From the San Diego Union-Tribune:
He didn't dethrone Duke, but this kid's got a future
June 12, 2006
A year ago to the day, San Diegans woke up to a bannered news story signaling the beginning of the end of Randall Harold Cunningham, the imprisoned GOP congressman whom Brian Bilbray, the Republican victor in last week's special election, will replace.
On that pregnant morning last year, no one studied the front-page story with more intense interest than Brennan Bilberry, a 19-year-old Harvard student who a few days earlier had moved to North County for the summer.
Bilberry, a progressive wunderkind of sorts, hadn't come for the sun, surf or suds.
No, he'd come with one, and only one, purpose in mind.
To dethrone Duke.
It's an intriguing irony.
If Cunningham's breathtaking corruption had not been exposed last summer, Francine Busby might have had a clean shot at claiming the 50th Congressional District in this November's general election.
“If the story in The San Diego Union-Tribune had just appeared today . . . ” Bilberry told me last week, his voice trailing off wistfully.
His early formative years were spent on a Blackfeet Indian reservation in northern Montana, where his parents worked as psychologists.
One of Bilberry's earliest memories is a large community meeting to discuss an oil-drilling operation. Bilberry stood up, walked to the front and spoke into a lowered microphone.
The 7-year-old asked what the effect of the trucks would be on the deer and the elk. The company officials were speechless.
“Everything started there, on the reservation,” Bilberry's mother, Camilla Madden, told me from the current family home in Anchorage, Alaska.
“We all talked about changes for the tribe, who could be politically effective,” she said. Bilberry, a precocious only child, soaked up the adult talk.
In elementary school, his mom recalled, Bilberry campaigned for the re-election of Tom Daschle, the Democratic senator from South Dakota. The child would hang out at the Rapid City headquarters until it was time to go home to bed.
In summer 2004, before his freshman year at Harvard, Bilberry worked for Daschle again, this time as a researcher. Bilberry flew out from Boston in November for the election, a bitter loss to Republican rival John Thune.
During the winter of '04, Bilberry and a friend, Tim Fernholz, a Georgetown student who's now an intern for The New Republic magazine, stewed over the defeat of the Democratic leader of the Senate.
They scanned the country for an iconic Republican to bring down just as Daschle had been brought down.
“The whole country was on the table,” Bilberry said.
After considering districts in Georgia and Nebraska, they seized upon Cunningham and the 50th. They whistled when they added up the campaign donations from defense contractors. “He just seemed rotten to the core,” Bilberry said.
The affluent, well-educated 50th struck them as especially ripe for change. Despite the GOP registration advantage, a fiscally conservative but socially liberal Democrat could win against a discredited incumbent, they reasoned.
“It was Republican by default,” Bilberry said. “It had never been tested.”
The two kids wrote an e-mail to Busby in January 2005, outlining a strategy to run against Cunningham with a campaign based on integrity. They promised opposition research that would reveal Cunningham as a paragon of corruption.
“We came in expecting to run against Cunningham,” Bilberry recalled. “He was the target.”
“It was an unbelievable analysis,” Busby said. “They were amazing.”
Come on down, she told the boys.
After the June 12 story broke, the 50th suddenly turned into a glamour district. Bilberry found himself the communications director of a nationally prominent campaign.
I asked him if he ever doubted his ability to handle the stressful job of handling the local and national press, shaping the campaign message on the fly.
“It was a question I asked myself a lot,” he said. “I was not confident.” He offered to step down in favor of someone old enough to buy a beer.
Busby wouldn't hear of it. “His maturity was beyond his years,” she said. “He was always putting the moment into perspective.”
In September, Bilberry returned to Harvard, waiting for the widely expected announcement of Cunningham's resignation.
When that tearful day arrived, he arranged to take the spring semester off. (Fernholz stayed in Washington.) Barely 20, Bilberry flew into Lindbergh Field and for the next five months worked seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day.
And then, in the space of a few hours Tuesday night, it was over.
In a few days, Bilberry heads back to Cambridge, Mass. He'll enroll in summer classes and try to get on track to graduate with his class.
“I want to get my diploma,” he said. “I want to feel I'm in college. I'll definitely work on more campaigns, but I don't know where they'll be.”
If I'm any judge of character, it won't be long before this endearingly modest young man will look up from his college books and hear the call of the wild.
And then he'll start looking for a race to join.
Logan Jenkins can be reached at (760) 737-7555
or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.