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.
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.
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.
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…..