You may have seen him paddling his canoe down the Ashley River or across St. Helena Sound in Beaufort County. Or maybe you saw him pedaling his bike around the city with his canoe in tow. Dimitri Cherny is running for Congress from South Carolina’s 1st District and he is doing it his way. He’s meeting the voters where they live — along the roads and waterways of the Lowcountry.
I wrote about Cherny two years ago when he was running against GOP incumbent Mark Sanford. He was an independent then and took seven percent of the vote against the career politician. This time he has upgraded to Democrat, taken some pages from the Bernie Sanders playbook, and is putting his engineering background to work for political ends.
Cherny has never held political office, but he has lived a life of ups and downs, of failure and comeback that gives him a pretty good idea of what it feels like to live in the modern American economy. A former entrepreneur and globe-trotting engineer for IBM, he lost everything in the Great Recession, was homeless for a time, and has made his living as a truck driver in recent years.
He knows from personal experience that the system is broken and that Mark Sanford has no interest in fixing it. But enough politics for the moment. Let’s talk engineering. Cherny is running a shoestring campaign. As he is fond of saying, the state Democratic Party offers its candidates little more than a handshake and a pat on the back. And of course, his natural constituency is not the well-heeled types who come out for Mark Sanford fundraisers.
To meet the voters and perhaps fire up some media attention, Cherny struck upon an idea. He would tour the district by bicycle and canoe.
In this case, necessity truly was the mother of invention. He crafted a small collapsible bicycle and trailer. He bought a canoe, fitted it with a mast and sail and solar panel to charge an onboard battery, which in turn charges his phone and the various lights which the law requires for night navigation. When he is on land, he tows the canoe on the trailer behind his bicycle. When he reaches a river or needs to cross to an island, he folds the bicycle and trailer, stashes them in his canoe, and starts paddling. He says he has about $1,000 invested in the whole contraption. (To see how the thing works, go to bikingthelowcountry.us.)
Cherny officially started his 700-mile tour of the district on June 29 when he put his canoe in the Ashley River at Sam Rittenberg Boulevard and headed to Hilton Head Island for a small rally of friends and supporters. Sticking mostly to inland waterways, he slept and ate on his boat and paddled up to 15 hours a day for three days. He missed his Hilton Head appointment by two hours.
“It was an inauspicious start to my journey,” he confesses, “but without an engine you are completely at the mercy of the tides and the winds.”
That is a pretty good metaphor for millions of Americans in the current economy. During his campaign two years ago, Cherny wrote that he saw many people living “paycheck to paycheck, one car repair or medical bill away from disaster.” This is the broken economy Cherny would like to fix. As he told me last week, “Nothing has happened in Washington in the last 20 years that positively impacts any but the wealthiest people in America. It’s time for that to change.”
To that purpose he has a five-point plan, based on his own research and from years of campaigning and talking to ordinary Americans:
1) We need a single-payer national healthcare system that does not kill or bankrupt people because they cannot pay the doctor.
2) America needs to properly fund its public schools and offer free tuition to public colleges.
3) Social Security must be properly funded to last for generations to come.
4) The Veterans Administration must be properly funded to do its job. Benefits are lagging, including for the 60,000 vets in the Lowcountry.
5) We must get money out of politics. At the root of all of these problems is a corrupt system in which politicians work for their sponsors, not for the American people.
Compare Cherny’s positions to those of Sanford, who as governor in 2009 rejected $700 million in federal stimulus money aimed at public employees such as teachers and police officers, at a time when the state had a 10.4 percent unemployment rate. Cherny knows that well crafted government policies can make life better for average Americans and South Carolinians.
And with his bicycle and canoe, he has found a unique way to get the word out.