In an age when reality TV can make international stars out of total unknowns, it was only a matter of time before America had its first political candidates that have become famous in that world. Politics in the age of YouTube is a lot like the wild ride that is reality television where a camera is pointed at you 24 hours a day, every moment recorded for a lifetime. Two candidates, Kevin Powell and Sean Duffy, currently running for Congress are testing whether reality fame is good preparation for political office. The co-creator and producer of The Real World, Jonathan Murray, says he believes it is.
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“There’s a lot of things that I think about The Real World that I think would help someone eventually if they decide to run for government. I think the very nature of being in a house with six other very different people than yourself and having to get beyond the very obvious differences between us and see people for who they are,” Murray said. “I think [that] makes you a better person. So I think it is great preparation for someone who wants to be in government and who wants to represent all the people in the district.”
Despite their reality-TV origins, these are both serious candidates with a good shot at winning. In Brooklyn’s 10th District, Democrat Kevin Powell is trying to unseat 13-term incumbent, Edolphus “Ed” Towns. While in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District, Republican Sean Duffy is running for David Obey’s empty seat. Both have September 14 primaries and if Duffy beats what looks like an easy opponent, self-declared Tea Party candidate Dan Mielke, he will face State Senator Julie Lassa in November. Duffy is Sarah Palin-backed, out-fundraising his opponents, and since Obey’s retirement his chances are looking very good.
In the world of reality TV, Kevin Powell is like a grandfather—many of the stars today weren’t even born when he appeared in 1992 on the first season of The Real World, set in New York City. Duffy was on The Real World: Boston in 1997, then went on to compete in Road Rules: All Stars, where he met his wife, Rachel Campos, who was on Season 3 of The Real World: San Francisco, in 1994. The couple also appeared in a reality-TV spoof titled The Wedding Video, chronicling the wedding of Season One alum Norman Korpi to his boyfriend. Duffy is also a championship lumberjack athlete and had stints as a commentator on ESPN.
But while this is not the first political run for Powell, who also faced off against Towns in 2008, he has a competitive shot at winning this time despite recent revelations of serious financial woes that could seriously affect the campaign.
For both Powell and Duffy who left their Real World days behind many years ago—and would rather not speak about it at all—they are more eager now to talk about what they’ve done since. Powell is a community activist, author, former Vibe magazine reporter, and a lecturer, while Duffy was a special prosecutor then district attorney in Ashland County, Wisconsin, for 10 years. He and his wife have six children together.
Eighteen years later, Powell still can’t quite escape the Real World, even though he insists on focusing on the issues and campaign. “Notoriety is great, but it doesn’t really mean anything if you don’t actually use it to help people and that’s my position and that’s been my position for a very long time and I’m 44 years old. I’m not that 25- or 26-year-old kid that was on MTV. I’m far from that at this point,” Powell said. “So a lot of people say, ‘Oh I first saw you on MTV. I followed your progression. I followed you on Vibe. I read your books. I’ve seen you doing things on TV now.’ That’s fine, but when people think you are some sort of stick figure on a pop-culture show and have no idea,” Powell said. “We’ve been working in the community for years. I made a conscious decision up until I ran in 2008—I’m not really big on publicizing that part of it. Just do the work.”
Duffy was adamant that he didn’t even want to discuss the topic.
“People want to write on reality TV and you can write that story if you want. I’m not going to talk about it though,” Duffy said. “That’s nearly 15 years ago.”
Celebrity and politics have always gone hand in hand with Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jesse Ventura, just a few examples of where fame came before politics. Neither Duffy nor Powell are the first reality stars to aim for Washington, but they may be the first to make it there. The Apprentice star Raj Bhakta ran a failed campaign for Congress in 2006. Will Mega of Big Brother just lost a bid in May for the Democratic nomination in Pennsylvania’s 192nd District. And as for the other direction, politicians-to-reality stars: Sarah Palin will launch her show about her home state, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, on TLC in November. And who can forget when Tom DeLay surprised many and showed a softer side when he put on a pair of dancing shoes for Dancing With the Stars last year.
Both candidates have an economic focus to their platform. Powell is concentrating on job creation and keeping Brooklyn families from losing their homes, while Duffy believes tax-cutting and supporting small businesses is the way to boost the Wisconsin job market. Powell is hoping to capitalize on the anti-incumbency sentiment in the country, and Duffy’s message of anti-stimulus plan, anti-health-care reform bill, echoes many conservatives in Congress and is gaining steam in competitive races all over the country.
But neither man can quite escape his Real World days. Duffy recently came under fire from his opponents when YouTube videos of him on the show surfaced. They weren’t damning, but Mielke, his Republican opponent, called them representative of “Hollywood” values.
“People are going to bring up my past, but I don’t think folks are concerned about a reality-TV show from nearly 15 years ago," Duffy said. “They are concerned about their reality today which is we have a faltering economy. Folks are losing jobs, they are concerned about their retirement, they are concerned about $13 trillion national debt and I think when voters look at who I am they will see a prosecutor of eight years who is a father of six who cares about his family and his wife.”
Murray, who has donated to both campaigns, blasted Duffy’s opponents for making his Real World days a campaign issue.
“Sean is about as apple pie as you get, so I don’t think it’s going to work because even the stuff they found on Sean is pretty tepid,” Murray said. “I’m supportive of both. I’ve donated to both Sean and Kevin’s campaigns. I think a lot of both guys. I don’t necessarily agree with Sean on all issues, but he’s a really good guy and he’s fair-minded so I’m happy to support him.”
Murray said both Powell and Duffy had the charisma that every politician needs before they became one of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped.
“I have to be honest, part of our initial attraction to both Sean and Kevin was that they were so articulate, so likable, they were so witty in their personalities and they had such interesting life experiences,” Murray explained. “So I think they already had some of that sort of charisma, that thing that ultimately makes them good politicians.”
Right now, Duffy’s road looks easier than Powell’s. Last week, Powell came under fire when it was revealed he filed his financial disclosure forms late and owes between $615,000 and $1.3 million in back taxes. He says his serious financial woes enable him to connect with Brooklyn residents facing similar problems. In an open letter, Powell explained that his money trouble started when he left home for college and The Real World paid “approximately only $2,000 and no future royalties at all.”
As for whether Duffy and Powell have had any contact or talked strategy, Powell says no, “I’m so focused on New York City. I’m focused on this race. I don’t really have any interest in talking to any politicos that are not in New York at this point. We have 40 days to go and this is pretty much it.”
Shushannah Walshe is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.