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Cellblock campaign

Sam Brownback launches an unorthodox presidential campaign in an unusual way-by spending a night in a prison cell

Cellblock campaign

First in a series of 2008 candidate profiles

BATON ROGUE and ANGOLA, La.-Dusk at Primo's, an upscale restaurant in a Baton Rouge mall: exactly the place where you'd expect a conservative senator starting his run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination to have a fundraiser. But what's unexpected is what Sam Brownback of Kansas did after that Dec. 8 meeting: He took a night trip to the infamous state penitentiary at Angola, featured in such movies as Dead Man Walking and Monster's Ball.

Angola houses 5,100 prisoners, many of whom are hostile to the tough-on-crime stance that is standard among conservative Republicans. Brownback talked to 700 of the inmates assembled in a prison chapel and answered skeptical questions, worrying guards as he strode into the midst of the prisoners. He then slept in a prison cell and walked Death Row the following morning.

I slept in the cell next to his, and my neighbors on the other side were a serial rapist and a drug cartel killer. This is the story of the beginning of what is likely to be an unusual presidential campaign.

In assessing presidential contenders, it's a mistake to focus only on one element: policy positions, character, or ability to lead. To avoid a two-dimensional candidate, it's vital to assess strength in all three areas.

As LSU senior Sarah Mejias waited for Brownback's arrival in Primo's bland private dining room, she said that for a political science/history major like herself, meeting him was like meeting Brad Pitt would be for many other students. Others in the gathering-15 middle-aged men in coats and ties, plus five more LSU students-were also expectant.

When the 50-year-old Brownback slipped into the room, it became clear that he's not going to receive the Brad Pitt vote. In this small gathering he exuded sincerity, not passion. He characterized himself as a small-government conservative and also a compassionate conservative-and rightly connected those two political strains.

Brownback ticked off his policy positions. On immigration, "getting the border under control" and also establishing a guest worker program. On judges, pushing for strict constructionists, although he knows the new Democratic majority will make that task harder. Regarding Washington corruption, he advocates term limits and commissions to shut down pork-barrel domestic programs similar to the commission that succeeded in closing many unneeded military bases.

On Iraq, Brownback said that the United States "cannot conduct a war with one party for it and one party against it. The weakest part of our foreign policy is public opinion." And that's how the gathering ended: no applause, some nods of approval, one among hundreds of such meetings Brownback's staff plans for the year to come.

We talked more about Iraq on the 90-minute drive north to Angola. Brownback criticized the Bush doctrine of preemption not on military but on political grounds: "After 9/11 we could respond in Afghanistan, but it's difficult to sustain public support for preemption. Over the long term we need to go more toward containment and engagement."

Describing the conflict as part of a generic "war on terror" is a mistake, Brownback added: "We need to be clear on whom we're fighting. . . . This is a war against militant, politicized Islamic fascism." He said he had read a chronologically arranged version of the Quran and had seen that some of the peaceful passages early in Muhammad's career gave way to warlike injunctions later-but "I'm not a theologian. . . . When Muslims are willing to work with us, we'll work with them."

We talked about character, and particularly what happens when people who have been winners come to see that they are doomed apart from God. Brownback himself is on a political winning streak: He was state president of Future Farmers of America, student body president at Kansas State University, president of his class at the University of Kansas Law School, and the youngest secretary of agriculture in Kansas history. Then he joined Congress after the Republican Revolution in 1994 and moved up to Bob Dole's Senate seat after the GOP patriarch ran for president in 1996.

Brownback said his sense of total dependence on God came when he was diagnosed with cancer in August 1995 and remained unsure about the outcome for another nine months: "That's when I felt helpless." He came out of that with a clean bill of health medically and a lesson he absorbed from Senate chaplain Richard Halverson: "I have only one constituent: God."

That realization changed his political style and his psychology. "Before 1995 I was in attack mode. At night I was agitated, thinking about all the campaign stops and asking myself, 'Should I have said this, said that?' Had to take sleeping pills. When I ran for the Senate in '96 I started out way behind, but I didn't get upset. . . . It also helped me with my family. I used to be talking so much about the Republican Revolution." He smiled: "My wife had to remind me that we had kids."

After Brownback was cancer-free he and his wife added to the three children born to them by adopting two more. He also became a Catholic: "I love the evangelical church, I just felt a strong call to Catholicism . . . I don't talk much about it. It would just get both sides mad." (He did mention reading Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian pastor who converted to Catholicism in 1986 and wrote Rome Sweet Home.) On Sundays he goes to Mass early in the morning and then attends an evangelical church with his family.

As we drove on into the night Brownback's wife, Mary, called him on his cell phone and he jauntily answered, "Hi, Hon, I'm heading for prison." He then reassured her that he would be sleeping "in a safe, locked-down area."

Brownback has spoken for years about the need for prison reform. He's also made it a practice to visit both domestic anti-poverty sites and Africans undergoing persecution in Sudan and other countries. So he had the standing to visit the Angola prison and make it seem more than a campaign photo op.

To meet the prisoners, Brownback changed from the proper business suit he wore for the fundraiser to blue jeans and a Kansas State sweatshirt. Instead of entering a dimly lit restaurant, he suddenly found himself in a light-filled and packed 700-seat prison chapel with cinderblock walls off which bounced the sound of a rollicking 30-member gospel choir singing a hymn about Jesus, "He's on Time."

Brownback himself was running late, and a prisoner introducing him skipped the political biography and emphasized basics: "He grew up on a farm. He understands what it's like to smell manure all day long. He's a bold man. He's running on a platform of reform." The senator bounded to the microphone and announced, "God is good," and the prisoners came back with "All the time." Brownback, joking that "I expected more heat than that," yelled out "And all the time . . ." The prisoners roared, "God is good."

This was the time not for political wonkery but for call-and-response: "I'm coming here to see what you're doing. Because we've got a problem." Yes we do. "Two million people in prisons and we're building more prisons. How do we break the cycle?" Tell us. "That's why I'm here. Good programs have this in common: They're dealing with the heart." Amen. "There aren't a lot of votes for me here. There can be a lot of prayers."

An energized Brownback then took lots of questions from the prisoners, most of whom have life sentences (without hope of parole) for murder or other terrible crimes. Some thanked him for coming-"You've heard our cry"-and for leading the fight against Sudanese genocide. But more questioners wanted him to be their advocate for changing Louisiana's tough sentencing policies. The senator did not cooperate, and instead offered multiple variations on "You did the crime, now do the time."

It was a tough audience for a tough-on-crime Republican. But Brownback also praised the reconciliation process begun by Angola warden Burl Cain, an outspoken Christian, by which prisoners meet with the families of those they had victimized to ask forgiveness. Brownback floated the idea of release hearings for those with lifetime sentences who turn 60 and have been imprisoned for at least 20 years.

Cain concluded the event by saying, "He gave you some answers you didn't want to hear," and Brownback whispered as we left, "I feel I kind of let them down." But several prisoners murmured that they respected a politician who did not pander to them.

Following the meeting it was time for lockdown in the CCR (Closed Cell Restricted) unit where he would spend the night in a 7-by-11 cell with a stainless steel sink and toilet, a bunk with a thin mattress and a hard pillow, and a table with little bars of soap, a toothbrush, a tube of OraLine fluoride toothpaste, and a small New Testament. Mounted on the wall across from the cell was a continuously playing television tuned to Fox News, which could also be viewed from adjacent cells and listened to by headphones.

Brownback's cell was at the end of the cellblock, by the guard's station. Next was mine, and next to me was John Simonis, now 55 and imprisoned for the past 25 years after gaining notoriety as the "ski mask rapist." (He confessed to multiple rapes and armed robberies in a dozen states and is sentenced to more than 2,500 years in prison.) Simonis told me of his new Christian faith and said he realizes that "I'll die here." Down the hall was Miguel Velez, a Medellín cartel killer sentenced in 1987 to life in prison without parole for murdering a drug informant. He was then 37; now he also speaks of his faith in Christ.

The cellblock was quiet except for the night-long sounds of toilets flushing and the gate to the cellblock opening and closing as guards came to patrol. At 6 a.m. Brownback awoke and said the night was "OK for the circumstances. Woke up, went back to sleep, woke up. Had to roll around a little to get comfortable."

Then it was on to Death Row. Brownback walked by 15 dimly lit cells, saying hello to inmates who paid little attention to him. Two, though, engaged him in conversation.

One, Patrick Kennedy, told Brownback, "I hear you're pro-life. I am also. I'm the only one sitting on death row not for murder. I'm here for the rape of a child who's still living. Should the death penalty be for me?" Brownback replied that the "death penalty should be very limited in its use . . . for the Osama bin Ladens. . . . I'll pray for you."

A second, who put down Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man as Brownback approached, was politically curious: "Do you look beyond the fight against gay marriage?" Brownback replied, "I am pro-life and I do think marriage should be between a man and a woman, but we need to expand our vision." He spoke of his defense of the residents of southern Sudan and Darfur, and his advocacy of effective malarial treatments elsewhere in Africa. The prisoner condemned to die commended him for his help in keeping others alive.

On the drive back to the Baton Rouge airport Brownback reflected on his visit and on the possibility of long-time prisoners over 60 going through a reconciliation process and receiving a parole hearing. We also talked politics: Brownback said he can differentiate himself from a socially liberal Giuliani, a mercurial McCain, and other candidates by espousing conservative compassion.

A strong finish in the early 2008 Iowa caucus could lead to a fundraising breakthrough and the chance to be competitive in primaries around the country. To survive, he'll need to hit hundreds of small meetings like the one at Primo's-but the campaign will gain a unique flavor as he visits the Angolas.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.