Run, Eric, Run! 

Underdog candidate Eric Fingerhut hiked alone across Ohio. Was it to meet voters or avoid them?

Eric Fingerhut does not like to interrupt. He does not enter a crowded room and pull people to him like planets to the sun. He does not brag about himself or gossip about others. He doesn't wink.

Fingerhut, therefore, is a rare politician. The cool morning sun rises slowly on the last morning of September, and Fingerhut is campaigning alongside state Representative Charlie Wilson at the farmers' market in downtown Steubenville.

"Hello, I'm Eric Fingerhut," he says, extending a hand to a stooped man wearing a steelworkers union jacket. "I'm running for U.S. Senate. I'm walking from Steubenville to Marietta."

"You are?" the man asks, his eyebrows popping up. "That's a long way."

"Yes it is. A hundred and eight miles, to be exact," Fingerhut says. His hand stays clasped with the steelworker's, but his head swivels toward a man in cowboy boots coming down the sidewalk. As he introduces himself, he abruptly pulls his hand away from the steelworker, who raises his eyebrows once more.

"Oh, hello," says the man in the cowboy boots, smiling as Fingerhut shakes his hand. Fingerhut keeps talking, even as he looks away to a woman selling wreaths from the back of her van. "I walked across the state, and now I'm walking from Steubenville to Marietta," he says, half to Cowboy Boots, half to Wreath Woman. The man doesn't know what to do, since Fingerhut is no longer looking at him. He stands there, smiling uncomfortably.

"I saw you on TV at the pumpkin festival," the wreath woman says. "You should have come to the apple festival, not the pumpkin festival."

"I know," Fingerhut says. "It's a big state."

It is a big state, and Fingerhut is running against a big man. A former Cleveland mayor and Ohio governor, Republican George Voinovich is the most powerful politician in Ohio. He has raised nearly $8 million for his Senate reelection bid, and he'd be a formidable opponent with even a fraction of that: 99 percent of voters say they recognize his name, while almost half have never heard of Fingerhut. The Democratic state senator isn't even well known in Northeast Ohio, where he's been a public official for most of the last 15 years.

So why is Fingerhut running at all? And why is he walking hundreds of miles across the state? It would be simpler and probably more effective to take the traditional route to Congress: turn his campaign into a 24-hour-a-day fund-raising machine.

The reason is that Fingerhut likes to make things complicated. He believes that Ohio's problems lie in the complex inner workings of tax abatements and school-funding formulas. But voters don't like complexities. And they don't like politicians who seem too distracted to look them in the eye. They ask simple questions. What do you and I have in common? Can I trust you? Fingerhut already knows the answers. He just doesn't realize it yet.

Four miles from a speed trap called Springville, three miles from McZena, Eric Fingerhut is power-walking up a hill on State Route 3. It's 10 o'clock on a hot August morning, and he's already gone six miles today. Fingerhut walks quickly but not gracefully. He keeps his head down, right shoulder hunched, and toes turned out, as if he's battling a strong wind.

Sweat pours down his forehead and pools on his chin before dripping to the pavement. Turkey vultures spin in lazy circles above the cornfields. Besides his campaign manager, Raquel Whiting, who inches along behind him in a white van, Fingerhut is completely alone. Passing drivers slow down and honk. Some beep their horns lightly and flash a thumbs-up. But this is overwhelmingly Republican farm country, and most people lean on their horns and display other fingers.

As the hill flattens out, he approaches an old-fashioned wooden gas station that's been converted into an antique shop. A woman in her late 30s watches from the shade of the awning as he crosses the highway to meet her. "Hello, I'm Eric Fingerhut," he says. "I'm running for United States Senate."

"Oh, hello," says Jill Diesenauer, owner of Springville Antiques. "What brings you out thisaway?"

"Well, I'm walking across the state, from Cincinnati to Lake Erie," Fingerhut says. "I just got tired of politics as it is -- they get all their money from lobbyists and big corporations and never listen to the people." As he talks, he scans the old wooden chairs, rusty Radio Flyer wagons, and green glass bottles lined up in front of the shop. "Been in business long?" he asks.

"Only about a year," she says. Fingerhut hasn't met a likely voter for the last hour and a half. But as he looks around, the conversation drags to a stop. Under the noon sun, the metal roof pops like a cracking knuckle.

"Looks like you have some nice stuff here," he says finally.

"Well, you should come inside and see the rest of it," she says.

Fingerhut follows her into the shop and stops at a tin bucket filled with old political buttons. "I'm a big fan of these," he says, fingering the ones on top. Then he ambles between the hat racks and the ornately carved chests of drawers, stopping only at the bookshelves. "I love collecting old books," he says, to no one in particular. "My wife makes fun of me because I've always got three stacks of books going in the living room -- one stack of religion, one stack of history, and one stack of politics."

On a shelf he finds something that catches his eye, a 1947 highway map. "I love old maps, too," he says, bringing it to the register.

"Since you're a politician and all, I guess I'm gonna have to charge you tax," Diesenauer says.

"Ah!" Fingerhut laughs. "Thank you very much."

"Thank you, and come back and see us sometime," Diesenauer says.

By the time he leaves, Fingerhut has spent 15 minutes at the store. He doesn't know whether Diesenauer is a Democrat or a Republican, or even whether she votes. What prompted her to open the shop? Is her husband's farm failing? Is she trying to earn money for her son's tuition? Any such exchange would have given Fingerhut the opportunity to sell himself, to talk about his childhood as a smart kid from a struggling family, his experience as a man who has worked since he was 16 years old. To make a connection. But Fingerhut doesn't know, because he never asked.

"I love doing this," he says as he leaves. "I love meeting people."

This is the kind of thing that makes Fingerhut supporters want to pull their hair out. Nothing about his Senate campaign seems to make sense. When Fingerhut first started talking to Ohio's Democratic leaders about running against Voinovich, they all gave him the same advice. The key to winning a big statewide race is having enough money to buy TV ads. And as an incumbent who's friendly to big business, Voinovich starts with a huge fund-raising advantage. So run a skeleton campaign, the experts told Fingerhut. Don't hire a single staff member. Don't buy yard signs or a campaign car. Instead, lock yourself in a room with a phone and dial for dollars until your fingers bleed. Beg for money for two years straight, and maybe, with an ad blitz during the last week of the campaign, you might eke out a win.

"I've told Eric from day one, when he first came to me a year and a half ago: Go out and raise the resources," says Denny White, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "You need three things. Money, money, and more money. If you don't have those three things, nothing else counts in this business."

It's the same game plan that Democrats have been running for a decade. And look where it's gotten them. The legislature is solidly in Republican hands. There's not a single Democrat left in statewide office. So Fingerhut took the opposite approach. He hired a regiment of young, full-time staff members. He bought a car and rented a van.

Then he heaved a Hail Mary. His cross-state walk was so risky, it bordered on stupid. Republicans in Ohio are using computer programs to locate likely voters block by block. Fingerhut, meanwhile, spent the better part of a month hiking through counties he doesn't stand a chance of winning. And this is Ohio, where nobody walks anywhere if he can possibly help it. Trudging along a two-lane highway could make a candidate look like a nut.

"I think Eric needs to spend as much time as he did walking on raising the resources to get on TV," Denny White says.

It's just not Fingerhut's style to spend two years raising money, however. He's a literalist when it comes to this business of democracy. He says he wants to talk to voters, not donors. He wants to talk about the issues, not himself. He's the kind of leader people often say they want, before voting for someone more charismatic.

"I know it may be hard to believe, but I try to avoid politics as much as possible and focus on the issues," he says. "Politics, campaign strategy, and stuff like that -- it bores me."

Still, strategy serves a purpose. Most voters don't understand how Medicare and school funding work today, much less how they could be improved. So voters do the next best thing. They try to guess which candidate seems like the better person, which candidate seems more like them.

Based on his upbringing, this is a challenge Fingerhut can win. But because of his upbringing, he doesn't even try. He was born the only son of Sam and Alice Fingerhut on May 6, 1959. He and his two sisters grew up in Shaker Heights, when it was a more prosperous suburb than it is today. But his family was not well off. Sam ran a faltering insurance business, and Alice was a secretary. In the '70s, Eric's father had to move his business into their basement because he couldn't afford an office.

Fingerhut doesn't come out and say it, but the event stuck like an arrow in his father's pride. "I saw the stress, anxiety, embarrassment on his face," Fingerhut says. "I was old enough to understand that a proud man wanted to support his family. And I saw that it hurt him when he couldn't do it."

Fingerhut also noticed how government helped him. Shaker Heights public schools had the challenging classes that a bright kid like Fingerhut needed, and they prepared him well for Northwestern University and Stanford Law School. Unlike most families he knew, Fingerhut's parents couldn't afford to send him to summer camp. But he grew up in a community with a well-stocked library, a public swimming pool that stayed open late, and plenty of city-run arts camps and after-school programs. "I was very fortunate to grow up where I did," he says.

The stress of raising three kids and running a small business took Sam Fingerhut young. He was shopping with his wife at a garage sale when he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was 56. Eric was 15.

"I think about my dad a lot when I'm out here campaigning," he says. "He was somebody who worked hard but wasn't financially successful. Nobody makes it on their own. We all need a little help sometimes."

These are the kinds of personal stories most politicians tell every chance they get. But Fingerhut's family also taught him to value that most impolitic of virtues: privacy. "Even though my parents struggled, they worked hard to keep it away from us kids," he says.

"The only thing Eric says about his dad's death is that he regrets he was at an age when he didn't want to listen to his dad's war stories," says Amy Fingerhut, Eric's wife. "That's really all he says about it."

It's no surprise, then, that Fingerhut is a singularly private politician.

An hour after leaving Jill Diesenauer's shop, Fingerhut stops for a grilled cheese sandwich at a diner south of Wooster. He takes a seat next to Ken Arch and James Cochran. "So tell me about yourself," says Arch, 36.

"The thing I've focused on the most is getting our economy moving again," Fingerhut says. "The reality is that the economy in this state has gone down for the last 10 years."

"Right," says Cochran, 62.

"So I think we need to invest in education," Fingerhut continues. "I think we need to change the tax system to get rid of the manufacturing inventory and machinery tax." He continues on for another 10 minutes or so, giving a monologue about education, health-care proposals, and the importance of investing in public infrastructure.

Afterwards, Arch and Cochran discuss the conversation in the parking lot. "He has some good ideas, and he seems pretty genuine," says Arch, who voted for Voinovich six years ago. "But I still wouldn't say that I know him very well."

The thing is, Fingerhut knows how to be personable, even charming. And while it rarely works with voters, his mastery of Byzantine government issues wins him plenty of admirers in the Ohio Senate. It even won him a wife.

Fingerhut first won a seat in the Ohio Senate in 1991. He was 32 years old and already looking for his next move. Just two years later, he won a seat in Congress, where he immediately became a darling of the national press by introducing an ethics law that clamped down on the influence of lobbyists, a move that irked House leaders and corporate interests. Later, he co-sponsored the "pay-as-you-go" law, which balanced the federal budget and helped spur the economic boom of the 1990s. "Eric Fingerhut is a rebel who is proving who is the ruling class," said The Almanac of American Politics in 1993. In its endorsement the following year, The Plain Dealer editorial board said of Fingerhut, "Few freshmen have made a mark so quickly."

Running for reelection, Fingerhut was opposed by Republican Steve LaTourette. It was a nasty campaign, full of personal attacks. Fingerhut lost by 10,189 votes, a humiliating 5 percent of the total.

A month after he returned home from Washington, in February 1995, Fingerhut was standing on the train platform at Tower City. There is some disagreement about how he came to meet his future wife, Amy Arthur. Fingerhut says that she tripped and he came to her rescue. Arthur says that she doesn't remember losing her footing. She had just returned from Paris, where she had worked for years as a translator. That day, she wound up at Tower City by accident, trying to find a train that would take her to Sam's Deli on the East Side.

Fingerhut knew the RTA by heart. He even had a map in his back pocket. So they boarded the train together, and he helped her find her way. "I just thought he was really sweet and quiet, and I thought he was very cute," Amy says.

But he was lost, too. After his failed campaign, he had returned to Cleveland to scrounge for a job, his dreams of public service dashed. "That was definitely a difficult time for me," Fingerhut says.

Stuart told her friends about the charming man she met on the train. They looked at her in shock. She remembers one of them saying, "Amy, he's a politician. He's politically charming. You'll never hear from him again."

The following Saturday, Fingerhut came to see her at her job, at the Joseph-Beth Booksellers on Shaker Square. "He skulked around the entire bookstore before coming up to talk to me," she says. "I actually had to go and say hi to him first."

For a man who has lived his entire adult life in the public eye, it was a very private courtship. He and Amy cooked at home. They only went to the movies in the middle of the week. "He just didn't want to see anybody," Amy says. "People who knew him didn't recognize him [after the loss to LaTourette]. People always thought of him as a self-assured, confident guy. I think he needed some time to lick his wounds."

Fingerhut's earnest kindness won him the hand of a world-traveling blonde who previously had dated mostly artists and musicians. Not bad for a man who describes himself as a nerd. And even though he can seem staid and shy when he's out campaigning, he's got the personal skills to wield a rare amount of influence as a Democrat in Ohio's Republican-controlled senate. In April 2003, Ohio's government faced a staggering $2 billion deficit. The state constitution bars the legislature from passing an unbalanced budget, however, so senators were in a bind. Their only options were to raise the sales tax by a penny or chop spending on youth prisons and mental-health programs. Public schools faced more than $675 million in cuts.

Bill Harris, chair of the finance committee and the second most powerful member of the senate, favored the penny tax hike. But a large faction of his party had signed a pledge never to raise taxes, and most of them refused to budge. So Harris turned to Fingerhut. "He's never put me in a position where I thought I had X number of Democratic votes and it didn't happen," says Harris. "When he says he can deliver the votes, he comes through."

Coming through took days of constant lobbying. "Eric and Bill picked up the phones and started working members," says senator Greg DiDonato, a Democrat. "They called on weekends and evenings, and they got the votes they needed."

Fingerhut used the opportunity to shoehorn additional school funding into the bill, which Republicans opposed. "He was able to get $20 million for schools, which is almost unheard-of," says Senator C.J. Prentiss, a Democrat from Cleveland. "What people don't realize is Eric's ability to compromise and make deals."

Most politicians rise in Columbus by working the bars as hard as they do the marble hallways of the Statehouse. They forge alliances over drinks at downtown restaurants, find rooms in the same downtown hotels. Fingerhut's only power is the credibility he maintains on both sides of the aisle, because he definitely is not a backslapper. He keeps a motel room on the north side of Columbus, near Interstate 71. It's a quiet place, where he can read his books, watch C-Span, and work out in the motel's cramped little fitness room. On Friday nights he leaves town as quickly as he can, drives home by sundown, and spends the Sabbath with Amy and their two-year-old son, Sam.

"I saw him drinking a glass of wine one time, and I went up to him and said, 'My God! I didn't think you drank!'" Prentiss says. "That was four years ago."

Shoppers at the Steubenville farmers' market are still rubbing their hands together to keep warm in the morning chill. Fingerhut has a loaf of pumpkin bread in one hand, which he'll eat after he walks out of town. By his side is Charlie Wilson, Steubenville's state representative, who's running for a seat in the Ohio Senate.

Fingerhut has the higher office, but Wilson is the natural politician. He graces strangers with the kind of smile most people reserve for close friends. He's about the same height as Fingerhut, but he waves his hands erratically and draws more attention from the small crowd of shoppers and merchants.

"Hello there, young lady!" Wilson shouts to a wrinkled woman carrying a grocery bag in one hand and an aluminum cane in the other. "My name is Charlie Wilson, and I'm running for Ohio Senate. And this here is my friend Eric Fingerhut. He's running for U.S. Senate."

"I think I've seen your face before, haven't I?" the woman asks Wilson.

"You probably have. I'm currently the state representative from around here," Wilson says.

"Oh, that must be it," she says. "Well, good luck!"

"Thank you!" Wilson says. The woman nods to Fingerhut, who gives a little wave and a shy smile. A man in a red Buick stops his car in the middle of Market Street, rolls down his window and smiles. "Dom!" Wilson shouts. "Where you goin'?" He turns to Fingerhut and says, "C'mon. I want you to meet the mayor."

Wilson and Fingerhut step out into the street. Wilson shakes Mayor Dominic Mucci's hand like he's shaking a rug. Fingerhut stands behind him and gives the mayor a tentative wave, a smile, and a nod of the head.

Back on the sidewalk, the conversation turns to Fingerhut's chances. An opinion poll released last week found Fingerhut still trailing Voinovich, 58 to 32 percent. But if Democrats flock to the polls, as is widely expected, Fingerhut believes he has a chance. "I think we're doing incredibly well," he says. "When I started, I was polling around 20 percent. I need to get into the low 40s by the end of October."

Wilson listens and nods. A few remaining shoppers straggle past. Both men look at their watches. The time has come. Fingerhut hands his pumpkin bread to his campaign manager, then turns and looks down Fifth Street. It sits in silent shadow, with no open stores, no cars, no people. He lowers his shoulder and begins to walk.


More by Chris Maag


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