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Off the Beaten Campaign Path

January 19, 2000|Steve Chawkins

For Joe Schriner, it's another town, another campaign day, another chat with skeptical reporters, another opportunity to buttonhole shoppers and explain--yet again--that he really is serious about becoming president.

Of the United States.

Of America.

On this day, he was parked beside the arcade in Ojai. His 1974 Dodge van carried a banner that said: "Vote Joe in 2000." He and his wife, Liz, have driven the van through 26 states in nine months. Their 4-year-old daughter, Sarah, and 2-year-old son, Joseph, have been loyalists throughout, firmly belted into their car seats even during the campaign's darkest days, which, Joe assured me, are long past.

"Things are evolving," he said. "Our message is resonating. It's been a long, arduous trip, but we feel real confident."

That's one big difference between Joe and me. If I were cooped up in a van with a wife and two young kids for nine months, I wouldn't be confident that I could unclench my jaw or live Tums-free ever again. But Joe is convinced he'll snag the GOP nomination and, next January, drive his beat-up old van--carpeted in green shag and rich with the aromas of a long family trip--directly to the White House.

Well, not to the White House, exactly.

If Joe is elected, the Schriners pledge to live in "urban D.C.," amid all the problems government has yet to solve. The presidential residence will be turned into a homeless shelter--which, as I think about it, would be a more compassionate use of public space than the hoity-toity bed-and-breakfast it was turned into under Bill and Hillary.

But the road to the White House is not without potholes.

Getting the campaign message out has been a major problem. Nationally, the name Joe Schriner does not ring a bell with many people. Even in tiny Ripley, Ohio, (population 2,000) the folks I called at the Riverview Bait Shop, the Dairy Yum Yum restaurant and Snapper's Saloon couldn't quite place him, although Schriner wrote a column for the Ripley Bee.

A sunburned, crewcut man wearing jeans and a belt that's been tightened a notch or two, Schriner, 44, is not put off by such obstacles. Nor does he hide facts that some voters might find disquieting. A former substance-abuse counselor, he also was once hooked on booze and Valium. And the book he wrote under a pseudonym might strike some portion of the electorate as just too weird: "Breaking the Circle of Satanic Ritual Abuse."

His foreign-policy credentials might also raise a red flag. Schriner has never been in a foreign country, except Canada--once.

"I can just see it," he laughed. "The first time they tell me there's a problem in Zimbabwe, I'll be asking: 'Zimbabwe? Is that like a suburb of Des Moines?"

Schriner's campaign kick-off at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia was glum. A sometime-journalist, he had distributed news releases and made all the follow-up calls to the big papers and TV station. But not one reporter showed. And only one supporter was not named Schriner--a family friend.

"If all the Lord needed was a mustard seed, maybe this is it," the friend said.


The obligatory campaign visit to Washington was even worse. On one side of the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument, Al Gore was giving a speech honoring police officers. Hundreds attended.

On the other side, Schriner set up his speakers and delivered his stump speech to a crowd of . . . two.

"But they invited us to stay with them when we hit Wisconsin," Liz said.

Since those early days, the Schriners have changed their campaign strategy. With a guide to the country's best small towns in hand, they tend to steer clear of metropolitan media markets. After Ojai, the next stop is Big Bear Lake--not a stop for every presidential candidate's campaign bus.

From time to time, the candidate and his entourage stay in a motel for creature comforts, like showers. Otherwise, they sleep in the van, stop at plenty of playgrounds, and schmooze with small-town reporters who aren't as jaded as their big-city cousins.

"Small-town reporters tend to listen more," Schriner said.

Some of what they hear isn't so different from the standard offerings of other candidates: Too many families are broken, too many children aimless, too many parents working too hard for too many hours. We are obsessed with consumption, Schriner says; we have to simplify our lives, enrich our spiritual values, share our blessings with the less fortunate.

"The difference between other candidates and us is that we're living it," he said. "We left home with our van and $1,000. We've lived for the last nine months on $9,500 in donations."

But what about the Republican leadership? Wouldn't they require more for a national ad blitz than a measly $9,500?


Schriner said that he hasn't yet talked with the Republican leadership, but that his message is spreading throughout small-town America.

"Pretty soon they'll have to take a look at us," he said. "Maybe they'll even be forced to include our points on the platform."

Schriner beats the drum for solutions that come from community groups instead of government. For eight years, he traveled the U.S. studying land trusts for Ohio farmers, ecological communities in New Mexico, a fight against island development off South Carolina.

During that time, he worked as a freelance pastor and compiled 40 notebooks on his observations.

Other points include:

* A ban on abortion.

* Reparations to African Americans and Native Americans.

* Unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Are you sure you're a Republican, I asked Schriner.

It's the party of Lincoln, he pointed out.

You won't win, I told him. You won't be president.

Later on, he faxed a response: "The only thing we're not sure of is whether it will be a landslide!"


And maybe one day a professional wrestler will be governor of Minnesota.

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or by e-mail at

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