Last Friday, I found myself watching a new political ad over and over again in utter bemusement.
I know, that feels weird to say. I get it.
Generally, if I’m watching a campaign spot, it’s because I’m agonizing over how many personal attacks and factually inept claims are being dolled out within the standard 33-second clips that steer modern day politicking. Step one: Say your opponent is bad. Step two: Tie said opponent to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, or the Koch brothers. Step three: Throw some kitschy music underneath, remind us who you are, and approve this message.
In Alaska’s senate race, over 70 different ads fit this bill in the last year alone — played an estimated 42,900 times across the state — coming from the Begich and Sullivan campaigns and the SuperPACs supporting and opposing them. According to a report put out by the Center for Public Integrity, spending has exceeded well over $4 million, and much more is on the way.
There hasn’t been a lot of oxygen afforded to any other races, despite a landmark gubernatorial contest and dozens of contested legislative seats. Candidates have been squeezed off the airwaves by the staggeringly high-priced ad buys hoping to swing the U.S. Senate one way or the other.
Marty McGee is trying anyway.
McGee is a Democrat running in West Anchorage’s District 22, facing Republican challenger Liz Vazquez. The district has been represented by Mia Costello (R-Anchorage) since 2010. Costello is now running for the senate seat left vacant by Hollis French, who started the year running for governor and ended it run off the ballot.
McGee’s political background strikes a similar chord to Bill Walker, currently challenging Republican Governor Sean Parnell as an independent. Like Walker, McGee has been a registered Republican for his adult life. But he describes himself as a moderate, telling APRN’s Alex Gutierrez back and May: “The moderates are being pushed aside and not allowed to be a real material part of making policy and introducing legislation[.]”
In his case, this has a very literal application; Parnell removed McGee from serving on the State Assessment Review Board earlier this year after the board valued the pipeline about $10 billion higher than oil producers’ estimates of $2 billion.
To help make the case for his candidacy, McGee worked with local videographer Joshua Corbett to put together a campaign ad. What they came up with is the furthest thing from the negative ads that have become the norm.
“All along, my theme, my strategy that I’ve worked with my campaign manager on is not to run negative campaigning,” McGee told me over the phone on Friday. “To do it positive and stay on issues and talk about character and background. That’s the way I wanted to run the campaign.”
With limited cash and no chance to compete for airtime, McGee said campaign manager Brooke Ivy dreamed up the idea for the video, aptly entitled “Why I’m Running.” It abandoned the 33-second time limit for television spots, and did away with partisanship and mudslinging altogether. Instead, Corbett said they decided to focus on the candidate.
“I really wanted to show who Marty is and what motivates him,” Corbett told me over the weekend, via email.
Corbett is new to politics; he told me he’s spent most of the last 12 years outside the U.S., working on projects ranging from the arctic to Afghanistan. But he says he’s always had an interest in public policy, and when he returned home to Alaska, where he was born and raised, he signed on to a fellowship with the Alaska Democratic Party.
“I knew Marty’s story from his coverage in the news, and met Marty when I photographed him earlier in the season,” told me. “I felt like I got to know him a bit then, and enjoyed working with him. Marty’s an incredibly warm, genuine, intelligent guy, so I jumped at the opportunity to work with him further on this project.”
“We kind of hit it off, Josh and I did,” McGee said.
The video spans two minutes, starting with a shot of McGee putting his shoes on, getting ready for an evening of walking doors. He talks about growing up in Alaska.
“One of the values instilled in me was to leave the place better than the way I found it. I feel a responsibility as an Alaskan to leave the state better than the way I found it,” he says in the opening of the video, narrating while the camera shows him grabbing his clipboard, patting his son on the back and kissing his wife before heading out.
He mentions his roots in Anchorage; his grandfather was on the first city council and his mother was a nurse.
“Those are the things that motivate me to be involved in politics, and be involved in our state. It’s not personal gain or seeking fame for myself,” McGee says, sitting at his desk. Then he gets choked up, and adds: “It’s paying back my community for what has been provided for me.”
“That had to do with my family,” McGee told me, when I asked what about what spurred the emotion (something campaign managers generally try to keep their candidates as far away from as possible). “I’ve lost most of the senior members of my family now, so I get emotional whenever I talk about them and the history. But that’s also my motivation for being involved in civic stuff and events. It’s what they taught me.”
The video has already attracted over 1,100 views on Youtube; not an easy accomplishment for an online spot for a state house seat, posted on a Friday without any ad buy supporting it. My praise is not alone; Amanda Coyne also tagged it as the best ad of the political cycle thus far.
There’s something both deliberate and genuine about the clip. The choice to leave out the controversy surrounding his time on the State Assessment Review Board doesn’t seem like an omission; McGee doesn’t want his campaign to rely on that fact alone, nor does he want to play into the partisanship and negative advertising that dominate our political climate. “They’re just going after each other, trying to destroy the other person. Frankly, I think that most of the people that are running for office are basically good people with good motivations,” McGee told me. He said he wants a debate on civic issues and approaches to problems, not partisan bickering and attack ads. “I don’t like that.”
McGee’s decision to make that belief emblematic of his campaign and candidacy gives the video that much more of an impact. And it offers one glimmer of hope — in a sea of pessimism — that this bold innovation in how candidates market themselves might catch fire. We’d all be better served by this becoming the rule rather than the exception.