Brief Lives January 2004

A Gambling Man

Blair Hull thinks he has found the formula for how to buy a Senate seat
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As he wound up his fifteen-minute stump speech on health care, Blair Hull, a first-time Democratic senatorial candidate from Illinois, mentioned offhandedly to his audience of seniors, assembled in the town of Orland Hills for a Thanksgiving luncheon, "If elected, I will not accept a salary or a pension." Hull continued talking—unaware, it appeared, of the audible gasp that greeted this news. An elderly woman seated beside me turned to me in disbelief and then adjusted her hearing aid and returned her attention to Hull with what seemed like renewed concentration. Most people would treat the issue of forgoing a salary and retirement plan with considerably more gravity than Hull. Most politicians would do so at the beginning of a stump speech, not the end. The issue was an afterthought to Hull, and the episode was characteristic of one of this year's most noteworthy campaigns.

Blair Hull can afford to be cavalier about a senator's $158,000 salary, because he is the richest person ever to seek office in Illinois. He has a larger staff than any of his competitors. He pays his staffers more than any of the nine Democratic presidential candidates pay theirs. And there is a very good chance that he will spend more just on Illinois's March 16 Democratic primary than all but one or two of the Democratic presidential hopefuls will spend nationwide throughout the campaign. When I joined him for a few days in November, Hull was in the midst of the most expensive campaign in Illinois history, having pledged to spend as much as $40 million in pursuit of the seat being vacated by the Republican Peter Fitzgerald.

Hull's has all the trappings of a state-of-the-art campaign: meetups, a blog, and a timeshare in a corporate jet, not to mention a red, white, and blue "Hull-on-Wheels" RV that is featured prominently in his television commercials and has become a rolling symbol of the campaign. And at least in theory Hull, who is sixty-one, is a formidable candidate: as a former high school teacher, union worker, and board member of NARAL, he appeals to important Democratic constituencies; as the lone veteran in the field, he can oppose the war in Iraq unquestioned. His unusual life story, too, sets Hull apart from the drab lawyers, state representatives, and political scions who normally pursue office in Illinois, though in fact he is less flamboyant than his campaign and personal history suggest.

Trained in mathematics and computer science, Hull became part of a notorious card-counting ring that operated in Nevada in the 1970s. He beat the odds—or, rather, beat the house by shifting the odds in his favor—by devising intricate mathematical formulas that called for a skilled team of card counters to help determine when and how to bet in blackjack. The team consistently turned a profit until one member blew its cover by publishing a self-aggrandizing tell-all book, The Big Player. Hull quit blackjack with $25,000 and a habit of citing the economist William F. Sharpe to anyone who questioned his wisdom in playing cards: "Investing is the sacrifice of current consumption for expected future gain; gambling is the sacrifice of current consumption for expected future loss." Hull always expected future gain. As if to underscore his analytical rigor, he used his winnings to found Hull Trading Co., a computerized options firm that earned him $340 million—and the means to run for the Senate—when Goldman Sachs bought it, in 1999.

Hull's candidacy illustrates an increasingly prominent phenomenon: the attempt of rich unknowns to buy their way into major public office. As the cost of campaigns continues to soar, these people have become more important to cash-strapped political parties. Over the past decade a succession of them have spent eye-popping sums: Michael Huffington ($30 million), Al Checchi ($40 million), Jon Corzine ($63 million), Michael Bloomberg ($69 million), and Tony Sanchez ($62 million), to name only a few. These days it is customary in political circles to lament that a Senate seat or a governor's mansion is attainable by the highest bidder. But that really isn't true. For all the advantages that accrue to a wealthy candidate, recent history suggests that it still takes more than money to carry a race. Of those five candidates only Corzine and Bloomberg won—and narrowly. As the neophyte in a field of experienced and politically connected candidates, Hull has finally found a challenge worthy of his quantitative skills, and he intends to apply them literally. His media strategist, Anita Dunn, says, "Blair believes he can come up with an algorithm for winning campaigns."

Since at least the heyday of the Kennedys and the Rockefellers, rich hopefuls have sought to use their bank accounts as a shortcut to elective office. But by the mid-1990s this practice seemed dubious. Ross Perot spent $72 million in a failed 1992 bid for the White House, Steve Forbes $33 million fruitlessly pursuing the 1996 Republican nomination. Also in 1996 a high-profile group of rich senatorial aspirants—Guy Millner (Georgia), Mark Warner (Virginia), Tom Strickland (Colorado), Tom Bruggere (Oregon), Walt Minnick (Idaho), and Elliott Close (South Carolina)—all lost their respective races. "A lot of people after '96 said this is proof that self-funding candidates can't win," says Steve Jarding, who was a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee at the time.

As a species, such candidates do have certain intrinsic disadvantages. Many are successful businessmen, whose hands-on style doesn't benefit them in their new role as candidates. The tendency to micromanage despite a lack of expertise—call it the Steinbrenner Temptation—often thwarts success. Other newcomers cannot adapt to the unfamiliar folkways of politics. As compelling as a business leader may sound when promising to apply his experience to the government, the skills prized in the business world—originality of thought, the ability to spot problems others don't see—do not necessarily translate to the world of politics, with its particular issues, concerns, and, not least, subjects to avoid. Connecting with average people, a crucial ability, can also be difficult for business leaders and heirs.

A reserved but affable man who bears a passing resemblance to the late character actor J. T. Walsh, Hull evinces none of the egotism common in multimillionaires pursuing office (and no one who runs for the Senate these days, it seems, is anything less than a millionaire). But neither does he show any appetite for politics. Ever the literal-minded mathematician, he is flummoxed by political euphemism and reluctant to employ it, and he seems driven more by a general sense of good intention than any specific passion for policy. Hull is attempting to master policy positions the same way he taught himself blackjack, by studying flash cards, but he admitted that he hadn't bothered with flash cards for weeks. Nor does he seem to relish public speaking. As we traveled across Illinois, while he touted his health-care plan, Hull could muster only a willed enthusiasm. However energetically he employs the standard litany expected of today's political challengers—"an independent fighter," "won't succumb to special interests," will "shine a light on Washington's problems"—it all sounds slightly canned, like a foreigner who has taught himself English by watching C-SPAN.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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