Politics & Policy

Blowing Smoke

With a politically incorrect puff, Mark Block lights up the presidential race.

As I strolled up First Street, I spotted him immediately. Mark Block, as he likes to say, was “being Block.”

He was smoking.

To be exact, he was puffing a Marlboro Light. And like most in Washington, he was doing it outside on a Wednesday afternoon, banished from the indoors.

#ad#As Block paced, a drizzle began. Others took cover. Block lit up another cigarette, gripping an iPhone to his ear as he circled his campaign papers, which were piled in binders on the pavement.

When the drops fell harder, he picked up the folders and stepped under the awning of the Capitol Hill Club, muttering campaign musings to his caller as politicos streamed past.

Everyone noticed him, from business-casual interns to slick-haired lobbyists. One congressman gave him a thumbs-up; most incoming diners simply grinned.

Block, you see, is a celebrity this week. He is a YouTube sensation.

As chief of staff for Herman Cain, Block recently starred in an online video. In the 55-second spot, he talks up Cain’s effort. He also smokes.

“We’ve run a campaign like nobody has ever seen,” Block says in the clip, leaning against a fence. “But then, America has never seen a candidate like Herman Cain.”

As he takes a drag, Block looks straight at the lens. The camera zooms in, focusing on his gray eyes and drooping, salt-and-pepper moustache. Then Cain appears for the closing seconds.

Cain’s brief appearance is as memorable as Block’s monologue. The presidential contender slowly turns his head and smiles. “I Am America,” Krista Branch’s country hit, blares.

Cain’s cheeky expression — endearing, to be sure, but also a tad long — has unsettled more than a few viewers. So have Block’s intense, rambling remarks. But it’s trippy and it works, Block insists as we take chairs for lunch with Linda Hansen, Cain’s deputy chief of staff.

Late-night comics have celebrated and mimicked the clip. But the mainstream press, of course, is not amused. Inside the Beltway, Block’s smoking has stirred a certain horror.

Pundits are befuddled. Block broke — without shame! – an unwritten rule of political correctness. Even President Obama, a longtime chain smoker, takes his packs in private.

Block couldn’t care less. The video, in a couple days, has garnered millions of clicks. On cable television, it is a sizzle story. Talking heads on every network — some giggling, some wagging their fingers — have attempted to decode its meaning, its message, and its leading man.

Decode away, Block tells me as he orders black coffee. As long as folks are talking about Herman Cain, pumping oxygen into the shoestring campaign, he’s winning.

#page#

He’s also getting a kick out of the attention. A year ago, when he and Cain began to discuss a presidential bid, almost nobody in national politics knew him. And if they knew him, they thought he was finished as a political operative.

Over a decade ago, Block was banned from Badger State politics for three years after a brutal legal fight over his work on a judicial race. The state election board accused him of conspiring with an outside group on a slush fund. Block firmly denied the charge.

But he settled, he tells me, after running out of money to pay his lawyers.

#ad#Banished from politics, Block’s decade-plus rise as a Republican consultant was over, even though he was only in his late forties. His competing consultants, without pause, boxed him out of the Wisconsin GOP apparatus.

So Block looked elsewhere. Reaching out to old allies, he quietly began to work with outside conservative groups. Eventually, he was hired by Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a leading advocacy organization with close ties to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians.

It was there, during Pres. George W. Bush’s second term, when Block’s views on political strategy began to evolve. He figured the old model, of working within the party, was obsolete.

Direct mail, retail politics, campaign ads — all of these retained roles in the process, he thought, as he directed AFP’s Wisconsin chapter. But they were quickly being outpaced by the Internet, which enabled citizens to self-organize and campaigns to reach thousands with the push of a button.

Being unconventional, Block recalls, was the better way to score points, to change minds, to win elections. Be it a quirky video or an itinerary focused on small towns instead of large media markets, political ripples, not big splashes, had lasting impact.

Over the next couple of years, Block shared these thoughts with Herman Cain, an AFP spokesman — who, like Block, appeared to be in the dusk of his political life, as well.

In 2004, Cain, former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, lost a Senate primary in Georgia. He was charismatic, a fine speaker, but as with Block, most assumed he was yesterday’s news, especially after Cain was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in 2006.

As they kept meeting on the activist trail, the pair — both frustrated with their stalled careers and increasingly enthusiastic about alternative campaigns — clicked.

Block wanted back in the political game. Cain wanted another shot at the national spotlight.

By late 2009, Cain — cancer-free and a popular talk-radio host in Atlanta — saw an opening. But he hadn’t settled on how to make his next move. He confided with Block, who was busy boosting the Tea Party movement. They talked history, looking at how other political figures, often from outside of the establishment, won public office.

The Gipper featured in their talks. Ronald Reagan, both noted, spent years doing radio commentaries in the late 1970s, connecting with conservative voters. And when he ran for president in 1980, that experience elevated him among the GOP base, which respected his work in the trenches.

#page#

Now both men know that Cain, who has never held elective office, is no Reagan. But Block sensed something Reaganesque in the way Cain communicated at AFP events, drawing and holding massive crowds, weaving humor into policy discussions.

Block stewed for a few months, mulling these ideas. When he could, he’d travel to watch Cain wow conservatives at grassroots conferences, even though most of them didn’t know much about him..

Clearly, Cain wanted more. The question was what.

#ad#In his mid-fifties, and with little to lose, Block settled on an outrageous idea: running for the presidency, using AFP-style, outsider tactics. If anything, he reasoned, it’d be a hell of a ride.

Block didn’t rush to tell Cain about this thought, which lay dormant in the back of his mind for a couple months. They were close friends and had hinted at the idea a few times in conversation. But talking about it seemed absurd, especially three years before the election. That is, until Cain started to bring it up himself.

Block remembers the moment vividly. It was on a cold winter evening in March 2010.

“This whole thing started in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., at the Defending the American Dream Summit,” an AFP event, Block says.

Cain spoke, as he usually did, about the failures of the Obama administration. He spoke about his hope for the future. Then he went off-script in his conclusion: “I wanted to let President Obama know that in 2012, there will be a new sheriff in town.” The crowd roared.

Was he hinting at a potential candidacy? Block thought so. So did Linda Hansen, who at the time was a leading Wisconsin conservative.

Hansen, a former GOP county chair, was backstage with Cain that night. She asked Cain the same question. She was excited when he didn’t shush the idea.

Block began to get calls from reporters, asking whether Cain was eyeing a run for the White House. Block denied the rumor on the record, but told Cain days later that the excitement over the idea, however farfetched, was real. A few media members, he told him, were already looking for more information. Bloggers were buzzing.

Cain was calm when he heard Block detail the calls. It was only a little tease, a throwaway line, but it had stirred the waters — and he didn’t mind. Indeed, Cain’s positive response confirmed Block’s hope: that Cain was very close to considering a candidacy.

A couple of weeks later, Block, Cain, and Hansen met for dinner in Las Vegas after attending another conference. “Table five at the Capital Grille,” Hansen remembers, laughing.

Block nods. “We started looking at it with a cold eye, mapping things back from November 2012 to 2010, discussing certain criteria about what would need to happen,” he says.

When the trio agreed on a broad strategy, based around what they’d learned in Wisconsin, they paused and let the enormousness of a White House run sink in. Hansen prayed silently, thinking about what they were pondering. Block, a gruff, no-nonsense fellow, did the same.

#page#

A presidential run — it was something Block had thought about for years, but he had never gotten close to one, at least on a national level. After his legal troubles, he was stuck in the minor leagues. But with Cain and Hansen, he felt as if he was back.

“On Day One, that night in Vegas, we told him there are a lot of suspects out there, but we are not going to run against them. We are going to run as ourselves,” Block says. “With little infrastructure and, at the beginning, little money, that was our option. And he agreed.”

In every sense, what Block planned was a guerilla campaign: no D.C. consultants, just ordinary Americans who were interested in something fresh. He tapped a few Wisconsin folks, people he and Hansen trusted and admired. But beyond that the team was tiny.

#ad#Since then, Block says as he finishes his coffee, things have fallen into place. Not perfectly, or entirely as planned, but he remains optimistic. “Nobody thought we could do it,” he says.

Yet here he is — all eyes on him in the heart of Capitol Hill. His campaign video is the talk of a town that barely knows him; his candidate is leading in the latest New York Times/CBS national poll, as well as in many primary states. He’s a star; Cain’s a star.

And he’s still smoking. Halfway through lunch, Block gets up for another cigarette.

Linda Hansen playfully shakes her head. “When we were debating whether to leave the cigarette in the video, I just looked at him and said, ‘That’s you.’ The only thing missing in the video is an iPhone in your hand, a coffee in the other, and a cigarette dangling out of your mouth.”

That is Mark Block,” she says as he rolls his eyes.

“Just Block being Block,” he says. “Block being Block. That’s all right; that’s me.”

He pauses and raises an eyebrow. “Can you imagine Karl Rove or Dave Carney [Rick Perry’s strategist] doing the same?”

At that, he and Hansen share a chuckle. One of many they’ve had this week.

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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