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Life After Politics?

I just got off the phone with a woman who had spent the past month volunteering to get a ballot initiative off the ground in her community, only to watch a Tea Party group swoop in, dump a boatload of money, and swing the election in their favor.

“I lost my first election,” she said. “I thought you’d understand.”

The day before, I had wandered into a local McDonalds for lunch. I was working from home, so I was unshaven, dressed in torn jeans, and even wearing two shoes that weren’t from the same pairs. A pretty, well-dressed young woman came up to me, called me “Mr. Cornell” very formally, and extended her hand as if I ought to know her. I had no idea who she was. Was she a former student of mine when I had worked at Tuacahn High School? Had I taught her in Sunday School? Was she a friend of the family? No, she said, she had worked for the prominent Tea Party Republican who had trounced my candidate in 2010, and she was on her way to run an open house on behalf of the guy who had beaten me in a run for the Utah State Senate in 2006.

It was quite a contrast – well-coifed, attractive, young, up-and-coming political success meets middle-aged, shlumpy, cheeseburger-eating loser who can’t even match his shoes.

I would like to report that she was rude or obnoxious or gloating, except she wasn’t. She was very polite, and our exchange was entirely pleasant. But I couldn’t help but notice the contrast between us, and I’m sure she couldn’t, either. I thought about what she must have told my former political foes about our friendly encounter. Did she chuckle about how the mighty hath fallen? Or would it have mattered enough to her to make any comment about it at all?

I thought about it as my friend called me today and told me how devastated she was about losing her first election. I had told her weeks ago that I was out of the game for good, and that I couldn’t imagine a circumstance where I would ever find myself doing anything in politics again. At that time, she scolded me and insisted that I get back on the horse and “fight for what’s right.” Today, however, she told me how much she understands, and she apologized for what she had said before, as she doubted she would ever stick her neck out like that again.

There’s probably a moral to this story, but I don’t know what it is.

I will say that it’s impossible to know what it feels like to put your name on a ballot and have the voters say “no, thanks” until it happens to you. It’s far more personal than I had imagined. Maybe there are candidates that can see it as a game and brush it off, but, to me, it was a complete rejection of me as both a candidate and as a human being. Losing the later 2010 election was also devastating, but in a different way. I was angry because the good guy had lost and the bad guy was the one replacing him. But, at the same time, it wasn’t my name on the ballot.

So maybe the moral of the story is that I should get back on the political horse. Except, politically, I’m a man without a horse. The Tea Party controls the Utah Republican Party, and they’ve made it clear that I’m not welcome there. Sure, Utah Democrats may be desperate enough to entertain the idea of putting me on their ticket, except I don’t agree with them on much, and it’s next to impossible to win any kind of election in my area with a D next to your name. So, in pragmatic terms, that’s kind of a non-starter.

But there’s more to it than that. The more distance I get from my erstwhile political career, the more I think that a person who is as devastated as I was has no business putting their name on a ballot ever again. There are plenty of people who perennially run for office – former Utah congressman Merrill Cook comes to mind – because they crave the validation that comes with voters who approve of you. If you can’t win an election, the thinking goes, you must not be worth anything. So candidates continue to sacrifice their time, their talent, and, too often, their principles to curry favor with thousands of faceless people they’ll never meet, never satisfy, and never hear from again when they lose. I don’t want to be one of those guys. The one good thing that losing has done is guarantee that I never will be.

The problem I face, then, is where does this all leave me? I thought I was a theater guy. After ten years of pounding my head against that particular brick wall, I finally learned that I’m not a theater guy. But that was OK, because I was suddenly a politico. Seven or so years and two cripplingly public losses later, I’m not a politico. So what am I? Well, I’m a husband to a wonderful wife, and a father to five magnificent children. Maybe that’s enough. Certainly that’s what’s most important. But, at the same time, I have (hopefully) decades of life ahead of me, and plenty of aimless ambition to fill those years with – what? Just cheeseburgers and mismatched shoes?

Any suggestions would be most welcome.

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