Justin Barkley and I met as freshmen in college. He was the soft-spoken kid with an Alabama accent who lived down the hall. His roommates were all jocks of one type or another, so he spent a lot of time with the misfits in my suite that first year. We fell out of touch after graduation, though I heard about the big milestones: marriage; law school; kids one, two, and three. Now here he was in my inbox, the sender of a mass email to a blind-copied list: “I wanted you to be among the first to know that, after much prayer and careful deliberation, I have decided to run for a seat in the state legislature.”
Spencer Bachus, the eleven-term congressman from Birmingham, Alabama, was retiring; Paul DeMarco, the state representative from Justin’s district, was running to replace him; and Justin was running in the Republican primary for DeMarco’s open seat. There was an ask in Justin’s email, but it was subtle — a link to contribute to the campaign “if you’re so inclined.”
A survey of young Americans conducted earlier this year found that only 7 percent disagree with the statement “Elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons.” About the same percentage think that elected officials share their priorities. Meanwhile, things are looking a bit sunnier for the current U.S. Congress — their disapproval rating is down to 83 percent, from a high of 86 percent last November.
These numbers have no apparent effect on our nation’s politicians, who are a separate species of American, greedier, vainer, almost inhuman in their willingness to debase themselves while striving for personal glory. As far as I knew, Justin had none of these traits. The question, then, was unavoidable: Was my friend secretly born a monster, or was he about to be made one? Many of the great villains of science fiction and fantasy are humans so disfigured by malevolence that they are no longer recognizable. Perhaps mild-mannered Justin was actually a Tom Riddle, an Anakin Skywalker, a Harvey Dent. If so, I was determined to stop the transformation before it happened (or, failing that, watch it take place).
Justin had hired a consultant, who had sent out a “Media Alert.” To “raise awareness of his campaign,” the candidate would be biking across District 46, stopping to meet voters along the way. The most important information you want voters to be aware of when you’re running for state legislature, it turns out, is what district they’re in; a bike tour tracing the boundaries was a simple way to get that message across.
The Alert invited the press to “schedule interviews before, during or after” the tour, but when I arrived at a park in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood on my bike, I was the only reporter there. I introduced myself to Justin’s campaign coordinator, Jimmy Sapp, and to Tyler Pruett, who worked for the consultant. They did a good job of pretending it wasn’t at all unusual that a New York–based magazine had sent someone to cover the day’s events. Pruett told me the campaign had heard from a few news organizations after the press release went out, but interest had evaporated once the outlets learned that the bikes in question wouldn’t be Harleys.
It was the week before Easter, a warm and sunny Saturday, and the Greater Birmingham Young Republicans were hosting an egg hunt in the park. Justin arrived after the hunt was over, so he chatted with the four or five young Republicans of voting age still around and ate potato salad. He greeted me awkwardly; I don’t think he was sure whether to treat me as a reporter or as an old college buddy. Sapp suggested that the candidate grab a toddler: “We may need a you-holding-a-baby shot.”
The small turnout in the park worried me, so I asked Justin whether he would run again if he lost in the primary. His answer was disarming: “Depends on how good a job the winner does.” The front-runner was a man named David Faulkner, who was in the lead mainly because of the name recognition he’d earned running an unsuccessful campaign for a local judgeship in 2012. Another candidate, Steve French, was a former state senator who’d lost his seat to a Tea Party candidate in 2010. He and Justin were about tied in the polls.
After a few minutes another contender for the seat, Pamela Blackmore-Jenkins, arrived. She was the only black candidate in the Republican primary, and the only woman. Polls put her in a distant fourth. She introduced herself to the young Republicans, who took her hand warily.
I turned to see Justin getting back on his bike. It looked a bit like he was being chased out of the park by Blackmore-Jenkins, as if merely being near such a marginal candidate might compromise his stature. (Justin admitted that losing to her was his biggest fear: “I’d just have to crawl into a hole and die if I came in fourth.”) Sapp told me he had seen Blackmore-Jenkins knocking on every door in one of the district’s neighborhoods a few weeks earlier. This was a sign that her campaign hadn’t invested in a list of likely Republican voters, he whispered, his voice tinged with both pity and delight.
Car after car passed Justin, some of their drivers honking in anger as they steered around him. At our next stop, at a strip mall a mile or so away, I joked that he should make installing bike lanes his first order of business in Montgomery, but he didn’t laugh. There were some people eating lunch outside, so Justin went table to table, interrupting their meals to press flyers into their hands and ask whether they lived in the district (most did not).
I grabbed a flyer and read highlights from Justin’s life. Married with kids. Birmingham native. High school valedictorian. Churchgoer. First in his family to go to college. (He listed Harvard and the University of Alabama’s law school on the same line, the latter perhaps apologizing for the former.) “First run for public office; not a career politician.” (I decided not to tell him that the semicolon might cost him a few votes.) One young couple tried to refuse the flyer but eventually relented. A few seconds later they slipped it into a trash can along with the remains of their lunch. The only way to tell that Justin was meeting potential voters rather than, say, handing out lunch menus was the crowd of advisers surrounding him, typing furiously on their phones. It looked demeaning, and he wasn’t even earning minimum wage doing it.
Campaigning door-to-door, Justin said, wasn’t much different. Voters don’t want to have a conversation. “A huge chunk is just educating people what the race is, what district it is, when the election is.” His most successful lines are the one about how he’s never run for office before, and what he calls “a little bit of regionalism”: he plays up the fact that he lives in Homewood while Faulkner and French live in Mountain Brook, the most upscale neighborhood in the district.
If he won, Justin told me, his plan was to spend two terms in Montgomery. That way he would only be forty-two by the time he finished: “I would still have prime productive earning years to try to make up for serving in the legislature.” In Alabama, representatives are paid a salary pegged to the state median income of $50,000 a year — not bad! But he could definitely make more as a lawyer. Plus the hours are bad, and he’d have to commute an hour and a half to and from Montgomery. He might cash in on his political connections once he returned to private practice, but as long cons go, his was a few notches below nefarious.
Later I tried to press Justin on all of it — not just the money but the humiliations of the race, the low esteem in which his fellow citizens held him, the unlikelihood that he could accomplish anything even if he made it to Montgomery. The most he would admit was that he needed to “get the political bug out of my system.”
We left the strip mall and began the first of a series of steep climbs. On a hill on the way to Hoover, the suburb where Justin grew up, the candidate stopped to talk to a woman working a hedge clipper. It was not immediately clear whether he was resting or canvassing, but Justin later said she’d promised him her vote. At the top of the next hill, we stopped at a deli and I heard the clerk compliment a customer on his handgun and matching clip holster — a new open-carry law had recently passed in the state. This exchange was the closest I’d come to seeing any policy discussed that day.
On one of the final descents of the day, Justin got a flat. We were in an eerie subdivision called the Preserve, a planned community meant to resemble a small town, and we pulled up to the side of the fake village green and took off the tire to investigate. If this were a New York Times story, this is where I’d write, “A reporter got off his bike and gave it to the candidate.” I regret sacrificing my journalistic integrity, but it seemed cruel not to lend a hand.
Justin made it another mile on the unwieldy mountain bike I’d brought along before it, too, got a flat. I assured him I wouldn’t treat this twin strike of bad luck metaphorically.
In any case, his staff had a backup bike ready for the final quarter mile to Hoover High School, Justin’s alma mater and his tour’s finish line. Since there was no one waiting there, the staffer working the video camera asked Justin to restage his approach. After he pulled up to the Hoover High sign a second time, he delivered an impromptu-seeming speech encouraging viewers of the video to find him on Facebook and Twitter. He spoke well off-the-cuff, though I noticed that his voice dropped a half octave when he addressed the camera. He did a second take of the speech, this time without the prompting of his staff.
The campaign’s goals were modest: they wanted 3,500 of the expected 10,000 votes that would be cast in the primary. That would probably be enough to force a runoff, at which point “regionalism” really could make a difference — there were more voters from Homewood and Hoover combined than from Mountain Brook. They were asking their friends to mail campaign postcards to their Christmas-card lists, and Justin was attending as many Rotary and Kiwanis Club meetings as he could.
Paul DeMarco’s run for Congress seemed to be occurring in a different universe. His number-one goal, he said, was to repeal Obamacare. He had raised more than $850,000 by mid-April, and one of his opponents, Will Brooke, was only $100,000 behind him. Roll Call had named it “the most moneyed House primary in the South.” In May, Brooke made national news when the conservative radio host Laura Ingraham attacked him for failing to respond fast enough to a questionnaire from an anti-immigration group.
Justin’s bike tour began to look dignified by comparison. His campaign wasn’t free of the worries of higher-stakes races — when I asked him what he liked least about running for office he named four things, and all of them were money — but he was unfailingly upbeat about our day spent biking the district. His inspiration for the stunt, he said, had come from a state senator known as Walking Wendell Mitchell, who died in 2012. Mitchell was unabashed about getting government funding for projects in his district — an aim that was clearly tied to the amount of time he spent walking from door to door. It may be humbling to shake hands with the people you’re meant to serve, I realized, but it’s not humiliating. Hustling to please Laura Ingraham, however — that was truly demeaning.
The good news for Justin is that, whatever turns someone like him into a political grotesque, it doesn’t happen at the state level. When he trades his bicycle for a Harley, though, and the strip mall for the National Mall, we’ll want to keep an eye on him. To his and our misfortune, not all politics is local.