Dimitri Cherny has a new look. Two years ago, as an independent candidate for the 1st Congressional District, he had a proudly proletarian bearing. Today, he's running as a Democrat, and when he makes public appearances, he dresses in dark suits with crisp, white shirts and power ties.
He has no regrets about his 2014 first-time foray into politics. He didn't have the $3,500 filing fee to run for the House seat, so he ran as a write-in independent, making him Republican incumbent Mark Sanford's only opponent. Democrats lost their nerve in the 1st District after Elizabeth Colbert Busch blew a million dollars and a late lead in the polls against Sanford in the 2013 special election to replace Tim Scott.
"I met an awful lot of very nice people," Cherny says of his last political adventure. He received about 7 percent of the vote district-wide, enough to whet his appetite and make him want to do it again.
Since the 2014 race, Cherny has been at work on a number of social justice issues, including Gun Sense SC, Black Lives Matter, homelessness, and public transit in Charleston.
Cherny has a resume unlike any in Congress. Once a high-paid, globe-trotting engineer for IBM, he lost his job in the Great Recession and soon lost his savings, his seaside home, everything. He was briefly homeless, before becoming a long-distance truck driver. In his new career "he met an America he didn't know existed. Many lived paycheck to paycheck, one car repair or medical bill away from disaster," to quote his website, chernyforcongress.us.
Today, Cherny is raising money, but he knows he cannot compete with the Sanford machine. To make matters worse, the state Democratic Party is famous for not supporting its candidates with much more than a handshake and a pat on the back. Necessity is forcing him to be creative.
He plans to tour the district, meeting 100,000 people this summer, using a canoe and a collapsible bicycle. He will start on Daufuskie Island in Beaufort County and make his way 150 miles north to South Santee, crossing rivers and bays in canoe, with bicycle and trailer, and plying the roads of the 1st District on his bike, with his canoe in toe. After South Santee, he will return to Folly Beach and move inland to Lake Moultrie, finishing his two-month tour at Bonneau.
It sounds crazy, but it just might work. It's the kind of desperate tactic or stunt that may catch the media's attention and the public's imagination. But will voters go to the polls for him in November?
What Cherny really wants to do is face Mark Sanford again, this time on the Democratic line of the ballot. He says he actually likes Sanford personally, having met him two years ago. When they met face to face recently, Cherny says Sanford agreed to a debate sometime this fall. There were no witnesses or record of that promise. Let's see if Sanford remembers it this October.
Cherny says he will not make an issue of Sanford's past indiscretions. Sanford's tragedy was that he went through a midlife crisis with the nation's media focused on him, Cherny says. That's a charitable way of viewing the great Appalachian Trail adventure, but the fact is that Sanford did more than have a marital meltdown. He abandoned not only his family, but the state he was elected to lead, going abroad without any notice as to his whereabouts or his plans to return.
"I think (Sanford) wants to do the right thing for people," Cherny says, "but he just doesn't know how to do it."
Cherny is convinced that he does. He is a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter and thinks the Vermont Democratic Socialist is the answer for what ails America. He might be right, but there is evidence that Cherny has been inside the Sanders echo chamber too long.
In an interview last week, he surprised me with the fanciful theory that Donald Trump is running for the GOP presidential nomination in order to throw the November election to Hillary Clinton. (Yes, you read that right!) He also stated with stone-cold confidence that Sanders would win the Democratic nomination. When I said that the polls and pundits did not seem to share that opinion, he suggested that I had been brainwashed by the mainstream media, including The New York Times. The day after that interview, Clinton ran the table in five major primaries, including Florida, Ohio, and Illinois, extending her delegate lead and increasing her momentum toward the nomination.
But the thing you cannot fault Cherny on is his passion for helping ordinary people, something his cynical and manipulative opponent has no interest in doing. There are too many billionaires in this country — the "obscenely rich," Cherny calls them — and too many hard-working poor people who lack healthcare, who cannot afford a roof over their heads. What this country needs is a radical restructuring of the economy to distribute wealth to the middle class.
"What it boils down to is, we are our brother's keeper," he says. "We have to take care of these people."
Let's see what Mark Sanford says about that.