By Tom Cushing
The Kentucky Gubernatorial DerbyUploaded: Jul 4, 2015
For those who believe that the intertubes, and social media in particular, may become a small-d-democratizing counter-weight to campaign gazillion$, there's an fascinating experiment a-borning in Kentucky.
Yes, indeedy. The land of Lincoln's birth will elect a Governor this fall. The Democrat Attorney General Jack Conway and Republican/TeaPer (and Mitch McConnell primary challenger) Matt Bevins are candidates straight out of central casting. They are about what you'd expect them to be, and have so far failed to distinguish themselves with the electorate. Then there's Drew Curtis.
Curtis is a native-born "citizen candidate," tech entrepreneur and the founder of the hilarious, odd news and commentary aggregator fark.com. He's also a published media critic, and he once delivered a TED talk about his successful battle with that scourge of intellectual property: the dreaded a patent troll. On principle, he doesn't shrink from a good fight.
Fark, which has been variously ranked as one of the Top 50 internet sites (Time magazine), and more specifically as number three among the "fifteen best places to waste time on the web" (per reddit ? after youtube and craigslist) demonstrates Curtis' facility to identify an opportunity and maximize it. The site began in 1999, before new media was cool, and after Drew's friends complained about all the annotated news clips with which he'd inundate their in-boxes. So he put up a site for them to come to him, and post their own stories and bon mots. An internet phenomenon, its mascot a feisty, very male squirrel, was born.
"Farkers" came in droves ? each with a screen name and free-form profile. The site has been nurtured through several expansions and permutations, eschews most annoying forms of advertising and has grown a faithful, world-wide following of several million, including regular lurkers. There are Fark parties and other gatherings that have been known to commandeer entire hotels for whole weekends. "Fark.com Headlines" has been a category on Jeopardy.
Curtis and a small staff have maintained control, cultivated the site's enduring charm, and rejected lucrative offers to sell-out to The Suits who would homogenize and ruin it (sfgate.com being one example of a former, suitably funky representative of these environs that later lost its soul). Fark is what Huffington Post could be, absent the avarice of its founder.
Curtis picked up a Berkeley/Columbia MBA along the way. Since I'm pleased to call him a friend*, I can add a few personal details -- he dotes on his three kids, and perhaps his best, most prescient decision was to partner-up with Heather, his spouse and running mate. Recall the great compliment line from Inherit the Wind: "I'd vote for him to be King ? just to have you as my Queen?" It's like that. Kentuckians could do far worse than to have her as their Lt. Governor (and they have done so in the past, judging from their former and current Senatorial representation).
So, when Curtis concludes that it might be timely to pursue an internet-based gubernatorial campaign, replete with purple and gold colors and an aversion to labels, he comes to it with an admirable track record of plying the web to good advantage. He declined to seek Party endorsements or affiliations (unlikely in any event), making the contrast a cornerstone of his alternative candidacy. He's not the first citizen candidate; he cites several primary successes and general election near-misses as factors in his decision to run. Curtis traveled to NY early this year to discuss his approach with an organization concurrently seeking to encourage various, truly independent citizen candidacies.
So, is he self-funding his effort, in the mold of the vanity candidacies of various Silicon Valley moguls? Not if Heather has anything to say about it (and she does). The campaign has been run on a shoe string of individual donations and gear sales to-date. Of the $5,132,000 spent by all KY Governor candidates in the First Quarter of this year (including the Primaries), less than $26,000 came out of the Curtis coffers.
Drew has always been notoriously difficult to categorize, via traditional political measures. Fark admins choose only a few out of thousands of daily submittals to place on its front pages, and it hosts its share of flame wars. Lefties and righties forever complain about perceived bias ? Drew has always said that as long as the dissatisfactions roughly balance-out, he's on the right track.
What he most dislikes are the ideologies forced onto Party-affiliated candidates. For example, Kentucky's ObamaCare exchange has worked pretty well, to-date. But you already know that the GOP candidate would shut it down, and the Dem would keep it. Curtis has said he'd likely tweak it with a programmer's eye, but judge it on performance, rather than ideological label. Unbeholden to King Coal, he's also indicated that the past-facing industry will Not be the focus of economic development investments.
The Curtis campaign has been heavily oriented toward personal contact and social media to introduce the candidate's theme of independence from Party ideologies and donor purse strings. He stresses his relentlessly unbought, common-sense approaches to state issues. A $19-or-more-Billion public pension liability looms large over the election. In contrast to the major Party brands, he has proposed a cogent, incremental approach to funding it in the short-to-medium term.
The press and the polls have begun to notice. His coverage has evolved from curiosity through human interest pieces, and he is sitting down with substantial state-wide political media leaders this weekend for an extended once-over. Meanwhile, Messrs. Conway and Bevins are making little headway with the public, or against each other. Recently, each polled in the low 30%s, with Drew showing-up at 6%, and climbing.
The next challenge is to garner the 5,000 signatures necessary to appear on the ballot as an official candidate. Word out of the Curtis camp-aign is that they are already north of 4,000, with county fair season upon us and an August 11 deadline to submit petitions.
Now, 6% is a long way from 51%, but it would be a mistake to categorize Curtis as one of those hardy perennials who routinely run gadfly campaigns. The web and social media are capable of driving remarkable transformations in very brief timeframes. So keep an eye on the Curtises, and don't count them out prematurely. You might even want to pitch-in for a $25 for a t-shirt. The Kentucky Governor's mansion would be one helluva nice venue for the first 2016 Fark Party, and Inauguration.
* humble scribe was a site moderator, a "farkmod" for several years, several years ago. A humor website is a challenge to moderate, as what's funny is in the brain and belly of the reader. Fark uses a time-tested 'party' model. It takes a lot to get bounced from the gathering, but it happens.