Mike Gravel didn’t make the cut to join 20 Democratic candidates for president on stage in Miami the last week of June, but Tulsi Gabbard, a U.S. representative from Hawaii, invited him to use her tickets to join the audience.
Gravel wasn’t interested – instead, he planned to watch the debate from his Seaside Highlands living room with his wife, Whitney Stewart Gravel – so he gave his debate tickets to the two New York 18-year-olds behind his 2020 presidential campaign, David Oks and Henry Williams.
They’re the reason he’s running at all, as well as the authors of @MikeGravel’s relentless Twitter feed. One from during the debate: “Cory, your Spanish is somehow worse than Beto’s.”
Gravel, a former senator representing Alaska in the 1970s, has no expectation of becoming president. But he – well, really Oks and Williams – is still making a serious effort to qualify for the next round of debates July 30 and 31 in Detroit, hosted by CNN.
The first debate helps Gravel clarify why he thinks it’s important to see his leftist views represented on the stage.
When John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman and a moderate, says, “We should be the party that keeps what’s working,” Gravel hisses with negativity.
A few minutes later, Gravel mutes the TV during a commercial break and makes clear that his reason for being on stage wouldn’t be to win votes. He would be up there to shift the conversation. “They’re still not addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is the military-industrial complex,” he says. “The mainstream media, they’re the ones that control the subject matter.
“What they’re picking is what’s in the news. The kids dying in the [Rio Grande] river is tragic, but the whole planet dying is tragic.”
He’s talking about nothing less than nuclear winter, all while snacking on peanuts. (Later in the debate, he also starts feeding peanuts to Ginger, their mostly-deaf 13-year-old Shih-poo, a Shih tzu-poodle mix.)
He thinks a question about how to deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is frivolous. “You can’t,” Gravel says. “There’s no likelihood that the Democrats will pick up 13 seats. They’ll get a majority, but not an ironclad majority to stop the filibuster. He’s done more to destroy our democracy than anybody in history. How are you going to overcome that? You can’t.
“If we were able to create a legislature of the people, then you could overcome the McConnells of the world.”
Gravel does have a plan to create a legislature of the people, along with a lengthy and specific platform. His foreign policy proposal calls for closing all U.S. military installations abroad and bringing home all troops stationed abroad. He supports a carbon tax, starting at a price of $230 per ton of CO2, indexed to inflation. On transportation, he calls for nationalizing the rail system and developing interstate bike lanes.
In his 2008 book, Citizen Power: A Mandate for Change, Gravel laid out his plan for restructuring government – it resembles an initiative system – to be truly by the people. In a foreword to that book, which was published in a year that Gravel did make the presidential debates, Ralph Nader wrote: “Senator Gravel’s National Initiative for Democracy is the most fundamental proposal I have ever seen or read about by any candidate in any major party in the United States. It is not a proposal that can be reduced to ‘sound bites’ on television. It cannot be compressed in seven seconds and 42 nanoseconds.”
But getting onto television alongside the leading candidates remains Gravel’s goal. As of press time, he was 12,000 donors shy of qualifying for the July debate. (Candidates have until July 16 to qualify, and to do so need to be polling at at least 1 percent, and to have at least 65,000 campaign donors.)
His teenage staff is contemplating winding down the campaign, whether or not Gravel qualifies for the debate, and is soliciting ideas on Twitter of where to donate leftover funds. (The hundreds of ideas include food buys in Yemen, water infrastructure in Flint, refugee services in Texas.)
They’re also contemplating what might be next for American politics: “Whatever happens in the coming days, this campaign will have been a success: with a Twitter account and few funds, we got 4x more donors than John Hickenlooper and showed a new way of campaigning that we’re sure is the wave of the future,” they tweeted on June 3.
At this stage, Gravel is clear that he’s getting out of politics – he doesn’t even want the job he’s running for.
“I would’ve a long time ago, when I was younger,” he says. “But at my age, not really. I’d be 91 years old when I was sworn in. I think that’s a little much.”