Mike Miles has been getting used to posing for photos, talking into microphones and even kissing babies. Now state Democratic Party leaders are starting to get used to Mike Miles. And they'd better: Miles is perhaps their last best hope to beat incumbent U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell in the November election.
If Miles scores the party's nomination, his presence may force the race into a battle over who is the folksiest, most of-the-people candidate.
Campbell, a two-term senator, has always enjoyed that role, riding his Harley to events, posing for photos on his horse, and playing up his Native American heritage and rural roots.
But Miles isn't just some Wonder Bread boy from the 'burbs. His father is African-American and his mother is Japanese. He has eight siblings, and they spent their childhood moving from base to base because their father was a master sergeant in the Army. Money was tight, and the family struggled to get by.
"I've had to overcome the odds all my life," Miles said. And now, at 47, he's ready to face the biggest long shot of his life.
The political unknown has been vying for the Democratic nomination for the past two years, slowly and quietly working to earn party leaders' respect and support.
Christopher Gates, chairman of the state party, was skeptical of Miles at first, but now his attitude is changing. "He's hung tough through the difficult challenge of convincing people like me," Gates says. "If he ends up being the nominee, I think he will run a serious campaign."
Miles, the assistant superintendent of schools in Fountain, has raised $100,000 in small donations, and, two weeks ago, State Board of Education member and prominent Democrat Jared Polis endorsed him.
Still, he has a long way to go. Campbell has already raised more than $1 million.
"The conventional wisdom is an underfunded campaign can't win because of skyrocketing media costs," said veteran campaign consultant C.L. Harmer. "I think Miles is counting on the Internet to change that."
Rags to riches
The candidate is also relying on his background to generate grass-roots support and make him accessible to voters. He is the local boy who makes good, the rags-to-riches success story. "I went to school in an impoverished part of town and had a speech impediment," he said. "Thank God I had teachers who gave me a chance. I had a teacher who took me aside to teach me phonics. I would have been in special education otherwise."
Instead, he won a regional trophy for oratory while in high school.
Miles excelled in school, graduating as valedictorian from Fountain-Fort Carson High School (in the same district he now leads) and at the top of his West Point class. Then he followed his father's example and became an Army officer. He spent two of his five years in the service as an Army Ranger. In 1981, he and his fellow Rangers were on a training mission when their C-130 plane crashed, and five of his comrades were killed. Miles was fortunate; he was only hospitalized.
He served another two years after that incident, but he was restless to try something new. Fascinated by foreign policy, he decided to go to the Soviet Union. "I wanted to help make foreign policy rather than just execute it," he said.
In 1983, he left the Army and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to study Russian. He intentionally chose the liberal haven because its famed anti-war, anti- military sentiment made it the most unlikely place for a former Army Ranger. "I've always tried to make sure I had a broad perspective," he said. "You have to understand the breadth and diversity of America. You can't do that just being an Army brat and a Ranger."
A heady time'
At Berkeley, Miles met his wife, Karen, who was also studying Slavic languages. The couple entered a study-abroad program that took them to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). When they returned, Miles earned a scholarship to the master's program in international relations at Columbia University in New York.
From there, Miles went to work for the U.S. Department of State and was eventually assigned to the American Embassy in Moscow as an assistant to the American ambassador, Thomas Pickering.
It was a heady time to be in the Soviet Union: Mikhail Gorbachev had taken power, and the Soviet system was starting to unravel. "Tanks were firing at the Parliament building across the street from the embassy," Miles remembers of the coup attempt by Stalinists trying to preserve communism.
In 1995, four years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Miles and his wife made the momentous decision to return to his hometown of Fountain, where he made yet another career change. The father of three began teaching civics, world literature and math at his high school alma mater. Four years later, he was appointed a principal and then was promoted to assistant superintendent of the school district. Right now he's working only half time while he runs for the Senate.
"I think the country is off track," Miles said. "We've lost that promise of America. The opportunity I had as a kid -- where else could a poor kid with a speech impediment who is also black go to three of the best colleges in the world? -- that's out of reach for more and more of the middle class."
Miles believes that healthcare is also becoming increasingly inaccessible, and he supports a system of government-funded universal health insurance.
President Bush's decision to invade Iraq also troubles him; he believes Congress forfeited many of its constitutional powers when it gave Bush the authority to go to war. "They gave up one of the key constitutional balances that the framers of the Constitution gave us," he said.
Beating the establishment
The influence of big business has become so pervasive in Washington, Miles says, that only an outsider would be able to fight back. He thinks that Campbell has clearly become part of the establishment, and he's betting that Coloradans will like the idea of sending an outsider to Washington.
"You can't really talk about taking back our country when you've been an insider," he said.
Still, Campbell is widely regarded as one of the state's most popular politicians -- largely because of his folksy image. Miles thinks that's just for show, however. "Those are not the things that make a great senator," he said.
On the Democratic side, former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart is still waffling about jumping into the race, and Denver attorney Brad Freedberg is running, although he's picked up little support within the party. Cheyenne County Commissioner Richard Bergman is also running as an independent, focusing his platform on the legalization of marijuana. His slogan: "Colorado needs a senator who has inhaled and is not afraid to admit it."
The competition leaves Miles unfazed. He thinks Coloradans are ready to send a non-politician to Congress to shake things up. "We're losing our democracy, the system I fought for," he said. "I want to be a gladiator for democracy."
Stuart Steers is a reporter for the Denver newspaper Westword, where this article originally appeared.