Running for U.S. Senate is not without its obstacles, especially if you are a, um, non-traditional candidate. But one Virginia resident and cat is doing just that with a campaign slogan of “Vote the Humans Out.”
Meet Hank, a Springfield resident and cat running for U.S. Senate. Hank is hoping to hop on the seat being vacated by Sen. Jim Webb (D), who is not seeking re-election. In this election, Hank faces two former Virginia governors Tim Kaine (D) and George Allen (R).
Hank’s candidacy is drawing a lot of attention and headlines of its own, including interviews with NPR, a feature in TIME magazine, and articles in the foreign press.
“It’s so surreal getting interviewed about your cat by a legitimate business publication,” said Hank’s campaign manager and dad, Matthew O’Leary, 35.
Voters might want to know what kind of cat Hank is.
He’s an independent. His campaign paints its candidate as a kind of scruffy under…cat, who was born fighting, overcame a rough start in life to become the puuuurfect Virginia representative for U.S. Senate.
“Born to a single mother living on the streets, Hank, his mother and his siblings were taken to an animal shelter and sat on death row. Shortly before their execution, Hank and the rest of his family were saved by an animal rescue group called Animal Allies,” reads Hank’s press bio. “Being from the streets and having nothing, Hank learned the value of hard work. Putting himself through school while working, Hank was simply too stubborn and driven to let his disadvantages dictate his future.”
Today, Hank — who turns 10 human years old this month (about 60 in cat years) — lives with his dads O’Leary, and Anthony Roberts, 37, his campaign coordinator, in a townhouse in Springfield. Hank’s older brother Sammy, 13 human years old, serves as a political coordinator for the campaign and, for now at least, is the family’s underachiever.
O’Leary and Roberts said they have not been heavily involved in campaigning, having once volunteered to work phone banks for Sen. John Kerry’s (D- Mass.) 2004 presidential campaign. They do, however, have previous experience campaigning for a cat.
“It actually started back in 2004. I took the kind of iconic photo of Hank that’s on the campaign posters. [Roberts] thought it looked very senatorial,” O’Leary said of the bow-tie wearing, green-eyed upward gaze Hank posed for, which now appears on yard signs. O’Leary and Roberts both are photographers and own Dented Lens Photography, which focuses on family, graduation and special occasions and pet portraits.
In 2011, Hank ran for state senate representing Springfield. The campaign said Hank received nine write-in votes.
“We were really surprised about his turnout. So, like most elected officials, when you lose a campaign for office, you move up to a higher one,” O’Leary said.
So, why not run for House of Representatives or shoot-the-moon and run for president?
Hank’s no fool.
“He thinks the power is really in the senate and the power in the House of Representatives is really diluted,” Roberts said. “And the office of the president has been damaged… It takes the blame for everything.”
Hank is more conservative than his family, if you could not tell from the bow tie.
“We’ve always been Democrats ourselves, really more liberal,” O’Leary said. “Hank has really shown us the value of being independent.”
Maine Coon cat’s platform is three pawed. First, the cat-idate said he wants to create more jobs in Virginia. Second, he would like to eliminate negative campaigning through example. And finally, Hank said he wants to help animal rescue groups with paying for spay and neuter programs that will help lower the number of homeless animals.
“What he’s doing with his campaign is taking every cent that comes in and putting it toward rescues,” O’Leary said. “If [other candidates] would put that toward nonprofit groups, which is legal, it would create an atmosphere of positivity and giving.”
Hank is generating campaign funding through the sales of Hank for Senate memorabilia such as his now iconic yard signs ($25), bumper stickers and buttons ($3), T-shirts, totes and more, available on the cat’s campaign website, www.hankforsenate.com.
So far, the campaign reports donations of $12,110 to area animal nonprofits.
“All of the ‘Hank for Senate’ yards signs they are selling, we’re getting the proceeds from that,” said Patrick Cole, spokesman for the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria. The league runs and operates Vola Lawson Animal Shelter for the city. Currently, the shelter has 60 to 70 cats and about 15 dogs available for adoption.
“We actually have cats in cages in the hallways because we don’t have the space in the adoption center,” Cole said, adding that the shelter saw a spike in the number of surrendered pets this summer, specifically cats. The league received $240 from the Hank for Senate campaign.
“That will pay for spaying or neutering three cats, it could be a dental cleaning for an old cat, medical care… there’s no small donations,” Cole said. In response to the financial support, Cole posted a Hank campaign sign out front of the shelter.
A co-worker saw the sign and Cole said, “He came to me and was very upset and said, ‘This is wrong. We’re a city organization and we can’t be having this.’”
Cole explained that Hank, who is not on the ballot Nov. 6, is not your typical candidate.
4Paws rescue in Merrifield received $2,558 from the campaign.
“We generally have in our system about 75 to 100 cats at a time. They go to foster homes. Foster homes are really our biggest area of need,” said 4Paws President Barbara Lipson. “That [money] allows us to rescue more cats. When we take a cat from the shelter or rescue it from the streets, we test it [for blood viruses]. We vaccinate it. We treat it for fleas and worms and we get it spayed or neutered,” which costs about $220, depending on the cat’s needs.
Lipson said there is a lot of excitement in the rescue community about Hank’s candidacy, not only because Hank — a rescued cat himself — is a success story, but also because of the attention he is drawing to local rescue efforts.
The rescue group that saved Hank, Animal Allies, received a $5,469 donation from the campaign. Hank also has given $1,201 to Rikki’s Refuge in Rapidan, Va., $371 to Fancy Cats in Fairfax, $803 to the Humane Society of Fairfax County, a private nonprofit.
Hank’s donations primarily come from individual donors, with maybe a handful of donations from small businesses, O’Leary said.
Despite this support, there have been some obvious barriers: not being able to fill out candidate filing forms, no real proof of residency, the need to nap 13 to 16 hours each day. Depending on your definition, Hank may meet the U.S. Senate’s 30 years or older age requirement. However, he did not get the needed 10,000 signatures that are required to be on the ballot. Getting the signatures might not have mattered anyway.
“We took the signatures [we had] to the State Board of Elections and they said, ‘You can’t have a cat on the ballot,’” O’Leary said. Cat-ists!
Hank has received mixed reactions from his opponents in this race for senate. The campaign said they did not receive reaction from Kaine, but did receive a Tweet and support from Allen, who wrote, “Welcome to the race @Hank4Senate, here’s a pic of @georgeallenva with our campaign’s cat coalition co-chair Cisco.”
What happens if Hank wins?
“That’s something for the courts to decide,” O’Leary said, adding that Hank will then, “Wait for the congratulatory calls from Kaine and Allen to come in.”