by Stephen Buel
Gary Coleman, the child star and actor who graciously consented in 2003 to allow this newspaper to run him for governor of California, has died of intracranial hemorrhaging at age 42, the Los Angeles Times has reported.
Coleman acheived fame for his eight seasons on the situation comedy "Diff'rent Strokes." But by 2003, he had fallen on hard times and had become notorious for his work as a shopping mall security guard and for the lawsuits he filed against his parents and former business manager, alleging that they had stolen more than $1 million.
It was against that backdrop that the East Bay Express cooked up a plan to see if Coleman would let the paper run him as a gag candidate in the California gubernatorial recall election against sitting governor Gray Davis and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reporter Chris Thompson called Coleman's agent to propose the plan, and after we were asked to put our proposal in writing, I penned the following letter to Gary's agent:
The Artists Group
Los Angeles, CA
Dear Mr. Stalmaster,
I am the editor of the East Bay Express, a Bay Area alternative newsweekly with 200,000 weekly readers. We would like to collaborate with Gary Coleman on a work of political theater.
Put simply, we would like Mr. Coleman to run for governor. As you may be aware, California is about to embark upon a campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis, the rules of which are rather bizarre. Under our state constitution, anyone who has been a resident of California for the five years immediately prior to the election may be placed upon the gubernatorial ballot with just 65 signatures and $3,500 in filing fees. We would like to highlight the absurdity of this turn of events by placing Mr. Coleman’s name on the same ballot alongside that of Gray Davis, Darryl Issa, and — most likely — Arnold Schwarzenegger.
If Mr. Coleman agrees to play along, this will certainly be a terrific publicity coup for him. All we’re asking is that Mr. Coleman grant his consent, sit for a cover photograph, and conduct a mock interview with us, in which we can jointly work out a phony political platform. In return, he gets to be at the center of a surreal media buzz certain to grab headlines around the country.
We are willing to cover Mr. Coleman’s $3,500 filing fee, submit the required 65 signatures, contribute the first $100 to his campaign organization, and comply with all the relevant campaign finance laws. Once we file his candidacy in Sacramento, we’ll submit a jointly approved press release to the national news media, sit back, and watch as the circus begins. Obviously, we would expect Mr. Coleman to allow us to unveil his candidacy, but after that he is free to take the joke in any direction he desires. Mr. Coleman will get a motherlode of ironic publicity, as well as the chance to share a great joke with the entire nation, for just a few hours of his time.
However farcical this idea may sound, we are in fact quite serious. If you or Mr. Coleman are at all intrigued by our offer, please call me at once at 510-879-3708. Since the California Secretary of State may only accept would-be candidates for a period of days, we would need to set this up as quickly as possible.
cc: Chris Thompson, staff writer
This letter outlines the scope of the agreement between Gary Wayne Coleman (Gary) and the East Bay Express newspaper (Express) regarding Gary’s October 7 candidacy for the post of Governor of the State of California.
The Express agrees to pay Gary’s $3,500 campaign filing fee and submit at least 65 signatures of registered voters willing to submit Gary’s name in nomination for the office of governor.
The Express will prepare and submit, or assist Gary in the preparation and submission of, all of the legally required documents and steps necessary for Gary’s name to appear on October’s ballot, including all of the following:
* Voter registration renewal.
* Campaign Intention Statement (Form 501).
* Declaration of Candidacy.
* Nominating petitions from 65 registered voters.
* Any other issues that arise and must be dealt with to legally place Gary’s name on the ballot while remaining in compliance with California election laws.
The Express also agrees to prepare and submit, or assist Gary in the preparation and submission of, all the legally required documents and steps necessary for Gary to be able to accept and properly account for the newspaper’s donation of Gary’s $3,500 filing fee. This includes all of the steps needed to create and then disband a formal campaign committee, as required by state law, including all of the following:
* Creation of committee (Form 410)
* Schedule filing of pre-election report and one semi-annual report (Form 460)
* Termination of committee at earliest possible date (amended Form 410)
* Closure of that bank account at the earliest possible opportunity.
* Any other issues that arise and must be dealt with to properly account for our campaign contribution and activities while remaining in compliance with California election laws.
Finally, the Express agrees to manage this process in a manner designed to direct subsequent press inquiries to the Express and not to Gary. Express editor Stephen Buel shall serve as campaign treasurer and in any other campaign role that may be filled by someone other than Gary, and the Express shall use its address and phone number wherever possible on campaign filings and other official communication. The Express shall not divulge Gary’s phone number, address or other personal information, and will answer all press inquires by either directing readers to its August 6 issue, directing them to the office of Gary’s agent, or noting that “the candidate has no other comments at this time.”
For his part, Gary agrees to all of the following:
* To co-operate in completing and submitting all necessary campaign paperwork on a timely basis, so that the Express can comply with state laws and all of the above-mentioned pledges.
* To complete and submit by Friday, August 1 the Statement of Economic Interests (FPPC Form 700).
* To participate in an Express photo shoot by Friday, August 1.
* To cooperate in any other tasks necessary to legally place his own name on the October ballot and properly account for our campaign contribution and activities while remaining in full compliance with California election laws.
Finally, the Express and Gary jointly agree not to raise any more money or incur any additional campaign expenses — such as travel expenses, bumper stickers, campaign materials, what have you — beyond those necessary to put Gary’s name on the ballot, call initial attention to his candidacy, and comply with state laws and regulations. Following the submission of Gary’s name in nomination, the Express will shut down the Citizens for Coleman campaign committee, accept no more money, and incur no additional expenses on behalf of the campaign.
When Chris Thompson convinced me we should pony up $3,500 and gather the 65 signatures needed to run someone in the recall, we had political theater in mind. We would point out the folly of replacing an imperfect but duly elected governor with an actor whose primary appeal appeared to be his fame. Of course, the actor we were wary of wasn’t Gary, but Arnold.
We announced Gary's candidacy in the issue of August 3, 2003. But, of course, things didn’t turn out like we planned. Far from provoking high-minded discussion about the perils of Hollywood populism, we helped propel the recall into altogether surreal territory. Although the world media lapped up the story, and Gary improvised his lines with sly humor, we soon realized there would be no larger point.
Celebrity, it turned out, was the point.
Within hours of our announcement, we were fielding phone calls from CNN, French radio, and Tokyo television stations. Even years after the campaign was over, at least one French news outlet would reliably call the Express each year seeking an interview with Gary. But then the French like Jerry Lewis, too.
Gary played his role with grace and dignity — well, okay, as much grace and dignity as was possible given that he was a gag candidate for governor running against an Austrian-born action hero and an LA-based porn star, among hundreds of others.
In the end, Gary lost. And I am still mad with him for announcing publicly that he intended to vote for Schwarzenegger, and not himself.
But he came in a respectable eighth out of 130-odd candidates, and he received more votes per dollar spent than any candidate in the race.
Imagine what he could have done if we'd actually tried to win.
Thank you, Gary.