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A YouTube video opens on the silhouette of a man sitting in the dark at a desk in front of a giant American flag. His voice is low and timorous. “The Senate is a body of shadows,” he says. “And we, you and I, voting Americans all over the nation, have become chained inside the cave. We look up at these shadows and imagine that they are real because it’s all we can see, all we have ever known.”
The man says he’s entering the race for D.C.’s shadow senator, a non-voting seat in D.C. government typically used to lobby Congress for fair representation and voting rights. “Who better to not represent people who do not exist than a candidate that does not exist,” the man says.
Of course, the man in the shadows isn’t really running for shadow senator. He’s an actor. His fake campaign is the work of Damien Ober, a man who really works in the shadows as a bartender at Marx Cafe in Mount Pleasant. Ober, 30, came up with the idea for the ads a few months ago, envisioning a political prank/art project with sequential videos rolling out the narrative of a fictional candidate. He recruited friends to help write scripts and a local Shakespearean actor to play the role of candidate.
After announcing their “candidacy,” Ober and his friends uploaded videos about the defeat of the gun ban, the sagging U.S. economy, and our dependence on foreign oil. Their positions took a vaguely libertarian point of view—Ober served as a delegate for Rep. Ron Paul in the February 2008 Republican primary—and consistently returned to references to shadows. By using an obvious fraud—the shadowy candidate—as the mouthpiece for a sincere message—the disenfranchisement of D.C. voters—the videos poke fun at the duplicity of real politics.
“The name of the position is part of the joke,” says Ober. “We’re using the campaign to make fun of how farcical the system is.”
But the joke may have had the best of its makers. Ober’s fake campaign has turned him into a real candidate. A few weeks after posting the first video, he got a call from Libertarian strategist Brad Jansen, whom Ober knew from the Paul campaign. Jansen is orchestrating a Libertarian slate of federal candidates in D.C., starting with gun ban plaintiff Dick Heller’s run for congressional delegate. That seat comes with committee-only voting privileges and is currently held by incumbent Eleanor Holmes Norton. Jansen needed to find someone to challenge Paul Strauss, incumbent shadow senator.
During the Paul campaign, Ober had handily mobilized a team of unruly volunteers, a mix of libertarians and disillusioned others, often pillaried as the so-called “Paultards,” who have a reputation for resisting authority. (Ober got a few “Don’t tell me what to do’s” when he asked volunteers to go door-to-door with petitions.) Ober’s acumen for getting things done impressed Jansen.
“Damien was on the short list of people who were energetic and confident and politically astute,” he says. So did the list start short, or did Ober beat out a raft of contenders? “This is a very Democratic town,” Jansen says, “so we’re dealing with a smaller group of people.”
Jansen wasn’t worried about the farcical tone of the videos.
“I think the videos reflect the reality of the position that he’s running for,” Jansen says. “He’s running for an office that doesn’t exist.”
Ober accepted Jansen’s offer and is taking his nascent candidacy seriously. On July 15, he accompanied Dick Heller to pick up paperwork at the Board of Elections and has since been putting his organizational skills to use in trying to gather the 3,000 signatures he needs by Aug. 27. He’s been canvassing with groups of friends and volunteering fans of his Internet videos; he plans to host a few petition-gathering events at local bars.
His run could have real consequences: If he or Heller, or Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr, gets on the ballot and wins 7,500 votes, the Libertarian Party will earn major party status—and the right to hold a primary in D.C.—in the next election cycle.
Ober has posted 10 videos so far (they still star the actor, not Ober) attracting more than 1,000 views. By comparison, a public service announcement for voting rights featuring Strauss and TV star Hayden Panettiere has received only 352 views.
If it’s hard to tell whether Ober is serious or not, that’s kind of the point. Bay Woods, a 35-year-old teacher and journalist who helps write and edit the shadow actor’s speeches, sums it up like this: “The only way to really address the issues was to take them from a sideways angle—truth presenting itself as falsehood. Sometimes a lie is truer than the truth.” (Woods has a PhD in philosophy, which may explain the references to Plato’s cave.)
Ober’s platform includes a few unusual proposals: He wants to put more resources into human space flight (the voyages could still be unmanned, Woods notes, “if we send women”); he wants to reclaim Arlington for the District of Columbia and re-energize public education by requiring failing public schools to teach Greek and Latin. He also advocates more openness in campaigning.
Ober says he cares more about the linguistics of politics than wonkish debates about actual issues. Watching his videos, it’s obvious that the medium is the message. The shadow is the most obvious layer. But look closely, and you can see several objects arranged on the desk.
Although the videos are getting lighter with each installment, the shadows are still too dense to make out the props clearly. Ober explains: On the right, there’s a toy monster looming over a model of the World Trade Center towers. The beast is Cthulhu, a terrifying, tentacled alien dreamed up by science-fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. On the left, there are two desk-sized flags (an American flag, and another unknown banner for “a state or a country,” Ober says. “Whatever it is, we support it.”), and little figurines of presidents Harry Truman and John Quincy Adams.
The symbolism of the objects is purposefully open-ended.
“I think that one of the things that’s cool about the stuff we picked is it’s so wide-open to interpretation,” Ober says. “You have a monster eating the World Trade Center and then you have two presidents…to lock it down loses its power. “
Ober says he believes he can win the race if he gets his name on the ballot, which right now, is the real struggle. Part of the problem may be the difficulty of convincing voters he’s serious. When asked about Ober’s challenge to his seat, Strauss replies, “Huh?” Then he says, “Oh, is that the guy in the shadows?” He’d thought it was a joke, but added: “I support art and I support art in the political process. And he raises issues that we haven’t raised yet, like tickle torture. If he makes it on the ballot I guess I’ll see him at some debates.”