By Alan Prendergast
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If you thought Paul Weissmann, the 31-year-old bartender candidate for U.S. Senate, was just another "Mr. Smith" trying to go to Washington, it's probably time to take another look. Jimmy Stewart may have ended up in Washington as a stooge-turned-crusader in the 1939 film, but Weissmann is nobody's fool. He knows exactly what it's going to take to make it on the ballot as a Democratic candidate: just under a third of the 3,000 votes at his party's state convention.
Most casual observers know Weissmann as the upstart bartender who refuses to don a coat and tie for the state senate seat he holds, fights to hold down the cost of beer at Coors Field and looks more like a college kid than a politico. What isn't common knowledge are Weissmann's years of experience as a caucus-support organizer for presidential candidate Gary Hart in the Eighties. And those months on the road in fifteen states have given Weissmann confidence that he's more than just a hopeful; he's a contender.
In the living room of his white coal miner's bungalow on Louisville's LaFarge Avenue, Weissmann works the phone with finesse, scheduling meetings with precinct captains, former Democratic caucus attendees--anyone who's likely to be a caucus voter. On the wall hang half a dozen sheets of copy paper with inspirational epigrams written in marker: "To win with dignity"; "63 counties by Thanksgiving"; "Just say no to opposition research"; and finally, "Three words: Jerry Brown Won."
While Weissmann makes his calls, pausing now and then to check one of the maps that fill the wall between his motivational snippets, campaign volunteers Kathy Allen and Tony Schwartz busy themselves with computerized mailing lists and the candidate's schedule. There are no orders being barked out, no high-priced consultants calling the shots. Schwartz, although he's 26, looks barely old enough to vote. It's Weissmann himself who proudly displays a new half-bath that he's installed next to the kitchen so that volunteers and visitors don't have to troop through his bedroom to relieve themselves.
"It didn't cost very much at all," Weissmann says, grinning a goofy grin that pulls his eyes shut and makes it easy for people to underestimate him. "There's plumbing for my [bedroom] bath just on the other side of the wall."
Plumbing lesson over, Weissmann gets back to the phone, scheduling a Durango meeting for the next morning--a move that means he'll have to start the drive sometime around 3 a.m. "I've put a lot of miles on the Jeep," he says, pointing out the window to his blue Cherokee. "That's what this is all about."
The way Weissmann figures it, he needs to convince 14,000 caucus participants that he's a better representative for the issues he thinks they care about--campaign finance reform, workers' comp, health care--than the "other guys," including the well-financed, consultant-backed leader of the pack, Tom Strickland. "Fourteen thousand," says Weissmann. "That's one-at-a-time-able." Of those 14,000, about 3,000 go to the convention. Weissmann needs 30 percent of those 3,000 to get on the ballot. Before June 8, the date of the caucus, the Louisville bartender plans to meet each and every one of the people who will decide his fate.
He has the background for the task. First, there's his experience in the Hart campaign, which taught him whom he has to talk to and how long it's going to take. In 1983, during Hart's first presidential campaign, Weissmann went from Iowa to Oklahoma to Arkansas to Texas to Nebraska to South Dakota ("where we organized the western part of the state and took 87 percent of the votes," Weissmann says proudly), back to Iowa and Texas, then on to San Francisco for the national convention. The campaign gave him a gas credit card and a new set of tires for his car.
In 1986 Weissmann did much the same thing for what was going to be Hart's second presidential campaign, until the bottom dropped out. Then he went to work for another presidential candidate, Bruce Babbitt, until Hart got back in the race in '87. Then he was back with Hart. "I'm loyal if I'm nothing else," Weissmann says, again with that grin. Hart's late re-entry meant the campaign had limited time, so Weissmann and three friends threw themselves first into South Dakota, then Illinois. "We got him on the ballot in five days," Weissmann says nostalgically--as if rounding up caucus votes were as much fun as a game of pick-up basketball.
After Illinois, he headed east to get his man on the ballot in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but by that time it was March 1988 and he got the call to come home. It was over. Hart was out.
And Weissmann went back to tending bar. He took some classes at the University of Colorado. He ran for state senate and won. Now he's upping the ante by taking a stab at the retiring Hank Brown's seat in '96.
But it takes more than a new set of tires and a good map to get a candidate on the ballot. Caucus organizing is about one-on-one conversation, about looking people in the eye and answering whatever questions they come up with. It's a skill Weissmann seems to have down pat.