Cover Story

Cellblock campaign

Campaign 2008 | Sam Brownback launches an unorthodox presidential campaign in an unusual way-by spending a night in a prison cell

Issue: "Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006

First in a series of 2008 candidate profiles

BATON ROGUE and ANGOLA, La.-Dusk at Primo's, an upscale restaurant in a Baton Rouge mall: exactly the place where you'd expect a conservative senator starting his run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination to have a fundraiser. But what's unexpected is what Sam Brownback of Kansas did after that Dec. 8 meeting: He took a night trip to the infamous state penitentiary at Angola, featured in such movies as Dead Man Walking and Monster's Ball.

Angola houses 5,100 prisoners, many of whom are hostile to the tough-on-crime stance that is standard among conservative Republicans. Brownback talked to 700 of the inmates assembled in a prison chapel and answered skeptical questions, worrying guards as he strode into the midst of the prisoners. He then slept in a prison cell and walked Death Row the following morning.

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I slept in the cell next to his, and my neighbors on the other side were a serial rapist and a drug cartel killer. This is the story of the beginning of what is likely to be an unusual presidential campaign.

In assessing presidential contenders, it's a mistake to focus only on one element: policy positions, character, or ability to lead. To avoid a two-dimensional candidate, it's vital to assess strength in all three areas.

As LSU senior Sarah Mejias waited for Brownback's arrival in Primo's bland private dining room, she said that for a political science/history major like herself, meeting him was like meeting Brad Pitt would be for many other students. Others in the gathering-15 middle-aged men in coats and ties, plus five more LSU students-were also expectant.

When the 50-year-old Brownback slipped into the room, it became clear that he's not going to receive the Brad Pitt vote. In this small gathering he exuded sincerity, not passion. He characterized himself as a small-government conservative and also a compassionate conservative-and rightly connected those two political strains.

Brownback ticked off his policy positions. On immigration, "getting the border under control" and also establishing a guest worker program. On judges, pushing for strict constructionists, although he knows the new Democratic majority will make that task harder. Regarding Washington corruption, he advocates term limits and commissions to shut down pork-barrel domestic programs similar to the commission that succeeded in closing many unneeded military bases.

On Iraq, Brownback said that the United States "cannot conduct a war with one party for it and one party against it. The weakest part of our foreign policy is public opinion." And that's how the gathering ended: no applause, some nods of approval, one among hundreds of such meetings Brownback's staff plans for the year to come.

We talked more about Iraq on the 90-minute drive north to Angola. Brownback criticized the Bush doctrine of preemption not on military but on political grounds: "After 9/11 we could respond in Afghanistan, but it's difficult to sustain public support for preemption. Over the long term we need to go more toward containment and engagement."

Describing the conflict as part of a generic "war on terror" is a mistake, Brownback added: "We need to be clear on whom we're fighting. . . . This is a war against militant, politicized Islamic fascism." He said he had read a chronologically arranged version of the Quran and had seen that some of the peaceful passages early in Muhammad's career gave way to warlike injunctions later-but "I'm not a theologian. . . . When Muslims are willing to work with us, we'll work with them."

We talked about character, and particularly what happens when people who have been winners come to see that they are doomed apart from God. Brownback himself is on a political winning streak: He was state president of Future Farmers of America, student body president at Kansas State University, president of his class at the University of Kansas Law School, and the youngest secretary of agriculture in Kansas history. Then he joined Congress after the Republican Revolution in 1994 and moved up to Bob Dole's Senate seat after the GOP patriarch ran for president in 1996.

Brownback said his sense of total dependence on God came when he was diagnosed with cancer in August 1995 and remained unsure about the outcome for another nine months: "That's when I felt helpless." He came out of that with a clean bill of health medically and a lesson he absorbed from Senate chaplain Richard Halverson: "I have only one constituent: God."

That realization changed his political style and his psychology. "Before 1995 I was in attack mode. At night I was agitated, thinking about all the campaign stops and asking myself, 'Should I have said this, said that?' Had to take sleeping pills. When I ran for the Senate in '96 I started out way behind, but I didn't get upset. . . . It also helped me with my family. I used to be talking so much about the Republican Revolution." He smiled: "My wife had to remind me that we had kids."


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