, Better Baltimore County was Orlovski, Jr. and Orlovski, Jr. was Better Baltimore County.

Was the organizational creation with the noble-sounding name, Better Baltimore County, just an ornamental tool used as a smokescreen to generate money for the real purpose: to help Orlovski, Jr. return to public office?

Orlovski, Jr.’s intention to highlight positive community works and foster collaboration may have been pure. But as an outsider looking in, Better Baltimore County and Orlovski, Jr., the overthrown politician, seem so enmeshed that I can’t help but think there is something concealed going on, if not downright disingenuous.

But it is not surprising, nor unusual. It is just part of the tangled web of politics that is best and most readily, expediently and successfully spun by insiders, for their advantage, to feed what often grows to an insatiable desire to wield influence, attract followers, bask in the limelight and gratify ego – and for many, Orlovski, Jr. certainly possibly included, to also advocate for their notion of the public good in the process.

Forget Donald and Hillary. Here’s an Everyman’s Campaign Story

Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, is set for release August 1 under Sirenian Publishing.

Forget Donald and Hillary; they’re in another stratosphere from the rest of us riff-raff. You’ll never experience politics from their perch, but you can vicariously through the lens of author and Everyman Candidate Adam Gordon Sachs, who describes the glory, outrage  and lunacy of politics over his campaign to be a real somebody, a true Man of the People.

For anyone waiting for just the right time to throw your hat in the ring, you know, someday, when everything is perfectly aligned and your finances are in supreme order, and your employer gives you essential flexibility and full backing, and your family has attained impeccable stability, and the moon eclipses the sun, cicadas emerge after 17 years underground and the Chicago Cubs win the World Series and tFrontCover_FINAL_6283732he time is right to run, someday, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead will either inspire you or disavow you of that foolish notion forever.

Primary election night, and I had nowhere to go. Ordinarily not a big deal, except I was a candidate, and candidates always have somewhere to be, somewhere their supporters are gathering in anticipation.

In the galaxy of campaigns, I was the ring, not the Saturn. But for a year, I was in the orbit of a rollicking, 10-candidate race one observer called a “three-ring circus,” experiencing politics’ exhilaration and disillusion, its meaningfulness and corruption.

Don’t Knock, He’s Dead recounts my longshot bid for Maryland delegate in the dog-eat-dog, incestuous, narcissistic world of campaign politics. It’s the unvarnished story of an Everyman’s challenge to break into a Byzantine, sycophantic business, where cozy relationships, cronyism, influence, backroom deals, power plays and horse-trading rule the day.

For anyone who’s wondered whether it’s worthwhile to run, imagined what it’s like or stepped to the precipice of candidacy, Don’t Knock takes you into the trenches.

Sirenian Publishing also is the publisher of Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet, a fictional story of a rookie sportswriter in a football-mad Florida backwater covering an intense season of high school football and battling wills with the ruthless, win-at-all-costs coach from the town’s ruling family. Three Yards and a Plate of Mullet is available on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1cYG5vP

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