Odd Man In
Mike Miles has been getting used to posing for photos, talking into microphones and even kissing babies. Now state Democratic Party leaders are starting to get used to Mike Miles. And they'd better: Miles is perhaps their last best hope to beat incumbent U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campell in the November election. Congressman Mark Udall of Boulder declined to run, and former U.S. Senator Gary Hart is still playing the will-he-or-won't-he game.
If Miles scores the party's nomination, his presence may force the race into a battle over who is the folksiest, most of-the-people candidate. Campbell, a two-term senator, has always enjoyed that role, riding his Harley to events, posing for photos on his horse and playing up his Native American heritage and rural roots.
But Miles isn't just some Wonder Bread boy from the 'burbs. His father is African-American and his mother is Japanese. He has eight siblings, and they spent their childhood moving from base to base, because their father was a master sergeant in the Army. Money was tight, and the family struggled to get by. One of Miles's earliest memories is of climbing out of the bed he shared with two brothers to find his mother alone in the kitchen, crying. She had just given birth to a baby girl.
"I've had to overcome the odds all my life," Miles says. And now, at 47, he's ready to face the biggest long shot of his life.
The political unknown has been vying for the Democratic nomination for the past two years, slowly and quietly working to earn party leaders' respect and support. Christopher Gates, chairman of the state party, was skeptical of Miles at first, but now his attitude is changing. "He's hung tough through the difficult challenge of convincing people like me," Gates says. "He's proven himself. If he ends up being the nominee, I think he will run a serious campaign."
Miles, the assistant superintendent of schools in Fountain, has already raised $100,000 in small donations, and last week State Board of Education member and prominent Democrat Jared Polis endorsed him. He has an extensive Web site to solicit donations and has been making the rounds, speaking at county dinners and to supporters of Howard Dean as well as backers of other presidential candidates.
Still, he has a long way to go. Campbell has already raised more than $1 million.
"The conventional wisdom is an underfunded campaign can't win because of skyrocketing media costs," says veteran campaign consultant C.L. Harmer. "I think Miles is counting on the Internet to change that."
Miles is also relying on his background to generate grassroots support and make him accessible to voters. He is the local boy who makes good, the rags-to-riches success story. "I went to school in an impoverished part of town and had a speech impediment," he says. "Thank God I had teachers who gave me a chance. I had a teacher who took me aside to teach me phonics. I would have been in special education otherwise."
Instead, he won a regional trophy for oratory while in high school.
"My dad said, 'Being born in a garage doesn't make you a car,'" Miles says. "He meant you're not captive to where you're born."
Miles excelled in school, graduating as valedictorian from Fountain-Fort Carson High School (which is in the same district he now leads) and at the top of his West Point class. Then he followed his father's example and became an Army officer. He spent two of his five years in the service as an Army Ranger. In 1981, he and his fellow Rangers were on a training mission when their C-130 plane crashed, and five of his comrades were killed. Miles was fortunate; he was only hospitalized.
He served another two years after that incident, but he was restless to try something new. Fascinated by foreign policy, he decided to go to the Soviet Union. "I wanted to help make foreign policy rather than just execute it," he says.
In 1983, he left the Army and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to study Russian. He intentionally chose the liberal haven because its famed anti-war, anti-military sentiment made it the most unlikely place for a former Army Ranger. "I've always tried to make sure I had a broad perspective," he says. "You have to understand the breadth and diversity of America. You can't do that just being an Army brat and a Ranger."
At Berkeley, Miles met his wife, Karen, who was also studying Slavic languages. The couple entered a study-abroad program that took them to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). When they returned, Miles completed his bachelor's degree and earned a scholarship to the master's program in international relations at Columbia University in New York.
From Columbia, Miles went to work for the U.S. Department of State and was eventually assigned to the American Embassy in Moscow, where he worked as an assistant to the American ambassador, Thomas Pickering. It was a heady time to be in the Soviet Union: Mikhail Gorbachev had taken power, and the Soviet system was starting to unravel. "Tanks were firing at the Parliament building across the street from the embassy," Miles remembers of the coup attempt by Stalinists trying to preserve Communism.
In 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Miles and his wife made the momentous decision to return to Colorado. "It was a hard decision," Miles says. "It was tough running around the Soviet Union with babies. You had to worry about lead pollution and the water."
When they returned to Fountain, Miles made yet another career change. He had never forgotten the woman who had helped him overcome his stuttering, and he decided this was his chance to repay the debt.
The father of three got his teaching license and began teaching civics, world literature and math at his alma mater, Fountain-Fort Carson High School. Four years later, he was appointed a principal and then was promoted to assistant superintendent of the school district. Right now he's working only half-time while he runs for the Senate.
"I think the country is off track," Miles says. "We've lost that promise of America. The opportunity I had as a kid -- where else could a poor kid with a speech impediment who is also black go to three of the best colleges in the world? -- that's out of reach for more and more of the middle class."
Miles believes that health care is also becoming increasingly inaccessible, and he supports a system of government-funded universal health insurance. President Bush's decision to invade Iraq also troubles him; he believes Congress forfeited many of its constitutional powers when it gave Bush the authority to go to war. "They gave up one of the key constitutional balances that the framers of the Constitution gave us," he says.
The influence of big business has become so pervasive in Washington, Miles says, that only an outsider would be able to fight back. He thinks that Campbell has clearly become part of the establishment, and he's betting that Coloradans will like the idea of sending an outsider to Washington. "You can't really talk about taking back our country when you've been an insider," he says.
Despite that and Campbell's notorious switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party during his first term, the senator is widely regarded as one of the state's most popular politicians -- largely because of his folksy image. Miles thinks that's just for show, however. "Those are not the things that make a great senator," he says.
But the voters of Colorado have sent Campbell to the Senate twice, to the House of Representatives before that, and to two terms in the Colorado General Assembly. Also, the California native has his own educational and military experience, having studied at the University of Tokyo and served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1953.
On the Democratic side, Hart is still waffling about jumping into the race, and Denver attorney Brad Freedburg is running, although he's picked up little support within the party. Cheyenne County Commissioner Richard Bergman is also running as an independent, focusing his platform on the legalization of marijuana. His slogan: "Colorado needs a senator who has inhaled and is not afraid to admit it."
The competition leaves Miles unfazed. He thinks Coloradans are ready to send a non-politician to Congress to shake things up. "We're losing our democracy, the system I fought for," he says. "I want to be a gladiator for democracy."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.