Paul Hackett has the iron-grip handshake someone might expect of a Marine. But in jeans and an open collared shirt, eating a lunch of Cheetos and Coke at his desk in an office filled with family photos and with children's drawings plastered everywhere, he seems like any working class stiff in downtown Cincinnati.
He doesn't look, act or sound like a politician who ran for Congress and launched a brief primary campaign for a U.S. Senate seat less than a year after returning from active duty in Iraq.
Last year Hackett entered the special election in Ohio's 2nd Congressional District, hoping to fill the seat vacated by Rob Portman when he became U.S. trade ambassador. Hackett's loss to Republican Jean Schmidt wasn't a surprise, but capturing 48 percent of the vote in a traditionally conservative district shocked people across the nation.
Now helping fellow Iraq War veterans run for office, Hackett says his introductions almost always include the outcome of his first race.
"Let's not get too excited about this," he pleads. "I lost. Come to grips with this: I lost. Let's move on and talk about some exciting victories."
'We have got to stop'
Before that's possible, he wants to set the record straight about the U.S. Senate campaign he dropped earlier this year, pulling out of the Democratic primary race against U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Akron).
"I get these calls and letters, 'Please stay in; run as an independent.' I just smile," Hackett says. "You don't get it. To come into politics with no 20-year career and swimming against the current of the river is a complicated, difficult task. You've got to have the money.
We were raising money at an astounding pace. Sherrod Brown came in with a $2 million advantage, so I had to raise $3 for every $1 he was raising. The bad news is that I was raising a dollar for every dollar he was raising. So that does not allow me to frame — I hate that word 'frame' — the debate, the message, in my terms. The final month of a primary race is all about advertising, commercials and messaging. If I don't have the money to get my message out, Sherrod will do the favor for me and get my message out his way."
Meetings with Rahm Emanuel, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as well as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Youngstown) and his own campaign staff made it clear to Hackett that the only advantage to staying in the race — and losing — was to set himself up to go after another political office. He didn't want that.
"Some people can call that a cry-baby, a quitter, whatever you want to call it," Hackett says. "I thought it was the right decision. I'd make the decision again. It's not the decision that made me the most happy, but it was the right decision for my campaign, for me personally and for the Democratic Party."
Questions are frequently raised about Hackett's loyalty to his party because of the remarks he makes about his former opponent.
"Someone forwarded me an e-mail with a link to a Web site selling T-shirts that say, 'Fuck Sherrod, but I'm still gonna vote for him,' which was a quote from me last week," he laughs. "Why do I have to love him? I don't complain about Sherrod Brown. The problem is 99 percent of the time someone wants to interview me, they ask me about Sherrod Brown. It's usually something stupid like, 'Do you like Sherrod Brown?' Or something equally stupid like, 'Why don't you like Sherrod Brown?'
"Do you want me to sound like a politician and ignore the question and give you some other answer? You can ask me any question and I'll give you my direct, honest answer. It's amazing. I only answer the questions that are asked."
Hackett is hanging up his political aspirations for now. Will he consider running for office in the future?
"Probably, yeah," he says. "I would say it's safe to bet. As I sit here today, I have no desire to get into elected politics. ... My motivation for getting involved to begin with was to help my country: 'I'm unhappy that my party, the Democratic Party, isn't living up to what I want them to do. Maybe I can jump in here and make a difference. Shit, if I can do this and help out, that's good.' But as far as running for local office or leadership, I'm not interested in that."
Hackett sneers at what he heard from Hamilton County Democratic Chair Tim Burke and other party leaders after dropping out of the Senate race.
"Where the disconnect begins is when the Democratic Party, like Tim Burke, says, 'Come back and run (again) for the 2nd Congressional District,' despite the fact that I told the folks that hopped into that race that I would not get back in that race," Hackett says. "And their response is, 'Oh, that happens in politics all the time.' To which I say, 'That doesn't mean it's right.' I just think it's poor form, because that was what happened to me in the Senate race. Right or wrong, politics or not, if I give my word, my word is my bond.
Now everybody can spin it how they want to spin it. Fuck it, man. If I just jump back in that race, it's like shit rolling downhill. It gets on everybody and it makes a mess. If we, as a party, want to encourage new blood and participation in this process, we have got to stop doing that kind of thing."
Resisting the 'totalitarian approach'
That new blood is where Hackett is focusing his energy, helping people he calls "citizen legislators" get elected for the first time. So far the people calling for help are military veterans. Multiple calls every day come into his law office from across the country with stories of how his foray into politics inspired yet another rookie to run.
"With the exception of the 2nd Congressional District, the only people that have reached out to me and that I have reciprocated with are veterans first and foremost and, more specifically, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans," Hackett says.
Citing the "military family connection" as the probable reason for the contacts, he hopes these people will earn some victories for the Democrats.
"Nobody thought I had a snowball's chance in hell to get any sort of required notoriety to be competitive in a congressional race," he says. "But it happened, and to suggest that it can't happen with Thor Jacobs or Jim Parker or Vic Wilson or Gabby Downy or any of those folks who are running is unfair, and I don't think it's a good strategy to encourage additional participation in the process."
He says he's unsure how his presence can help but leaves it up to those seeking assistance to tell him what they want.
"It's been an incredibly positive experience, and I would like to continue to be a positive influence in some of these social debates," he says. "I will continue to weigh in on them, at least as long as people have an interest in my view. I think I can be a positive yet critical voice on some of these issues that have not otherwise been addressed by our Democratic leadership or our Republican leadership."
Hackett's experiences convinced him that his views on Iraq, the economy and gay rights are "mainstream." In an exasperated tone of voice, he says this country has more important issues to deal with than gay rights and was surprised when the topic came up at a recent breakfast he had with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.).
"I told him it's not a discussion about, 'I think that you should approve the gay lifestyle.' I'm not going there," Hackett says. "My gay friends aren't going there. My gay friends want to be left alone. They want to have the same rights in their personal relationship as my wife and I have. If you think that's immoral, fine. Rest easy that, if your religious beliefs are 'They're all gonna burn in hell,' let 'em burn in hell. But while we're here on earth, we all get the same rights.
"He said, 'Wow, that's so clear. That's so straightforward. Why haven't I heard that from anybody else?' I think that's how most people feel. The guy coming out of the Ford plant, that's generally how he feels."
Popping another Cheeto, Hackett continues.
"The Republican Party has been hijacked by religious fanatics," he says. "I'm talking about the people who want to tell you how to worship your god. I'm talking about Pat Robertson, who wants to say that the Twin Towers were brought down to punish New York City. ... If you believe that, that's fine, live your private life, worship your god in your way. Don't tell me how to live my private life. Don't tell me or my neighbors how to worship our gods. Furthermore, stop taking your lens of religion and placing it over the Constitution of the United States and trying to argue that we have to believe it your way, the religious nut way. Let the rest of us Americans worship our god and live our lives in private.
"Democrats are very afraid to say that, and they're very apologetic about that. I just hope they find the courage to get away from that because, if they don't stand up against what I view as a very totalitarian approach that is overwhelming our country and administration, we're going to be worse off than we are now."
See him smile
The direct, unapologetic candor is what attracts and repels support for Hackett. He believes it's what's missing from politics in general.
"It's what makes me most unhappy about the Democratic Party, as a party on the national level and to some extent locally," he says. "They are apprehensive to rock the boat. Guys, the boat's sinking. Let's not be afraid to fight about this. Let's be the opposition party. We are not going to be successful if our strategy is to simply hope that the Republican Party self-destructs."
Hackett says he wants his party to return to its roots — support for working Americans and the freedoms that define America, standing up for individual rights. He wants to do it by redefining some conservative language.
"We're the party of fiscal responsibility," Hackett says. "We're the party of limited government. We are the party of strong national defense ... that wants our military used intelligently and wisely, that wants to support our military. We're also the party of fair trade ... that fought against off-shoring the middle class as best represented by NAFTA and CAFTA."
During his campaigns Hackett formed the opinion that the base of the Democratic Party "doesn't get" those four statements.
"They push back and say, 'No, no, no! We're not that. You're sounding like a Republican,' " he says. 'To which I would say, 'Listen very carefully to what I'm saying.' Limited government: That means I don't need Washington, D.C. telling me how to live my personal life. It means I don't need them dictating to me how I worship my god, educate my children, dictate to my wife the decisions that she makes with her doctor any more than it means I need them to tell me the type of guns, the number of guns I keep in my gun safe.
"Some people think that I say that to be inflammatory. I actually believe it, and I don't think it's all that unique. But it's not a modern Democratic position because modern Democrats, the elitist Democrats, translate limited government into, 'We're going to remove financial support from good government programs like Head Start.' That's not where I'm going. Adopt some of the language and define it your way. Limited government is a good thing when it comes to our personal lives. Think Barry Goldwater. Most Americans agree with that."
Suggesting that politicians prefer the path of least resistance, Hackett says voters like people who take a stand on controversial issues. He says Feingold's call for a censure of President Bush is supported by average Americans.
"Regardless of whether or not you agree or disagree with it, something like 40 percent of Americans back Feingold's move," Hackett says. "Something like 25 percent of Republicans back that move. Just one man, so imagine 40 senators from the Democratic Party and a handful of Republicans got behind that. Now I'm not necessarily advocating that, I'm just saying here's an example of somebody who's willing to lead and move in the direction they believe is the right direction."
The Democratic Party has a unique opportunity to break away from hesitancy and take a leadership position by earning the support of Iraqi vets, according to Hackett.
"I don't know where to begin, but the Democratic Party does not speak military," he says. "If you can't speak the language, you're not gonna connect. Of the 60 or more vets that are running across the United States for the first time, all of them are Democrats. I think there are 12 Iraq vets running; 10 of them are Democrats. Why? Because those of us recently who have served understand that the Republican Party has a very thin veneer of wanting to support the military.
"The vets that are coming back are young, they're smart, they're sophisticated both in media and otherwise. You're not gonna bullshit 'em. The Democrats, I hope, will begin to work hard to try to understand, attract and cultivate the support of the military.
"We're over two million Iraq veterans today. In the 15 years of Vietnam, we created three million veterans. In three years in Iraq, we've created two million veterans. This war experience is going to have a huge, long-lasting impact on politics in America."
It's important to Hackett that people know that, while he's passionate about his views and he's willing to share them, he's really not angry. That's why he keeps giving suggestions to the photographer.
"You have to get me smiling," he says. "People have this belief that I'm angry. We have to eliminate this concern that Hackett's angry."
PAUL HACKETT is the keynote speaker at the Hamilton County Democratic Forum at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (see Citylights on page 30 for details). To read more about Hackett's views about Iraq, visit