John Dennis, the Republican vying for Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco House seat, grew up in a housing project in Jersey City, N.J. The son of a longshoreman and a city hall clerk, he remembers those days vividly: how the building deteriorated over the course of his childhood; the broken elevators; the torn-down fences; the unswept garbage; the overwhelming sense of desertion.
"Things just didn't work," he recalls.
And, from his perspective, the people in charge didn't seem to care.
"I realized that when the government owns something, it it has no incentive to make capital improvements," says Dennis, who moved to San Francisco in 1991.
It would be too simplistic to say that those early years set the course for his political ideals. Because, as he grew older, there would be reading Atlas Shrugged in 1984, and volunteering on Ron Paul's 1988 presidential campaign, and seeing two expensive Bush-era wars to sharpen his beliefs in government's role in society.
By now, many of those beliefs are well known. Dennis, who currently works as a real estate investor, gained a good deal of media attention -- profiles in the Chronicle and the New York Times -- when he ran against Pelosi in 2010. It was an election cycle defined by a GOP surge and people were fascinated by the Republican candidate seeking to unseat one of the more liberal members of congress in one of the most liberal districts in America. He isn't a normal Republican, of course. In 2010, former city Supervisor Matt Gonzalez endorsed Dennis. On his campaign's website, he memorably lists "institutionalized racism" as one of the top issues he cares about. He is anti-war and pro-marijuana and pro-gay marriage. Policy-wise, he is a Ron Paul libertarian.
Still, riding that midterm Republican wave, he raised $2 million and got a "pat on the back" from soon-to-be-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The media attention focused on two notable aspects of his candidacy: that he was a Republican "actually running against Nancy Pelosi," as the Times put it. And that he "runs to left of Pelosi" [on social issues], as the Chron wrote. Simply, he was a novelty. And, not surprisingly, Pelosi retained her seat with 80 percent of the vote.
This time around the novelty's worn off. The downside of that is that less media attention means less money. He says his war chest in the "hundreds of thousands" this cycle. His campaign, then, has focused more on ground game -- mailers and handshakes -- than TV spots. And, as you can see above, another trait he shares with his political role model: overly dramatic, possibly ironic, slickly produced, and kinda-hilarious Internet campaign ads, a viral marketing strategy that, if done well, can reach just as many eyes as a commercial during the local news.
One benefit of the diminished publicity, though, is that Dennis can shape his campaign outside of the newsworthy traits -- a pro-gay marriage Republican! -- focusing instead on the small government economic policies he take pride in -- from slicing military spending to eliminating numerous federal departments to, of course, ending the Fed.
"Nancy Pelosi has this image in town of being this anti-corporatist," he says. "she's the biggest corporatist out there! The dictionary definition of corporatism is the Federal Reserve... it's a cartel."
And many of those positions first simmered in that housing project all those years ago. An economic liberal might argue that much of his building's blight was not caused by government incompetence, but rather by government's lack of resources and a lack of political will to channel more funding toward services for the poor.
To that, Dennis responds, "There's never enough money."
Not that he's a purebred small government acolyte.
When it comes to entitlements, Dennis does not favor privatizing social security and medicare. Rather, his position entails allowing people to opt-out of the programs while maintaining "any and all" policies "that will save them the most." For him, this means using defense cuts -- including the Paulian ideal of closing overseas military bases -- to help make those programs more sustainable in the long-term. To this purpose, he supports doling out medicare block grants to states.
"I think there should be a robust, overlapping, powerful social safety net," he says. "I'm not sure government should be in charge of that, but it is important that we have one."
No question, Dennis faces a Lombard Street climb just to beat his 2010 mark of 15 percent of the votes. His ultimate goal, however, might be even more lofty than unseating the House Minority Leader:
"I'd like everyone to see the state, the government, for what it is, and at best, limit its role in society." says Dennis. "People are just sick and tired of politics as usual."
At the very least, he has addressed that second point. Dennis' candidacy is anything but usual.