Great American loser

Dennis Breen was a regular guy, fed up with the crookedness of political campaigns. So he ran one himself, after work and on weekends.

By T. Wright Townsend

Published November 10, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

In a race in which the two major-party candidates spent a combined total of around $70 million, and in a time when money is increasingly essential to a candidate's success, a guy who bases his campaign around a pledge of accepting no money whatsoever isn't going to do very well.

"I knew from the beginning I wasn't going to win this thing," said lawyer and then-U.S. Senate candidate Dennis A. Breen a couple weeks before Election Day. The natural question, then: So why run?

The balloons at Breen's "victory party" Tuesday night at the Elks Lodge No. 1246 in Summit, N.J., were appropriately red, white and blue -- there just weren't very many of them. And most of the kids tearing around the room were doing their best to pop them with toothpicks stolen from the 6-foot-long subs. Family, friends and neighbors sat around card tables, cheese curls in aluminum casseroles between them, chatting as they watched CNN on a big-screen TV.

Breen, running as an independent for the Senate seat vacated by Frank Lautenberg, had rented out the Elks lodge in his hometown of Summit. (Summit is also the town where Jon Corzine, the Democratic candidate -- and winner of the seat -- lives, and where Bob Franks, the Republican candidate, grew up.) Breen brought $4,000 of his own money to the campaign, and with the last of it bought a keg of Coors Light, some bottles of generic orange soda, a few subs and a couple of bags of balloons.

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I first heard about his candidacy last spring when a friend told me about Breen's unique campaign pledge. "He won't take money from anyone," my friend said. "That's his thing."

I called Breen up and met him for a drink. He's a short guy, 49 years old, with gray hair and the easy confidence of a successful lawyer accustomed to talking to people about their problems. Breen likes to talk, and in that first conversation it became apparent that he was good at it.

He spoke to me with the coarse, matter-of-factness of a New York lawyer. Breen swears. He calls you by your name, and then a nickname he's decided upon within minutes of meeting you. He eschews political correctness -- he says "black," not "African-American" -- but doesn't offend, either. And best of all, none of this is for effect.

Raised in Brooklyn, Breen attended the State University of New York in Brockport, got a postgraduate degree in teaching from SUNY-Binghamton and another in law from the University of Dayton. Most recently he was a litigator for the law firm of Barry, McTiernan & Moore, though during the campaign he became the in-house counsel for an insurance agency. Breen was no political junkie growing up -- under his jovial energy and idealism is a seething dislike for how career politicians work. Like so many Americans, he hates everything about big-money politics.

It was the 1996 Senate race between Rep. Robert Toricelli, D-N.J., and Rep. Dick Zimmer, R-N.J., that really made him steam. "It was such a nasty campaign, so negative," says Breen. "At the time I thought, 'This is just disgusting. We gotta bring this up a notch.'"

The real epiphany came during President Clinton's impeachment -- Breen was in the shower. "I was so ticked off that some senators would announce their vote before they'd even heard the evidence against the president," he says. "As a litigator, I was offended, and I thought, 'Even 10 independent voices could force this to a debate and an honest decision.' That's when I decided to do this."

When Breen related this news to his friends they told him he was nuts to run as an independent, and even more nuts to run without money. They told him it was something you just couldn't do anymore. That it was politically unsophisticated: Politics today was about TV ads and focus groups, all of which cost money. "I tell them they're probably right," he said last spring, "but at least I'll have done something about it. I'll have gotten off my ass and tried to encourage people to get off theirs. And maybe if I make enough noise they'll realize it doesn't have to be 'Choose column A or column B.'"

In January, Breen called up the state elections office in New Jersey and had the woman who answered the phone tell him the rules for running for U.S. Senate.

"She was an absolute angel," he said. "Her name is Jean Berry, and without her I couldn't be doing this. I've never met her, but on the phone she sounds like a big, fat black lady. I love her to death." When Breen did finally meet Berry, he says he brought her a plant as thanks for her help. Breen says she wouldn't accept the gift, but that she told him, "Just have fun. That's what it's all about."

From January until yesterday, Breen did just that. He traveled around New Jersey talking to American Legions, college groups and senior citizen centers on the weekends, and in the evenings after he got home from work. Thirty people volunteered to help Breen get 800 signatures over the summer so that he could be on Tuesday's ballot. His wife, Mary, was his campaign manager. A friend of a friend volunteered to make his Web site ("it has three misspellings, but I don't know how to fix them," Breen says) and another friend, a printer, contributed his pamphlets, printed on paper Breen swiped from his law office.

The language of Breen's campaign was devoid of complex rhetoric. That's the nice way of putting it. It could also be argued that his basic understanding of the issues he'd face as a junior senator was just that -- basic. Breen's Web site describes the national debt, for example, as "the greatest threat to our present growth ... that continues to hang over us. The debt needs to be eliminated as soon as possible."

To run for a seat in the U.S. Senate, one must be 30 years old, free of felony convictions and to have been a citizen for at least nine years. That leaves about 160 million of us eligible. Of that number, only 164 took advantage. It's exceedingly rare for anyone who doesn't run with one of the two major parties to win a seat in Congress, so subtracting the 69 people who ran as Democrats or Republicans, the most recent election season saw 95 people run for a U.S. Senate seat without any real hope of winning.

The New Jersey Senate race was an expensive one. Jon Corzine spent an estimated $65 million. That's three times as much as Toricelli and Zimmer spent in the race that moved Breen to run in the first place. His fortune put Corzine's bearded face in front of voters early and often, and he was accused by many of trying to buy the seat. Bob Franks, a respected congressman from the state, was a virtual unknown to voters until the GOP kicked him some funds toward the end of the race. This allowed him to buy enough TV time to become a familiar name.

Breen, needless to say, was unknown among voters. Besides the Democrat and the Republican, nine others ran for U.S. Senate in New Jersey -- more than in any other state. Voters outside New Providence High School on election night had no idea who Dennis Breen was. "I didn't see him on the ballot," said one man.

"I've never heard of him before," said another.

"Dennis Breen? Nope," said one woman.

I called the Corzine camp the week before the election to find out what kind of dent Breen's candidacy had made in the Corzine battle armor. Did Tom Shea, Corzine's spokesman, know the name, Dennis Breen?

"Should I?" Shea asked after a long pause. When told his boss was running against Breen, Shea laughed. "Clearly he has a name identification problem."

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Breen called me a couple of weeks ago and asked me to come to his "victory party" on Election Day. At first I smiled at the great sense of humor Breen must have to be taking all this wasted effort so lightly. But the more I thought about what Breen had accomplished, the more I believed he knew he was lucky to get 5,000 votes; he'd called it a "victory party" sincerely.

It was a bittersweet terminus Tuesday night -- the equivalent of a marathon runner crossing the finish line hours after everyone else has gone home. It's dark and he's alone, but he finished, and that's reason to celebrate. Breen had been trounced, of course, but he'd participated in democracy in a way very few of us do. It's there on the record to pass down as Breen family lore from now until generations from now forget it ever happened.

"I'm glad it's over," Breen confessed as his wife Mary came over to give him a hug. "It's a big-time commitment."

Someone from the Short Hills Ski Club, which is sharing the Elks lodge tonight, (and which Breen invited into the bar to help consume the acres of food his supporters had supplied) came over to his table. "How ya doin'?" the kid asked.

"I'm getting my ass kicked," said Breen. "But I'm having a blast doing it."

T. Wright Townsend

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Campaign Finance New Jersey U.s. Senate