On Election Day, Levi Levy took a bus from his home in Alexandria to Holmes Middle School in Fairfax County. He proudly announced his name to the polling officers, stepped into a booth and cast five votes.
Every single one was for his favorite candidate on the ballot--himself.
"I voted for me. Just me. Five times. Yee-ha," he said, walking out of the school.
Another year, another election cycle, another political defeat for C.W. "Levi" Levy, perennial candidate extraordinaire. Each year since 1995, his name has been on the ballot in Fairfax County. Each year since 1995, he has lost every single race.
Mr. Levy, how many races did you expect to win this year?
"Oh, none of them," he said cheerfully, walking toward a bus stop. "None. N-O-N-E. None."
Levi Levy is a record-setter. His running as an independent this year in five races--six, if you count the special election for a school board seat he lost this summer--was a first in Fairfax. He has become an eccentric fixture in the Alexandria area: a touch of merry, moving color on street corners, passing out flyers, collecting signatures--a "gutter politician" in the truest sense.
Once, at a political forum this summer, he sang his answers to questions.
Once, at another forum two years ago, he publicly endorsed his opponent.
Once--last year, to be precise--he was Republican incumbent Rep. Tom Davis's only opponent, and he got 17 percent of the vote.
He's a flicker on the landscape, almost a jester to some, but he has a past.
Once, when he was very young, he says, he had encephalitis. The disease traumatized his brain.
Once, his father had an Army-Navy store on the corner of King and Washington, the spot that serves now as the sidewalk "headquarters" for his campaign.
Levi Levy, 67, born Charles William Levy, inhabits a peculiar world. He has few friends, but he draws a handful of fierce protectors. Politics is his life, but he has no expectations of winning. Some people think he looks homeless, but he has three college degrees and says he has been to Israel and sometimes displays an astonishing level of insight.
He is Levi Levy: by turns good-hearted and persistent; at once well known and unknown. He is running not to become something--a politician or a powerful man--but because the running itself makes him somebody. He is Levi Levy, with the nickname he adopted "because I'm Jewish-Jewish that way."
"You would just love to know what the Levi Levy story is over his lifetime," says Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax), who is being opposed by Levy for the third time, and who often gives her rival a ride home after debates.
Levi Levy, who are you?
"Who is the real Charles?" he asks, smiling, as he always does when he's intent on keeping a secret.
Canned Meat and Memories
This year, Levi Levy ran for the Virginia Senate, for the Virginia House of Delegates, for chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and for two county school board seats. He did everything by the book. He pounded the pavement for signatures. He filed all his campaign finance records at every filing period, five times over. He had five bank accounts, some of which held as little as $1 at a time.
"He spends a lot of time here," says Carol Ann Coryell, secretary of the county electoral board. "He just loves it here. He comes here by the Metro."
Levy's campaigns have been the grass-rootest of all grass-roots campaigns. He has no car. He has no telephone. He has no source of income other than Social Security. Most days he would take the bus to his chosen spot--often at King and Washington streets in Old Town Alexandria--and stand there with his fliers, cloaked in an orange hooded sweat shirt, with sneakers silver-tipped from paint.
Maybe a third of the people passing by would take a copy of the fliers, known as the "Levite Chronicle." Some would crumple the paper and toss it as soon as they saw Levy's childlike drawings and strange, handwritten headlines ("Say It Is'nt So," on a criticism of an opponent, or "Voices of Dead Virginia Students Call Out From Grave," his Halloween attention-grabber). Others paused right in the middle of the sidewalk to read, like rocks stranded midstream.
Levy wouldn't stop to talk to them. He just kept passing, passing, passing fliers, as if his lunch depended on it.
But it didn't, of course. For Levi Levy, politics has been a thankless career. In fact, this is Levi Levy's lunch: Libby's Potted Meat Food Product, 34 cents a can. It has pork in it, he confesses one day last week, leaning forward. "Shhh!" he says mischievously. "Don't tell the rabbi!"
Unlike most folks who run for the state Senate, Levi Levy can't afford McDonald's. He doesn't get much in the way of campaign contributions. Last week, until his Social Security check came in, he was down to $57.
What compels him to come out here every day, to stand on this same street corner in these same old clothes and invest his breath and lunch money in handing out fliers? Is it the desire to make some sort of difference? Is it an unflagging belief in the little guy's role in a democratic system? Is it a feisty David against his Goliath?
"Ooooh! If you would ever find this out!" he says. "It involves Levi Levy, George Mason University and a nice little Jewish film teacher that I fell in love with who was nearly half my age and I'm not giving you the details!
"Oh, it also involves the Department of Education."
And that is as much as you'll get on that score. Suffice to say that Levy's crusade was born because he wanted to impress a woman, but that's not really what it's about anymore. Oh, no, the cause has its own momentum now. Each year it gets him out of bed in the morning, sometimes at 3 or 4.
"I don't drink and I don't smoke. My fun is running for politics," he says. And later, "I just can't get used to doing the things that people my age are supposed to do, like going to senior citizens' affairs."
And later, darkly, he mentions plots against him that keep him in politics. And there is a touch of righteousness when he uses an anecdote about tropical fish to rage against the way that local school budgets waste money. So much of Levi Levy's life seems wrapped up in running.
Some people don't get it.
"What a waste of paper," said Jim Hodges, 54, an information technology recruiter in Old Town, as he passed the candidate on the corner of King and Washington one day last week.
"I just thought that he was crazy," said Ruth Gaumond, 47, who passed Levy almost daily as well.
Some folks don't say his name with much pleasure. Levi Levy? You mean the guy who lost in five races yesterday? Levi Levy? The guy who's making a mockery of the democratic process?
"We don't know what's with this man--he just runs for as many offices as he can," says Emilie F. Miller, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. "He just thinks it's a sport."
He's "off the beaten path, to say the least," says Joe Underwood, chairman of the county's Republican Committee. "To run for five or six seats in one year I find to be a little bit abusive."
Sometimes it has been hard to grasp Levy's message. His platform, as defined by his fliers, fluctuates constantly and pays no mind to the limitations of the office he is seeking or the positions he has taken in days past. Levy attempts to appeal to voters by offering viewpoints he feels no one else is offering, or by emulating the perceived stands of those he dislikes in order to split their vote. It makes for a bizarre grab bag of positions.
Check out the fliers. They are handmade with cartoons and photographs of Levy in various costumes: "taxpayer" Levy standing in a barrel; Western-style Levy in a plaid shirt and cowboy hat; working-man Levy in a construction helmet. Working-man Levy's flier declares "Stop Illegal Immigration."
"This gets all the rednecks," Levy explains. "They don't know it's me! It's me! I want to get it away from the Buchananites."
And there's a flier that recommends that all bars in Alexandria close by 9 p.m. "That's my socialist talking," he says.
And, minutes later, he says: "If you ever get to the bottom line, you'll swear Levi Levy doesn't believe in anything! You'll swear he's just a--what's the word?--pragmatist. . . . He's tried every disguise that he can and you can't get behind him."
'A Good-Hearted Soul'
It's true. It's hard to know who Levi Levy was before he emerged into the public eye. His parents died in the mid-'80s, he says, and he's not forthcoming about relatives.
But some things he chooses to tell: He was born in "Balmer" to Barney Levy, a store owner and "professional boxer," and Mae Levy, a housewife and later a "top-secret secretary in the Pentagon." There was that bout with encephalitis when he was 5, and an incident in 1963 that kept him in "the crazy house" for 10 days when he was about 30, he says. Through the years, he went to local colleges off and on.
Then in 1980, he says, the convenience store he was working in was robbed and he was struck with a plank, which caused a concussion. "And here's the scar to prove it!" He rips off his black knit cap and tips his bald head forward to reveal a three-inch diagonal scar slicing his skin.
That incident somehow strengthened his resolve to get an education. He went back to school and studied art and communications. He earned two associate's degrees from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor's from George Mason University.
In 1994 he decided to get into politics--which led to a series of what he calls "ballot access" suits. Throughout the '90s, there was suit after suit filed in federal district court: Levy v. Fairfax County Government, Levy v. Commonwealth of Virginia, Levy v. U.S. Postal Service, Levy v. Fresh Fields Markets. People were trying to prevent him from standing around and handing out fliers, he says.
He speaks with a frantic and digressive intelligence about everything he loves--mambo dancing and Psalm 23 and the "Levite Tribe" he says he has formed. He compares himself to a fiddler on a hot tin roof, never knowing what will happen minute to minute. When crossing the street, he touches an acquaintance gently on the elbow. Sometimes, out of nowhere, he sings.
Part of what keeps Levy going is his 17 percent triumph last year against Davis. To be sure, it's unlikely that many people who voted for Levy knew who he was. Virginia voting booths don't identify candidates by party and Levy was the incumbent's only opposition. C.W. "Levi" Levy was the only alternative. But for him, a triumph it nevertheless was.
And he is, by some, beloved.
Levy is "very bright," says a former professor of his from George Mason, who has known Levy for more than 10 years and asked to remain anonymous. "I think that people's reactions to him have much to do with the society we live in, which doesn't tolerate difference very well."
Then, the professor adds: "I think [people] find him either frightening or a waste of time. . . . He's neither of those things."
"I find him to be a good-hearted soul," says incumbent Watts, who sees him often at debates and who once had the odd experience of watching Levy endorse her at a forum when he was her opponent. "You really would like to know all the pieces that are there. What was the family business? Why does he dance so well?"
Watts knows some people feel that in debates and even out on the corner, he takes up space.
"Sometimes people sort of, 'Vivian, why don't you just turn away from this?' " she says. "Well, there's no reason to. He's a human being, and there just should be room in the world for that. I don't think he's getting in the way of anything."
Not that Levy, the resilient candidate despite years of defeat, seems concerned about what others think.
"I'm running for president of the United States next year," he says. "I have a federal ID tax number for that."
CAPTION: Just about anytime before votes are cast, pedestrians at King and Washington streets in Old Town get an eyeful--and an earful--from C.W. "Levi" Levy.
CAPTION: C.W. "Levi" Levy, left, presses the flesh in Old Town.