In the wide-open expanses of the American West, where livestock outnumber Democrats, William Bryk has found a home. Or a political home, at least. The Brooklyn-based lawyer has, truth be told, never been west of Buffalo.
But he is spending the years when most men his age take up golf or grumble full-time at the evening news as something of a permanent candidate for the U.S. Senate on the Democratic line, running in Idaho in 2010, in Wyoming in 2012, and now a planned run in Alaska in 2014.
“Running” here is relative. Bryk won’t fundraise, won’t pay for a single television spot or radio ad or flier with his name on it. He won’t even, indeed, set foot in the state he hopes to represent in the nation’s capital unless he wins Alaska’s August primary, in which case he plans to quickly decamp for the Last Frontier State to meet the Constitution’s residency requirements.
“If I win the nomination, my wife and I are just going to have to pack up and move. She says she would be ready,” Bryk said. “Mimi said that if the voters were intelligent enough to nominate you, then obviously they would be intelligent enough to live among.”
Bryk is speaking in the front room of his overstuffed row house in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, a working-class area at the southwestern edge of the borough. Even in December, Bryk’s block is overstuffed with oversize American flags, part of an ongoing 9/11 tribute. Inside, a pair of cats closely stand guard and a Raggedy Ann doll teeters over in one corner, as Bryk explains his candidacy.
“I believe voters should always have a choice,” he said. And Sen. Mark Begich, the Democratic incumbent, “has no primary challengers at this time. It seems to me that he should have one.”
Bryk, 58, spent most of his career as a prosecutor in administrative cases for disciplinary hearings for New York City correctional officers. He covered everything from chronic lateness to an officer who looked the other way while a gang of prisoners stomped someone to death for falsely claiming to be a member of the Bloods. (“The Bloods are like the Knights of Columbus. It is a fraternity,” he said. “And somehow this guy didn’t notice 10 guys going into one guy’s cell and apparently didn’t notice his screams as he was stomped to death.”)
And now he sounds prepared to spend most of his retirement running long-shot campaigns for public office. In Wyoming in 2012 and Idaho in 2010, Bryk was really providing a choice against Republican incumbents. In Alaska, Begich is running unopposed in the Democratic primary, putting him on par with most of his party colleagues in the Senate, as the blue-state senators haven’t faced the “wild-eyed fanatics,” as Bryk calls the Tea Partiers challenging Republican incumbents.
“I think it is a public service, and it is really fun. To me, it is a harmless and painless way of getting the party system to do its job.”
Asked if that description suits him, Bryk, who speaks barely above a whisper and who only leaves New York City for occasional bulk cigarette runs for his wife in New Jersey, demurs. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t think so. But that is for others to judge.”
Instead, he runs because no one else seems willing to.
In Idaho, the Republican incumbent Mike Crapo, ran unopposed in 2004 and was about to do so again in 2010, until Bryk filed to run against him. The state party, he says, quickly recruited a local businessman, who crushed Bryk in the primary and then was crushed himself in the general election.
In Wyoming, “There was absolutely no one running,” he said. “No committees were created with the Federal Election Commission, not a word about anyone filing, and I thought, ‘Well, out West sometimes these things happen.’”
The day after he entered the race, he says, a local eccentric who was a perennial candidate for office and who would walk around town with a coal scuttle helmet (“you know, one of those German World War II jobs”) filed his candidacy as well.
“And then to avoid the embarrassment of having the choice between a man who usually campaigns in a coal scuttle helmet and fellow who has never been in the state, they found a county commissioner who had to borrow the $200 filing fee, and he won.”
Bryk came in third, but he notes with pride that he bested the coal scuttle helmet man in his home county.
That state Democratic parties run the risk of embarrassing themselves if they nominate Bryk is part of the point, he says. He worked for a handful of local lawmakers in New York and found “the party hack types to be uninspired,” he said. “And I figured that what was true here was likely to be true elsewhere. If I am embarrassing them into doing what they should be doing, then more power to them.”
The state parties do not want to put anybody up, Bryk says, because they fear that any credible challenger will lose in such deep-red states. But by not bothering to run anyone, state Democratic parties remain enfeebled.
Not that Bryk is a hard-core partisan seeking to reinvigorate the Democratic Party with some kind of 50-state strategy. He is, he says, to the left of the party on most issues, including single payer health care and a more progressive tax structure. But for most of the 1990s he was a member of the Right-to Life Party, carrying the anti-abortion rights banner in runs for the City Council, state Assembly, and district attorney—running in Staten Island, of course, a county over from his home in Brooklyn.
“I think it is a public service, and it is really fun,” he said. “To me, it is a harmless and painless way of getting the party system to do its job. The job of an opposition party is to oppose. The whole purpose of an adversarial political system is to gain power by defeating the other guy, and when you don’t run candidates you are not doing that.”