Mike Gravel chews contemplatively on the turkey sandwich he bought at Kimmel. He stops chewing and says decisively: "I'm running because I want to empower you to make laws. Because clearly, voting isn't cutting it for you."
The Democratic presidential candidate and former two-term senator from Alaska is discussing his "national initiative," a plan to incorporate voters into the lawmaking process, over lunch in Kimmel's "green room," which resembles an interrogation room from a bad police movie. Gravel, thanking the guard who unlocked the door, doesn't seem to notice he's sitting at a table which is covered in a layer of stickiness and dust.
After almost 30 years of being absent from the political scene, Gravel decided to run in the 2008 presidential race.
"I had a friend call me about two years ago," Gravel said. "He said, 'If you want to see this thing [the national initiative] in your lifetime, you've got to run for president.' "
Today, Gravel doesn't seem to be too concerned about winning the presidential election. He says he's more concerned with increasing awareness about his campaign platform, which includes the national initiative, reducing carbon emissions, and - perhaps the most widely discussed topic - legalizing marijuana and making hard drugs available with a prescription.
"It's so controversial because there's a lot of stupid people locked into stupid policies," Gravel said. "There are a lot of people on drugs all the time - what's the big deal about it?"
Gravel seems sincere in his concern for the future of America, but is almost quixotic in his campaign to free the people from government domination and make the world a better place by installing 5 million windmills across the United States.
Gravel is flanked by Jose Rodriguez, his faithful campaign field organizer. Rodriguez is a friendly, efficient man whose admiration for Gravel was apparent in his animated telling of Gravel's political accomplishments back in the day. Rodriguez's most prominent recollection was of the time Gravel single-handedly filibustered in the Senate for five months in 1971, using a colostomy bag at times as to not abandon the podium, in order to prevent the draft.
To each question, Gravel replies quickly and extensively, looking around at his audience - two journalists and two members of the College Democrats, who periodically nudge each other and smile after his more outrageous comments. It's easy to identify with Gravel as he discusses his tiny hotel room (smaller than Kimmel's green room), humble financial situation (he says his wife supports him) and his secret to campaigning at the ripe age of 77.
"I'm like Popeye. I've got this protein - there's a new drink at Trader Joe's with 33 grams of protein!" Gravel says. "I drink that and I'm ready to go."
This is not Gravel's first time in New York; he majored in economics at Columbia University and worked as a cab driver during his senior year to afford finishing his degree. It is, however, his first time at Kimmel, and he favors the yogurt parfaits.
"It's sweet - I want to leave this here so I can finish it later," he tells Rodriguez when given the five-minute warning for his appearance.
Gravel concludes the interview on a bright note that helps answer why he is taking part in a campaign where he is bullied by media and fellow candidates alike. He paraphrases Joseph Campbell and says, "You figure out where your bliss is and follow it, and you'll do a good job and that's what rewards you."
"This story appears courtesy of UWIRE, a news service powered by student journalists at more than 800 universities. To learn more, visit UWIRE.com."
© 2007 Washington Square News via U-WIRE