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The Awareness Ticket

Fake Presidential Campaign Takes Aim at Lack of Voter Participation

Bill Shein stands in the Starbucks at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Third Street Southeast and puckers up his lips to kiss the first baby of the day.

“Are you running for president?” asks Maxine Kniseley, the infant’s mother, after Shein hands her campaign literature on the presidential bid of his alter ego, philosopher-poet Will Markson.

“See ya in 17 years and three months,” Shein tells 9-month-old Harper, before moving on to his next potential voter.

That most Americans have never heard of Will Markson, the fictional candidate 36-year-old Shein created to help raise awareness about the lack of voter turnout in U.S. elections, is hardly surprising. But Shein, who last week launched Will Markson for President 2004 at a rally in Great Barrington, Mass., and is barnstorming in the District this week, says the capital city is the perfect place to generate nationwide buzz for a Markson bid.

“In effect, it’s a way to travel the country by staying in one place,” Shein says. “They go home and say, ‘Hey, I was accosted by this man on the street.’”

The apocryphal Markson presidential campaign is the first initiative of Yes I Will!, the nonprofit organization Shein formed earlier this year to “build a more vibrant, responsive and inclusive American democracy.”

And what better way to accomplish such lofty goals, Shein believes, than to use humor to “grab some attention for a serious issue.”

As Shein makes his way up Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast toward the Capitol on Wednesday with his cameraman Matthew Clark in tow, passersby are generally receptive, although a few quicken their pace when candidate Markson begins his spiel.

“It’s funny, when you approach people on the street the first thing they think is you are going to hurt them,” the good-natured Shein observes.

At the Firehook Bakery, Shein stops off to shoot the breeze with Maureen Murphy, a fifth-grade teacher from Massachusetts who is in Washington to volunteer for Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) presidential campaign.

“We need 800 numbers for Congressional Members,” offers Murphy, adding that she often leads her students in discussions about the democratic process.

“I gotta make you like secretary of Democracy or something,” Shein shoots back.

Further down the street, the mock candidate endures some needling from the slightly more skeptical David Paigen.

“Why should I take seriously some guy standing on a street corner?” Paigen presses, before proceeding to suggest Shein read Fareed Zakaria’s recent book, “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.”

Despite a career as a comedy writer and humor columnist for America Online, Shein, a New York state native, has always been serious about politics, having caught the “bug” early in life when he volunteered for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign in high school and later worked for Paul Simon’s 1988 presidential bid. After graduating from Tufts University in 1990, Shein headed to Washington, D.C., where he spent a brief stint at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee helping Members of the world’s most exclusive club operate WordPerfect. “Yes, Senator,” he facetiously remembers saying, “that’s shift-F7 to print.”

Inspired in part by comedian Pat Paulsen, who famously launched a satirical presidential campaign on the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in 1968, Shein believes his quixotic bid will get the electorate thinking about questions such as “Why do we still vote on a Tuesday” and “Why do some states close their polls at 6 o’clock?”

With the exception of Shein’s top-flight Web site — www.markson2004.com — his effort exhibits few of the usual trappings of a viable presidential campaign. Markson for President has only two part-time staffers in Washington and has raised just under $10,000 to date, mainly through citizens fundraisers and donations to the Yes! I Will Fund.

But Shein hopes to get some high-profile help from the likes of John Anderson, the 1980 independent presidential candidate and current chairman of the Center for Voting and Democracy, who will likely make an appearance with Will Markson in the not-so-distant future.

And to aid his consciousness-raising undertaking, Shein is also working with Democracy Matters, a group that seeks to engage college students about democracy reform issues, and plans to visit several college campuses this fall.

Despite Shein’s Democratic Party credentials, Shein says Markson is content to be a single-issue candidate. He has not taken a position on any of the more hot-button political topics such as abortion or the war on terrorism.

“We are trying to talk to people regardless of their political opinions or their favorite Backstreet Boy,” Shein cracks.

And engage them he does.

On Second Street Northeast, Shein stops Carol Hintz, who informs him she can’t vote because she is Canadian.

But this doesn’t faze Shein.

“What is it like in Canada?” he queries, referring to the levels of democratic participation there.

“I think it’s even worse,” Hintz says, before hurrying off down the street.

Candidate Markson shrugs off the occasional uncomfortable encounter.

“For every person I talk to they are going to tell 10 people,” he asserts. “And one out of every 10 people I talked to is going to say they were frightened.”

Outside the Hart Senate Office Building, Shein makes a beeline for Senate staffer Brent Wiles, who calls the quest “noble.”

Just then, a group of cowboy hat-wearing ranchers from Arizona emerges from Hart. They’ve just been to see Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) about grazing rights and are a bit perplexed about the implications of a Markson candidacy.

“What is a fictional candidate?” questions John Whitney III.

“If it raises voter awareness … I’m all for it,” John Whitney IV counters.

A block down the street, Shein gets an earful from Italian Hugo Rahal, an Al Jazeera cameraman who blames the media for American political apathy.

This is not a problem in Italy, he says, where citizens “breathe politics.”

The Ohio tourists Shein encounters next appear to underscore Rahal’s point.

“Is this the building where all the Representatives are?” queries one woman, pointing to the Russell Senate Office Building.

Shein assures her it is not, kindly directing the befuddled Buckeye toward the other side of the Capitol.

As Shein winds up the morning leg of his Washington street campaign, he stops to reflect on what sets him apart from the crowded presidential field.

“I am probably the only candidate for president that only owns one suit,” he says. “I don’t have to decide what to wear [in the morning]. I put on my one suit and get busy solving the problems of the American people.”

Markson — who pledges to visit all 50 states before the 2004 election — will head to Iowa next month to attend the state fair and, hopefully, mingle with some of the other aspiring commanders in chief.

“Will they kick me in the shins?” Shein wonders. “I hope not. [But] that Dean looks feisty.”

Will Markson will headline a $5 per person “citizens fundraiser” at 6:30 p.m. today at The Childe Harold, 1610 20th St. NW.