His campaign treasurer says he stands "head and shoulders above" the competition, but that's not the best joke you hear about diminutive new California gubernatorial candidate Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, of "Whatchutalkin' bout, Willis?" fame).
A better one is this: Even as he announced his own candidacy to replace recall-threatened Gov. Gray Davis, candidate Coleman (for the record, an independent) endorsed someone else: fellow actor and Republican rival Arnold Schwarzenegger! Such is the state of celebrity politics in California these days.
Coleman, of course, is just one of a cast of seeming thousands throwing their hats into the ring to succeed the embattled Davis. So far, the list includes Schwarzenegger, porn king Larry Flynt, former Olympics czar Peter Ueberroth and billboard pinup Angelyne, and the filing deadline isn't until tomorrow.
But Coleman, who made his fame on the 1980s TV show Diff'rent Strokes, is at least in on the joke of his candidacy. At the behest of East Bay Express, an alternative weekly newspaper in the East Bay area of Northern California, he's running to make a political statement. The paper recruited him and paid the $3,500 fee to get his name on the ballot and also obtained more than the 65 required signatures to make his candidacy legal.
"The absolutely worst thing I have to lose [by running] is winning," Coleman said in an interview on his cell phone in California yesterday.
"We really thought this was the most effective way to make a political statement about the farcical nature of the recall," said Express editor Steve Buel. "I think what Gary's candidacy points out is that if Californians decide to pull the recall lever, they really won't have any idea who they're going to be electing in the second vote."
That's not to say Coleman isn't taking his crusade seriously. His 10-issue platform, touching on everything from gay marriage to free water, appeared this week in the Express. Not that taking things seriously means it all makes sense.
Despite being a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild, he's anti-union: "Yeah, they keep me from having something heavy fall on my head at work, but when you prevent me from getting a job, yeah I have a problem with that."
He's anti-waste: "I'd kick the ass of every politician with more than two secretaries," he said. "Because that's a waste of public funds."
He's pro-medical marijuana: "Nobody gets hurt, so why not?" Coleman says. "People still smoke marijuana, and they still go to work."
But he's anti-smoking and drinking: "When you remove alcohol and cigarettes from society, you improve the health, safety and the cost of medical services. Then they don't have to charge as much, because they won't have to take care of people who really shouldn't be in the health system."
He likes the state lottery because it can boost school coffers but hates city buses because they're too slow: "They stop every other block, they always drive the speed limit."
He's pro-business and anti-tax - "The film industry should never be taxed, because that's the state's bread and butter" - but might go for a flat tax.
Coleman says he's never really had political aspirations. He hadn't thought about running for office before Buel approached him. "At the time, there were 67 people thought to be applying ... so I thought, why not?"
Despite his lack of political experience, Coleman feels strongly that Davis should be recalled. "There's definitely a problem when you sit in a room and you're head of the state and you let corporations take [billions] away from the state," he said. "I'm not saying that I'm the greatest thing since sliced bread, and I'm not saying I wouldn't make mistakes, but that mistake ... No!"
Should Davis be recalled, and should Coleman somehow win, he would add the title of governor to a resume that already includes child actor, mall security guard, online columnist, video game expert, bankruptcy survivor and convicted assailant (he threw a punch at a sassy fan).
In the two days since his announcement, he's been busy. He spent yesterday juggling 20 requests for interviews around a scheduled television appearance. He has no money to campaign, he says, so is serving as his own press secretary.
"It's just me and a cell phone and a piece of paper," he says.
Not that he really expects to win, anyway.
"Arnold Schwarzenegger will win. He will have the largest popular vote," Coleman said. "People from Austria will fly here just to vote for him," he laughs. "That would be highly illegal, of course."
But he says, "If my name gets people out to vote, then I've also served a public function. I got [people] up, out of the house, to go to the polls to vote."