Ernest, the Dog that Ran for Congress"I don't know Ernest, But I know Al Shugart, and I wasn't surprised when he tried to get his dog elected to Congress," said Leon Panetta, former White House Chief of Staff.
Like many people, Al Shugart had become increasingly disillusioned with the political party system. Dismayed with how few voters were going to the polls, Al came up with a political campaign intended to get more people involved with the political process. His dog, Ernest could run as a write-in candidate for Congress as a protest vote. This would provide a vehicle for voters to express their displeasure and at the same time, get it recorded.
On July 21, 1996 the campaign started. Chris Shugart was appointed Campaign Manager, and began producing all of Ernest's campaign material. Full page ads appeared in the Monterey County Herald, and The Santa Cruz Sentinel declaring that Ernest was running for U.S. Representative from California’s 17th District. Ai Shugart’s Bassett, Calvin was appointed Treasurer.
Although Ernest was never able to get a social security number, he was officially recognized by the Federal Election Commission as a candidate for office. Six months later however, in July 1996, the FEC came to the realization that Ernest was a Bernese mountain dog. He was disqualified.
The FEC disqualification did not deter the campaign, nor did it hinder the popular support that Ernest had generated throughout the country, and even other parts of the world. Letters of support poured in and the news media continued to cover the campaign.
By the November 1996 election, Ernest was expected to receive a significant number of write-in votes in spite of the fact he wasn’t an official candidate. But there was a problem. In California, unregistered candidates aren’t counted. No matter how many write-in votes Ernest received, the votes wouldn’t be tabulated. Voters could express their protest, but it would go mostly unheard.
It was Leon Panetta who concluded, "Ernest's run for political office was unsuccessful, but I can offer some consolation: if his efforts inspire more people to take an interest in the political process, they haven't been in vain."
The spirit of Ernest lived beyond the congressional campaign in the form of Friends of Ernest, a citizen's watchdog group dedicated to generating interest in the political system. Chris Shugart was appointed Executive Director, and soon became editor and publisher of the The Ernest Voice.